The best books on the madness of the Cold War

Who am I?

I started researching the way the West’s intelligence services manipulated the public when I was a student in the mid-1970s. I then became an investigative journalist and often returned to the subject in different ways, especially as a national security correspondent. I fully acknowledge the massive manipulation by the Communist Bloc during the Cold War but believe that it is important the public is aware of the manipulation that the West’s Cold Warriors utilized is fully known and recognized as it has left a legacy that has allowed for the rise of ‘fake news’.



I wrote...

Britain's Secret Propaganda War

By Paul Lashmar, James Oliver,

Book cover of Britain's Secret Propaganda War

What is my book about?

Dr. Paul Lashmar has been researching the secret world of the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD) for some five decades and James Oliver (now BBC) for thirty. Although the book was published over twenty years ago it is still considered a groundbreaking account of IRD which was the Cold War cultural war department that worked with MI6. IRD was set up in 1948 and our book includes evidence of IRD's hidden hand in domestic politics, overthrowing left-wing governments and assisting Britain's entry into the Common Market.

The opening chapter reveals IRD’s secret hand in inciting the genocide of over 500,000 Indonesians in 1965, those suspected of being communists, an under-recognized historical event that the authors are still researching. The book discusses the impact of IRD both domestically and internationally. The authors have accumulated a substantial archive of material on IRD and cultural warfare.

The books I picked & why

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The Wizards of Armageddon

By Fred Kaplan,

Book cover of The Wizards of Armageddon

Why this book?

Kaplan’s book captured the mindset of the Cold Warriors and how the concept of a nuclear holocaust became accepted. Brilliantly researched and written with a dispassionate eye, it remains one of the most insightful accounts of the nuclear weapons race and how it was exploited by the military to build their own empires. It was a great influence on my film Baiting the Bear about General Curtis 'Bomb them back to the Stone Age’ Lemay that I made for BBC's Timewatch in 1996. I haven’t yet read Kaplan’s latest book, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, which looks like a development of Wizards with new declassified material. 

The Wizards of Armageddon

By Fred Kaplan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Wizards of Armageddon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the untold story of the small group of men who have devised the plans and shaped the policies on how to use the Bomb. The book (first published in 1983) explores the secret world of these strategists of the nuclear age and brings to light a chapter in American political and military history never before revealed.


Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

By Eric Schlosser,

Book cover of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Why this book?

More recent than Kaplan’s Wizards and more episodic but making it clear how close we came to destruction in the Cold War. With journalistic flair, he drives the narrative with real hair-raising episodes most notably a blow-by-blow account of an accident at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas, in 1980. It’s a book that every student should read as the new generation needs to know how close to disaster we came in between 1947 and 1991 and the world could easily revert into a new Cold War. 

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

By Eric Schlosser,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Command and Control as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Oscar-shortlisted documentary Command and Control, directed by Robert Kenner, finds its origins in Eric Schlosser's book and continues to explore the little-known history of the management and safety concerns of America's nuclear aresenal.

"A devastatingly lucid and detailed new history of nuclear weapons in the U.S. Fascinating." -Lev Grossman, TIME Magazine

"Perilous and gripping . . . Schlosser skillfully weaves together an engrossing account of both the science and the politics of nuclear weapons safety." -San Francisco Chronicle

A myth-shattering expose of America's nuclear weapons

Famed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser digs deep to uncover secrets about the management of…

Who Paid the Piper? : CIA and the Cultural Cold War

By Frances Stonor Saunders,

Book cover of Who Paid the Piper? : CIA and the Cultural Cold War

Why this book?

This may be over 20 years old but it is still the best account of the CIA’s massive interventions in culture and politics across the world and domestically in the Cold War. Detailed research and authoritatively written. The full story of the CIA’s intervention in the UK is still not fully told, with its covert operations in the Labour Party and we still do not know who the 50 British journalists were who were paid salaries by the CIA.

James Oliver and I covered the UK’s Information Research Department’s (IRD) mirror operation from 1947-1977 in Britain’s Secret Propaganda War. What this shows was that many ‘leading’ journalists, academics, politicians, and artists were not the best of their generation but were elevated by secret funding, publishing, and promotion because they suited the agenda of Anglo-US intelligence agencies. 

Who Paid the Piper? : CIA and the Cultural Cold War

By Frances Stonor Saunders,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Who Paid the Piper? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the Cold War, writers and artists were faced with a huge challenge. In the Soviet world, they were expected to turn out works that glorified militancy, struggle and relentless optimism. In the West, freedom of expression was vaunted as liberal democracy's most cherished possession. But such freedom could carry a cost. This book documents the extraordinary energy of a secret campaign in which some of the most vocal exponents of intellectual freedom in the West became instruments - whether they knew it or not, whether they liked it or not - of America's secret service.

The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation

By Ian Cobain,

Book cover of The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation

Why this book?

Ian Cobain is an exceptional British investigative journalist and was on the staff of The Guardian and is now with Middle East Eye. This book is broader than the Cold War but is a brilliant analysis of how the state uses secrecy to hide the truth of how the public is governed. He has done some groundbreaking work on how Foreign Office’s Information Research Department methods have been incorporated into modern anti-terrorism techniques.

The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation

By Ian Cobain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The History Thieves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1889, the first Official Secrets Act was passed, creating offences of 'disclosure of information' and 'breach of official trust'. It limited and monitored what the public could, and should, be told. Since then a culture of secrecy has flourished. As successive governments have been selective about what they choose to share with the public, we have been left with a distorted and incomplete understanding not only of the workings of the state but of our nation's culture and its past.

In this important book, Ian Cobain offers a fresh appraisal of some of the key moments in British history…

Red Alert: The Novel that Inspired Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

By Peter Bryant,

Book cover of Red Alert: The Novel that Inspired Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Why this book?

Red Alert is a 1958 novel by a former RAF pilot called Peter George about nuclear war and was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick in the concept of his 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. George’s book is a great read and pretty grim but it is not comedic in any way. After playing around with storyboards for a film based on the book, Kubrick realised the only way to deal with the nuclear mindset was through satire. Inspired by Peter George Kubrick somehow got to the nub of the lunacy of the nuclear gamble.

This was three decades before I was able – using then declassified documents and interviews with the generals and policymakers only then just prepared to speak about Mutual Assured Destruction and the Doomsday machine for my documentaries and book in the mid-1990s. They revealed Kubrick, in Strangelove, far from being a joke, had got so much right. We all had a narrow escape. Kubrick sent me a message thanking me for my work. A highlight for my career and we can both thank Peter George.

Originally published in the UK as Two Hours to Doom, Peter George used the pseudonym "Peter Bryant" and it was published under that name.

Red Alert: The Novel that Inspired Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

By Peter Bryant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Red Alert as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The basis for Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove: A chilling Cold War thriller in which unchecked power unleashes total nuclear disaster.
 
Air Force Brigadier General Quinten is a dying man suffering from the paranoid delusion that he can make the world a better place by ordering a full-scale nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Receiving word of the attack already underway, the president of the United States and his advisors now must work frantically to stop it. The US bombers are to be shot down—but a lone bomber called the “Alabama Angel” escapes and flies on to complete its lunatic…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Cold War, freedom of speech, and nuclear holocaust?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Cold War, freedom of speech, and nuclear holocaust.

The Cold War Explore 160 books about the Cold War
Freedom Of Speech Explore 12 books about freedom of speech
Nuclear Holocaust Explore 6 books about nuclear holocaust

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Midnight in Chernobyl, KGB, and The Bomb if you like this list.