The Great Cold War: A Journey through the Hall of Mirrors
This is just one of many illuminating insights to be gained from this detailed and thoroughly documented – yet highly readable – history of the Cold War. Written by a senior British diplomat, Gordon Barrass, who was Chief of the Assessments Staff in the Cabinet Office and a member of the Cabinet’s Joint Intelligence Committee during the last years of the Cold War, its narrative is enriched by perceptive analysis and enlivened by revealing vignettes that take the reader behind the scenes of the events marking the conflict’s evolution.
Barrass structures the book around four fundamental questions about the Cold War: “Why did it start, why did it last so long, and why did it end the way it did – with the most important of all being: how did we survive without blowing ourselves to Hell?”
To answer these questions, he not only consulted the normal documentary sources but also interviewed nearly 100 major participants on both sides – policy-makers, military commanders, strategists, diplomats, and intelligence officers, from familiar names such as Brzezinski, Schlesinger, and Woolsey, to lesser-known figures such as Gorbachev foreign affairs adviser Anatoly Chernyaev, KGB defector Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, and East German foreign intelligence service chief General Markus Wolf.
Most of the events described – the confrontations, the conferences, the negotiations – as well as the major policies and personalities involved will be generally familiar to foreign affairs professionals and other close observers of the international scene who lived through the Cold War era. But in describing them Barrass also provides insights, new perspectives, and aha! moments that give rise to thoughts of “Now I know the full story” and “Now I understand why that happened.”
Some of the important revelations for me were:
Beyond its value in illuminating a defining part of twentieth century history, The Great Cold War is also highly relevant to today’s international problems. As Brent Scowcroft put it, “The lessons Barrass draws from the Cold War years can help us greatly in tackling the confrontations of the twenty-first century. It is a ‘must read’ for policy-makers.”
It is also an interesting and enjoyable read for foreign affairs professionals and students who want to more thoroughly understand the Cold War and its implications for the contemporary world.