imageA Brief History of the Cold War
by Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding.
The Heritage Foundation, 2014.
Paperback, 108 pages, $7.

For a conflict that supposedly ended a quarter of a century ago, the Cold War certainly made its share of news in 2014. Important developments in U.S. relations with Russia, North Korea, and Cuba stirred up echoes of that decades-old conflict that never became what all sane people dreaded it might, a thermonuclear World War III. The father-and-daughter team of Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding have brought forward a clear, concise, and most definitely brief (107 pages of text) history of the period 1945–1991. The book is advertised by its publisher, the Heritage Foundation, as the first short study of the Cold War written from a conservative perspective.

Elizabeth Edwards Spalding is the author of the well-regarded study The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, and the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism (2006). Indeed, the man from Missouri is one of the heroes of the current volume. Spalding and her father credit him with being the courageous and far-sighted architect of U.S. Cold War policy. Truman’s Containment policy, the authors contend, was a rightly ordered and a reasoned response to the expansionist designs of dictator Josef Stalin and the totalitarian Soviet Union. They credit Truman, a Democrat committed to New Deal liberalism, with overcoming the long tradition of U.S. peacetime isolationism. He and his advisors set down the foundations of a long-term strategy built on a strong national defense, support of nations resisting Communist aggression, and a mindset free of naiveté and wishful thinking with regard to the Soviets.

The authors unabashedly reject the idea of a moral equivalence between the United States and its Communist adversaries. As evidence, they point to the crimes of the Stalin government, including its massacre of 22,000 Poles in 1940, an atrocity which the Soviets blamed on the Nazis for decades. Not until Russian President Boris Yeltsin released the damning evidence fifty years later was the gruesome truth widely admitted to in the West.

The authors are less complimentary of the U.S. Cold War presidents who followed Harry Truman, with one notable exception. They credit both Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy with, in the main, following Truman’s Containment policy. Edwards and Spalding, however, fault both men for their Cuba policy. Eisenhower’s biggest regret as president, they point out, was in not taking decisive action himself against Fidel Castro’s Communist regime before his term ended in January of 1961. They are harder on Kennedy, taking him to task for the Bay of Pigs fiasco that followed, as well as the missile crisis of 1962. Although pro-Kennedy historians hail his (narrow) escape from a nuclear war, the authors here contend that one dangerous result of the near miss in the Caribbean was the abandonment by the United States of the Monroe Doctrine, promising to leave undisturbed the Communist government in Havana. Castro subsequently used that latitude to promote his version of revolution throughout Central and South America.

The Containment strategy began to weaken when Lyndon Johnson overcommitted the nation in Vietnam. The authors do not share the view held by some conservatives that the United States was doomed in Vietnam because it never launched an all-out bid for victory. It was toward the end of the Vietnam Era that the United States, its political leadership’s consensus on the need to contain Communism now badly frayed, consciously adopted the policy of Détente. Spalding and Edwards fault Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for accepting a divided world and demoralizing the approach of the United States to the Cold War. The Soviet Union, as the authors (and many critics of Détente before them) point out, was not so complacent, adding to its conventional and nuclear arsenals, spreading Marxist revolution in the Third World, and finally and most dramatically, invading Afghanistan on Christmas Day in 1979. President Jimmy Carter, at long last awakening to the reality of the Soviet Union, effectively declared the end of Détente soon after.

It was left to Carter’s successor, as the authors unambiguously see it, however, to dramatically change the course not only of the Cold War, but of modern history itself. Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1981 determined to win the Cold War, not simply to manage it into perpetuity. Brushing aside charges that his defense buildup (initiated by Carter in the last year of his presidency), his military aid to anti-communist forces around the world, and unvarnished anti-Soviet rhetoric made World War III more likely, Reagan sought to reenergize his nation’s moral commitment to freedom. After a tense first term marked by a harsh rhetoric all around, Reagan found a worthy adversary in the Kremlin, one who by 1989 in effect had become his partner in the quite unexpected enterprise of bringing the Cold War to its conclusion. Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan met several times in Reagan’s second term, agreeing on significant reductions in arms. At home, however, Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the Soviet Union failed, as his own people and those of Eastern European nations used their new freedoms to overthrow, generally in peaceful fashion, Communist governments on the eastern side of what Winston Churchill had long ago described as the Iron Curtain.

Leadership grounded in consistent principles such as that provided by Truman and Reagan is a key theme of this short book. The authors provide a genuine contrast to much of the New Left historiography of the last several decades, written by scholars eager to assign blame for much of the Cold War’s ills to the United States. Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding have indeed made a sound contribution to our understanding of the Cold War.  

Jason K. Duncan is Professor of History at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. His most recent book is John F. Kennedy: The Spirit of Cold War Liberalism (Routledge, 2014).