It is imminent. My Global History of the Cold War 1945-1991 will be released from Palgrave Macmillan later this month. As with any book, it’s a pleasure to see it actually printed, but I have particular reasons to salute the culmination of this particular project. Here I follow up on recent articles by Chris Gehrz on the process of writing his book Lindbergh and how it intertwined with his own life. Let me take it a step further and say that in a strange way I wrote an autobiography.
The official description of the book states that it
offers a dynamic and concise overview of the Cold War. Offering balanced coverage of the entire era, it takes a decidedly holistic approach, showing how on various occasions the focus of the East-West rivalry has shifted to new and surprising places, from Laos to Katanga, from Nicaragua to Angola. Throughout, Jenkins emphasizes intelligence, technology, and religion, as well as topics that are relevant today. A rich array of popular culture examples are used to demonstrate how the crisis has been understood and perceived by the general public around the world, and the book includes three ‘snapshot’ chapters, which provide an overview of the state of play. at pivotal moments in the conflict. – 1946, 1968 and 1980 – in order to shed light on the interrelationship between apparently discrete situations. This is an essential introduction for students studying the Cold War, the 20th century, or world history.
Well, I’m biased, but that’s what I’m claiming.
So where does autobiography come into play? I was born in 1952, and the very first news images I remember seeing on television represented the war in Congo, which was to take place in 1960. Throughout my life I remember seeing and reading successive information on major cold events. War. I saw my father start to breathe again when the news on the radio announced a settlement of the Cuban crisis. I followed the Soviet-American rivalry in the Space Race, which until about 1966 was a very serious competition, and it was not clear who was going to win. Back then, that meant following the news of launches by means of shortwave radio, as the internet was still a generation away.
If you think of the Cold War as going from 1945 to 1991 – and we can debate that – then its precise midpoint, its pivot, was 1968, a year that I remember vividly. (As I grew up in Britain, I never ran the slightest risk of being drafted into an actual war then or later). In 1968, a big event for me was attending the Russian Exhibition in London, a spectacular cultural and commercial showcase that the Soviets had been planning for years. It was indeed very memorable, especially for the space-related exhibits – but just as it was starting, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and the glitzy spectacle was overrun with protesters. I put it in a bag and went to Kubrick’s place 2001, At the movie theater. I never looked back.
We sometimes speak of “nuclear paranoia”, which is absurd. At several times over those years there was a very, very real risk that a war would turn nuclear, and if it did, the industrial area I lived in in Britain was going to be a definite target. This was even truer living in Cambridge in the years that followed, surrounded by all those crucial air bases. Worrying about such an event was not paranoia. Most people sort of accepted the opportunity but paid little attention to it, even though there were moments of tension. Almost forgotten now, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 made a nuclear exchange a very high probability, and even more dangerous was the crisis of 1982-1984. To put this in context, I used to read a lot of science fiction. If anyone were to project the world beyond the end of the twentieth century without a damn good explanation – like a sudden alien invasion – I was extremely skeptical of this author. How to escape a collapse? 2021 was not something we had to worry about.
I was deeply involved in the debates of the time on the role played by the Eastern bloc in the mobilization of terrorism in the West. I was skeptical of this connection, but remember the shock I felt in 1973 when a well-informed Irish Radical contact explained in the strictest confidence that not only were the Soviets actually arming and paying the Provisional IRA , but that they also provided them with fragmentation. weapons not yet available to Warsaw Pact forces. My involvement in these debates led to the interest in terrorism which has been a fairly significant part of my academic career, writing, and teaching.
In the late 1970s, my wife and I welcomed some of the first “Red China” students to visit the West, and we met real people from mainland China – which at the time seemed more than unthinkable. They were in fact former Red Guards, veterans of the Cultural Revolution, and they were, oddly enough, quite charming people. Appropriately enough, I tell this story on China’s National Day, which commemorates the anniversary of communist rule in that nation, in 1949.
Attitudes towards the Soviet Union defined the left in a way that might be difficult to convey today. In 1978, I had the interesting experience of attending an anti-racist, anti-Nazi mass rally and rock concert in London, and participating in intense debates with other participants who did not understand why anyone one like me who was on the “anti” side in such things could also be very anti-Soviet. I remember the utter strangeness of landing at Prague Airport in the mid-90s, visiting a place that in previous years had seemed a bit more remote and inaccessible than the Crab Nebula. And along with others, I enjoyed the scavenger hunt feel of trying to find any sign the Soviets have ever been in Prague: I saw a few EXIT signs in Russian in theaters.
Did I contribute to any of these stories, shaping or developing policy? Of course not, not at all. But the Cold War has been the soundtrack or the wallpaper of my life, over a period of thirty years. Let’s not start here to find out if the Cold War has fully resumed in recent years, with a somewhat revamped cast of characters, heroes, and villains.
If I think about why I decided to write the book, the answer is quite simple: I had so much material that I wanted to explore and exhibit, and I felt like I had a lot of things to say that others did not know, or (in my opinion) did not fully appreciate. But the biggest reason, in retrospect, was that I wanted to understand the world that was the context of my life, or a big part of it.