Review: A Military History of the Cold War 1944-1962




House, Jonathan M. A Military History of the Cold War 1944-1962, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 546 pages.


There is something kind of nefarious about NATO. But whatever that something is can be as elusive as the benevolently proverbial white rabbit himself. How does one (beholden and domestic to the modern western security apparatus) begin to articulate the faintest criticism or concern with an organization credited with “keeping the peace” (at least by its own self, that is) for nearly seventy years? Should such an argument even be made? Perhaps. But one must concede that such an argument must be a kind of tertiary one, neither mainstream or counter-cultural. It must be built upon a foundation which itself is laid upon bedrock. Such bedrock is rarely seen, jutting up at the sky and at Time itself, through the dense and deep sediment and topsoil that is the modern military historicity. Jonathan House offers just such a cornerstone work in this herculean survey of two of the most politicized, polarizing, and pivotal decades in all of global history, leading up to and through the day the whole world almost went away.



The work is not primary in the sense that the author was present for many of the events, though an argument could be made that a whole generation of captive humans within the global community were held hostage to the many crises and changes that befell us all. The work is primary, however, in the sense that it is authoritative to a fault (the author teaches military history to the actual military), comprehensive to the point of being encyclopedic, and refreshingly free of propagandistic editorializing. The author humanizes the enemy and the ally alike, while refusing to ignore their failures, short-sights, and opportunisms. In fact, these years are recorded faithfully for a variety of different theaters which allows the reader to begin to comprehend the vast interplay of policies, procedures, and power grabs which produced “Two generations of leaders on both sides of the iron curtain [who] were quick to perceive threats and take action…” but “...in any given situation, the two sides would disagree completely as to who was the aggressor and who the defender of world peace.” (p. 27) This early quote belies the larger problem surrounding the twenty-first century model of collective security.

In the first place, the word ‘collective’ is a half-truth, in that it is used to describe an organization of elite (if in some cases only marginally so) flags which themselves constitute a minority among nations. The very existence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization owes itself to the rivalry and disunity spurred by the nemesis Soviets and their omnipresent gremlin meddlings. The very name of the organization implies a distinction which excludes most of the civilized (and all of the uncivilized world). Furthermore, the word ‘security’ is also relatively suspect given the escalating state of perpetual warfare which has followed the decades of paranoia-driven militarization. Such a condition has pervaded every nearly every social institution in the first world, rendering a dystopian police state which is not at all in keeping with the rhetoric and promises upon which the edifice was originally constructed.

But to know these things, one must not turn to the pedagogues, the criers, and the spokespersons and mouthpieces. These secondary intruders have trampled history with ideology and superstition, dividing and conquering the human condition with tribalism instead of advancing the truth. One striking quality of modern foreign policy and globalization in general is a tendency toward duality. For forty years, NATO’s existence was predicated on the threat of the other. In the west, intelligentsia and the talking heads were certain that the Soviet Union would bring about armageddon, in spite of the US constantly holding the lead, from bombers, to bombs, to missiles, and so forth. In the East, the capitalist menace was surely lurking behind every stone to sabotage the best efforts of simple, honest men. As another author famously commented on the animosity between the Christians and Arabs, the thing that bound the two rivals most closely was their hatred for each other, and the thing they held in common was the word: infidel. At this secondary level, points of view derive from one’s geographical understanding. Among the Communists, there was one history; among Capitalists, another. Principals therefore derived are, by necessity, tertiary.

What is needed, then, is a solid, straightforward, bullshit free, third option. House provides history from a bird’s eye view- neutral, objective, rich, and precise. His work allows the lay reader to traverse the difficult path from novice to knowledgeable, which is a journey concurrent with the transformation from the limited view of a state-dependent partisan to the critical agency of an informed and involved citizen. In short, to argue for or against NATO, credibly, one must be well versed in the complex and intertwined histories of its member states. This book is a satisfying and tangible consolidation of those experiences which will ensure that whatever view the audience comes away with, they have likely come about it honestly.

Some notes about the structure, after such elaborate praise of the book’s function, and before a cursory examination of its actual content. On the cover is the Minuteman-III. Once the popular subject of the most urgent and enlightened discussions the world over, it is now merely an ancient ghost, one of many scattered across the continental countryside, sleeping like forgotten giants. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the author chose this image for its significance. In a very real way, the minuteman is a symbol and metaphor for the whole NATO and Cold War experiences. It is big, complicated, expensive, and profoundly deadly. It implies at once man’s newly discovered capacity for total self-annihilation, and also his impetuous inability to be trusted with the responsibility. As such, the bomb is a running theme throughout House’s narrative, literally tracking from the birth pains of the Manhattan Project and Project Paperclip, through the potentially disastrous Cuban Missile Crisis.

House covers the unfolding of these events across a variety of theaters, including Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Indo China. He makes use of hundreds of sources including the official papers of many diplomats and world leaders. He also includes a smattering of simple, regional maps, to allow the reader to maintain bearing through the many twists and turns and transitions. The book is arranged, therefore, in a cascade of chronologies, moving slowly, carefully, and deliberately through each stage of the evolving conflicts to consider the views and influences of commanders, of economic conditions, of prejudices, and often of providence itself. Complete with appendices for abbreviations, index entries, and an elaborate bibliography, this work should qualify as a more than adequate textbook for scholars the cold war.

