The Book of the Dead


Review of The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace, by Paul Thomas Chamberlin

New York: Harper Collins, 2018  


Eight minutes after midnight on February 14, 1979, the State Department’s overnight shift received an urgent message from Kabul. An hour earlier, four men dressed in police uniforms had kidnapped the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and were holding him at gunpoint in an upscale hotel. Diplomats and security officials rushed to the State Department, where they huddled in the seventh floor operations center, beginning preparations for a long hostage negotiation. But the resolution of the crisis was swift and brutal. Just four hours after the ambassador’s car was hijacked, Afghan police stormed the hotel room—against the pleas of embassy staff for patience—and killed the unidentified kidnappers in an exchange of gunfire lasting under a minute. The ambassador’s body was recovered with a fatal gunshot wound above his right eye (426-427).  

Adolph “Spike” Dubs was a 58-year-old Navy veteran who had seen combat in the Pacific and was posted in Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis. His homicide could be seen as a freak of fortune: after brushes with apocalyptic violence, he was killed in a bungled hostage rescue in a small country where the United States had no military footprint. He was the last U.S. ambassador killed in the Cold War, and would have retired a few years later in the glow of the end of history. From a certain point of view, his was a very strange death: a small tear in the fabric of a postwar peace, an anomaly in the more pacific transformations of American diplomacy after Vietnam.  

Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s new history of the Cold War puts this killing in a different light. Ambassador Dubs was a casualty of war—if not in a formal or legal sense, then as a matter of geopolitical reality. Rather than an aberration, his shooting affords an all too typical glimpse of a ghastly half-century of combat along the Asian frontier between liberal capitalism and revolutionary communism. In the forty-five years after the termination of World War II, twenty million people died in violent international conflicts and civil wars (19). Most of them were civilians, and their deaths followed a well-defined geography. The killing happened in wars with a close nexus to Cold War competition, and took place in an interconnected set of “bloodlands” that sprawled from Beirut in the west to Seoul and Pyongyang in the east, running through Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. What the historian John Lewis Gaddis famously called the “long peace” between the Soviet Union and the United States was, from the perspective of Asia’s southern tier, as bloody as the First World War.  

Chamberlin’s book is an ambitious work of synthesis, aiming to reorient the study of the late twentieth century around a narrative of violence that helps disclose the origins of our contemporary world disorder. When the Truman administration embarked on a global project of anti-communist “containment” in the late 1940s, it laid the foundation for liberal capitalism’s hegemony in Europe and the United States, but fueled the fires of postcolonial conflict elsewhere and ultimately “gutted the forces of moderate secular nationalism” in the Third World (562). The policies that stabilized the ideological confrontation over Berlin produced the opposite effect in other arenas of confrontation between the superpowers, driving cycles of violence and radicalization that did not vanish with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Middle East, in particular, lives in the shadow of the violent Cold War, but it is hardly alone. If the world of empires has been supplanted by a world of formally independent but sometimes “failed” states, much of the blame must fall with the superpower management of the Cold War.  

Chamberlin began researching the book in 2012. It was published last year. As he plumbed the depths of pre-1990 warfare, the cracks in the post-1991 system widened in ways that do not require a detailed rehearsal. The election of a U.S. leader under the banner of “America First” and French President Emanuel Macron’s remark that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had suffered “brain death” could serve as markers for the growing sense of derangement in the world order that emerged from the Cold War. This raises the stakes for a book that serves, implicitly at least, as a trenchant critique of American power. It is all the more timely for presenting a harsh evaluation of the U.S. role in the world at a moment when the American commitment to internationalist policies is more uncertain than at any point since the 1930s.  


“The wars of containment”  

Chamberlin begins by calling other historians to account for failing to recognize the “deadliest military theater of the Cold War age” (1-2). This contested territory, a wide crescent running from Manchuria to the Levant, yielded breathtaking human suffering: by Chamberlin’s reckoning, 70 percent of the battle deaths between 1945-1990, including 95 percent of Soviet casualties and virtually all of the American war dead since the end of World War II. Yet it goes virtually unmentioned in other histories, which he argues have either elided the question of violence or else have treated it piecemeal, without a larger organizing vision. “This book makes the case that it is time to move beyond regional and local histories of these terrible events to take a global view of mass violence during the Cold War era” (18).  

