Thursday, February 12, 2009


This is an odd book: its format is less like a book than a research folder or elaborate clipping file for the writing of a more conventional history. Its subject is undoubtedly controversial for some because it makes strong statements about the nature of modern war and it questions the clarity with which we traditionally define the heroes and villains in that vast human enterprise in destruction called World War II.

The book consists of a long series of quotes from all kinds of documents and publications and from famous people. The quotes go in time sequence leading up to and during World War II, and they are selected and orchestrated to make important points about modern war.

The points made here are so difficult for some to accept that I believe the author wanted to use a method that excluded his own voice, offering only the actual words of those who lived the history. In the end, the book has a powerful impact and its title nicely captures what it is about.

As a student of history, I did not find eyebrow-raising facts here, although particular quotes were startling, but I know many will not have been exposed to the disgusting facts of modern warfare. I have long believed, and I wrote an essay on the subject a few years ago, that the methods of modern warfare render the term terrorism meaningless. America or Israel today routinely kills far more civilians than soldiers. You simply cannot use horrible weapons and methods like napalm, white phosphorus, cluster bombs, or carpet-bombing without doing this.

The author makes the point strongly - and I do think it an important one - that it was not Hitler who started the indiscriminate bombing of civilians but the British. He shows Churchill's history of advocating gruesome destruction for enemies of the British Empire. This part of Churchill was less than valiant and less than honourable and had little to do with the values of democracy.

More generally, the conclusion emerges inexorably that there are no heroes in the gruesome business of turning war into something that targets civilians more than armies.


This book is a gripping read, and it contains new insights into the Cold War, and the authors add some interesting brushstrokes to our historical portrait of Krushchev.

Khrushchev has always been a minor hero of mine. I call him a minor hero because one cannot talk about heroism in an unqualified way with a major figure of an absolute government. Beethoven angrily re-titled the dedication of the Eroica symphony, and I agree with his sentiments in doing it, yet it remains possible to admire some aspects of Napoleon's career.

All individuals must be judged with an appreciation for the constraints under which they operated, and Khrushchev did some very important things and maintained a kind of idealism, despite its rough peasant expression. Khrushchev did want his people to achieve a better life; he cared a great deal about improving agriculture; he was a sincere believer in the ultimate benefits of socialism; he did not want war; and he did want peaceful coexistence with the West before that phrase became commonplace. Above all, Khrushchev was and remains a very human figure, something that cannot be said of a great many absolute leaders.

Khrushchev's role in changing the operations of the Soviet government after decades of Stalin - perhaps the most terrifying dictator of the modern era - was heroic, something I believe he has never been adequately recognized for in the West.

But the same man was ready to crush revolt in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

The title of the book is absolutely accurate: this is Khrushchev's Cold War. Other actors enter and leave the stage, but Khrushchev shapes the story. In that sense, it is necessarily incomplete as a history of the Cold War.

The new insights in the book come from Soviet archives not opened until well into the 21st century. They include who knew what when; the impact of certain events on the Soviet leadership; the real reasons for certain Soviet positions in international affairs; and some of the misunderstandings of American analysts and leaders at the time.

In a few cases, the authors indicate that materials are missing yet, so the book cannot be taken as definitive.

But the book is indispensable to understanding the Cold War, aspects of how the Soviet Union worked, and the Cuban Missile crisis. It is recommended to all with interest in these subjects and to anyone just wanting a good historical read.