The best books to reconsider what the Cold War really was

Hajimu Masuda Author Of Cold War Crucible: The Korean Conflict and the Postwar World
By Hajimu Masuda

Who am I?

Masuda Hajimu (family name Masuda) is a historian at the National University of Singapore. He specializes in the modern history of East Asia, the history of American foreign relations, and the social and global history of the Cold War, with particular attention toward ordinary people and their violence, as well as the recurrent rise of grassroots conservatism in the modern world. His most recent publications include: The Early Cold War: Studies of Cold War America in the 21st Century in A Companion to U.S. Foreign Relations; “The Social Experience of War and Occupation” in The Cambridge History of Japan (coming in 2022), among others. He has served as a residential fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2017-18); Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge (2020); and Visiting Scholar at Waseda University (2020).

I wrote...

Cold War Crucible: The Korean Conflict and the Postwar World

By Hajimu Masuda,

Book cover of Cold War Crucible: The Korean Conflict and the Postwar World

What is my book about?

Masuda Hajimu’s Cold War Crucible is an inquiry into the peculiar nature of the Cold War. It examines not only centers of policymaking but seeming aftereffects of Cold War politics during the Korean War: Suppression of counterrevolutionaries in China, the White Terror in Taiwan, the Red Purge in Japan, and McCarthyism in the United States. Such purges were not merely end results of the Cold War, Masuda argues, but forces that brought the Cold War into being, as ordinary people throughout the world strove to silence disagreements and restore social order in the chaotic post-WWII era under the mantle of an imagined global confrontation. Revealing social functions and popular participation, Cold War Crucible highlights ordinary people’s roles in making and maintaining the “reality” of the Cold War, raising the question of what the Cold War really was.

The books I picked & why

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Detroit's Cold War: The Origins of Postwar Conservatism

By Colleen Doody,

Book cover of Detroit's Cold War: The Origins of Postwar Conservatism

Why this book?

I like this book because it forces us to rethink what the Cold War really was. The book identifies key figures in anti-communist crusades in post-World War II Detroit: workers, white homeowners, city officials, Catholics, and manufacturing executives, and argues that the core elements of their “anticommunism” were not fears of Soviet incursion, but sociocultural tensions at home that derived from drastic changes in wartime and postwar Detroit, which observed a sudden influx of African Americans, Southern whites, and immigrants. 

Thus, the book argues that Cold War Detroit’s “anticommunism” was not a new development in the postwar era, but a continuation of what had previously been labeled anti-unionism, white-supremacism, anti-secular Catholicism, and anti-New deal sentiments, all of which can be characterized as expressions of ongoing “anti-modernist” tensions within American society. Such a reexamination of Cold War anti-communism is significant because it could open up new territory for rethinking what anticommunism really was, and, by extension, what the Cold War really was.

Securing Sex: Morality and Repression in the Making of Cold War Brazil

By Benjamin A. Cowan,

Book cover of Securing Sex: Morality and Repression in the Making of Cold War Brazil

Why this book?

I like this book a lot, too, as it sheds new light on another significant site of contention in the Cold War world: gender and sexuality. While much has been written about torture, repression, and resistance during the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-85), Cowan’s book reveals how battles waged across sexual and bodily practices, clothing, music, art, and gender were of paramount importance in Cold War Brazil. 

It explores Brazilian right-wing’s Cold War narratives and shows how their anti-communist politics actually aimed to contain various socio-cultural transformations in the 1960s, such as the increasing prominence of premarital sex, homosexuality, birth control, and drugs, and how their politics functioned, at its core, to defend traditional family and gender norms, moral standards, and conventional sexuality. Thus, the book tells us that the story of Cold War Brazil is actually a story of culture wars—that is, part of a much broader transnational history of what I would call “social warfare” throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

African Socialism in Postcolonial Tanzania: Between the Village and the World

By Priya Lal,

Book cover of African Socialism in Postcolonial Tanzania: Between the Village and the World

Why this book?

