A War of Spies & Secrets

In my previous blog post, Cloak-and-Dagger, I wrote about some of John le Carre's novels.  The majority of the books I mentioned in that blog post revolved around the Cold War. From The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to Smiley's People, the theater of the Cold War provided fodder for most of le Carré's novels. The Cold War dominated the post-World War II geopolitical stage and a great number of books and movies were spurred by its politics. The stalemate between the two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, lasted for almost half a century from 1945 until the breakdown of the communist bloc countries in 1991. John le Carré was not the only writer who used the Cold War as the backdrop to his stories.

Books such as Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor, Old Flames by John Lawton, Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon, Last Call for Blackford Oakes by William Buckley, The Ipcress File and Berlin Game by Len Deighton, The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson, The Double Game by Dan Fesperman, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman, The Moment by Douglas Kennedy, The Fourth Protocol and The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth - the list goes on and on - all dealt with the Cold War. And, of course, many of these books were also made into successful movies. Remember Alfred Hitchcock's Cold War thrillers, Torn Curtain and Topaz? If you do a search on Wikipedia for Cold War movies, you will get 11 subcategories. The same keyword search on the Internet Movie Database, will reveal 819 titles of movies that deal with the Cold War or take place during the Cold War era.

So what is it about the Cold War that makes it such a popular subject for novels and movies? As per the British historian and author, Dominic Sandbrook, it was "... a conflict that left a gigantic cultural footprint, from whole libraries' worth of spy literature to chilling post-apocalyptic fantasies such as the BBC's “Threads” and “The War Game”... There was something about living on a nuclear knife-edge that really got the creative juices flowing."   Needless to say, we definitely do not want to relive scary events such as the Berlin Blockade or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nor do we miss living under the constant threat of nuclear warfare. But the Cold War did last for almost fifty years and the stories, real or imagined, make for some fascinating reading. I am intrigued by the books and movies where the Cold War is featured prominently and I can totally commiserate with Judi Dench’s character, M, when she complains at the beginning of “Casino Royale,” “Christ, I miss the Cold War.”

What is it that we miss about the Cold War? Again, to quote Sandbrook: "We miss the gripping le Carré stories with their existential angst; we miss the drunken dinner-party moral one-upmanship; we miss the excitement of living at a turning point in history, the world poised on the edge of annihilation."   The Cold War stories and movies are interesting to me because they are historical artifacts and provide a window into those terrifying and fascinating times. The Cold War books of le Carré and others, and even the older James Bond movies, display the ethos of those times. Not only do they entertain us but they also portray the values and the cultural make-up of those years. But, really, what is the Cold War? The rise and fall of the Cold War culture as reflected in novels and films is interesting enough, but to know the history behind all the spy thrillers, here are a list of books that will help you understand what the Cold War was really all about.

The Cold War: A New History 
The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 
We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History
by John Lewis Gaddis
All three books are recommended reading for anyone interested in an in-depth analysis of the Cold War. John Lewis Gaddis, professor of history at Yale and an expert on the subject, provides a thorough analyses of the key events and major figures of the Cold War. The author offers critical insight as he examines the various aspects of the Cold War and helps us understand this period of tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. His perspective on the Cold War is informative as well as interesting as he discusses the events and analyzes why and how they came to pass.

The Real History of the Cold War: A New Look at the Past by Alan Axelrod outlines the history of the Cold War from its very beginning, right after World War II. I enjoyed looking at the period photographs, propaganda posters and cartoons, and I found the Cold War timeline at the end of the book very useful.

For the Soul of Mankind: the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War by Melvyn P. Leffler is an easy to read history of the Cold War that neatly summarizes the Cold War by focusing mainly on the U.S.-Soviet leaders and five crucial episodes during this conflict. The book begins with the inception of the Cold War under Truman and Stalin, the unsuccessful efforts of Eisenhower and Malenkov to resolve the conflict, the heightened tension of the Kennedy, Johnson and Krushchev years, the breakdown of detente under Carter and Brezhnev and finally the end of the Cold War under Reagan, Bush and Gorbachev. Perceptive, as well as highly accessible, this is a must-read for any follower of the Cold War.

The Twilight of the Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War by Hilton Kramer is an "honest, unsparing, and often devastating analysis" as per Kirkus reviews. Drawing on writings from the Atlantic Monthly, Commentary, and others publications, Kramer offers a critical and thorough analysis of the effects of the Cold War on American culture and American intellectual history of that era. You may or may not agree with his views on the politics of the leading writers and intellectuals of that period, but his reflections are by and large interesting and thought-provoking.

Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945-1991 by Jeremy Isaacs provides a detailed pictorial history of the start of the Cold War with the rise of the Iron Curtain, the military and ideological barrier erected by the Soviet Union after World War II, to the end with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Hundreds of photographs, illustrations and maps vividly conjures up the events and the key players of that era.

[i] The title is from an article by Dominic Sandbrook, How Pop Culture Helped Win the Cold War.
Sandbrook, Dominic. "How Pop Culture Helped Win the Cold War." The Telegraph. 12 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 May
[ii] Sandbrook, Dominic. "If You Miss the Cold War, You Weren't There." The Telegraph. 17 Aug. 2008. Web. 25 May 2014..
[iii]  Sandbrook, Dominic. "If You Miss the Cold War, You Weren't There." The Telegraph. 17 Aug. 2008. Web. 25 May 2014. 

 -Rina B.


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