Book Review: A Military History of the Cold War, 1962–1991


by Jonathan M. House

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2022. Pp. xiv, 450. Maps, table, notes, biblio., index. $29.95 paper. ISBN: 0806187042

War in the Shadow of Doomsday

Older readers of this review will have spent decades in the Cold War's shadow, with most of us located on the civilian periphery. So, it is safe to say that we 1962-1991 shadow-dwellers never actually knew all that was really going on.

But we did get one big thing: that is, a direct face-off between us and our ideological enemy, the Soviet Union, was A VERY BAD IDEA!! Such an apocalyptic slugfest was likely to end in an awesome atomic exchange, which guaranteed Mutually Assured the very least.

In this sequel to his survey of the first years of the Cold War, Professor Jonathan House clears away the fog covering a lot we never understood back then. He begins by carefully and clearly explaining the defense specifics behind the convoluted global struggles of the period.

The author extends his first chronological compendium, A Military History of the Cold War 1945-1962, right into the finale -- the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. He comprehensively presents the welter of wars sponsored, instigated, supplied, encouraged, threatened, intervened in, and even fought -- or occasionally ignored -- by the two nuke-gloved heavyweights.

House explains that the intent of his survey is twofold: "First, an operational-level account of military forces and conflicts helps explain the more significant developments of the period...Second, this entire quasi-war and limited conflict period is a complex case study in the relationship of policy and military force." He also points out that far more sources are helpfully available nowadays than at the time, particularly from the non-Western point of view.

Halftime. The author begins with a presentation of "Opposing Forces at Halftime" in 1962 (although he slips back a bit to explore 1960 and 1961). This date was chosen as a natural reboot after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest that the U.S. and USSR ever came to deliberate homeland assaults on one another.

In the following years, the Soviets decided to embark on a strenuous conventional and nuclear build-up. This growing military might severely challenged the coping abilities of the United States and its allies.

House's first chapter thoroughly reviews the status of the two sets of armed forces. First, he itemizes the NATO and Warsaw Pact ground strength (27 heavy divisions vs. 140 total -- one-third of which were skeletal reserves), then moves on to their respective naval and air fleets.

He also summarizes the nuclear configurations, the command and control structures, the intelligence communities, and even the civil-military relations. One thing is evident: the potent Soviet military posture in Europe was not to be underestimated. (It would have been quite interesting if the author had chosen to assess whether or not Moscow's ambitious plans to overrun Western Europe -- and NATO's complicated strategy to resist -- were even viable. Professor House, however, does not spend time on such speculation.)

Third Quarter. The following chapters feature the intense local struggles of the era: "Post-Colonial Africa (1960-1988)"; "Latin America (1960-1988)"; and "South Asian Rimlands (1958 - 1975)". Two extensive chapters on the "Second Indochina War" follow, detailing America's messy entanglement with the resourceful North Vietnamese and the many other actors in the conflict.

To conclude the regional round-up, the author jumps across the world to "Sideshow in the Levant: The Arab-Israeli Conflicts, 1967-2000". (The latter splashes out of the temporal bucket House initially set up, but such spillage appears necessary in this instance.)

Because House organizes these conflicts chronologically and because he attempts to emphasize Amero-Soviet involvement, there is inevitably overlap and repetition, but nothing too bothersome.

The eight chapters that follow are not geographically oriented. Instead, they deal with aspects of these swirling, confusing decades that are much broader than straightforward contact warfare.

These chapters, for this reader, formed the most interesting part of the book: "Civil Defense and Civil Disorders"; "Detente and Neglect 1969-1979"; "The Year of Disasters --1979-1980"; "American Renewal"; "Schadenfreude for the Soviets"; "Weapons of Mass Destruction"; "Conflict in the 1980s"; and, of course, "The End" -- i.e., the complicated unraveling of the USSR, which essentially finalized the First Cold War.

These concluding sections survey a vast range of topics. To take just some examples, the author reviews the political missteps, the swings in national mood, the vicious religious clashes, the stagnant economies, the technological leaps, the societal unrest, the missile treaties, the proliferation of terrorism, and the numerous insurrections -- as well as all the ways that such factors intersected with Soviet and American defense concerns.

Many aspects of this period's military history only touch indirectly on the superpowers' hands-on involvement and maneuvers. It wasn't all about them. Yes, Washington and Moscow could control many allies, but only sometimes. Proxies were not necessarily pawns; in fact, they often manipulated the big boys. Their governments would routinely mouth proper platitudes of Marxism or liberal democracy whenever convenient. Certain local conflicts, such as those between India and Pakistan, merely glanced off American or Soviet interests (while heavily employing their weaponry).

Major Misunderstandings. House makes a frightening point. The author emphasizes that "Adversarial states could misunderstand each other in potentially lethal ways." Intelligence services, in particular, could impose their myopic worldviews and paranoia on top national leadership.

The knock-on effects of the "Star Wars" program undertaken during the Reagan presidency were a glaring example of this tendency. (OMG! Its 40th anniversary is now upon us!). This was the facetious nickname for the costly Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which POTUS Reagan bombastically announced in a March 1983 speech, would "block all incoming nuclear missiles"-- an impossible performance standard, then or now.

