Cold war, cold facts and a cold shoulder

The World since 1945
February 28, 2003

This synthesis of world history since 1945 by P. M. H. Bell enters an already crowded market. As such, it will jostle for a place on undergraduate reading lists with both old-timers such as Peter Calvocoressi's classic World Politics since 1945 and newcomers including David Reynolds' elegant One World Divisible . What, then, are the distinctive features of Bell's offering?

Pitched at lower-level history and politics undergraduates, the prose is sprightly and the structure tidy, if unadventurous. Where Reynolds adopted an ambitious thematic framework, combining "high politics" with developments in science, culture and ideas, Bell takes a more traditional, somewhat top-down approach, that privileges diplomatic and military relations between states.

The cold war provides the essential structuring device, and the book's first two sections deal with it as a game of two halves: from the end of the second world war to the Cuban missile crisis, and then through the eras of detente and renewed antagonism to the Soviet Union's exhaustion.

Taking the cold war's course as the organising principle does, however, have some almost unavoidable corollaries. First, the narrative trajectory dramatically terminates in 1991, making the years since extraneous to the big story. Bell leaves the past decade as a largely untouched coda: a drawback for those seeking a text that includes the 1990s under the rubric "since 1945", given that many first-year undergraduates barely remember the first President George Bush.

Second, the text revolves primarily around an East-West axis. This is not to say that Bell ignores developments in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, but they appear secondary to his account. The first part devotes four chapters to "Decolonization and wars of succession"; the second, five chapters to "The world outside the cold war", which, as the text itself suggests, is a less-than-perfect designation of areas intensively enmeshed in first and second-world politics and economics.

While Bell provides an engagingly readable text, he does not advance a bold interpretive account of the postwar era. Indeed, the book is conceived largely as a narrative in which "description" is separated from shorter summative "reflections" at the end of sections. These, together with a concluding section, "The conduct and motivation of international affairs", offer more self-consciously interpretive content - a demarcation of "narrative" from "analysis" that some may find pedagogically unhelpful.

Finally, while Bell does not quite fall into Zara Steiner's "chaps and maps" school of international history, his inclusion of "the journalist, the publicist and the propagandist" as significant actors in international affairs perhaps does not go far enough in expanding the cast.

We now have chaps with laptops, but where (with the notable exception of Margaret Thatcher) are women located in world history since 1945?

Susan Carruthers is associate professor of history, Rutgers University, New Jersey, US.

The World since 1945: n International History. First edition

Author - P. M. H. Bell
ISBN - 0 340 66235 2 and 66236 0
Publisher - Arnold
Price - £55.00 and £19.99
Pages - 593

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