The Cold War by Martin Walker – Book Review

The Cold War by Martin Walker – Book Review
The Cold War by Martin Walker – Book Review
The Cold War by Martin Walker – Book Review

In The Cold War, Martin Walker gives a detailed summary of the Cold War. He opens with an introduction briefly outlining the conflict, as well the changes it brought not only to the nations directly involved, the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies, but to the entire world, especially the East Asian nations. Walker begins the first chapter with the Yalta Conference in the February of 1945, during the closing days of World War II, between the leaders of the “Big Three” powers, Stalin of the Soviet Union, Churchill of Britain, and Roosevelt of the U.S., which he states to be the start of the Cold War. Walker talks about the optimism of the 3 leaders of the future that was to lie ahead of the German defeat. The leaders discussed how Europe was going to be divided among the Allied countries. The author noted that the Soviets have had a long history of being invaded by other forces throughout its history, most famously Napoleon during the 19th century. The Soviets wanted control of the eastern European countries, especially Poland (as the Germans in both World Wars, and Napoleon in 1812 had when through that country to attack the Russians), to have the same system of government working closely with the Soviets, “just in case” of another invasion in the future. Stalin’s desire to make all of Eastern Europe communist led to unease between the leaders. Also, in April of 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had more or less attempted to maintain good relations with the USSR, died. After Harry Truman succeeded as president, American relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated rapidly. The first Soviet nuclear testing in 1949 brought about the Nuclear Age.

The author then proceeds to give the reader some background knowledge about the state of the Europe after World War II. The economy of all of Europe was in ruins, reaching a critical point by 1947. Coal and electricity supplies were acutely short, and food rationing was worse than it had been during the war. There was twice the number of unemployed as there were in the worst days of the Great Depression. The United States was forced to provide billions of dollars of aid and write off billions more in debt. The $5 in loans provided by the US and Canada to Britain was being used up at reckless rate, as the Treasury called it. The terrible winter of 1947 did not help the situation, either. Britain was so poor by that period that it had to grant independence to many of its colonies, including India and Pakistan in 1947. The main reason for the aid is to help bolster economies in order to prevent a communist takeover. This did not prevent people from voting communist in Eastern Europe, however, thus forming the Iron Curtain between East and West Europe. Relief efforts, such as the Truman Doctrine managed to keep Greece and Turkey away from communist rule, and the Marshall Plan provided much-needed relief to the countries of Western Europe. Food aid was provided to parts of Soviet-controlled Berlin by the Berlin Airlift.

Walker goes next to describe the rest of the world, where a civil war is taking place in China between the US-supported government and the Communist forces, the Middle East, where much of the actual fighting caused by the Cold War took place (ironically, noted the author, since the conflict was between white men in the Western world). He talks about the Korean War and the rise of Communism in Asia. All those, he states, added to the tension between the two superpowers of the world, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Walker then describes in detail some major events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the launching of the first satellite, then the first dog, then finally human, into space, and conferences between American presidents and Soviet leaders. He divides the war into two phases, the first being the period of great tension between World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which armed forces were brought to full alert, then a “New” Cold War after about a decade of relative calm, brought by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He also discusses the effects of the War on the economies of both countries, and others involved in it, including the debts that the countries had to accept in order to sustain their development of nuclear arms. Social life during the Cold War is also discussed, describing the everyday life of the people, mainly on the Western side, and how they did various things that are unheard-of and may seem silly today, such as learning how to defend from a nuclear attack, how to build a shelter, and others like peace rallies, songs opposing war, etc. He closes with the years of Gorbachev, discussing his reforms to the government and to society, including a promise of eventual free speech and press, the “Year of Miracles” which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and many political and social reforms, the formal end of the Cold War during the pan-European Summit of 1990 in Paris, and then the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union altogether one year later. Walker highlights the reason for that collapse as that the Soviets can no longer sustain their vast output of arms, both nuclear and conventional, and still provide for enough consumer goods for the people.

However, to push the Soviet economy to that breaking point also cost the United States very heavily, plunging it into heavy debt to the extent that it could no longer remain the world’s largest economy. In the last chapter of the book, “Superlosers”, the author explains in detail the economic effects of the Cold War. A flood of foreign investment came into America, especially from Great Britain and Japan. Walker cites several examples, one being that the Japanese had bought Rockefeller Center in New York, and several Hollywood studios in California, and also that twenty percent of all US bank assets were foreign owned, half by Japan. The US sold T-bonds to help directly pay its debt, and Japan bought more than all other foreign investors combined. However, when the American Dollar plunged during the late 1980’s, Japanese investors lost a third of their investments. The Cold War ended with most of the Western economies in steep recession. Walker highlights the fact that the true winners of the Cold War are the Western nations (including Japan) besides the United States, whose economies, before the end of the conflict, overtook that of the US.