With the relevance of the work and the editorial appraisal out of the way, the most important aspect of House’s work is his prose, which is unflinching and nuanced. He is in complete command of both his subject matter and his craft. House tells the story of a post-war community of bankrupted and battleworn empires trying to clutch their colonial wealth as militant nationalism and competing ideologies rip apart and burn the seams of the prewar cartography. Of the two remaining superpowers, House writes “Western policy makers frequently misunderstood the motivations of both the socialist government and the...national liberation movements of the world. Conversely, Stalin and his supporters had ideological blinders that prevented them from understanding the motivations of their western counterparts.” One readily finds a resonant parallel between the past and the present.

House trudges through the early years from Yalta and the Soviet commitments against the Japanese in exchange for Lend Lease, to and through the Chinese Civil War, Korea, and the French efforts to federate IndoChina. Then he pivots and backtracks through Greece, Albania, and the birth of the National Security Agency in the Patterson-Forrestal Agreement of 1947. He adeptly delivers the Marshall plan and Molotov’s consequential condemnations of the American leadership in rebuilding a broken Europe. With the political stages set, the author begins again, gently placing the nuclear and military tale in its appropriate context. As a military historian, House pays consummate attention to the myriad designations and classifications of bombs and bombers and fighter aircraft that can so easily dazzle the lay reader, but this again is a testament to the author’s greater understanding of the contributing influences of these evolving capabilities to the bigger picture. He tells of the Soviets copying the B-29s and producing the Tu-4’s; then of the first jet bombers- the IL-28’s- and the infamous TU-16 entering production in 1954. Each new increase in payload capacity and range raised the stakes just a little bit higher, prompting the other side to push the envelop even further, until there could be no denying either side’s utter lethality.

Recalling the Prague coup and the Berlin Crisis, House elucidates the grave perceptions of vulnerability and volatility shared by leaders in Britain and the United States, which compelled their support for new and advanced conceptualizations of so-called ‘collective security,’ and which are critical to understanding the formation of the Western Union and the ensuing Vandenberg Resolution, which together laid the philosophical and procedural groundwork for what came to be the North Atlantic Treaty, signed April 4, 1949. Before the ink can dry, House has whisked his reader off again, back into the depths of the failed nationalist Chinese uprising, in order to paint the fullest picture of the illusions and perceptions of American policy makers which insisted on ignoring the material gains of the Chinese Communists, belligerently backing Chiang Kai Shek against the Japanese in Manchuria and foreshadowing the same fateful policy of stubborn attachment later on to Ngu Diem in the Vietnam crisis.

From there, the story of North Korea becomes manageable, almost to the point of simplicity. What began as an unthinkable outcome between two unstoppable rivals, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. became a complete proxy war waged among rural farmers and peasants, across an imaginary line which has surpassed the Berlin Wall, both in real longevity, as well as in the abstract geo-political severity. But a pattern begins to appear, wherein besieged and desperate local commanders learn to concede control of their forces to the big players, rather than the insurgents; and where clear-cut military and logistical failures on both sides, such as those leading to the Armistice of July 27, 1953, could be spun by both sides to resemble political victories. In House’s telling, “China could boast that it halted the power of the United States.” (p. 208) Doing so lent credibility to Mao Ze Dong’s strategic premise and Marx’s embattled anti-imperialism for generations of rebels to come, Communist or otherwise, thereby giving substance to the imagined grievances upon which the urgency of the west’s arms race had been constructed in the first place.

House describes the places and players convening in a “shadow defense ministry” to begin the reconstruction of the shackled German war machine in a mutual initiative laid out in the Himmerod Memorandum, which “called for an army of 250 thousand men in 12 armored divisions, and air force of 831 fighters and reconnaissance aircraft, and a limited navy of minesweepers, torpedo boats, and landing craft,” which ultimately “became the basis of the future Bundeswehr.” (p. 215) However ambitious Adenauer and other defense hawks might have been, however, the U.S was “expected to assume the lion’s share” of the fiscal and administrative burden for this new global command. House describes in great detail how this profound new transformation propagated across the fields of intelligence and industrialization, but most importantly, across the fabric of the Soviet control: “The Soviet and Satellite armies configured for mechanized war against the west found themselves increasingly involved in repressing counter revolutionary rebellions in the streets of eastern Europe.” Telling signs that the US, like its authoritarian rivals, could also get its hands dirty.

