The best books on the Cold War in the 1980s

William Knoblauch Author Of Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race
By William Knoblauch

Who am I?

My interest in the decade and in the Cold War came during graduate school. This was where I discovered Carl Sagan’s theory of a nuclear winter: that after a nuclear war, the debris and smoke from nuclear bombs would cover the earth and make it inhabitable for life on earth. Tracing debates between this celebrity scientist and U.S. policymakers revealed a hesitancy on either side to even consider each other’s point of view. This research made me reconsider the pop culture of my youth—films like The Day After and Wargames, music like “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and books from Don DeLillo’s White Noise to Dr. Seuss’ Butter Battle Book—and ultimately see them as part of a political contest in which lives—our lives—were in the balance.  

I wrote...

Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race

By William Knoblauch,

Book cover of Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race

What is my book about?

The early 1980s were a tense time. The nuclear arms race was escalating, Reagan administration officials bragged about winning a nuclear war, and superpower diplomatic relations were at a new low. Nuclear war was a real possibility and antinuclear activism surged. By 1982 the Nuclear Freeze campaign had become the largest peace movement in American history. Alarmed, the Reagan administration worked to co-opt the rhetoric of the nuclear freeze and contain antinuclear activism. Recently declassified White House memoranda reveal a concerted campaign to defeat activists' efforts.

In this book, William M. Knoblauch examines these new sources, as well as the influence of notable personalities like Carl Sagan and popular culture such as the film The Day After, to demonstrate how cultural activism ultimately influenced the administration's shift in rhetoric and, in time, its stance on the arms race.

The books I picked & why

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We Begin Bombing in Five Minutes: Late Cold War Culture in the Age of Reagan

By Andrew Hunt,

Book cover of We Begin Bombing in Five Minutes: Late Cold War Culture in the Age of Reagan

Why this book?

In the past few decades, politicians and pundits have worked hard to craft our collective memory of the 1980s. Many promote it was a golden age of small government, a booming economy, and a strong, morally-centered foreign policy. Andrew Hunt’s We Begin Bombing in Five Minutes acts as a corollary to this interpretation. Covering aspects of domestic protests, the antinuclear movement, battles over the “Vietnam Syndrome,” and the backlash to Reagan’s foreign policies in Central America and elsewhere, Hunt explores another side of the 1980s Cold War. His book’s title is taken from an off-the-cuff joke Reagan made about destroying the Soviet Union. Doing so at such a tense time in U.S. foreign relations made Reagan’s gaff one that alarmed observers at home and abroad--a testament to how tense the era really was.

The Other Eighties

By Bradford Martin,

Book cover of The Other Eighties

Why this book?

If Andrew Hunt’s book covers swaths of American popular culture to reveal levels of public dissent, Martin’s book takes a similar approach, but with a particular focus on grassroots activism. Across the U.S., activism took many forms. The Nuclear Freeze campaign, with its simple call to halt the arms race, inspired (in June 1982) the largest public protest in American history. Others rebelled against Reagan’s painfully slow response to even recognize the AIDS epidemic, while on college campuses students rallied against Reagan’s policies towards apartheid-era South Africa. Martin’s examination of how various strands of feminism reacted to the conservative backlash of the Reagan Era is an especially welcome addition to the decade’s historiography.

Jonathan Schell: The Fate of the Earth, the Abolition, the Unconquerable World

By Jonathan Schell,

Book cover of Jonathan Schell: The Fate of the Earth, the Abolition, the Unconquerable World

Why this book?

In the 1940s, journalist John Hersey wrote an eye-opening expose on the effects of the atomic bombing of Japan with Hiroshima. In doing so, Hersey began to shape the already-contested memory of why America dropped “the bomb.” Following in Hersey’s footsteps, in the early 1980s Jonathan Schell penned a straightforward warning about the atomic age. After interviewing scientists, policymakers, and intellectuals, he began to pen an accessible essay exposing of what would happen to earth after a nuclear war. The result was Fate of the Earth, and it went on to become one of the most impactful pieces of non-fiction of the decade. It helped to validate scientist Carl Sagan’s controversial “nuclear winter” hypothesis, and inspired an untold number of the public to engage in antinuclear activism. To appreciate the early 1980s as a period of intense nuclear fear, this is a must-read.

With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War

By Robert Scheer,

Book cover of With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War

Why this book?

If Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth examined the scientific, ecological, and social impacts of nuclear war, Robert Scheer’s With Enough Shovels is a direct inquiry into the Reagan Administration about their initial thoughts on the subject. Those thoughts, frankly, are frightening. As the title implicates, then-Deputy Under Secretary of Defense T.J. Jones literally suggested that surviving thermonuclear war was easy: “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top…it’s the dirt that does it…if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” Comments by Reagan, Vice President Bush, Defense Secretary Weinberger, and an increasing contingent of “Neo-Conservatives” writing in journals such as Commentary echoed these sentiments. In part, Scheer’s book began a long process of the Reagan Administration scaling back their bravado and recognizing the real dangers of the atomic age. 

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture

By Douglas Coupland,

Book cover of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture

Why this book?

This work of fiction arrived at the tail end of the Reagan Era. Read without context, it’s an enjoyable romp through the life of “Gen X’ers” and their pre-professional lives. However, much as psychologists of the 1950s ascribed one root cause of the growing problem of “Juvenile Delinquency” to fears of atomic war, Coupland’s characters are similarly disaffected from growing up during a period of similar fears—fears confirmed when one character dreams of dying in an atomic explosion. In tracing the lives of three fictional characters of this last Cold War generation, Coupland shows the emotional impact of growing up knowing that they could die any day. Seen in this light, Generation X captures the disaffection, disillusion, and dissatisfaction of a generation.

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