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Quick, Painless, and Recommended: ‘A Brief History of the Cold War’

Quick, Painless, and Recommended: ‘A Brief History of the Cold War’


Why are ever more Millennials reportedly dissociating socialism from the oppressive, communist regimes that helped define global politics during their parents and grandparents’ lifetimes?

Do these inheritors of a free America underappreciate their country’s recent struggle and victory over communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular? Or perhaps they think learning how America won the Cold War requires a thick tome, and thick tomes have been known to incite despair. More fun would it be to attend a Senator Bernie Sanders rally with one’s comrades and pretend socialism was not an indispensable cog in the communist machines that murdered a hundred million people between World War II and the launch of the Internet.

To combat Millenial intellectual malaise, father-daughter duo Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding have supplied A Brief History of the Cold War (Regnery History, 2016).

Pound for pound, A Brief History of the Cold War numbers among the most effective summary analyses of 20th-century American foreign and defense policy. The authors accelerate the process of learning the Cold War’s essentials. At six chapters and 199 pages, Edwards and Spalding’s history enters the ring with Ivan Drago sometime after the first bell, pummels the towering Soviet with 46 years of American Cold War strategy, and knocks the giant out.

“Peace Through Strength”

The authors’ analysis of US Cold War strategy boils down to this: Victory descended from nine presidents’ design and implementation of three main phases of foreign and defense policy between 1945 and 1991. Except for a weak period of negotiation with the Soviets and communist Chinese, the US won the Cold War through Truman’s resolve to contain, and Reagan’s to defeat, the USSR.

Truman and Reagan loom large. Each cold warrior adopted, and adapted, a policy of “peace through strength” to meet the Soviet threat head-on. Edwards and Spalding maintain their resolve won the war.

It was Truman who first decided to apply equal and opposite pressure upon Soviet advancement, when the president grew weary of “babysitting the Soviets” as Stalin systematically broke promises he had given Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta in 1945, where the Allies redrew the post-war map.

It was Reagan who revived and converted Truman’s containment policy into one of “We win, and they lose,” which played out through cold warfare tactics aimed at crippling the Soviet economy, arming dissenters in Soviet proxy regimes, and breaking down the ideological strong places within the USSR.

Communism Expansive by Nature

The authors write from their own ideological strong place. Their esteem for Truman and Reagan, and to lesser extent Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ, is due not only to these presidents’ action against communist expansion, but their willingness to view communist regimes as what they are—inherently violent, aggressive, oppressive, and threatening to America’s vital interests.

Not so the détente presidents:

“Meanwhile, US leaders from Richard Nixon to Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter raised high the banner of ‘détente,’ defined by them as a relaxation or reduction of tensions between Western and communist nations. The Soviets were happy to toast détente while communizing nations wherever they could . . . while the Soviet Union, ever aggressive, understood détente to be a continuing competitive relationship arising from ideological, economic, and strategic incompatibility.”

Edwards and Spalding depict the détente presidents embracing two faulty premises. They erred by regarding (or at least treating) forms of government as ideologically neutral, with some lending themselves to greater freedom and others to more oppression. But communism is not merely dictatorial by nature—it is expansive. The détente presidents’ failure to grasp communism’s inherent expansionism led to a second faulty premise: that stopping the spread of communism into the Third World did not necessarily constitute a vital American interest.

Hawkish Favoritism?

At times the authors seem too eager to salute “peace through strength” practitioners over détente presidents. Swooning for Truman is subtle but evident. The authors credit the president with developing the Truman Plan to contain the Soviets, yet they prefer to detract from Cabinet members for Truman administration’s slow recognition that Mao Zedong posed a greater threat to American interests than the Nationalist Chinese.

The authors’ hawkish favoritism cuts both ways. Although critical of Nixon for shepherding in détente, they do not explain how Nixon reasonably might have maintained America’s war footing in the early 1970s. Nixon’s first term saw violent anti-war and anti-draft student protests. Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (which first authorized the use of force in Vietnam), prohibited the use of US ground troops in Laos and Cambodia, cut funding for a bombing campaign provoked by North Vietnam’s violation of a treaty, and passed the War Powers Resolution to rein in the president’s use of military force abroad. Perhaps the authors breeze past Nixon’s conundrum because even had Nixon desired and managed to exert Truman-like pressure against communist regimes, Watergate would have dissolved his momentum.

Narrative Discipline a Virtue

Disciplined in scope, Edwards and Spalding resist discussing diversions of domestic policy and affairs extraneous to their objective of conveying which US foreign and defense policy strategies accelerated the demise of the USSR, and which prolonged it.

Turbulent events that for many Americans defined entire decades of the second half of century warrant mention only insofar as they serve this objective. Kennedy’s assassination, which Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Lawrence Wright considers a defining moment for the American identity between 1960 and 1980, gets a one-sentence aside from the authors speculating whether a two-term Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam. With similar concentration, the authors treat Watergate as a foreign policy vacuum that all but sealed Nixon’s inability to save South Vietnam from domination by North Vietnam.

In any case, Edwards and Spalding’s narrative discipline is a virtue enabling them to deliver substance and specifics in a highly accessible, enjoyable read.

In A Brief History of the Cold War, the authors have distilled their combined decades of research into a clear and helpful book that students of history, young and old, can absorb with only slightly more effort than they would a (Russian) vodka tonic.

Michael Hamilton (@MikeHamiltonOH)  is lead writer at Good Comma Editing, LLC. He writes and edits for organizations dedicated to the proposition that humans are created equal and free.