I want to be accurately informed. How?
January 3, 2014 9:40 PM   Subscribe

I recently came upon the work of Noam Chomsky and it opened up a whole new world of information and ways of seeing the world. How can I become more informed about our world's recent history and be accurate about it?

I want to be accurately informed on the last 50-100 years of world history, especially as it relates to the global superpowers, what their motivations actually were, how their motivations affected public policy and actions such as war, and what the logical outcome has been for today as all of these different mindsets have played their roles in the past century.

I know there's a ton of writing on this- I was recently introduced to Noam Chomsky and others, and while he sounds very sensible and I generally agree with his sensibilities (I think), the amount of material it covers makes it impossible for me to really know for sure whether or not he is accurate in his sentiments. I'm not saying that he doesn't know- I'm asking, how can I know?

I don't have the time to read the entirety of world history to fact-check everything- I suppose I just want to know what you guys think is the best way to become informed in the most unbiased way possible. I know I shouldn't latch onto figureheads- people are right about some things and wrong about others. So I'd rather detach my learning from the figureheads and simply use them as teachers.

I have no political affiliations except those that, in the end, increase human well-being.

Thanks guys!
posted by drd to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Some good pro and con-Chomsky arguments here.
posted by lukemeister at 9:59 PM on January 3, 2014

I think you might want to go into metacognition and look into critical thinking resources. They will teach you skills to evaluate the information you encounter rather than swallowing ideologies/information whole. Here is a brief two page primer There are a lot more out there for you to evaluate.
posted by saucysault at 10:14 PM on January 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

A good first step is to seek out news from non-US sources, since our media our quite myopic and unconcerned about anything deemed to be not of interest to the consumer. That doesn't directly address history, but it will give you leads. Look at, for example, the BBC world service, which has given detailed coverage to things like events in Africa that are just absolutely ignored by CNN or Fox.
posted by thelonius at 10:28 PM on January 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I highly recommend A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
posted by Jairus at 10:32 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

The best way (not the short way, which doesn't exist) is to read about the same events from as wide a variety of sources and perspectives as you can. There is no one (or even two) unbiased, objective account of the Cuban missile crisis, for example, but you can learn a ton by reading sources that are not just American/Western, though you should also read those.
posted by rtha at 10:48 PM on January 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I picked up some strong defense against the dark arts after I watched Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent documentary. I'll ought to watch it again now that I'm in my midtwenties, but wow that flick started a lot of arguments for me at age eighteen! Ideas like "why do we place such colossal importance on sporting events" have never really left my mind, possibly to the chagrin of others.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:01 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think thelonius has the gist of it.

A lot of the difficulty for Americans in understanding politics in the way that Chomsky lays it out is that until the internet era it's been very difficult to find information about the rest of the world -- especially the communist-aligned/soviet bloc parts of the world -- that isn't filtered through a Cold Warrior mindset. So you can go to the library and get all the books about the Soviet Union you want, but unless it's a library outside the US or maybe you read foreign languages, it's going to be a book about the Soviet Union filtered through an anti-communist lens.

Even today, when it's fully possible to get non-US-centric information via the web, if you just grab the first most mainstream thing you find, it's probably going to be the American party line when it comes to basically anything even tangentially related to the Cold War.

So, yes, for news, try the BBC. Al Jazeera is also pretty great, though as they make a more serious foothold into the US media I'm curious about how that will affect their coverage of this sort of thing.

For background reading, like Jairus I'm tempted to tell you to look to the Left. Eric Hobsbawm was a pretty well-respected historian who holds similar political ideals to Chomsky's, and who wrote a lot about the wider political conversation that ultimately led to the various events of the 20th century. That said, it's a bit silly to tell you that anyone writing on the Left has better historical information than other writers. I guess I would just recommend that you look for writing that gets away from the "CAPITALISM GOOD SOCIALISM BAD" framework as used as a filter for all information on, say, Iran or Central America or Imperial Russia or whatever.
posted by Sara C. at 11:36 PM on January 3, 2014

I'll agree with the idea that you need to know how to think and how thought processes work to begin to understand how the media infrastructure works and thus learn to evaluate sources and be aware of your own inclinations.

