About the Author

Odd Arne Westad is the S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations at Harvard University, where he teaches at the Kennedy School of Government. He is an expert on contemporary international history and on the eastern Asian region. Before coming to Harvard in 2015, Westad was School Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). While at LSE, he directed LSE IDEAS, a leading centre for international affairs, diplomacy and strategy. Professor Westad won the Bancroft Prize for The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. The book, which has been translated into fifteen languages, also won a number of other awards. Westad served as general editor for the three-volume Cambridge History of the Cold War, and is the author of the Penguin History of the World (now in its 6th edition). His most recent book, Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750, won the Asia Society’s book award for 2013. Professor Westad’s new book, The Cold War: A World History, will be published in 2017 by Basic Books in the United States and Penguin in the UK.  A new history of the global conflict between capitalism and Communism since the late 19th century, it provides the larger context for how today’s international affairs came into being.

Book Description

As Germany and then Japan surrendered in 1945 there was a tremendous hope that a new and much better world could be created from the moral and physical ruins of the conflict. Instead, the combination of the huge power of the USA and USSR and the near-total collapse of most of their rivals created a unique, grim new environment: the Cold War.

For over forty years the demands of the Cold War shaped the life of almost all of us. There was no part of the world where East and West did not, ultimately, demand a blind and absolute allegiance, and nowhere into which the West and East did not reach. Countries as remote from each other as Korea, Angola and Cuba were defined by their allegiances. Almost all civil wars became proxy conflicts for the superpowers. Europe was seemingly split in two indefinitely.

Arne Westad's remarkable new book is the first to have the distance from these events and the ambition to create a convincing, powerful narrative of the Cold War. The book is genuinely global in its reach and captures the dramas and agonies of a period always overshadowed by the horror of nuclear war and which, for millions of people, was not 'cold' at all: a time of relentless violence, squandered opportunities and moral failure.

This is a book of extraordinary scope and daring. It is conventional to see the first half of the 20th century as a nightmare and the second half as a reprieve. Westad shows that for much of the world the second half was by most measures even worse.


In many ways, Westad has long argued, the Cold War made the world what it is today. His latest book is an eloquent and enjoyable defense of that proposition. - Foreign Policy

A clear and well written summary of a global conflict...An impressive book. -The Times

For generations, the cold war was context, the inescapable setting of political life. the history sets the Cold War itself in context, within the greater landscape of world history, deeply understood and masterfully presented. It is a powerful synthesis by one of our greatest historians. -Timothy Snyder, Author of Bloodlands

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Odd Arne Westad:

I needed two reasons why I wanted to write this book now, and probably the most important one is that we are at the stage where a lot has been written about to Cold War but it is in pieces. It is about different aspects of the Cold War on a global scale. And what I tried to do in this book is to take some of that wonderful literature and some research that I'd done on my own and put that together in an overall syncretic account. And that's the main aim of the book.

And I think the timing is right for that is because of the quality of research that has been undertaken. And then secondly, there is the overall availability of sources. Only a few years ago, it was really hard to get at some of the materials that I've been using for writing this book. Of course they were still classified, they were still secrets or they were held in archive where there simply was no access whatsoever. It's those two things coming together that makes it possible to write, I think, a very different kind of book about the Cold War now from what you could only a few years ago.

What I tried to do in this book is to put the Cold War within a broader perspective of 20th century internationalized. And I want to look at this not in the usual way of taking some starting point in the 1940s when the Soviet Union and the United States had a falling out and then going up to Gorbachev and the 1980s. I wanted to put it within a framework that looks at it in terms of how 20th century history really from the latter part of the 19th century, developed first of all, in terms of ideological divides. What I say in this book is that there was a Cold War in terms of ideologies, in terms of the conflict between capitalism and socialism. That was there well before the United States and the Soviet Union became the predominant world powers after the Second World War.

And you can't understand the Cold War, the old understanding that origin. When I'm talking about going back to the late 19th century, I don't just do that as backup. I do it as an integral part of the story, which I don't think you can understand the Cold War without also understanding that. Also in terms of the generations involved because so many of the people who had leading rules to play, at whatever level during the Cold War, themselves came out of that background. They a born in the very last part of the 19th century. They had gone through very difficult times in the early part of the 20th century and that's what made the stakes so high. This overall framing of it, I think is really, really important for what I want to say.

What's so interesting about teaching the Cold War today is that the new generation who grown up, of course not knowing this, in a personal sense as an international system at all, tend to think of it understandably very much in terms of how they understand international affairs today, which is very interest based. Which is very based on national security issues, oriented very much towards the state that they come out of. It's very hard to understand the ideological intensity of the Cold War. It's also difficult to understand, I think, how high the stakes were, the kind of risks that people were willing to take during the Cold War in order to further their own positions. It was a battle for the future of the world.

Given what I said earlier, round about the interests that people had in securing that their ideological alternative actually won, based on how things had really not worked in the early part of the 20th century. That intensity is very hard to understand from today's perspective. This is part of what I'm trying to do with this book is to speak to a generation that hasn't really had any practical experience whatsoever with the Cold War and say, "Look, things may seem are very chaotic today in terms of international affairs. Even very, very dangerous. But in many ways it pales in comparison to what was the situation when you had two nuclear armed superpowers coming up against each other, both willing to take exceptional risks with the future of the world in order to make sure that their ideological alternative came out of it."

I think the current conflicts between the United States, Russia and rivalries between the United States and China, are connected to the Cold War. Not in the sense that there are direct continuations of the Cold War in itself. I don't think that's true. A lot of people today are talking about a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. It's a conflict, but it's not a Cold War, A, because Russia is not important enough for that in terms of the international system. But even more importantly, because Russia does not have the ideology, the anticapitalist communist ideology that fueled the Soviet Union into becoming a global power. But that said, it is clear that on the Russian side, and on the Chinese side, much of the thinking is connected to how the Cold War ended. Putin's regime feel that they were marginalized, that they were isolated by the way the Cold War ended. Putin himself never tires of saying that the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe.

And of course if you see it from a perspective of someone who grew up in what used to be the other superpower and is now at best in terms of his thinking, a regional power within Eurasia, it's important to understand that perspective. And likewise in China there's this idea that the Chinese have to have something of their own that they present, which we hear with the meetings that are happening in the Communist Party at the moment. Also very much goes back to the Cold War. I need to distinguish what they do from both United States as a predominant power does.

I think there are many lessons for policymakers from the Cold War. The most important one is that it is of much greater significance to concentrate on incremental improvements in terms of relations with others, in terms of how the whole international system develops, rather than on big breakthroughs and opportunities that might be there to change the system rapidly to one's own advantage. Even with the best of intentions. I think that's perhaps the most important lesson of the Cold War that so many times during that conflict, the best became the enemy of the good. That in order to achieve the maximum results in terms of one's own beliefs, chances, not just for lessening intentions, but for actually achieving real progress in social and economic terms were put aside.

The other important lesson I think is that diplomacy is significant. Particularly in the kind of cases where you are dealing with countries that you have very profound disagreements with. Diplomacy can be an incredibly frustrating process and very often during the Cold War it was tremendously frustrating. But the success that diplomats, and especially I would say, American diplomats, had in making the world a less dangerous place, to making sure that alliances were built, that economic relationships were extended, that whole countries got the time that they needed to go through the transformations that came from within. That to me, is one of the biggest successes of the Cold War, and that's an important lesson for today as well.