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March 2009

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The Great Cold War: A Journey through the Hall of Mirrors
barrassReviewed by J. R. Bullington, Editor

Gordon Barrass, The Great Cold War: A Journey through the Hall of Mirrors, Stanford University Press, 2009, 496 pages, $29.95

“One of the things that kept the Cold War scary,” Robert Gates, a former director of Central Intelligence, recalled, “was the lack of understanding on each side of the mentality of the other.” Milt Bearden, a key figure in the CIA’s Soviet operations, responded more pithily when I asked him what he thought had been the West’s greatest intelligence failure during the Cold War: “We didn’t realize just how f***ing scared Soviet leaders were of us!”

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:

  • The situation was at times far more serious and dangerous than any of us knew at the time.
  • The Soviets feared us as much as we feared them.
  • The launch of Sputnik in 1957 transformed the Cold War from a political and military struggle to a broader conflict touching all areas of technical, economic, and social achievement.
  • The Cuban missile crisis prolonged the Cold War stalemate by bringing home to both sides the dangers of trying to seize advantage.
  • Intelligence, especially human intelligence, was fundamentally important in both shaping and ending the conflict.
  • “Getting inside the mind” of the Soviets, not just being tough with them, was crucial in enabling the United States eventually to prevail. (For more on this point, plus a general flavor of the book, see Mr. Barrass’ article in the American Diplomacy Commentary and Analysis section: “Getting Inside their Mind.”)

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.


J. R. Bullington, editor of American Diplomacy, was a career Foreign Service Officer 1962-89, with postings in several Asian and African countries. He was also Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. He currently lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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