Jonathan M. House. A Military History of the Cold War, 1944-1962. Campaigns and Commanders Series. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 560 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-4262-3.
Reviewed by Tal Tovy (Bar Ilan University)
Published on H-War (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Writing a book about the military history of the Cold War necessitates examining several elements. The first, and clearest, is analyzing the distinct military events of the Cold War, such as the Korean War. The second is addressing the realm of military theory. Until the Cold War, only one type of war existed; regular war, while having many derivatives, was the tactical essence of warfare. The majority of modern military philosophy, as Azar Gat clearly shows in A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (2001), deals with regular warfare, leaving a void in manners of theoretical discussions on irregular warfare. This all changed dramatically after World War II. Atomic weapons and the fact that guerilla had gone from being a tactical device, i.e., warfare, to being a strategic essence, i.e., war, also gave birth to more theoretical writings about these new forms of war.
In a reality where both world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, had a growing nuclear arsenal, finding new martial and political means of war that would not lead to a nuclear clash was a necessity. This became even more critical following the Korean War. It was the first conventional war in the atomic age, a local war that could easily spread geographically, one in which the United States feared that martial escalation would lead to the use of atomic weapons. The period following the Korean War gave birth to limited war theories and doctrines. Other theoretical writings dealt with irregular warfare and counter-warfare. This was termed “counterinsurgency.” (While theoretical writing on irregular warfare and the means to counter it existed before the Cold War, it was meager, and it is safe to generalize that world armies were always preparing for regular warfare, facing a regular army.)
The third element is the conventional and nuclear arms race. The conventional sphere offers nothing new, in the historical sense; arms races existed throughout history, most certainly in the first half of the twentieth century. Opponents have always been seeking war machines and technologies that would help them achieve superiority on the battlefield. Since conventional armies always followed impressive technological advances (jet fighters, for example), this element is inseparably bound to advantage seeking. The innovative nature of the nuclear arms race had much to do with the accompanying new military theories and organizational changes. It was the nuclear, not the conventional, arms race that brought on the balance of terror, led the superpowers to avoid direct confrontation, and increased (during the Cold War years) the war-by-proxy phenomena. The desire to avoid Armageddon, i.e, direct conflict between the superpowers, makes up the fourth element. Here we find the scope of undercover actions and intelligence operations. At the same time, this area lies parallel to the political struggles of the Cold War.
All of the above topics are discussed in detail in Jonathan M. House’s book, which offers a historical examination of the Cold War in the years 1944–62. The chronological bounds are clear and logical. If the Cold War is defined as a political struggle between Communists and anti-Communist forces, then the Greek Civil War can be seen as the first military conflict of the Cold War, heralding a long line of regular and irregular military conflicts after World War II. It should be noted that, politically, in 1944 the United States and the Soviet Union were still in an alliance, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought out ways to create a new world order led by the two superpowers. House christens 1962 a “watershed” year; traditionally, he says, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is treated as a “watershed event ... that prompted the political leaders of both sides to step back and reconsider the risks involved” (p. 448).
Thus, the chapters of this book make up a chronological and thematic analysis of the first eighteen years of the Cold War, going over various military conflicts, the arms race, and military theories on nuclear warfare. In fact, House examines practically every historical event in which the superpowers were directly or indirectly involved, and events in which Communist and anti-Communist forces clashed. From a historiographical standpoint, House aligns himself with the post-revisionist school of the post-Cold War period, not placing the entirety of the blame on either the Soviet Union (as per the orthodox school) or the United States (as per the revisionist school). House claims that in the wake of World War II, the prevailing approach was that had the world confronted Japan, Italy, and Germany at the initial stages of their rise to hostility, the greatest war known to man would have been avoided. In that respect, both the United States and the Soviet Union saw one another’s actions as jeopardizing the other’s national security. A swift retaliation for every hostile act was necessary in order to prevent another world war, one far worse than its predecessors on account of the superpowers’ nuclear arsenal.
Two examples come to mind. The first is the American reaction to the North Korean invasion of South Korea. As far back as 1947, the United States established a Communism-containment policy under the notion that Communism should be confined to the territories won in World War II. An invasion of South Korea was seen as a Communist attempt to breach these borders, an initial step toward global Communist domination. The United States therefore labored to block the expansion of this threat. A second example is the 1955 Warsaw Alliance, a direct Soviet response to the American intention to rehabilitate the German army. A decade after the war, the Soviets were still recovering from the massive losses and unprecedented infrastructure damage caused by the war. Restoring the German army was seen by the Soviet Union as a direct threat to its national security and as an aggressive American action.