But Chamberlin’s most original contribution is precisely his departure from recent efforts to understand the Cold War in global terms. Indeed there is nothing new about taking the “global view” of this struggle. Odd Arne Westad’s penetrating 2006 study, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, is arguably more global than The Cold War’s Killing Fields, paying greater attention to African and Latin American dimensions of the story. Westad also gives a deeper sense of the parallels between U.S. and Russian perceptions of their global mission to modernize and redeem the world.  

Nor is it quite right to think of Chamberlin’s book as the leading scholarly qualification of Gaddis’s “long peace” framework. Heonik Kwon’s The Other Cold War is a masterful account of how societies were differentially shaped by the unevenly distributed violence of the years after 1945, and even without an overarching synthesis, historians of specific conflicts—the Korean War, for example—have hardly failed to notice their connection to the broader currents of the century.  

Nevertheless, Chamberlin’s work is different, and vitally important. His accomplishment is not to globalize Cold War history, but to ruthlessly strip away the details of secondary “theaters” and the nuances of superpower ideology in order to fix unapologetically on body counts. No one has done this in such a sustained way, and it yields a distinctive vision of the conflict. Thus the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, a watershed in the history of both the Eastern Bloc and the western mind, is dispensed with in less than a page, as a blip in a period marked by a “sharp drop in the overall level of global violence” (177). Havana and Guatemala City, Johannesburg and Prague also fall out of the picture: they did not produce enough fatalities to register as major centers of Cold War combat.  

In their place, Chamberlin pays more attention to the Chinese civil war, the Khmer Rouge, and the Iran-Iraq War. The Ur-texts of his analysis are not National Security Council reports or accounts of communist leadership struggles, but the best available aggregations of casualty estimates from the Conflict Data Program at Uppsala University and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Chamberlin’s attention tracks the worst violence as measured in absolute terms, not the leading preoccupations of any particular set of living actors. This is a book of the dead.  

The methodology of following the bodies yields two basic insights into the architecture of Cold War violence. First, it had a distinct shape. Mass death was heavily concentrated along the fluid, postcolonial contact zone between the capitalist world and the two major Communist states, China and the Soviet Union. This physical expanse had been identified as a coherent territory in the middle of World War II by the director of the Yale Institute of International Studies, Nicholas Spykman, who called it “the rimland,” and described it as “a vast buffer zone of conflict between sea power and land power” (44).  

In Spykman’s estimate, control over these territories by a sea power—like the United States or Britain—would permit that power to encircle and dominate the “heartlands” of Russia and Eastern Europe. Spykman’s rimland included much of the European subcontinent, but in Europe the heavily militarized and precisely demarcated national frontiers froze the superpower confrontation into a tense, but stable, standoff. Between Turkey and the eastern reaches of Asia, however, the collapse of formal and informal imperial power structures left room for open competition. And the paranoid, zero-sum logic that descended on the world capitals between 1945 and the start of the Korean War in 1950 militarized that competition, while also detaching it from any reasonably limited strategic aims. Vietnam or Afghanistan, if viewed through this lens, could take on almost incalculable significance, despite never having previously figured into the thinking of American diplomats. As Chamberlin puts it, “The horrors of the Second World War were over, but the wars of containment were just beginning” (46).  

The second, and perhaps the more interesting, feature of Chamberlin’s analysis is that Cold War killing had a temporal structure of its own, marked by three major “waves” of violence that do not perfectly correspond to existing narratives of the wider conflict. Chamberlin lets these waves shape his chronology, decisively downplaying some of the major episodes of superpower tensions (his index does not mention détente or the Bay of Pigs, for example) in order to pivot around successive bloodlettings between 1949-51, the early 1970s, and the mid-1980s. These waves began in northern China, swept south and west through Indonesia and South Asia, and culminated with an effort to instrumentalize Islam as a weapon of superpower struggle in a set of interconnected conflicts in the greater Middle East. As these waves crested and broke, the prospects of secular revolution rose and fell, and utopian socialism gave way to ethno-religious mobilizations.  

