Griffin on Westad, 'The Cold War: A World History'

Odd Arne Westad
Benjamin Griffin

Odd Arne Westad. The Cold War: A World History. New York: Basic Books, 2017. 720 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-05493-0; $22.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5416-7409-7.

Reviewed by Benjamin Griffin (United States Military Academy) Published on H-War (May, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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With The Cold War: A World History, Odd Arne Westad provides a sprawling and compelling narrative of the conflict. He argues that the Cold War extends beyond the typical 1945-91 span and that its roots are in the revolutionary origins of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Much of his account will be familiar to historians of the period. Many of Westad’s important contributions from his earlier The Global Cold War (2005) find their way into this volume, to the benefit of this new book. It is rare for a work to provide a comprehensive narrative of both the grand strategy of the Cold War’s primary actors and its consequences at the local level. As a result, the work is a long one at 629 pages, before notes and index, but the length is put to good use and the narrative comprises the most complete single account of the geopolitics of the Cold War.

Westad presents the origins of the Cold War as the result of mutual hostility and fear between the two nations, though he allots slightly more blame toward the US. In many of its chapters, The Cold War shows the expansion and hardening of the conflict, leading to an inflexible world order that sparked resistance. The conflict ended, Westad maintains, because the Western way of life proved to be more innovative, flexible, and, most important, desirable. He provocatively argues that the US won the Cold War and interestingly that the Soviet Union “lost it big” (p. 621). He then expands on this reality to trace the evolution of today’s global environment. His treatment of technology and innovation also offers an interesting new framework to view the Cold War. He correctly argues that the pace of change during the period was essential to both the start and the end of the conflict. Furthermore, one of the things that makes The Cold War stand out is its detailed attention to the perspectives of the developing world.

In treating the Cold War as a century-long conflict, Westad ably teases out similarities in American and Soviet objectives and fears. He then employs these similarities to great effect, showing how local contexts led to the rejection of American or Soviet particularities. This exploration of the limitations of the Cold War’s bipolar framework and the resentment it evinced from local leaders is essential. Westad correctly notes that despite the appeal of US and Soviet systems, neither “was ever fully replicated elsewhere” (p. 8). Throughout the book, he shows how the conflict was an “inexorably engulfing” one that generally overwhelmed the aspirations of decolonizing states. Westad’s emphasis on the desire of local agents to establish “an unsullied form of their political ideals” in the face of ideological pressure and his recognition that the Cold War in Latin America “was more internal than external” do much to restore agency to the developing world (pp. 8, 361).

Westad uses technology as a key framework in understanding the origins, persistence, and end of the Cold War. Globalization allowed for the spread of American and Soviet ideologies and the technologically fueled shrinking of the world allowed each to exert power more efficiently than past empires. Technology became “the main reason for the durability of the Cold War as an international system” as it allowed for more rapid sharing of information, transfer of goods, and, when necessary, projection of hard power (p. 6). Innovation also explains the end of the Cold War. Throughout his account, Westad highlights how the failure of the USSR to keep pace with Western advancements in infrastructure and technology led to inefficiency and failure. The virgin lands campaigns of Nikita Khrushchev and general stagnation of the Leonid Brezhnev years offer strong evidence of the USSR failing to improve the condition of its people. Investments in space and military technology were the initial exception, but Westad shows how increased economic pressures led the Soviets to fall behind in these critical fields, leaving them uncompetitive by the 1980s. In contrast, Westad demonstrates how technology buttressed American ideas of individual freedom and helped spread the appeal of American ideological views.

At times, Westad is prone to providing sweeping, and often dismissive, statements that undermine his account. This is particularly evident when examining the motivations and planning of US and Soviet leadership. His assertion that Franklin Delano “Roosevelt had no grand plan for what the world ought to look like” and remained solely focused on winning the Second World War at the time of his death is inaccurate (p. 57). His contention that Joseph “Stalin did not have a master plan” for the postwar world is also suspect. Westad employs these arguments to support his notion that the US bears more of the blame for the conflict, as Westad believes if US leadership had been more sensitive to Soviet fears then the “intensity of the conflict ... might have been significantly reduced.” He does admit that “this judgment can only be made with hindsight,” and his own uncertainty about the potential benefits of a more mollifying course defang the criticism (p. 69).