House correctly states that the conflicts discussed in the book are in fact a collection of case studies that prove the Clausewitzian paradigm regarding the superiority of political levels over the military. House’s book demonstrates the standing tension between politicians and the military, a relationship grown even more complex in the nuclear age. Yet politicians always maintained the upper hand.
One major issue arises from this book. House examines the scope of events of 1944–62 from a bird’s-eye view, treating the Cold War as a global affair. It was, without a doubt, an event that critically shaped world history, but there was another process that gradually developed in the wake of World War II. The outcomes of the war decreased the political strength of the old European superpowers, most notably, Britain and France. As a result, nationalist forces operating in European colonies since before the war gained power. In many of the colonies, especially in Southeast Asia, these groups were the same ones that kept resisting the Japanese occupation. Such was the case in Vietnam, Malaya, and the Philippines, among others. After the war, they demanded their independence, or at the very least to become a part of the local, postcolonial political system. Undoubtedly, many were of distinct Communist orientation. Yet above all, they demanded self-determination, national independence, and the decimation of European rule.
One primary example is Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh, who, on September 2, 1945, declared Vietnam independent from French colonial rule. The first nation from which he sought recognition was the United States. From October 1945 until February 1946, Ho Chi Minh addressed eight letters to President Harry S. Truman, indicating the right to self-determination as promised by Truman’s predecessor, President Roosevelt, in the Atlantic Charter (August 1941). Truman never responded. One could claim that the American president was thinking in terms of an ideological battle against Communism, but Ho Chi Minh was speaking on a national scale. Ignoring the national aspect or diminishing its importance in light of the Communist orientation of these national groups would prove to be the worst political mistake the United States would make, one that placed it in the midst of the Vietnam War.
The decolonization process and the will for national liberation were powerful and important motivators in the postwar reality, trends that were not necessarily a result of the Cold War, especially in light of the fact that most of these movements began operating well before World War II. Additionally, local and regional conflicts—the Israeli-Arab conflict, the battle for hegemony in the Arab world, or the India-Pakistan clash—should not be dismissed. But at the same time, the superpowers’ involvement brought these conflicts into the general framework of the Cold War, and even went as far as to intensify them. At times, these local and regional conflicts became proxy wars. The Korean War, again, serves as an example. One approach in the study of the causes of the war claims that it began as a civil war, and the superpowers’ involvement incorporated it into the Cold War. “The Koreans invaded Korea,” says Bruce Cumings at the end of his comprehensive study of the causes of the war, which views the Korean conflict as one that began as a civil war. Even an analysis of the war in Algeria (1954-62) or a discussion of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952-56) from a Cold War perspective would prove to be one-dimensional, one that does not take national forces or an anti-imperialist atmosphere into consideration. Thus we must claim that not every event taking place after World War II should be treated as related to the Cold War. Other great forces (nationalism, for one) have shaped the world in the latter half of the twentieth century—some still in effect to this day, twenty years after the end of the Cold War. Still, some of them are to be considered as part of the Cold War when attempting to broaden the geographical scope of the superpower conflict.
Despite this, House provides an important discussion in Cold War military history (up to 1962). The book not only deals with military conflicts but also incorporates discussions on the developing military theories of the time. House also touches on technological weaponry advances. Another benefit of the book is the fact that House does not detach military history from other aspects of the Cold War, first and foremost the ideological aspect, but also political and economic components. Naturally, the book expands on military history; discussing other elements of the war enhances and completes it, granting the reader a comprehensive study of military history without neglecting the greater context of this fascinating period.
House’s study is founded on American archival resources as well as broad secondary literature, incorporating classic and recent Cold War studies. This impressive bibliography assists those who wish to expand their knowledge of issues discussed in the book. It is thus a must-read for military historians, and those researching the political and diplomatic history of the Cold War will also find it of great use. House would do well to research the military history after 1962, producing another comprehensive and inclusive study like this one.
. Carl von Clausewitz, On War (New York: Knopf, 1993), 731, book 8, chap. 6b.
. David Stone practices a similar methodology in Wars of the Cold War: Campaigns and Conflicts, 1945-1990 (London: Brassey’s, 2004).
. See Ho Chi Minh’s letter to President Truman, October 17, 1945, in Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 501-502. It should be noted that the beginning of the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence is quite similar to the beginning of the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence, and also quotes from the Declaration of the French Revolution (1791). Ho Chi Minh, it turns out, referenced liberalist documents, and not those from the Marxist-Leninist corpus.
. Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes 1945-1947, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); and Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War: The Roaring of the Cataract 1947-1950, vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 64.
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Tal Tovy. Review of House, Jonathan M., A Military History of the Cold War, 1944-1962.
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