Atomic bombs. U-2 spy planes. The Berlin Wall. Bay of Pigs. Cuban Missile Crisis. CIA. KGB. NATO. Space race. Great Leap Forward. Duck and cover. Massive retaliation. Mutually assured destruction. Assassinations. Blockades. Revolutions. And they called this a cold war?

It’s been 25 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when what had seemed like a permanent state of tension between it and the U.S. ended quietly, without the military confrontation and nuclear annihilation long feared.

Unprecedented access to Soviet archives, first-person interviews, and the benefit of a quarter-century of analysis have produced a number of nonfiction titles, all publishing in this anniversary year. These include autobiographies of Soviet assassins and critiques of Communist economic theory, as well as a memoir by John le Carré, our preeminent spy novelist; all in all, interest in the Cold War is heating up.

Secrets and Spies

Code Warriors

Stephen Budiansky, Knopf, out now

Those who only know the NSA as the government office that reads their email may be interested in its storied past. With roots in the WWII cryptanalysis unit assigned to decipher enemy communications, the agency was officially designated in 1952, though it was so top secret that it was colloquially known in the U.S. intelligence community as “no such agency.” Budiansky, national-security correspondent and foreign editor of U.S. News & World Report, examines the history of the agency and its work during the Cold War.

The Pigeon Tunnel

John le Carré, Viking, Sept.

Espionage, a vocation dependent on nondisclosure, has nonetheless produced many writers, among them Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Frederick Forsyth, and Roald Dahl. One of the most celebrated is le Carré, whose many books include Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; and now, with this memoir, his first full-length work of nonfiction. In it he discusses many of the experiences that informed his fiction, including his service in British intelligence during the Cold War. Born David John Moore Cornwell, he adopted the pseudonym because Foreign Office regulations prohibited his publishing under his given name.

True Believer

Kati Marton, Simon & Schuster, Sept.

Journalist Marton investigates the life of Noel Field, a U.S. State Department employee, Communist sympathizer, and spy for the Soviets in the 1930s. In 1949 Field was kidnapped, arrested, and tortured by the KGB, so that he could be positioned as an American spymaster in show trials of Communist functionaries in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Hungary. Despite his harsh treatment, as well as that of his wife, brother, and adopted daughter, who were also interrogated and imprisoned, Field remained an unrepentant admirer of Communism.

Stalin’s Englishman

Andrew Lownie, St. Martin’s, Oct.

Literary agent and biographer Lownie focuses on Guy Burgess, one of the moles of the Cambridge Spy Ring that devastated MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency. Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt were recruited at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s, and all, except for Blunt, eventually defected to the Soviet Union.

As surprising as it was that these sons of privilege betrayed king and country, Burgess seemed the most improbable as a spy. Perpetually drunk and flagrantly promiscuous, he offended both those he spied upon and those he spied for. Still, he turned over so many secret documents to his KGB controller that Stalin suspected him of being a double agent. Burgess died in 1963, embittered and besotted in his concrete Soviet apartment, longing to return to the country he’d forsaken.

The Doomsday Machine

Daniel Ellsberg, Bloomsbury Press, Mar. 2017

Ellsberg, whose leak of the classified Pentagon Papers prompted the Watergate break-in and the eventual downfall of the Nixon presidency, discloses another trove of top secret documents from that era, in a memoir recalling his work as a nuclear strategist. He reveals the operational plans of the U.S. nuclear-weapons program of the 1960s, the blueprints for atomic warfare. Dating from a time when a nuclear war was considered winnable, even as global fatalities were assumed to reach at least 600 million, these files are a sobering reminder of the Cold War–era outlook.

The Assassinations

How the CIA Killed Che

Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith, Skyhorse, Oct.

Civil rights attorneys Ratner and Smith trace the journey of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, from medical doctor to Marxist rebel, from motorcyclist vagabond to “Castro’s brain,” from creating the Soviet-Cuban relationship and facilitating the Cuban Missile Crisis to assisting failed revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia, with particular focus on Che’s final days, when he was captured in Bolivia and executed on Oct. 9, 1967, by CIA-backed soldiers. The authors use cables and internal government files to argue their claim of direct U.S. approval for the execution.

