When two tribes almost went to war.

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A review of Taylor Downing's account of the endgame of the Cold War focussing on the events of a single pivotal year.

Submitted: July 04, 2019

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Submitted: July 04, 2019



In the late 1980's on a school exchange trip I visited the border between what was then East and West Germany. It was a strange and unsettling place with its watchtowers and barbed wire; weed choked no-man’s land and, on the other side of that the skyline of an East German town like a line in greasy grey crayon drawn along the horizon.


Even to the limited understanding it seemed like madness that such a place even existed. A perfect illustration, as Wilfred Owen might have had it, of what happens when nations trek from reason.


In this remarkable work of history Taylor Downing masters a bewildering range of sources to show how close humanity came to blowing itself to kingdom come just under forty years ago.


He starts with the election of Ronald Regan in November 1980 as president of an America that seemed to have lost confidence in its role as leader of the free world in the wake of the humiliation of Vietnam. Ending with the fall of the Iron Curtain a decade later leaving the U.S the last superpower standing.


He does so by focusing on 1983, the year when, to borrow a tag line from countless trashy thrillers of the era, the Cold War looked like it was 'about to turn hot'.


Using a single year as the hinge on which to hang history can often be a rather clumsy device, here though it works magnificently. Not least because 1983 was a year packed with incidents, from the death of Brezhnev to the bombing of the U.S embassy in Beirut, any one of which could have been the flashpoint that set the whole world on fire.


So relentless is the parade of crises that at times this reads like a Frederick Forsyth novel that has somehow sneaked into the history section of the library. Except that any one of the cliff hangers presented here really could have ended with the white flash of a nuclear explosion.


Although unlike the doyenne of the airport thriller Taylor Downing shows a highly developed understanding of the inner lives of the characters he is dealing with. This matters hugely since the fate of humanity did, at crucial moments during that troubled year, depend on what was going on in the heads of the men holding power in Washington and Moscow.


Both men, Regan the archetypal American optimist and Andropov the plodding Kremlin bureaucrat, were products of their native cultures entirely convinced that their system was right and the other wrong. In public they talked, respectively, about the ‘evil empire’ and the ‘class enemy’; in private Regan was haunted by the prospect of nuclear Armageddon and Andropov was all too aware that for all his absolute power as ruler if the USSR he was defending a castle made of sand.


The hinge factors were ultimately Regan’s pragmatism in tempering his rhetoric when a more capable leader entered the arena in the shape of Mikhail Gorbachev, making negotiation and even cautious friendship between implacable enemies possible. For his part Gorbachev was both less frail and paranoid than his predecessors, capable of seeing a future without the shadow of the bomb. Although not quite how quickly the Soviet empire would dissolve once it was lifted.


This is a work of history that both fascinates and frightens its readers in equal measure, a testament to the endless human capacity for flirting with out own destruction. A point that comes over even more strongly in our own nervous times.


The parallels are truly alarming, rising tensions between East and West, leaders given to playing to the gallery of public opinion by making inflammatory statements and in the background the sound of swords being rattled. Let us hope that when our present becomes the next generation’s past there is someone half as good as Taylor Downing around to write a book about how we avoided doing something we might not live to regret.


1983: The World at the Brink

Taylor Downing

(Abacus, 2019)


© Copyright 2019 A W Colclough. All rights reserved.

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