The narrative also provides worthy commentary on the legacy of the Cold War. Westad rightly notes that the greatest successes of the US in the Cold War came about more due to “long-term alliances, technological advances, economic growth, and the willingness to negotiate” than to force of arms (p. 620). He effectively argues that the increased militarization of US foreign policy in the post-Cold War era squandered many of the strategic gains the US received from its victory in the conflict. Westad similarly recognizes the privatization of Soviet industry in the 1990s as the “raid of the century” paving the way for oligarchy in modern Russia (p. 622). Similarly, he highlights that bitterness toward Soviet leaders’ failure to build a nation worthy of its people’s sacrifice and the resulting loss of Russian power fuels continued geopolitical tensions in the USSR’s former territories and Europe. The effectiveness of The Cold War in linking these current observations with the context of the Cold War make it essential reading.

The Cold War is an essential contribution to understanding the conflict. The breadth of its scope and incorporation of new frameworks for understanding the Cold War make it an important read for historians of twentieth-century international relations. Its strong research and readable prose make it an accessible and useful starting place for discussing the conflict. The affordability of the paperback version also makes it an easy addition to personal bookshelves. The Cold War should occupy a central place in the discussion of the Cold War for many years to come.

Citation: Benjamin Griffin. Review of Westad, Odd Arne, The Cold War: A World History. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Any Cold War History that downplays and fails to recognize the very real threat to extermination of Democracy and the Western Allies both as political ways of life and societies, by Communism and Communists does not understand the Cold War, its meaning, importance and critical conclusions as success for the Western Nations; also, this could be said of the rest of the world's nations. More recent history is demonstrating just how much this outcome has proven to be true.

There was, without doubt, a real threat to Western Europe during the Cold War. As a military intelligence analyst during the 1980s I believe my colleagues and I had a realistic view of, for example, the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. This very strong army group was not a defensive alignment of military resources. It had one fairly obvious, glaring purpose -- to overrun Western Europe. GSFG and the forces behind it, including the Pact forces and those in the western military districts of the USSR, seriously overmatched the NATO forces deployed on the other side of the Inner German Border. We were right to see this as a mortal threat, and also to stubbornly resist Soviet calls for "no first use" of nuclear weapons.

But the Cold War warped our thinking in one crucial respect. Wyatt, you cited "communism," as if it were something monolithic. It was not, and a more nuanced understanding of our Cold War enemies might have kept us from making avoidable foreign policy errors. Like the Vietnam War.

Could not resist Ralph but, would suggest the Cold War was not a blanket over the entire historical era; rather, there were nuances, as you characterize with differing periods within this era.
'But the Cold War warped our thinking in one crucial respect. Wyatt, you cited "communism," as if it were something monolithic. It was not, and a more nuanced understanding of our Cold War enemies might have kept us from making avoidable foreign policy errors. Like the Vietnam War.'


Monolithic was the way Cold War was seen at least in its earliest phases of history. By 1962, an open contest for leadership of the world-wide Communist movement had emerged in the form of a challenge from Communist China to the USSR and everyone was fairly well aware of this fact and historical development in the Communist movement. "Albania" was then the challenge point coming from China.

By Vietnam in 1964, open conflict had returned to the divide between North and South with the US directly involved on the South's side and when Nixon took over in 68-9 for the US, he and Kissinger determined to exploit the differences between China and the Sovs in order to gain advantage for the US, particularly in Vietnam. Thereby, the way was opened to ending war in Vietnam during this period of the Cold War era.

Admittedly, these are large general sweeps without exacting details but in a broad reach to history for discussion here, they give an indication of the sweep to our time. As to avoiding Vietnam, not much chance after the Communist launched their attack on the US air base at Pleiku in Johnson's term.