And so it goes in the Philippines, and in Lebanon, each experience emboldening the formerly gunshy superpower in the west, while slowly drawing the noose around the formerly trigger happy superpower in the east, apparently (in theory), one fanatical and unwieldy Asian understudy at a time. Meanwhile, “Five times in one year, Eisenhower rejected military advice to use nuclear weapons in the crisis.” (p. 266) The reader can be thankful for Ike’s magnaminty, while also supposing the same has probably been true, to a greater or lesser degree for every acting U.S. president ever since. Nevertheless, the US and the French found themselves learning the lessons that had guided the British and Germans to begin reaching out on the first place. By 1949, “the French were spending $500 million per year” on the war in IndoChina. (p. 274) Similarly, “between 1950 and 1955, the United States provided $500 million in aid” to the Philippines. (p.253) Scholars and politicians continue to debate the merits of these endeavors, but perhaps it is these aspirations in which the original spirit of the North Atlantic Treaty should be contextualized.

House also breathes life into many long-lost but influential characters who were critical players in shaping the structure of late twentieth and early twenty-first century diplomacy. Men such as the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, and General (secretary) Edward Landsdale, bent entire populations to their will in IndoChina, and practically charted their own courses through American and global history. House delivers an engaging figure in Degaulle, who is “smart enough to extricate himself” from the Algerian debacle before becoming too deeply embroiled in an unpopular and unwinnable conflict. Winston Churchill is another, whose return to power in 1951 coincided with the “impasse” in Malaya which so dogged the Portuguese through the sixties.

Ahead of the US and France, however, it is perhaps the British who must have suffered the highest and hardest fall. House describes the “Baghdad Pact of 1945” as “the most London could achieve,” and the world’s foremost authority in colonization found itself having to cast in with the likes of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, to hedge against a resurgence of Soviet dominance. (p. 339) It was as if the Black Mountains of Mordor themselves concealed an monstrous abomination just beyond the Black Sea, waiting and ravenously hungry for the flesh of men! But a worse foe appeared in Gamal Nasser, for the moment. House explains Nasser’s refusal to “join pro-western security agreements,” and that he “identified with nonaligned states like India and Yugoslavia,” which infuriated Prime Minister Eden and Secretary of State Dulles and made Egypt, for the time being, the most dangerous wrench ever thrown into an elaborate scheme to conquer the world. House keeps pace through the Suez crisis, drawing Israel into the unfolding narrative and illuminating the efforts of Britain and France to stage a politically palatable invasion in order to showcase their rearmament and deter future Soviet or Communist or Nationalist intrusion into the western grand design. He says of this experience that the Israeli invasion was a tactical success but a political failure, and relays the scene of a frenzied Dulles screaming for a ceasefire as the British currency collapses. (p. 351)

With Lebanon, House explains, American policy-makers got a “false sense of their capability to control events and concealed a huge blank check implied in the Eisenhower doctrine…” but also that the experience “completed the changing of the guard,” transferring the global initiative from the Anglo and Norman conquerors to their fully grown Yankee progeny. (p.361, 366) But the later was possessed of no more moral authority than the former had been, as evidenced in the horrifying fact that the “Department of Defense estimated that 250,000 service members were used as experimental subjects between 1945 and 1963...to measure the psychological and radiological effects of exposing troops to atomic detonations.” (p. 371) Again, House doesn’t pull any punches.

From here, the author chronicles the arrival of nuclear carriers and submarines to widen the strike and retaliatory capabilities of the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and the development of the Atlas and Titan and Polaris missile systems to ensure the maximum potency of those capabilities. But the climax of this work builds through the U-2 fiasco under Kennedy, the botched anti-Castro invasion, also under Kennedy, and Operation Rose (to build a wall in Berlin) culminating in a the Cuban Missile crescendo which defined all non-Vietnam related military and political discourse for the following decade until Nixon and time gave the public something else to think about for a change. The book stops short of the escalation in Vietnam, and of the Strategic Arms Limits Talks which attempted to reign in all the ICBMs and IRBMS and Atlas and Nike that House has introduced, but there are twenty seven good years remaining in the Cold War! House promises a second volume, and readers who await its publication have right to expect a damned elaborate epilogue, but the author has other critical and enjoyable works to help bide the time until then.

In his summation, he addresses several themes and aspects of the period in question, including the competing influences of multiple actors which so often get mashed into the old binary good-guy bad-guy paradigm for reasons of simplicity; the economic costs to all parties involved, which alone ought to suffice in deterring all future romanticisms of this catastrophic struggle; the shifting dynamic between insurgency and counterinsurgency; the evolving interplay between civil and military relations; the challenges (and gains) brought about by interservice rivalry, and the mutant transformation and rise of the intelligence community. But in closing, he chooses to discuss the tradition of referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis as a “watershed” event. He says that it is for this reason that the study of the Cold war should bifurcate at this point in the history. With all the circumstances and context established, and all the pieces in their place, and all the actors and their motivations revealed, the real story of the Cold War is only barely getting started. House says the later years are filled with “insurgency and counterinsurgency” as the proxy wars and clandestine intrigue take the place of pedagogical grandstanding and brinksmanship. (p. 448)

Scholars of military history, Cold War historians, forward looking politicians, and students of all stripes eagerly await a most capable guide through the final acts of this epic story in Jonathan House. If it is even half as good as the first, the second volume ought to be a smash favorite among critics, and the two volumes together should constitute a legacy contribution to the subject, and for these an entire new generation of citizen-scholars shall rightfully owe praise and thanks.