The best books on the madness of the Cold War

The Books I Picked & Why

The Wizards of Armageddon

By Fred Kaplan

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. 


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Command and Control

By Eric Schlosser

Command and Control

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. 


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

By Frances Stonor Saunders

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. 


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

By Ian Cobain

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.


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

By Peter Bryant

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.


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