To that end, I'd suggest Propaganda by Bernays, which is the cornerstone of modern public relations, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Predictably Irrational, which is about how people make decisions, Thinking: Fast and Slow, which is another one about the decision-making process.

It's not quite traditional media studies or media criticism but I thinking knowing that people will make irrational choices quite often if you do things like set up a web form correctly will help you see many of the ways you're being manipulated by every side. Likewise, I think it's useful to know when you read a headline that makes you angry, you're being set up to use emotional reasoning in evaluating the article since that engages faster than the slower, more methodical and more rational system. Or when Fox/MSNBC run those polls that are like "IS OBAMA LITERALLY HITLER? 99% YES 1% NO" or vice versa, that's an example of social proof per Psychology of Persuasion.

One thing I've found useful for sort of bringing into sharp focus how American news writers write about other countries is Slate's exercise in writing about American events as if they were in a foreign country.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:46 PM on January 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies guys. I'll check out those resources and hopefully it will help.

I'll be more clear too:

I don't have an end-goal of having a particular viewpoint. If I could simply learn the intentions and thoughts of all these players in history, and simply understand what they did and why, in their own minds, they did it, I would be satisfied. That's what I'm really looking for. I don't really mind what anyone's value judgment is as long as they are using correct information- dates, motivations, quotes, whatever. I just want to understand, not to judge, at this point.

Except I'm now realizing there isn't an encyclopedia of world history that's just out there in some library that's accurate- and especially not for current events. I just want a way to find out what actually happened during these events- as if I was coming from off-planet and wanted to document the going-ons of the human species. Not judging ideas and viewpoints but understanding what they are, what they consist of, and where they come from.

Thanks again for your help.
posted by drd at 12:31 AM on January 4, 2014

If I could simply learn the intentions and thoughts of all these players in history, and simply understand what they did and why, in their own minds

On this, maybe you could try some official biographies of the major players? For current news I'd second the BBC*, also exploring Wikipedia on a given subject; clicking links on the figures, dates, and names you find interesting, is a good way to cover ground quickly.

* I initially chimed in to add that the BBC obviously does still hold bias, as does every news source or opinion out there. Read lots of angles and hold all to the same account, I find that is the fun part anyway.
posted by 0 answers at 4:33 AM on January 4, 2014

I want to be accurately informed on the last 50-100 years of world history, especially as it relates to the global superpowers, what their motivations actually were, how their motivations affected public policy and actions such as war, and what the logical outcome has been for today as all of these different mindsets have played their roles in the past century.

There is a strong argument to be made that reading Chomsky is not going to help you achieve that goal. Further,

I just want a way to find out what actually happened during these events- as if I was coming from off-planet and wanted to document the going-ons of the human species. Not judging ideas and viewpoints but understanding what they are, what they consist of, and where they come from.

Reading Chomsky is absolutely not the way to go about that goal.

Chomsky is an ideologue. If you're looking for a bare-bones, "This is what happened, draw your own conclusions," Chomsky is not going to help you there. He's not interested in that project at all.
posted by valkyryn at 4:56 AM on January 4, 2014 [10 favorites]

Read more and read widely.
posted by empath at 5:09 AM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the answer to the question as you posed it is that you should look for a historical atlas. You can find them in various formats. I like the kind that show you what was going on in various parts of the world at the same time.

To be aware of what is happening now, which eventually ages in your head to what happened a decade ago (history), you can read the Economist. It gives a very good overview of what is going on around the world. I do not agree with their editorial positions but their presentation of world events is straightforward. I also find their economic articles of great interest. Had you read this magazine for the last 10 years, you would have been adequately warned about the severe dangers of derivatives, the towering amount of leverage in the shadow banking system, the dangers of mortgage shenanigans, the extent of indebtedness worldwide but especially at the US state level, the problem with unfunded pension liabilities, shaky banks etc.

The problem with the way you have posed your question is that history is almost always an interpretation and intertwined with politics. A historical atlas will tell you that the Americans went into Vietnam, that various battles were fought, that the Americans left but you probably want to know why they went in. (Did they really believe in the domino theory? What would have been so disastrous with with Vietnam going communist? Why did the Vietnamese resist the French then the Americans but are now capitalist? Are there any parallels with Afghanistan I wonder.)
Or take something like East Germany: you get the facts of its creation and its eventual reunification but you don't get anything about the evils of the Stasi. Germans, having lived with the Stasi, are probably most aware of what the dangers are of current NSA policies.