Yet, encouraged by their intelligence apparatus, Soviet leaders perceived the SDI as a viable pathway to an American "first-strike" capability. They concluded that, if this science-fiction system worked as Reagan boasted, the deterrent of mutually assured destruction would suddenly become void because their enemies could now shield themselves from a kinetic reaction.

Consequently, Moscow nervously fixated on the possibility of a U.S. surprise attack, which in turn compressed the time needed to evaluate anything that resembled a threat.

After the speech, 1983 turned into a perilous year. On September 1st, an innocent Korean airliner strayed into Soviet airspace and was rapidly downed after being misidentified as hostile. A few weeks later, Russian satellites mistakenly registered a launch of five US ICBMs, and nuclear response systems prepared to swing into action.

Very fortunately, a doubting duty officer kept his head, and he finally convinced his scared superiors that this "first strike" was a false alarm. Nevertheless, in November, the Chief of the General Staff initially considered a routine NATO drill ("Able Archer") a genuine preparation for war.

Sharp Elbows. The potential disruption of "Star Wars" was another sharp elbow into the USSR's ribs, spotlighting the reality that it was falling behind technologically, particularly in the computing sciences. The author points out that these technological breakthroughs "had been developing quietly during the 1970s and were ready for fielding." Some even appeared commercially, such as personal computers.

By the mid-to-late 1980s, these advances had inspired developments in warfare -- i.e., improvements like better satellite intelligence (e.g., GPS), as well as superior battlespace surveillance, precision-guided munitions, anti-missile defenses, fine-tuned command and control, modern UAVs, and so on. Undeniably, these innovations were beginning to enhance the West's land, air, and sea capabilities.

The author also relates how the new advantages ultimately influenced operational doctrines and strategies during the American military's long post-Vietnam recovery. In 1991 the US's whiz-bang victory over Iraq's mostly Soviet-armed and -modeled Iraqi army and air force demonstrated how impressive that healing process had been.

The End. By this time, it had taken about six years for the Soviet Union to slip-slide from superpower status to near-bankruptcy and political dissolution. As House succinctly puts it: "The full story of the collapse exceeds the scope of a purely military study."

Indeed it does, but the enormous burden of this global military competition could not be forever shouldered by a rigid command economy, especially one functioning at a fraction of its opponent's. Such a profound weakness was undoubtedly a major factor behind the final curtain falling on the First Cold War.

(Although there are those in Russia, it is said, that refuse to accept history's verdict to this very day.)

So Many Conflicts, So Little Time: Professor House's book is commendably comprehensive, particularly in light of the sheer sweep of armed struggles he considers during these complex decades. The author even ends his compendium with a four-page chart enumerating the era's insurgencies, great and small. On it, he categorizes rebel motives, supporters, sanctuaries, counter-insurgency adversaries, and outcomes.

The author is an industrious researcher, especially given the limitations of some foreign sourcing. The bibliography is a hefty 27 pages long. His footnotes are sufficient, but the index can be a bit thin. (For example, there is no mention of uber-diplomat George Kennan's "Containment" policy, which still governed the American approach to the USSR in this period...although, in fairness, the topic was likely discussed in his first volume.) On the other hand, the index makes locating specific units easy.

I only noted a few factual errors. Those that I came across were minor: for example, Iran never had the chance to acquire F-15s or F-16s. (p. 255). Also, M-14 and M-15 rifles were around before the AK-74 (p.291). But this is nitpicking.

House's presentations of the dynamics of specific battles and operations are always concise, clear, and balanced. If he falls into any school in Cold War historiography, it is that of the Post-Revisionists, who do not point fingers at either side as older assemblies of scholars tended to do. Instead, this group prefers realism to ideology, insisting that complex, multilayered factors must always be considered before judgment.

As mentioned, House carefully identifies units involved, their organization, equipment, missions, and, frequently, their commanders. This book's utility to military historians and serious students is undeniable.

A broadly published historian, Professor Jonathan M. House currently teaches military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

This book concludes his two-part study of the Cold War, which he believes began in 1944. It is also Volume 70 of the "Campaigns and Commanders" series at the University of Omaha Press. (It should be noted that the Press's efforts to recognize more inclusive military history have won numerous awards.)


Our Reviewer: A former naval officer, Richard Jupa was a senior finance editor at a major credit rating agency for more than two decades. He is also the co-author of Gulf Wars, on the 1991-1992 Gulf War, and has published over a dozen articles on contemporary conflicts. His previous reviews include Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning, Pioneers of Irregular Warfare, Mars Adapting: Military Change During War, A Short History of War, Ancient Greeks at War: Warfare in the Classical World, from Agamemnon to Alexander, Dreadnoughts and Super-Dreadnoughts, and The Roman Empire in Crisis, 248-260


NOTE: There is an ever-growing library available to those who wish to burrow into the intricacies of the Cold War period. For instance, NYMAS itself has expanded its archive, which includes an Early Cold War bibliography, at,



Note: A Military History of the Cold War is also available in hard cover and e-editions


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Richard Jupa   

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