Mao Zedong’s Communist Party was in the cockpit of the first spike in violence, which Chamberlin calls the “East Asian Offensive.” Beginning with the Chinese Civil War and extending to Korea and Indochina, this offensive blended revolutionary socialist aspirations with the contested establishment of sovereign nations out of the Japanese and French empires. In 1945 and 1946 it seemed just barely possible that the long-simmering war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Chinese Communist Party could be papered over with some kind of political resolution. But what looked to Moscow and Washington like political differences were profound social ruptures, and civil war embroiled the Chinese countryside almost from the start. The violence was staggering. In 1949, Mao gave Stalin a progress report: “In three years of fighting, he boasted, the PLA had killed ‘5 million 590 thousand people.’ Mao estimated that no more than 500,000 GMD forces remained” (98). In the most populous nation in the world, a revolutionary party had wrested the initiative from both Moscow and Washington, and won a transformative victory. 

The Chinese Communist Party’s takeover demonstrated the potential of revolutionary violence to reshape Asia. Mao’s example electrified left-wing movements across the region, terrified Washington, and gave Moscow a partner and competitor. With Korean and Indochinese revolutions perched on the edge of reproducing Mao’s triumph, the Truman administration militarized its commitment to containment, propping up the French war in the south and pouring the full weight of American conventional arms into the Korean peninsula. Containment had been transformed from a watchful presence in Germany to the routine use of high-altitude strategic bombers against Korean cities. By 1954, millions had been killed to secure uneasy stalemates. One offensive was over, and its close brought a real and massive reduction in the scale of warfare. But the peace would not last long. By the early 1960s, a new wave of violence was cresting as communist revolution slipped further out of the control of either Moscow or Beijing.  

What Chamberlin labels the “Indo-Asian Bloodbaths of the Middle Cold War” (179) were far more complex and heterogeneous than the surge of revolution after 1945. This second wave of violence included the American phase of the war in Vietnam; the entanglement of Laos and Cambodia in that conflict, culminating in the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime; the decimation of the Indonesian left-wing in a wave of political massacres in 1965; and Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan in 1971. The period began with the loftiest aspirations for revolution and ended in a morass of sectarian and ethnic violence that “killed more than six million people” and “demolished global Communist solidarity” (356).  

In its place, there arose a third wave of killing, the “Great Sectarian Revolts of the Late Cold War” (362). These conflicts arose from the direct repudiation of the futures promised by capitalist and socialist modernization. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan produced the most prolonged peak in the series of post-1945 conflicts; a grinding series of battles that lasted the entire decade of the 1980s and planted the immediate seeds of post-1990 conflict. While the ideological oppositions of the 1950s collapsed in exhaustion, the strategies of containment and revolution lumbered on, fueling a final desultory round of proxy warfare that turned the lands from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan into a seedbed of future crises.  

This is a bold effort to tell the story of the violent Cold War in a single volume. Will its central contentions hold up? 

Chamberlin’s casualty-driven approach may be as contestable as it is novel. In the first place, measuring violence in absolute terms—rather than relative to population—tilts the analysis towards population centers in advance of any interpretive work. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this; a global history probably should be weighted, in part, towards the centers of human life. But when he uses these metrics to assert that the “fiercest” fighting took place along the borders of the communist powers, and that these were the places where the superpowers “felt the most vulnerable,” (7) the reliance on absolute numbers demands a heightened level of scrutiny.  

The massacres of leftists in 1965 Indonesia were a horrifying atrocity. But if 500,000 were killed, the death toll amounted to half a percent of the 1965 population of 100 million. Does this necessarily register a sharper or more desperate conflict than the Guatemalan civil war, which killed perhaps 200,000 in a nation of six million? Does the death toll in Bangladesh in 1971 index the relative intensity of the Cold War in the “southern tier”, or does it reflect the population of the Ganges Delta compared to Kenya, Algeria, or Central America? Did Americans feel more vulnerable in southern Asia than in the waters separating Miami from Cuba? Chamberlin’s claims are not hostage to any given comparison, but alternative mappings of Cold War violence are imaginable.  

What is at stake in these questions is the way we imagine the Cold War as a “central nervous system” (12, 569) linking apparently disparate conflicts around the world. To Chamberlin the “Cold War borderlands” were the places where “the United States deployed its containment strategies” and “the Soviet Union and its allies sought to breach a perceived capitalist encirclement” (7). At each point of contestation, the superpower conflict was entangled with local politics in complex ways. Chamberlin pays close attention to these variations, but still subsumes dozens of major and minor struggles under the banner of a single theater of war. Washington and Moscow were not necessarily the authors of these conflicts, but their resources and commitments made matters far worse than they might otherwise have been.  