One of the earlier posters suggested Wikipedia. I suggest you can get a filtered, higher level and organized view with a historical atlas then augment with Wikipedia.

I do think the suggestion of reading about propaganda and manipulation is an excellent suggestion and is something you absolutely need to do. There is an enormous amount of erroneous and misleading information floating around. It is always a good idea to be aware of the biases of any source. That said, I agree with the other posters that the BBC has been a pretty good source of information over the years. Their "Hardtalk" TV show is a vigorous interview of people (lots of politicians) around the world.

I find that looking at history with a strong dose of economics is instructive. I especially liked "Wealth and Democracy" by Phillips, where he looks at American history through that lens. Very eye-opening. Once again, had you read it, the wars, globalization, the financial crisis and how things would likely play out would have been pretty clear.

Be aware that many of the papers that influence policy now (and have influenced government policy in the past) are written by academics and think tanks, with an axe to grind: look at where their funding is coming from. Personally, I find those think tanks with significant foreign funding and billionaire funding come up with dubious policy papers. One might ask why various scientists felt that there was absolutely no scientific basis for believing that there was a link between smoking and cancer. Do you see any parallels today?

Build your framework, identify sources that you want to use, develop your bullshit detector and always ask "Who profits?".
posted by PickeringPete at 6:13 AM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree that you should look into critical thinking as a way to look at historical events as well as current events. That is one of my goals this year is to develop better critical thinking skills.

I also agree that Chomsky is an ideologue, and while he may not have accurate answers to the questions he is asking, he does have some interesting and useful questions about history and politics, and I think that is what has opened your mind. Always ask questions!

I think that you would gain a lot by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates blog. For the last few years he has been going through the exact process you have expressed interest in - taking a broad view of specific movements in history, and learning as much as he can about the players in these movements, and their motivations. While he does this, he documents his learning process, and solicits information from his readers (who prove to be an invaluable resource as well.) Currently, he is learning the history of post-WWII Europe, but he has also explored how Federal and local governments were complicit in racism against blacks in the US, with an exploration of the idea of Enlightenment ideas of the social contract between governments and their citizens.
posted by baniak at 6:41 AM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

If I could simply learn the intentions and thoughts of all these players in history, and simply understand what they did and why, in their own minds, they did it, I would be satisfied.

As others have hinted -- you really can't. And not because you can't trust people who have a political agenda -- it's much more personal than that.

If you take a simple example of a sister and brother arguing in another room -- and mom overhears the ruckus and asks what's going on.

Susie says "he hit me! He's mean" and Joey says "it was an accident! I was trying to pull something out from between the couch cushions, and it gave way, and I accidently elbowed her!"

Joey and Susie have already angled the story based on what they think will sway mom in a certain direction. It's the same with accounts from history -- you're reading accounts that were produced in a certain milieu, with a certain audience in mind, based on what the person giving the account thinks the audience will "do about it" once they've heard it.

From Susie's perspective, Joey's still mean -- it was her favorite stuffed bear that he was pulling from the couch cushions -- he'd taken it and shoved it in there and when she went to get it, he pushed her aside to try to take it again. Susie knows one of the eyes is coming off and she's worried the rough treatment will tear it off for good. Joey still insists that his elbow made contact by accident. Susie "knows" the truth -- he did it on purpose.

Joey still doesn't think he's mean -- because what he really wanted to do was to take scissors to the bear's head. He's angry because of some thing Susie did yesterday and what he really wants to do is destroy the bear. But because he's a nice person, he's only going to take it from her and hassle her a little bit. A truly mean person wouldn't show such restraint.

That what it's like reading history -- there is no truth to it. There are multiple truths that exist simultaneously.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:42 AM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think some historical theory would help understand how these narratives are spun. I have a couple books on my Amazon wish list about this: Historical Thinking by Sam Wineburg, The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis, and Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolf Trouillot. I have read none of them, but I think they will provide a useful framework for critical thinking about historical events.

