Revisiting the Original Cold War

The Original Cold War

A Review of The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today by Hal Brands

Review By Justin Kempf

A New Cold War

On May 1st, 1960 the Soviet Union shot down an American spy plane known as the U-2. The United States used the U-2 for aerial reconnaissance because it flew high enough to avoid Russian air defenses. The Eisenhower administration began the aerial reconnaissance, because the Soviet closed society made it difficult to assess their arms and military readiness. The Americans had long believed the Soviets had a significant advantage in the quantity of nuclear missiles. The aerial surveillance gradually began to dispel that myth within the American government even though the public still lacked this intelligence.

Nonetheless, the U-2 incident created a diplomatic crisis months before the 1960 presidential election. The aerial surveillance of the Soviet Union was highly classified so the American public was unaware of the operation’s existence. It raised concerns about nuclear war during a time of heightened tensions. It also undermined American credibility. But it also had a human element, because the pilot, Frances Gary Powers, survived and was captured by the Soviets.

The recent events surrounding the Chinese Spy Balloon share some parallels to this Cold War moment. However, as Mark Twain once said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.” This time the Americans are not the aggressors, but rather the aggrieved. Of course, the two incidents have many differences. Still, there are enough similarities for Americans to imagine China as their new Cold War adversary if they have not already. Many have said the Sino-American rivalry was a new type of Cold War for quite some time.

Revisiting the Original Cold War

Early last year Hal Brands provided a history for people to revisit the history of the Cold War. It’s called The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today. It’s not quite an authoritative text, because it leaves out many details. Rather Brands provides an easily accessible account for anyone who wants a strong overview of the period. Readers will find the book provides many details, but never gets lost in them. Brands provides a clear overview at all times tying different periods together through a thematic organization of the book.

Many foreign relations junkees have heard about many Cold War concepts such as containment or detente, but they rarely understand the context unless they lived through those years. Brands makes those ideas accessible, because he explains how those ideas evolved. He does a particularly strong job explaining the strategy of containment. He also explains how those ideas evolved over multiple presidential administrations. Readers will even recognize many Cold War legacies in present day politics that more experienced international relations scholars take for granted.

Still, some readers might find the book disappointing, because the subtitle implies a more direct connection to politics today. Brands does draw connections between Cold War history to present day rivalries with Russia and China in the introduction and conclusion, however the chapters in between do not mention current events. Instead, he allows the reader to make their own connections. As a growing chorus of writers begin to refer to the Sino-American rivalry as a new cold war, it’s important to know the basics about the original Cold War. We will find many parallels even though they will almost always be imperfect. Nonetheless, Brands provides an excellent primer for those who want to learn from the past and create a better future.

About the Reviewer

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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