Trained to Kill Castro

Antonio Veciana and Carlos Harrison, Skyhorse, Nov.

The CIA’s strategies to deal with Cuban leader Fidel Castro ranged from the ridiculous—contaminating his clothing to make his beard fall out, or dosing him with LSD before a televised speech—to the deadly. Cuban exile Veciana, with coauthor Harrison, recounts his transition from accountant to founder of the anti-Castro paramilitary group Alpha 66, which included being the architect of several assassination attempts on Castro’s life, all under the aegis of the CIA.

The Man with the Poison Gun

Serhii Plokhy, Basic, Dec.

Perhaps the most intriguing characters of the Cold War are the Soviet assassins who lived falsified, ordinary lives in foreign cities until called to strike by their handlers in Moscow. Historian Plokhy writes of one such agent, Bogdan Stashinsky, who was trained by the KGB and stationed in East Germany. In 1957 and 1959, he received direct orders from the top of the KGB to assassinate two leaders of the Ukrainian independence movement with an atomized cyanide mist gun, whose effects mimic a heart attack.

A few months before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, he defected to the West at the urging of his wife. Stashinsky was put on trial for the murders in October 1962. The court assigned most of the blame on his KGB superior, and he served four years of an eight-year sentence. His trial exposed to the world the methods in the KGB.

The Wider Conflict

The Frozen Chosen

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, Osprey, July

For 17 days, from Nov. 27 to Dec. 13, 1950, U.S. troops numbering just 20,000 battled a 200,000-strong force of Chinese soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, in the coldest blizzard conditions there in a century. Temperatures of -50° F froze men in their foxholes and rendered medical supplies useless; medics carried morphine ampoules in their mouths to keep them thawed.

The U.S. Marine Corps considers the breakout—not a retreat, but an “advance in a different direction” as Maj. Gen. O.P. Smith called it—one of its greatest triumphs. Seventeen Medals of Honor were awarded in the battle. Interviews with surviving Marines, who named themselves the Frozen Chosen, inform Cleaver’s story.

Moscow Nights

Nigel Cliff, Harper, Sept.

A pianist seems an unlikely Cold Warrior, but the East-West rivalry was fought on many fronts. In 1958, 23-year-old piano prodigy Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn’s performance in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow shocked the Soviet Union, which had already selected a Russian winner. The audience gave Cliburn an eight-minute standing ovation, and the judges apprehensively asked Soviet Premier Khrushchev for permission to award him the victory. “Is he the best? Then give him the prize!” A sudden hero to both Russians and Americans—a Time magazine cover labeled him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia”—he received a New York City ticker tape parade, the only time a classical musician has been so honored.


Simon Hall, Pegasus, Sept.

Hall, a historian at the University of Leeds, details how 1956 was a landmark year for East-West relations. Among the highlighted events: Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two members of the Cambridge Spy Ring, publicly revealed their defections to Moscow; Khrushchev’s gave his secret anti-Stalin “cult of personality” speech and also warned the West, “We will bury you”; the U.S. began flying U-2 spy planes over the U.S.S.R.; the Suez Crisis led to an invasion of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel; and labor riots in Poland and a revolution in Hungary were violently crushed by Soviet troops.

Blood and Sand

Alex von Tunzelmann, Harper, Oct.

On Oct. 24, 1956, the Soviet Union moved to crush a revolt against the Stalinist Hungarian government. Five days later, Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, with military support from Britain and France. Tunzelmann, whose “Reel History” column in the Guardian fact-checks historical films, examines these two pivotal international events from 1956, which signaled the end of European colonialism in the Arab nations and the expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The Tunnels

Greg Mitchell, Crown, Oct.

The Berlin Wall, a physical and symbolic barrier between East and West, stood for 28 years. But within a year of its 1961 construction, West Germans were tunneling under it to free their former countrymen.

If digging escape tunnels under the nose of the East German Stasi seems improbable, even wilder is the fact that NBC and CBS both financed such projects, intending to broadcast the escapes in prime time. Mitchell tells the stories of West German tunnelers, Americans trapped behind the wall, Stasi informants, television executives, and the Kennedy administration politicians who quashed the films to defuse Cold War tensions.

