Odd Arne Westad: On the Global Roots of the Cold War

Growing up in Norway, Odd Arne Westad lived on the frontier of the Cold War.

While the fjords and tundra of this Scandinavian nation may not evoke the iconic images of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie or the Korean peninsula’s demilitarized zone, for Westad, the S.T. Lee Professor of US-Asia Relations and Ash Center resident faculty affiliate, the Cold War was an omnipresent fact of life. “Norway was a kind of frontline state with regard to the Cold War,” says Westad.

Deeply anchored to the West, Norway nonetheless shared an Arctic Circle border with the Soviet Union along the country’s far north. Having actively resisted the Nazis during Germany’s brutal five-year occupation of Norway during World War II, the Norwegian Communist Party emerged from the war with a healthy degree of popular support. Yet, with the onset of the Cold War and Norway’s decision to join 11 other nations to found the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, the communists’ popularity eroded as tensions with Soviets escalated. Taking their ideological cues from Moscow, Norway’s communists lost much of their immediate post-war political appeal as the party was increasingly seen as a Soviet mouthpiece.

Arne Westad
Odd Arne Westad learning to ski as a young boy in Norway in 1964. Later that year, the Cold War heats up half a world away after U.S. Naval vessels were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam.

“The sense of this ideological divide that the majority of the population distrusted the communists and the Communist Party because they were seen as serving the Soviet Union and not serving our country, is something that I very much grew up with,” recalls Westad, whose latest book, The Cold War: A World History (Basic Books, 2017), was published this fall to critical acclaim. Westad’s newest work on the Cold War explores, as he puts it, “this sense of divides, this sense of splits. It is something that I took on board from my own upbringing, which pushed me towards wanting to know more about the Cold War on a global scale.”

Westad, whose earlier seminal work The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times won Columbia University’s prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2006, has long immersed himself in the historical legacy of the Cold War. While he readily acknowledges that the topic has been the subject of a great deal of scholarship, Westad argues that much of that writing lacks a cohesive narrative about the global scale and ideological roots of the Cold War. “What I tried to do in this book is to take some of that wonderful literature, and some research that I've done on my own, and put that together in an overall syncretic account.”

To help weave this new narrative together, Westad attempted to put the Cold War within a broader perspective of 20th-century international history. “I wanted to put it within a framework that looks at it in terms of how 20th-century history, really from the latter part of the 19th, developed first and foremost in terms of ideological divides.” To illustrate the point, The Cold War: A World History, does not begin with the standard retelling of the division of Germany after Hitler’s fall or the Berlin Airlift. Rather, the story’s roots lie in a conflict of ideologies dating back to the late 19th century. “In terms of the conflict between capitalism and socialism, that was there well before the United States and the Soviet Union became the predominant world powers after the Second World War.” For Westad, you cannot understand the Cold War without understanding the ideological origins of its protagonists.

 

"It was a battle for the future of the world'

 

 

While Westad drew from decades of existing Cold War scholarship, he also traveled the globe, digging into newly available archival materials. In many ways, his timing was fortuitous. “Only a few years ago it was really hard to get at some of the materials that I've been using for writing this book because they were still classified, they were still secret, or they were held in archives where there simply was no access whatsoever,” said Westad. Traveling twice to Egypt to undertake research for his book, he admits that he was “very lucky with the timing of this, it was just after the revolution against Mubarak. And there was some access to archives in Cairo that hadn't existed in the past. And from what I hear, do not exist today.”

Westad also spent significant time researching his book in India, a country rarely given more than a cursory glance in most retellings of the Cold War. On the surface, it is easy to see why the subcontinent would play such a seemingly minimal role in most accounts of the Cold War—with much of India and Pakistan’s early modern history consumed by the quest to shed the last vestiges of the British Raj. Nor are the partition in 1947 and subsequent regional conflicts between India and Pakistan often viewed through the historical prism of the Cold War because “in one sense it is a sort of anti-Cold War,” Westad suggests, referring to the fraught, 70-year relationship between these two South Asian powers. “Indian leaders did not like this bipolar approach that they felt was imposed on them. And seeing that with Indian documents is fascinating.”

Revised Cold War Book CoverWith its emphasis on the ideological genesis of the conflict and Westad’s use of newly available archival accounts, The Cold War: A World History is part of a reshaping of how this topic is being taught in classrooms the world over. Most traditional histories of the Cold War have emphasized military affairs and the two defining alliances of the conflict: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. For Westad, his hope is that this book is part of a broader, more contemporary view of the conflict, which comprises the economic, cultural, and political developments that have largely created the world we live in today.

Westad, as both a historian and teacher of the Cold War, marvels over how most of his students at HKS came of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “What's so interesting about teaching the Cold War today is that the new generation who've grown up... tend to think of it, understandably, very much in terms of how they understand international affairs today, which is very interest-based and oriented very much towards the state that they come out of.”

Whereas Westad’s youth in Norway was marked by the ceaseless ideological struggle and the ever-present threat of military conflict, his students today find it hard to understand the ideological intensity of the Cold War. For many students, “it's difficult to understand, I think, how high the stakes were and the kind of risks that people were willing to take during the Cold War in order to further their own positions.” While for most observers, the erosion of American military and political hegemony in the early 21st century marks a chaotic moment in international affairs, Westad cautions that in many ways “it pales in comparison to what the situation was when you had two nuclear superpowers coming up against each other—both willing to take exceptional risks with the future of the world in order to make sure that their ideological alternative came out on top.”

“It was,” as Westad reminds his students, “a battle for the future of the world.”