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Review: Colonel John Hughes-Wilson, A Brief History of the Cold War; The Hidden Truth about How Close We Came to Nuclear Conflict. New York: Carroll & Graf, Publishers, 2006. 434 pages. Paperback.

Reviewer: Bob Gowen

Looking for a book on the Cold War that tells you in a clear, no-nonsense way what kept the world hovering on the brink of nuclear holocaust for 40+ years? You can do no better than this highly readable survey by Col. Hughes-Wilson, identified as a retired senior level British and NATO intelligence officer.

His task is daunting: to provide a concise, comprehensive survey from beginning to end of the conflict that kept the world divided so long between East and West, Soviet and American, Warsaw Pact and NATO. Others who have braved this challenge have left accounts that are too academic, too opinionated, or just too deadly dull to hold the attention of the general reader.

Hughes-Wilson succeeds where they did not. He has obvious opinions too, but he does not let them block him from offering his readers a balanced, surprisingly engrossing account remarkable not only for how well it reads but how much it reveals. Presumably the revelations result from his involvement in high-level decision-making – his footnotes leave one wondering -- but wherever his insights are from they make for some fascinating reading. Here are a couple of the sensational tidbits thrown out by the author as he rolls along, one to jolt American readers, the other his British countrymen:

* President John F. Kennedy was killed not by Lee Harvey Oswald, a fall guy for the Mafia, but by a gunman known to the French secret service as “Soutre,” hired by the Mafia for reasons originating in Kennedy’s top-secret – and totally illegal – presidential plot to overthrow Castro in Cuba in 1963, long after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

* Ever hear of the shocker he identifies as the near melt-down at the Windscale nuclear power plant in 1957? It came so close to pumping massive amounts of radiation into the sky that for 25 years British authorities shrouded the incident, and the cancer-related deaths it caused, in deep official secrecy. As the author points out, compared with the Brits, the Soviet handling of Chernobyl was a model of fast-reporting.

The strength of the book lies not, however, in these occasional bits of sensationalism but
the skill with which the author has tied together the Cold War’s many strands of policies and personalities into a coherent, persuasive narrative. He is at his best in winning the trust of his readers by criticizing the foibles and follies of both sides in this long, hideously expensive struggle. If you are looking for flag-waving history, the kind Stephen Ambrose writes where the USA is always the good guy, you will not find it here. Americans blundered often and were anything but saintly, but in the end we outspent and out-connived the Soviets and won.

How much did the Cold War cost? The actual cost in dollars and rubles may some day be determined, but the human cost, the lives warped and wasted for nearly 2 generations, the resources squandered, the blessings to humanity like more hospitals, schools, and research on disease control that were never realized because the money went elsewhere – these unseen losses of the Cold War are likely to remain forever incalculable. What is certain is that the Cold War dominated world politics and with it our lives for nearly half a century. Hughes-Wilson never loses sight of this bittersweet reality as he reminds us how close the world came to destroying itself more times than we knew then or, judging by the public’s apathy on the subject, want to know even now.

A final note for East German collectors. Germany was the Cold War’s greatest powder keg, with Berlin the trigger that repeatedly threatened to plunge the world into nuclear war. The result is a windfall for East German collectors. They will find much useful background information about the DDR and its role in Soviet policy-making in Hughes-Wilson’s account. He does not hide his dislike of the East German leadership – even the Soviets couldn’t do that – but he does make clear how important the country and its hard-line policies really were in keeping the Cold War cauldron never far from boiling over.

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