Lessons from the Past

The Invention of Russia

Arkady Ostrovsky, Viking, out now

The Soviet Union was officially dissolved on Dec. 26, 1991, but Russia today, as Ostrovsky details, can sometimes feel like an echo of the Socialist republics. Annexation of and armed conflict with former Soviet states, rule by a single individual with absolute power, state manipulation of the media, assassinations of dissenters, a resurgence of the Communist Party, public nostalgia for Stalin, the restoration of Soviet symbolism, and increasing tensions with the United States all evoke a Cold War mentality. Ostrovsky, Russia and Eastern Europe correspondent for the Economist, chronicles Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Archaeology of the Cold War

Todd A. Hanson, Univ. Press of Florida, July

Though the Cold War left no battle scars on U.S. soil in the traditional sense (think Yorktown or Gettysburg), the American battlefields of the Cold War may be understood to be the atomic bomb testing grounds in Nevada, the ICBM silos of the Midwest, the naval graveyard of the Bikini Atoll, and the fallout shelters that promised an illusory survival of nuclear apocalypse. Hanson, an anthropologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, studies the Cold War cultural heritage to be found in these physical sites, in technologies originally developed for the space race, such as cordless tools and smoke detectors, and in the living history of atomic veterans.

From Washington to Moscow

Louis Sell, Duke Univ., Aug.

Sell, a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Department of State for 27 years, traces the changing fortunes of the Soviet Union, from the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement in 1972—the moment when the U.S.S.R. was said to have achieved parity with the U.S.—to its rapid dissolution in 1991. America’s greatest foe was no more, an almost unthinkable development for all observers. What caused the collapse, and what would rise from the ashes? The author draws on Russian sources and his extensive State Department career to answer.

The United States and Cuba

Francisco López Segrera, Rowman & Littlefield, Sept.

From initial dreams of annexation—Thomas Jefferson called Cuba “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States”—to the confrontations of the Cold War era, the relationship between the island nation and the United States has always been complicated. In 2015, after 55 years of estrangement, the two countries restored diplomatic ties. Segrera, an expert in international relations who has been a guest professor at more than 50 universities in 30 countries, follows the shared history between the U.S. and Cuba and offers advice on establishing a permanent, peaceful coexistence.

Why Cold War Again?

Stephen F. Cohen, I.B. Tauris, Oct.

Though U.S.-Russia relations improved after the Cold War, Cohen, a professor of Russian studies and history at New York University and emeritus professor of politics at Princeton, fears that they are in a state of decline. He posits that the reaction to the war in Ukraine is only the latest in a series of political miscalculations and broken promises by the U.S.-led West since the disintegration of the U.S.S.R., which threaten to return attitudes to those earlier discordant times.

In Wartime

Tim Judah, Crown/Duggan, Oct.

If anyone thought Ukraine had left behind the scourge of war, that misperception was put to rest in March 2014 by the sudden Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent battles between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists. Tim Judah, a reporter and political analyst for the Economist, explores the country ravaged by combat, including the historic Lychakiv cemetery where Ukraine inters its fallen warriors, and the unlikely tourist destination of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy

Chris Miller, Univ. of North Carolina, Dec.

The U.S.S.R. lasted over 70 years, through a world war, famines, purges, and all manner of conflicts, only to collapse in 1991 due to economics. According to Miller, a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy and the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika ultimately failed to sustain the Soviet system. Miller shows how Gorbachev was unable to replicate the market-oriented economic reforms that China, also a Communist state, began adopting in the late 1970s.

Redefining Science

Paul Rubinson, Univ. of Massachusetts, Dec.

The greatest threats to humanity were not created by warriors, but by scientists. “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, physicist, famously quoted from the Bhagavad Gita when reflecting on the Trinity atomic bomb test of July 16, 1945. The Cold War, with its focused attention on ever-more-destructive weapons in the nuclear arsenal, created a moral conflict within scientific endeavor. The notion of a common good that science should strive toward, historian Rubinson writes, was subjugated to ideals of nationalism and the patronage of the military-industrial complex.

Allen Appel IV is a writer and book reviewer who lives in Maryland.