Great But Wrong?

Since I am unable to blog much these days, I thought it might be fun to throw a question out to the ‘sphere – assuming anyone is listening. So here it is. Please respond with a comment or trackback or whatever.

Graham Greene and John LeCare may be great writers but they were fundamentally wrong about the Cold War.

True or false? Discuss.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Who was right about the Cold War?

    Ronald Reagan and his Visogoth cohort? Dr Henry Strangelove and his unique geopolitics of saving from the red perils, client nations, by destroying them?

    Le Carre’s observation rom Russia House always struck me as particularly apt , “I do not like experts. They are our jailers. I despise experts more than anyone on earth…They solve nothing! They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured, we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us…When the world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.”

    I have only read Greene’s Our Man in Havana and The Comedians and am familiar with the Greene films, The Third Man and The Ugly American. And as for Le Carre I have only read the post Smiley novels. A short answer to the question posed is that everyone got the Cold War wrong—Greene and Le Carre less so than the experts.

  2. I think that Le Carre’s work springs from the Kim Philby affair…Burgess, McLean, etal. Great Britain was a victor in WW2, but lost an empire in the process. The Secret Intelligence Service was marginalized. He develops his theme with the Cold War as a backdrop culminating with A Perfect Spy which is damned near a perfect novel, all the richer for its sense of ambivalence.

    Greene deals with the theme of totalitarianism in microcosm, like Papa Doc in Haiti, little Joe Stalins just as nasty as Big Joe but lacking resources. The Quiet American dealt with the vacuum created by France’s departure from Indochina. It predicts the same fate for the new empire, the US, as the old. Both writers had a more complex view of the cold war than we tend to have; in many ways the cold war settled into a war by proxy after the Cuban missile crisis, about the time of Le Carre’s first novel. Most of Graham Greene’s body of work had been completed by then.

  3. I’m afraid I can’t speak to Mr. Greene’s work (culturally-deprieved plebian that I am, I have read none of his books), but perhaps something on LeCarre, focusing on his Smiley series of novels and “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.”

    I don’t know what LeCarre (in other places) has said about the Cold War. Within these novels, however, he does touch on something fundamental, perhaps not to only the Cold War per se, but to state activities in general. David’s word “ambivalence” sums it up nicely. Take Smiley’s hunt for Karla, that in the end requires using less-than-honorable means to gain his capture. Even in this sucess, Smiley takes no joy. The novels manage to convey the feeling of moral ambiguity that takes place in certain interstate activities – defending one’s state, with sundry questionable means, while trying to avoid the gnawing question, “is it all worth it?”

    The trick is, that this type of problem may be inherent in the nation-state system, and that the Cold War merely provided an avenue for LeCarre to point this out. Where LeCarre does seem to have misunderstood the Cold War is in seeing this ambiguity as a matter only of the Cold War, a war that perhaps he conceived would not end, rather than something much more essential in international politics itself.

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