Accountants, Cartographers, and Systems Analysts, Oh My!

This essay is part of a forum on new histories of the Cold War. All contributions to the forum can be found here.

At this point, we know a lot about the Cold War.

In part, that has been the product of archival access. Across Eastern Europe, formerly communist states and ex-Soviet republics have flung open their archives, willing—indeed, eager—to share the closely-held secrets of the past. The passage of time, too, has brought mandatory declassifications and regular releases from national archives, foreign ministries, presidential libraries, and everything in between. Now, some three decades on, it is increasingly possible to write about the Cold War’s final phase based on a rich (and sizable) stack of international archival sources. That much is obvious if you take a look at current graduate students and newly-minted PhDs: the ‘80s are back in a big way!

Our frame of reference has also shifted, embracing a more capacious and global understanding of the Cold War. Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War, which appeared in 2005, left an indelible mark, shaping the field’s trajectory in obvious ways since its publication sixteen years ago.[1]

Perhaps, then, it ought not to be surprising that we now see a return to the fundamentals. In their own way, each of these three books takes us back to basics, challenging core assumptions about the Cold War and the devices that we employ to try to make sense of it. Paul Chamberlin tackles the assertion that a “long peace” defined the Cold War, inverting that narrative to trace an arc of violence across Asia, stretching from the Manchurian Plain to the Middle East.[2] Lorenz Lüthi’s Cold Wars, for its part, takes aim at the very notion of one, singular Cold War; it charts the various interrelated yet “distinctive regional incarnations” of the global Cold War, covering sub-systemic dimensions in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.[3] And, while Chamberlin and Lüthi cover decades, Kristina Spohr offers a deep dive into the critical years between 1989 and 1992, bringing together developments in Europe with those in the People’s Republic of China to shed light on their differences. “4 June 1989 came to mark a historic divide,” Spohr writes, “a fundamental divergence in exiting the Cold War.”[4]

None of these works are narrow in focus or—for that matter—in size. These histories are big, ambitious undertakings, traversing continents and sub-fields. Yet, for all their similarities, these historians’ approaches differ widely. In a recent review, the historian Jeffrey Engel likened Spohr’s method to that of an accountant: “detail is its hallmark,” Engel writes, lauding Spohr’s in-depth coverage across three continents.[5]

If Spohr’s approach resembles an accountant’s, Chamberlin’s is that of a cartographer. Guided by grisly numbers of combat deaths and civilian casualties, Chamberlin maps the “front lines of the Cold War.” Chamberlin’s front lines are not where we so often find them in histories of the Cold War—dividing Europe, separating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from the Warsaw Pact, each with their own portion of a divided Germany. Chamberlin instead charts a contiguous arc that connects Korea to Vietnam, Indonesia to Lebanon, and so on to propose a new, regional understanding of the Cold War and its violence. From the very outset, the numbers are striking. By the end of the first paragraph the numerical guides to Chamberlin’s mapping are clear: seven in ten people killed in violent conflict between 1945 and 1990 died within this arc. The United States and the Soviet Union poured foreign aid dollars into these lands, and it was here that the majority of Soviet and U.S. soldiers died in combat.[6]

Lüthi is a mapmaker of another sort, something akin to a systems analyst. Determined to restore agency to smaller and medium-sized players, Lüthi draws a complex chart of lines and nodes. We are taken into the dynamics of specific sub-sets of the system, whether in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia, and reminded of the connections between these different sub-systems.   Opening up the system in Europe, for instance, reveals a triangular core made up of the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, and Poland. Lüthi’s cast of characters, accordingly, is broad and varied, a clear reminder of something Cold War historians know, but all too often forget: the rivalry between Moscow and Washington did not produce all of the regional conflicts that unfolded in these years.

What is not covered tells us something, too. Large swaths of the globe receive scant attention in the pages of these works, with only passing mentions of events in subsaharan Africa, the Caribbean, or South America. That absence is not without logic. Paul Chamberlin, for instance, has noted elsewhere that neither Latin America nor Africa fit his evidence, guided as it was by the numbers. To include either, as Chamberlin himself put it, “would have regurgitated an essentially shapeless history of Cold War-era violence.”[7]

In what broader narratives of the global Cold War, then, might we situate these regions? Where would they fit if we as historians took up Lüthi’s call to consider the Cold War’s national and regional dimensions, as well as the “horizontal interconnections” between regions?[8]

And where might we place those whose geography defies popular regional classifications? Lüthi, for instance, makes liberal use of material from the National Archives of Australia and its Canadian counterpart, Library and Archives Canada. But neither fits comfortably in geographic terms, meaning that, in practice, Canberra and Ottawa appear far more in the notes than as part of the work’s focus on smaller powers’ policies and influence. (Neither Australia nor Canada even appears in the index.) This is not a shortcoming of Lüthi’s sweeping work, at least not as I see it. If anything, it underscores his broader, methodological call: “to decenter the Cold War in a systematic fashion, to move structural developments into the foreground, to restore middle powers and smaller actors to visibility, and to link events horizontally to each other (and not vertically to the great powers).”[9]

To read these three works in conversation, it is hard to escape the most basic questions about how we understand the Cold War, what we prioritize in our narratives, and where we fall in ever-popular debates about structure and agency. When we talk about the Cold War, what are we really trying to explain?


[1] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[2] On the “long peace,” see John Lewis Gaddis, “The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System,” International Security 10, no. 4 (1986): 99-142; John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[3] Lüthi, Cold Wars, 5.

[4] Spohr, Post-Wall, Post-Square, 583.

[5] Jeffrey A. Engel, “A Cold War Accounting,” Diplomatic History 45, no. 2 (2021): 386.

[6] Chamberlin, Cold War’s Killing Fields, 1.

[7] Paul Chamberlin author’s response, H-Diplo Roundtable XXI-8,

[8] Lüthi, Cold Wars, 1.

[9] Lüthi, Cold Wars, 3.

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About Susan Colbourn

Susan Colbourn is associate director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS), based at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. A diplomatic and international historian, she is the author of a forthcoming book, Euromissiles: A Transatlantic History (Cornell University Press, 2022), which explores the rise and fall of a nuclear arms race in Europe to show how it nearly destroyed the Atlantic Alliance – and why NATO narrowly escaped such a fate.

2 thoughts on “Accountants, Cartographers, and Systems Analysts, Oh My!

  • Isabel Campbell

    I really like this review and now want to read these works. New perspectives which allow us to see what we thought we knew in different ways.

  • Lorenz Luthi

    Thank you for this generous review. It was fun to write the book, but also painful to make choices what to include and what to leave out. I decided early on not to write an encyclopedic book (even if I would have written one, I could not have included everything), but one that was argument-driven. I was particularly interested in connecting world regions to each other and think about other narratives than the Cold War story, and how they intersect with each other. And my goal was to start a conversation, which, as this blog attest, I seem to have achieved. Thank you again.

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