As an example, A People's History of the United States was suggested upthread. It's an excellent book, but it's only one biased perspective. If that was your sole introduction to American history, you would think that life in the United States is a story of oppression, loss, and crushing despair, with only superficial improvements through time. However, life does appear to be better, or at least more comfortable, than in, say, the 1920s, and you can find books about that. A People's History is an excellent tale of the working class and atrocities committed by the men in power, but it does not take a step back to balance its cynical narrative with legitimate victories by the oppressed. Only in the afterword does Zinn admit to it being a history of laborers, which seems like burying the lede, but the text's limitations are an intentional counterpoint to the history of whitewashed success taught in public schools. From there you can draw your own conclusions.

If you're interested in podcasts, Dan Carlin's Hardcore History is excellent; I can't speak to his biases, but he does seem to make an effort to triangulate the truth through multiple sources and talk about the unreliability of a given source.
posted by Turkey Glue at 7:23 AM on January 4, 2014

I'd recommend starting with a country of interest and reading a general survey of the last 50 years by a trained academic historian. Zinn and Chomsky are voices whose theories you should know, but they are not trained historians and their analyses do not rely as heavily on primary sources in the way that an academic historian would. Chomsky is a linguist and that is his primary area of study. Also avoid journalists or writers without academic training.

After reading one survey, read a second to see how they differ,

Your way of thinking should be based on what you think, not books that tell you how to think before you start reading.

Also, in the end, you must understand that each historian is going to have their own opinion on events and what caused them. There is no "accurate" view of history which is correct vis-a-vis all others. That is why you should get several opinion.

I'm laying out significant work for you, but it will be worth it to stick to it. History is very important in figuring out your civic duties in the country you live in and being informed about it is a duty.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:34 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

If I could simply learn the intentions and thoughts of all these players in history, and simply understand what they did and why, in their own minds, they did it, I would be satisfied.

That's kind of impossible. You cannot honestly say that you fully understand the intentions, thoughts and motivations of people you actually know, be it your co-workers, your close friends or immediate family so what makes you think you can get there with historic figures?

Bear in mind that public figures have got people who advise them on public opinion and help them portray their plans and actions in certain ways. That is not a new thing. Try to do a search for the term 'propaganda' and any conflict in the last 200 years and you'll find sources talking about how the public is being manipulated.

And then there's the fact that a lot of recent history is still covered by all sorts of regulation that limits publication of confidential information and correspondence for some more decades.

Even if you got to ask these people they'd tell you their version of events, skewed to present whatever image they'd like to present to the world or to preserve whatever image they have established over the years. The same goes for any autobiography. And any biography you could pick up is the result of someone else's reasearch and presents the author's conclusions.

So I think the best hard data you can hope for is facts, figures and dates. Everything else is someone's interpretation. As such you have to read widely, different sources and angles, and form your own conclusions. You will never know the intentions, thoughts and motivations of somebody else, you can guess at best.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:01 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take note of how people are referencing not only specific history books, but also resources on critical thinking and different theories of history.

Good history isn't about finding one specific set of "true" facts amidst a fog of "everything else". That's often not possible.

As good as Chomsky and Zinn can be, it's all too easy to fall in love with their accounts as being "good history" because they seem the "most right". Appreciate what they do, but don't fall too deeply in love with their models and interpretations. When a narrative seems very neat and compact and sensible and illustrative of a certain worldview, you have to pull back and reorient yourself.

To take one example, I'm currently doing a bunch of research on Yugoslavia during WWII. It's fascinating to see how complex and impossible it would be to present a single, clear narrative of what happened during that time. This was all even during living memory, with millions of witnesses! It's barely any easier to come up with a single, coherent narrative as to what happened in the former Yugoslavia during the 90s.

Yugoslavia may seem like an extreme example, as far as complexity goes, but it's a difference of degree, and not of kind. Imagine how complicated it would be to even write a history of your own family!

