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Best Cold War Books

Five of the Best Books from and about the Cold War

During the Cold War, many people actually believed that communism as practiced by the Soviet Union, China and others could meet the economic and spiritual needs of the people.

In practice, communism did neither, but was able to generate vast prison systems. The Soviet Gulag became the best known of them, especially after Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn published The Gulag Archipelago, his literary history of the system and the huge numbers of men, women and child enslaved in it.

This stunning indictment of tyranny is also filled with fascinating details of daily life in camp systems so terrible and dangerous that inmates refined techniques to make themselves too ill to work.

For this great work, Solzhenitzyn was honored by his communist homeland with treason charges and exile to the United States.

the gulag

tinker tailor solider book

russia with love

from russia with love

Called the best spy novel ever written, with good reason, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first of John Le Carre’s Karla Trilogy (if you love this book as much as we do, you’ll be happy to have two more to read in the series.)

This is the Cold War and the spy game in black and white — not the moral issues, which are sometimes clouded, but the grim, slogging reality of counter-intelligence work and the cast of damaged characters the protagonist, tired British intelligence mastermind George Smiley, enlists in his battle against the KGB. International, bureaucrat and personal treachery are at the heart of this book.

If you’re interested in picture-perfect women, fast cards and grand casino scenes, this is not the Cold War spy novel for you (see below for those). If you enjoy getting to know complex, intriguing characters and watching them going down the rabbit hole, you can do no better.
From Russia with Love features James Bond, the fast-living and sexy Cold War superman who became the antithesis of more realistic intelligence professionals in the Le Carre books. No discussion of Cold War books would be complete without Bond, James Bond.

This early book in the series keeps Bond closer to the original image outlined by his author, himself a World War II intelligence officer with deep knowledge of the spy game. Unlike his representation in many of the later movies, the low-tech Bond is this book is a brutal killer, not a dandy.

To be sure, there is a beautiful woman involved. It’s said this was one of JFK’s favorite books. If you haven’t seen it, don’t miss the movie either.

the unbearable lightness

Unbearable lightness book

Chairman Maos little red book

The intersection of politics, sex and life is documented by Milan Kundera in his most celebrated work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Set against the background of Cold War Czechoslovakia and its 1968 uprising against communist and the Soviets, the book stands as a novel about the issues with which all people grapple. Yet the book also plumbs the historical context for some keen observations about Cold War communism.

The movie of the book was also well received.

During the Cold War, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book was carried by young people from communist guerrillas in the jungles of Southeast Asia to pampered students on the campuses of America’s Northeast.

While it contains some interesting perspectives on guerrilla warfare, most of the book is composed of communist jargon. To the extent these ideas influenced policy, they contributed to such catastrophes as the Great Leap Forward, in which millions starved, and the Cultural Revolution, when young extremists brandishing the book persecuted the old, educated and entrepreneurial.

So why is this on the list of best Cold War books? Aside from its historical importance, many leaders in today’s China praise the leadership of Mao. To understand his book is to get a sense of an important strain of modern Chinese thought.