Perhaps. But Chamberlin borrows the “central nervous system” metaphor from a 1996 essay by two historians, Charles Bright and Michael Geyer, who emphasized the difference between the systemic, centrally-directed wars of 1914-1945 and the endemic violence of the mid-nineteenth century. Bright and Geyer, surveying conflicts from the Taiping Rebellion to the nation-making wars of Prussia and the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, also steered attention to the shockingly violent underbelly of another “long peace”, that between Napoleon’s defeat and 1914. And they also found an arc of conflict running through the Eurasian landmass, focused on violent efforts to consolidate land empires from the Qing dynasty to the Habsburg domains. But this was an epoch of violence without a central nervous system, an example of permanent war without grand strategists. What broke the world out of this decentered pattern of killing was the consolidation of powerful centralizing states in Germany and the United States, whose twentieth century clashes would finally draw virtually all of the organized social energies of the globe into a single conflict.  

Chamberlin makes a powerful brief for seeing the Cold War as a unified whole, and the burden is certainly shifted by this work to scholars who would see the superpower conflict as more pacifying than not. The close overlap between the “wars of containment” and the terrain of mid-nineteenth century wars of land empires is suggestive, however, of a  longue durée story that might transcend the Cold War frameworks altogether, and that might operate without any “central nervous system” whatsoever.  


Reaping the Whirlwind 

Chamberlin’s last chapter covers the largest CIA covert operation of the era, the long effort to provide funds and high-tech weapons to the Islamist resistance against the Soviet army in Afghanistan. It ends with a paraphrase of the Prophet Hosea: “Having sown the wind on the battlefields of the Cold War, the United States would now reap the whirlwind” (555). The argument should be familiar to any American who followed the public debates of the early 2000s. From Chalmers Johnson’s bestselling Blowback to the Mike Nichols’ film Charlie Wilson’s War, Americans spent a good part of the George W. Bush administration chewing over the thesis that imperial hubris had provoked the kinds of resentment that—predictably, if not justifiably—had manifested over Manhattan and New York on September 11, 2001.  

In the early 2000s, this was a compelling critique. It was a call to modesty and reflection in a singularly unreflective moment, when a White House official could tell the journalist Ron Suskind that, “We’re an empire now. And when we act, we create our own reality.” Warnings about reaping the whirlwind—or chickens coming home to roost—resonated. In truth, these often carried little specific content, beyond the exhortation to act more cautiously: an injunction that a few years later became the Obama doctrine, “don’t do stupid shit.”  

The Book of Hosea was more specific. “[T]he workman made it; therefore it is not God: but the calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces. For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk; the bud shall yield no meal...” Hosea is a difficult text, full of sexualized images of Israel’s relationship to the divine and complex accounts of the political fortunes of the Jewish people. But the whirlwind is not hard to parse, as these things go: it is the empty harvest bought by idolatrous worship. It is starvation and death. The lesson is straightforward: adhere to the covenant. There is literally a written set of instructions to avoid reaping the whirlwind.  

The scholarship on modern warfare, alas, has not given us a covenant to which we can repair. Chamberlin’s account of the Cold War is sobering. And it is written as an exhortation: we must not whitewash a brutal past, must not ignore mistakes that killed millions of people within living memory, in a period that Americans and Europeans are tempted to remember as peaceful. It is not inapposite for him to borrow words from prophecy. Yet his story provides surprisingly few lessons with which to counsel the wise men and women of the rising generation of policymakers. Certainly, it demonstrates that violence is harder to contain than communism. Americans sowed the wind in Afghanistan and reaped the whirlwind. Along the arc of containment and crisis, however, few things turn out to be more consistent than the underdetermination of outcomes by the application of force.

At the start of the 2020s, some of the world’s most intractable conflicts exist as almost direct consequences of the conflicts in the Cold War’s killing fields. But at the same time, the State Department urges a higher level of caution for travelers in Mexico than in the former bloodlands of Cambodia or Vietnam. That subsequent generations were able to pick up the pieces does nothing to absolve Cold War era policymakers of their part in the atrocities of the past century, of course. But it points to an unsettling series of question marks at the end of the “American century.” Containment, as the most celebrated and consistently applied foreign policy approach of the last half century, helped accelerate ruinous conflicts that killed millions. It is not clear that we know how to do better in the present century. 


Posted on 12 February 2020

JOHN MCCALLUM is the Earl S. Johnson Instructor in History at the University of Chicago.