Regarding the "read a little bit of everything and you should be okay" point, this article from The American Conservative (yeah, yeah) is about the media in general, but its fundamental point applies just as well to writing history. A well-balanced diet won't solve all of your problems.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:02 AM on January 4, 2014

If you're interested in podcasts, Dan Carlin's Hardcore History is excellent; I can't speak to his biases, but he does seem to make an effort to triangulate the truth through multiple sources and talk about the unreliability of a given source.

I actually think Hardcore History is pretty much exactly what the OP doesn't want. While it's a compelling account of a particular historical setting, it absolutely is biased, and typically biased on the very axis OP seems to be trying to get away from. If anything, it's a little bit retrograde.

I might recommend the recent first entry in what seems to be an ongoing series on WWI, just because that particular war set the stage for so much else that happened in the twentieth century, and most Americans know fuck all about it. I mean, you're still going to get the Officially Approved Pro-American Yay Capitalism account of the war, but considering you probably don't know anything about that particular war anyway, it could't hurt. I can't vouch for what's going to happen when he gets to the October Revolution, though.

Please do not even bother listening to his account of the various Red Scares. It's such retrograde awful bullshit that I had to turn it off. This is the sort of thing that will make you actively less well informed about 20th century history, and a big part of the reason that, while I enjoy the hell out of Dan Carlin and Hardcore History, I am so reluctant to recommend him as the answer to your particular question.

One thing that would be worth learning more about, if you're interested in the particular sorts of arguments Chomsky is making, would be to read up on the Spanish Civil War. You could start with a primary source account of the war, with Orwell's Homage To Catalonia.

But even reading a Wikipedia article about the war will explode your brain a little. I mean, the supposedly "democratic" US and Britain basically stood by and allowed a fascist military coup to take over Spain out of fear that, if they helped the (fully legitimate!) liberal republican side, Spain might become socialist. It's hard to watch what's going on right now in Syria, for example, without at least a little cynicism once you know that our government is perfectly happy to let a country descend into chaos and tyranny as long as it's in our political favor for that to happen.
posted by Sara C. at 9:29 AM on January 4, 2014

You never really do get to find out what actually happened. Unless you're prepared to go there yourself and spend considerable time interviewing multiple direct witnesses, the best you can hope for is to get progressively better at noticing and discounting self-serving bullshit, possibly even to the extent of developing an instinctive tendency to sway in the opposite direction.

The Fog of War is an interesting film.

And while the subject matter is not necessarily what you'd ordinarily think of as history, the critical thinking and fact checking mindset that Ancient Aliens Debunked demonstrates in its demolition of a heap of loon arguments is very much worth applying to a great deal of modern "journalism", much of which appears to be produced by the same kind of not-really-thinkers.

Robert Fisk, on the other hand, is a proper journalist. So was Helen Thomas.

Listen to Phillip Adams drawing people out on things they understand. Compare and contrast his interviewing style with that of the utterly conventional sycophant Amanda Vanstone.

Henry Reynolds is a proper historian; Keith Windschuttle is not (beware of ideologues with a record of switching sides while continuing to behave as if they truly believe that one position is Correct and the other is Wrong).
posted by flabdablet at 10:13 AM on January 4, 2014

The problem is what you're seeking doesn't exist, especially as you get further back into history. Not everyone may have a Fox News or MSNBC-style agenda, but everyone has their own set of biases and filters.

For example, our source for most of went on in Caesar's campaigns in Gaul is...Caesar writing about what he did for a Roman audience when we know that he had larger political ambitions. So you go "Aha! Well obviously he's biased so I'll read all these other accounts..." and there are huge chunks of the campaign where there are none. So your choice is Caesar's accounts or nobody at all.

Even relatively dry facts are open to interpretation. The common US narrative for Pearl Harbor is a Japanese surprise attack...but the US had been supplying the UK and Soviet Union with supplies for months at that point and that's not even getting into our embargo against Japan in 1940. So while the attack may have been a surprise in the sense that nobody saw it coming and alerted the base, the idea that it was a completely unprovoked attack by eeeeeeevil, conniving Japanese is largely wartime propaganda.

Point is unless you get into high school pop quiz level names and dates history, there are very few objective history sources.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:17 AM on January 4, 2014

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy is a pretty good overview of pre-9/11 global geopolitics in one book.

