The best books on America’s path through the Cold War

Neal Thompson Author Of Reckoning: Vietnam and America's Cold War Experience, 1945-1991
By Neal Thompson

Who am I?

I entered the United States Army in August 1970, two months after graduation from high school, completed flight school on November 1971, and served a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot in Troop F (Air), 8th US Cavalry, 1st Aviation Brigade. After my discharge, I served an additional 28 years as a helicopter pilot in the Illinois National Guard, retiring in 2003. I graduated from Triton Junior College, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Northwestern University Law School in 1981. My passion for this subject arises, as one would expect, from my status as a veteran. My expertise is based on my own experience and 16 years of research and writing that went into the preparation of my book.

I wrote...

Reckoning: Vietnam and America's Cold War Experience, 1945-1991

By Neal Thompson,

Book cover of Reckoning: Vietnam and America's Cold War Experience, 1945-1991

What is my book about?

America’s triumph over Soviet Communism, orthodoxy tells us, was a splendid bi-partisan accomplishment in which all Americans can take pride, marred only by America’s singularly unjust, ill-advised campaign in Vietnam, which was undertaken in good faith by well-meaning and intelligent men acting in the country’s interest. Nonsense.

In Reckoning, I identify facts that have been hiding in plain sight—“elephants in the room” as they are commonly known—and prove that: 1) the war in Vietnam, while winnable, was lost by a corrupt political class that was focused on domestic politics and opponents in Washington rather than Communists in Asia; 2) the war crimes allegations advanced by the antiwar left are false. The facts and figures regarding day-to-day operations in Vietnam, when compared to those of Korea and World War II, prove clearly that the men who fought in Vietnam were as honorable as any generation of American veterans. Finally, I demonstrate conclusively that you will never understand the Vietnam War by reading about the Vietnam War. You must begin with the “legacy of the 1930s” and the policies to which it gave rise. For the Vietnam War was but one campaign among many within the Truman Doctrine, and if it was the “Bad War fought for all the wrong reasons and in all of the wrong ways” that orthodoxy tells us it was, the Truman Doctrine itself becomes nothing but a long campaign of, in Daniel Ellsberg’s words, “American aggression.”

The books I picked & why

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Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America

By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr,

Book cover of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America

Why this book?

Starting in World War II, American cryptanalysts broke Soviet codes and determined that hundreds of Americans working for the Soviet Union were active within the federal government during the New Deal and throughout the Second World War. Code named Venona, this operation was a closely guarded secret until declassification in 1996. When these intercepts were combined with information acquired from Soviet archives after the collapse of the USSR, they revealed not only a massive penetration of American government, science, and industry by Soviet spies but an American Communist Party that had assisted in these efforts, serving as an arm of Soviet intelligence. In other words (quoting American Communist Party member Alfred Bernstein), “[Joseph] McCarthy was right.” “The system was loaded with Communists.”

Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator

By Arthur Herman,

Book cover of Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator

Why this book?

This is a balanced view of Senator McCarthy that, read in conjunction with Venona, Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, replaces the mendacity of historical orthodoxy with the truth, as columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman acknowledged in 1996: “Point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong, and yet he was still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him.” The collapse of the Soviet Union opened both Soviet and American intelligence archives to Western scholars, if only briefly, and we now know that McCarthy’s charges were not, as we have been told for more than half a century, baseless, groundless, and irrational. Herman also reveals the dishonesty of Harry Truman and his enablers, who worked strenuously to obstruct investigations into Soviet espionage and poisoned political relations in this country.  

The Origins of the Korean War, Volume I: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947

By Bruce Cumings,

Book cover of The Origins of the Korean War, Volume I: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947

Why this book?

Professor Cumings provides the most detailed, honest analysis of this country’s involvement in Korea from the end of World War II through the catastrophic war that virtually destroyed the entire Korean peninsula, left several million dead, and led this country directly into Vietnam. 

Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965

By Mark Moyar,

Book cover of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965

Why this book?

Moyar does an excellent job of debunking the myths surrounding this country’s failure to secure an independent, non-communist South Vietnam. From the “Bright and Shining Lie” of the vaunted Saigon press corps to the supposed incompetence of Ngo Dinh Diem, Moyar demonstrates that the orthodox narrative is false and that the loss of Vietnam was the result of decisions made in Washington rather than dysfunction in Saigon.  

The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism

By Paul Kengor,

Book cover of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism

Why this book?

Paul Kengor provides a steady, detailed analysis of Reagan’s successful attempt to end the Cold War by driving the USSR to economic collapse. From technological embargoes, economic warfare and disinformation that the Soviets believed were intelligence successes to driving the price of oil down to $10 per barrel, Reagan’s policies were disastrous for Soviet interests. In just one year, the USSR moved from a $700 million trade surplus with the West to a $1.4 billion deficit, which tripled during the following year. “In my view,” wrote Gorbachev in the end, “the 40th President of the United States will go down in history for his rare perception.”

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and Korea?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and Korea.

The Cold War Explore 122 books about the Cold War
The Soviet Union Explore 207 books about the Soviet Union
Korea Explore 28 books about Korea

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953, The Vietnam War Reexamined, and The Korean War if you like this list.