BOOK REVIEW / A historian coming in from the cold: 'The Cold War' - Martin Walker: Fourth Estate, 18.99 pounds

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AS A respected newspaper correspondent in Moscow and now Washington, and an exact contemporary - as he notes in his preface - of the Cold War, Martin Walker would seem an excellent bet to write the authoritative chronicle of that now-closed chapter of history. Through the 400 pages of this volume, however, one senses he tired of the huge task before him.

The result is a thorough, closely written history book that earns the dreaded description 'workmanlike'. It recounts, by and large accurately, the vicissitudes of East- West relations since the end of the Second World War, from Yalta, through the Marshall Plan, the proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the arms race, disarmament deals and successive superpower summits, up to the dissolution of the Soviet empire. The book also has the merit of being one of the first accounts - perhaps the first published in English - to chronicle the Cold War from start to finish.

The reading, however, is far from easy, lacking the liveliness and spark that usually characterise Walker's writing. There is little hint of either the passion invested in the Cold War by the combatants or the drama with which it ended. Nor is there much sense that Walker was an eyewitness to many of the events he describes: just fact after fact and a sprinkling of the more apposite quotations of the period.

What the book lacks above all is an overall argument, a 'big idea' to sustain the narrative to its conclusion. The Cold War is one of those phenomena - perhaps because its memory is so recent, perhaps because some of its excesses now seem so unnecessary - that invites big questions: why did it start, why did it escalate, why did it end? Yet from Walker we learn little more than what happened and when. The great historical whys are hardly addressed.

There is a glance towards the views of George Kennan - author of The Policy of Containment - here, a few examples of international misunderstandings there, and a concluding chapter tantalisingly called 'Transcending the nation state', but this does little more than call on the West to show 'magnanimity in victory' towards Russia.

Given that this is one of the first histories of the Cold War, it could be argued that we need to get our facts straight before playing around with 'big ideas', but textbook- writing is surely a waste of this writer's talents. And while getting in before anyone else has its merits, it has a cost. There are several unfortunate misprints, and two chapters are peppered with misspelt names.

More important, Walker never defines the limits of his subject, and the narrative seems unnecessarily prolix as a result. The cover blurb may say that 'the history of the Cold War has been the history of the world since 1945', but that statement, in common with some of Walker's own sweeping generalisations, is surely questionable.

To this lack of definition should be added a further failing that may help to account for many of the others. Hovering between the lines of this book is the germ of a highly contentious 'big idea': that East and West were equally misguided and behaved equally badly; the idea, in other words, of 'moral equivalence'. So contentious is this idea that Walker at one point denies that this is his view. Yet it is implicit in much of what he writes.

Take just one example: 'The building of the Berlin Wall was a shaming event . . . but the Soviets also had some moral arguments on their side.' Or an account of Soviet treatment of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland which is followed by regret that 'a long and partially successful peace offensive from Moscow was ruined by the sight of a great power . . . sending its troops into the territory of a small neighbour'. And, whether Walker likes it or not, the Cold War did have its victors and its vanquished.

Moral equivalence is an uncomfortable fence for a historian to straddle, and I look forward to the account of the Cold War that casts such caution to the winds.