For general reading about contemporary and past-history geopolitics I'd recommend the Foreign Affairs online site. Some of the various authors have their biases, but it's all interesting stuff.
posted by ovvl at 3:51 PM on January 4, 2014

It has already eben mentioned but I would also recommend Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848, The Age of Capital: 1848–1875, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 and The Age of Extremes on the short 20th century.

As a general introduction on how history is framed by ideology: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
posted by jfricke at 4:54 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

To understand the whys and wherefores of global affairs, I would strongly recommend The Economist.

It is not a breezy read, but this weekly magazine has top quality analysis and news reporting. Their commentaries are pointed and sometimes contrarian (they recently chose Uruguay as their Country of the Year. Why? Because they legalized marijuana this year, the first in the world to do so). They are pro free-market but balance it with a compassionate editiorial stance.

I got turned on to this magazine many years ago after i read a glowing review of it in the (lefty) Whole Earth Catalog. The review called it essential reading iirc.
posted by storybored at 9:59 PM on January 4, 2014

Seconding both the Gaddis and (literally any) Hobsbawm.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:15 AM on January 5, 2014

I want to be accurately informed. How?

1. Get your news from outside your country. Don't trust American news sources to show you the truth about America.

2. Study geography, etc. Who lives where, who is neighbors with who, why do they live there, what do they do there, how do they make money, what religions do they adhere to? Put maps up on your wall and study them every day.

3. Follow the money/cui bono. Why would a country spend billions of dollars on a war? Ignore the noble-sounding reasons they give. What's in it for them?
posted by pracowity at 3:06 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Except I'm now realizing there isn't an encyclopedia of world history that's just out there in some library that's accurate--

If you want to become accurately informed about history, then you should read history books. This is exactly what historians try to do, and history is complex enough that you need the space provided by a book to describe it.

I would also argue against the idea that there's no objective history and no way to figure out what actually happened because all histories are biased. E. H. Carr, writing in What Is History?
It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes. It does not follow that, because interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing the facts of history, and because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another....
Of course, not all histories are going to be reliable, especially when it comes to 20th-century history, a period when totalitarian powers like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China generated large amounts of propaganda with near-complete disregard for the truth. (Which is not to say that the liberal democracies didn't also use propaganda!) If you want to assess the reliability of a particular source, one way is to look up book reviews to find out what other historians had to say.

I'll second the recommendation for Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. It'll give you a good perspective on war and power politics when there's no central authority. When one power tries to dominate the rest--whether it's Spain under Charles V and Philip II, France under Louis XIV and Napoleon, Germany under Wilhelm II and Hitler, or the Soviet Union--other powers will form an alliance to oppose it.

To understand the Cold War, I'd also recommend reading about the Second World War: it's easier to understand what US and Soviet policymakers were thinking when you remember that they had just fought an all-out war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, without the benefit of knowing (as we do) that they were going to win. William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a pretty easy read, despite its length.

After that, I really like Louis Halle's The Cold War as History.
In trying to understand a great conflict like the Cold War one should, in any case, rise above the dust of the battlefield to take a compassionate view of the exceedingly human beings on both sides.

... If you put a scorpion and a tarantula together in a bottle the objective of their own self-preservation will impell them to fight each other to the death. For the moment, at least, no understanding between them is possible. If either stopped fighting he would immediately be killed. From the point of view of each, the basic situation is that the other is trying to kill him. There is "a terrible knot almost beyond the ingenuity of [the actors] to untie." ... The situation is tragic. The proper attitude for the observer, therefore, is one of sympathy for both parties.

In the Cold War various historical circumstances (which I shall describe) put Russia in the role of challenger--superficially, at least, in the role of aggressor. But the historical circumstances, themselves, had an ineluctable quality that left the Russians little choice but to move as they did. Moving as they did, they compelled the United States and its allies to move in response. And so the Cold War was joined.

This is not fundamentally a case of the wicked against the virtuous. Fundamentally, it is like the case of the scorpion and the tarantula in the bottle, and we may properly feel sorry for both parties, caught, as they are, in a situation of irreducible dilemma.
If it's too hard to find, an alternative would be Robert J. McMahon's The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction.
posted by russilwvong at 9:32 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

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