This book is exciting in many ways. It tells a story of Tanzania’s socialist experiment in 1967-75, which was known as “ujamaa” (“familyhood” in Swahili). It shows how Cold War politics intertwined with local situations, and how Tanzanian leaders and common people used Cold War rhetoric to envision and enforce their own national agricultural development program. At a glance, thus, the book can be seen just as another example of the recently growing literature that explores the crossroads between Cold War politics, decolonization, and developmental politics, such as Artemy Kalinovsky’s Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan (2018) and Begüm Adalet's Hotels and Highways: The Construction of Modernization Theory in Cold War Turkey (2018), to name a few.  

However, what differentiates Lal's book from these others, and what I like most, is that the author conducted more than 100 interviews with ordinary Tanzanians, and documented what ujamaa meant for them and their communities. As such, she reveals that, in stark contrast to standard representations, ujamaa was not just “a destructive power grab by an invasive state” but individuals still had room for negotiation, and that some people still remember the era as a time of unity and solidarity, with a feeling of nostalgia, even though the program itself collapsed in the 1970s. What interests me is that ujamaa, ostensibly a socialist developmental program, had a socially conservative aspect in regulating gender roles and family relations, while also policing urban women’s dress (miniskirts in particular)—a familiar aspect of “culture wars” and “social warfare,” which can be seen in many parts of the world at the same moment, and which can be a clue for reconsidering the meanings of the Cold War world.

Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America's Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia

By Eugene Ford,

Book cover of Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America's Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia

Why this book?

To be honest, I didn't like this book when I was reading early chapters, which focus solely on American efforts to utilize Buddhism as a sort of “spiritual weapon” to counter the appeal of Communism in Southeast Asia, notably in Thailand. I thought it too U.S.-centric and an overly top-down narrative. However, my doubts dispelled when I continued to read the middle and, particularly, the last two chapters, where the author discusses how Thai Buddhist monks also used Cold War politics and U.S. support in their attempts to expand their roles in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and to safeguard the three pillars of Thai’s traditional order: nation, religion, and king. 

What is most interesting is that, at the height of fears of communism in the early 1970s (that is, the time of the Vietnam War and U.S. withdrawal from it), the right-wing faction of Thai Buddhist monks embraced militant anti-communism, justifying the killing of communists and vindicating war and confrontation with communism—a war that the author names “Thailand’s Holy War.” This book can be seen as part of growing literature in recent years that explores linkages between religion and the Cold War, but what distinguish it is its depiction of religion not just as a target of mobilization and propaganda, but as the core platform of “social cohesion” and, thus, as a key player in Cold War anti-communist politics in its attempt to maintain social and cultural order at home.

Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War

By Taomo Zhou,

Book cover of Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War

Why this book?

My fifth choice, last but not least, is Taomo Zhou’s Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War, which I would characterize as a novel attempt at unlearning Cold War narratives to which we have been accustomed for a long time. 

The book’s clearest contribution, first and foremost, involves careful examination of Sino-Indonesian relations in the post-WWII era, particularly concerning what happened during the failed coup in Jakarta on September 30, 1965. This coup, in which six anti-communist Indonesian generals were murdered, was a crucial event in Indonesian history because it triggered General Suharto’s swift counterattack and rise to power, and because it touched off a nationwide purge of alleged Communists and Communist sympathizers, which escalated into one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, with an estimated death toll of more than 500,000 (and possibly more than one million). The Suharto regime, which ruled Indonesia for three decades, propagated a narrative that Communist China orchestrated the coup (and used this Cold War logic as a justification to remake Indonesia as one of the most staunch anti-communist countries in Southeast Asia), but Taomo Zhou’s book utilizes newly obtained archival materials and argues that, while Beijing was aware of its planning, it was not the architect of the coup, successfully de-mystifying one of the most long-standing Cold War narratives. 

What makes this book innovative, however, is its departure from the conventional mode of diplomatic and Cold War history that tends to focus solely on political leaders and high-ranking officials. Instead, Taomo Zhou's book takes account of what was going on on the ground: diaspora politics and ethnic tensions, both of which often went beyond policymakers’ expectations and swayed the course of diplomatic relations, thus, providing important contexts to show that Sino-Indonesian relations and the Indonesian tragedy in 1965 actually evolved through the entanglement of diplomacy and migration. By peeling off Cold War imaginings and by looking squarely at local and social conflicts, this book also compels us to think about what anticommunism really was, and, by extension, what the Cold War really was.

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