Cold Warriors: History has rarely seemed as compelling

Duncan White’s exploration of the literary cold-war is an accessible and compulsive read

John Le Carré: Born David Cornwell, he published under pseudonym in order to protect his work as an operative for the British security services. Photograph: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

John Le Carré: Born David Cornwell, he published under pseudonym in order to protect his work as an operative for the British security services. Photograph: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

It’s often said that the best historical novels also function as present-day allegory. Cold Warriors, by British-born journalist, academic and Harvard lecturer Duncan White, is likewise a nonfiction historical study whose subject matter is as relevant as today’s headlines. The cold war has resumed, revamped for the digital age, with money replacing ideology. If the United States has colonised our subconscious, as Wim Wenders said, then the Kremlin responds by getting inside western brains, using social media as the trepan.

White’s book, a 700-plus page exploration of how the CIA, the British Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) and the Kremlin weaponised literature from the 1930s until Glasnost, serves as a historical prologue to everything from Netflix’s The Great Hack to Peter Pomerantsev’s This is Not Propaganda. It may also grant some retrospective solace to the novelist or poet who despairs of literature’s declining role as a change agent in an age of memes replacing tomes. If nothing else, Cold Warriors testifies as to how seriously East and West once took books.

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