Part II- Analysis of book

This book offers very good detail of the events of the Cold War, for one that covers it so broadly. The author has marked many sources of a wide variety, so the reader knows that he is well-informed and has done much research, but the notes can be very hard to follow. The author is attempting to eliminate bias by choosing not to take a side, even stating that neither America nor the USSR won the Cold War, but, rather, it was the other Western countries that benefited. Walker talks about the causes and effects of the war in a way that is thorough yet easy to understand. His statement that the Yalta Conference was the start of the Cold War, however, may be disputed. Although it Churchill and Stalin had disagreements about how to split their predominance in Europe, in October of 1944, the two leaders met personally in the Kremlin in Moscow to discuss this issue and managed to come up with a resolution on how to share the land. While it is true that the East Europe nations fell to communist power after the war, some may argue that it was Igor Gouzenko’s actions in Ottawa that revealed the Soviet plans of espionage. I initially believed that the said events above were simply major causes of the Cold War, and that the first Soviet nuclear arms testing in 1949 was the real beginning, but this book has informed me that there are far more aspects of the Cold War than just the nuclear arms race. Walker says that the Arms Race is simply an effect of the tensions between the world’s two superpowers. In fact, he mentions little directly regarding nuclear arms.
Walker talking about the economic factors of the Cold War was also somewhat surprising. He proved that the economies of the two superpowers were a deciding factor on the outcome of the war, and emphasized that point more than most others. While I had known before that the economy played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, this book had informed me that it had much more of an effect on the outcome of the Cold War than I had thought. His breakdown of the economical situation of different countries in the world makes for an interesting read, though it can be sometimes hard to understand. This is acceptable, however, as the book is intended for adults, probably with a better understanding about this topic. And after doing a bit of research on economics and finances, I felt that I was ready to continue reading.

Many U.S. presidents and Soviet leaders have met during the course of the Cold War. Besides simply talking about negotiations between the two nations, he also discusses the personal relationship between the leaders. It is one thing to hear about them discuss how to keep peace and cut down nuclear arms, but another to see them attempt to develop genuine personal friendship with each other, which arguably works better than any formal peace treaty. Little anecdotes about how the leaders got along with each other and what they did together outside of meetings, such as recreational activities, private chats, and other informal meetings in general, tells a lot about how the people running the nations, instead of the nations itself, get along with each other.

The book’s discussion about the social aspects of the Cold War was surprisingly detailed and often lighthearted (and somewhat humorous at times). For example, he talks about new social trends that were going on in both the Soviet Union and the United States, and how they changed over time due to the Cold War. For example, building nuclear bomb shelters and practicing air raids were practiced widely in the 1960’s, then again in the early 1980’s as tensions rose again. As a result of the Vietnam War, peace demonstrations and protests were commonplace, especially throughout America. However, not all social trends were related to the Cold War. New forms of fashion, media, and sport continued and everyday life went on seemingly unaffected by the international situation. During the relaxing of tensions, celebrations were held in the Red Square and visas were granted for foreign travelers, and some Soviet residents were allowed to travel to western countries. It provided a relief from the more “serious” portions of the book. However, sometimes this light style nears the point that it appears inappropriate for an event of such seriousness. But it also makes the reader think about the situation and realize that the Cold War was not to the general public as tense and fearsome as some may imagine today. Many people were affected little, if at all, by the global crisis that was developing and seemed inevitable to eliminate mankind.

The theme of “détente” is heavily used in this book, particularly in the later chapters. A French term meaning a “relaxing” or “easing”, it is generally used by historians to refer to a cooldown in international affairs. This term is used in Walker’s book to describe the easing of tensions and a general thawing of the Cold War between the late 1960’s, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the early 1980’s, when tensions rose and fears about nuclear strikes were once again raised (he devotes an entire chapter, “the Death of Détente”, to discuss the sudden rise in tensions at the end of the 1970’s, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979).

As this is a nonfiction book, the author has clearly attempted to remain unbiased throughout this book. Even though one cannot ever be completely unbiased, Walker has done an immense amount of research in compiling this book and it should be taken as a reliable reference. Most of the information is factual, and are well-cited. However, he did personally attend some of the events mentioned in this book, but he attempts not to tell the events or give any information from his own perspective, and cites his sources as with the other information. Therefore, any bias present should not affect the reliability of this book as a source of useful information. Of course, the reader may also be biased, and thus it is very difficult in identifying the bias of this book alone.

Assessment of Footnotes

Martin Walker has cited many sources of a wide range (including books, newspaper articles, documents, and even speeches in compiling this book), and has cited them with 30 pages of endnotes. There are also several footnotes on the bottom of the page. Those are mostly referring to the author’s personal experiences with a particular subject that he is talking about in the book (saving the endnotes for other sources), and in third person, one example being on page 253: “The author drove into Afghanistan from Pakistan through the Quetta pass” during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and has seen little real action, but rather, lots of troops on standby. Walker uses this footnote to describe his own experiences with the situation, and saves the main text for factual information. This prevents the reader from misunderstanding between fact and the author’s own experiences.

Another footnote that I found to be interesting is one near the beginning of the book. On page 21, Walker mentioned a Soviet application for $6 billion of American credit for post-war rebuilding. On the bottom of that page, there is a footnote which reads: “In this book, ‘billion’ is used to mean 1000 million and ‘trillion’ to mean 1000000 million.” At the time when I had read that part, I had assumed that in English, “billion” only meant 1000 million and that that note was useless. I had come to this conclusion until I finished reading the rest of the book, and decided to do some research on the topic. I was extremely surprised to learn that only recently have many English-speaking countries adopted the “short scale” numbering system, in which a billion was 1000 million. For many centuries, the “long scale” was used, where a billion was a million times a million, and what we now know as billion was known back then as “milliard” (this is still the French term for 1000 million.)

Martin Walker’s The Cold War: a History is a very useful reference on the greatest political tension in modern history. It explains the Cold War in the points of view of both sides of the war, and goes into great detail about the causes and effects, both of individual events, and the entire conflict in general.