The Bridge at Andau

The Bridge at Andau

If James Michener is remembered for anything these days, it is for his epic historical novels that regularly pass the thousand-page mark. He was an historical writer in a grand tradition, one that has suffered from the declining attention spans of the digital age.

But he was also capable of writing leaner books that were just as gripping as his generational sagas. Caravans, his novel about Afghanistan, is one. Another is The Bridge at Andau, which is somewhat hard to categorize.

I found this book in the nonfiction history section of my local library, but the interior note with the publication information says it is a work of historical fiction. It is, puzzlingly, both.

Michener was a journalist covering the events around which the book is based; he was standing there at the titular bridge at one point. He interviewed a great many survivors of the events he covers, and the book is in large part based on their testimonies. Many of his sequences involve anonymized versions of real people, or composites thereof.

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Last Flight of the Arrow

The Last Flight of the Arrow

The Avro Arrow is one of those incredible what-if stories to come out of the Cold War. A Canadian-built fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the Arrow was a plane ahead of its time in the 1950s, not to mention the pride of Canada. And, like the British TSR-2 in the following decade, cut down before its time in circumstances that remain controversial and mysterious decades later.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Canadian author Daniel Wyatt reimagined the fate of this famous aircraft for his 1990 alternate-history technothriller novel The Last Flight of the Arrow. Taking place across the late 1950s, Last Flight of the Arrow puts the fighter straight into the Cold War standoff between NATO and the Soviet Union.

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The Courier

The Courier

Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably outstanding in The Courier, a Cold War thriller about an accidental British spy. Rachel Brosnahan, of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel fame, puts in a strong performance as his CIA handler. The production design is gorgeous; the story almost unbelievable, but it’s true.

Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), a seemingly unremarkable businessman, really was recruited by the British secret service at the height of the Cold War to ferry messages from a Soviet defector in Moscow: Oleg Penkovsky (played aptly by Merab Ninidze), a colonel in the military intelligence GRU.

Penkovsky, the highest-ranking Soviet defector at the time, provided the West with crucial information about the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and strategy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not a stretch to argue, as the movie does, that the Penkovsky intelligence Wynne brought to London helped avert World War III in 1962.

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Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy

Romanzo di una strage

It’s the height of the Cold War. Italy’s Communist Party is still a force to be reckoned with. Far-left and far-right groups terrorize Italians in the streets, with the latter pinning their assassinations and bombings on the former in hopes of fomenting a neofascist coup: the so-called strategy of tension.

These are Italy’s Years of Lead.

Romanzo di una strage, released internationally as Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy, deals with one of the opening acts in that twenty-year drama: the December 12, 1969 bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in the Piazza Fontana of Milan. Seventeen people were killed, 88 wounded. A prime suspect, anarchist leader Giuseppe Pinelli (played by Pierfrancesco Favino, whom you might recognize from World War Z), died in police custody a few days later. The policeman in charge of the investigation, Luigi Calabresi (Valerio Mastandrea), was himself killed in 1972.

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Back in the USSA

Back in the USSA

In some respects, alternate history is an examination of irony. There are many examples of serious alternate history. There are moments when characters reflect on how our own history is implausible or unthinkable. For something more tongue-in-cheek, Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman took the United States, capitalist and democratic and emerging victorious from the Cold War, and pasted the twentieth-century history of Russia, revolution and tyranny and eventual collapse, onto it in their 1997 collection Back in the USSA.

The history presented in the collection closely parallels our own only with the United Socialist States of America in the place of the historic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with the United Kingdom and a reformed Russian Empire splitting duties as the United States equivalent. This parodic take on twentieth-century history is peppered with existing objects from popular culture portrayed as real figures, rubbing shoulders with our own historical figures in new situations.

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Deutschland 86

Deutschland 86

Babylon Berlin is said to be the best drama series to ever come out of Germany. I disagree. My vote goes to Deutschland 83 (review here), in which border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is recruited by East German intelligence and thrust into the middle of a nuclear standoff.

The series wasn’t hugely popular in Germany, but it found enough viewers abroad to warrant a sequel. Deutschland 86 takes place three years later. Martin has been exiled to Angola. His aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), who is also a spy, is working on an operation in South Africa. Naturally they run into each other again.

The ten episodes masterfully weave together the events of the time in a compelling narrative: the slow collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Angola, Muammar Gaddafi’s support for international terrorism, the La Belle disco bombing in Berlin — all against the backdrop of the American-Soviet Cold War.

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American Cruise Missiles Divide Europe

Two rounds of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the Soviet Union and the United States had managed to reduce tensions in the Cold War. But the talks did not cover tactical nuclear weapons delivered by midrange ballistic missiles, a loophole the Soviets exploited to deploy SS-20 mobile launch platforms in Central Europe.

When, in December 1979, the Soviet Union also invaded Afghanistan, the West felt it had to respond.

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Resurrection Day

Resurrection Day

In my stead as the administrator of the Alternate History Online group on Facebook, whenever I see a question involving the Cold War going nuclear in any way, I post a black-and-white GIF of flowers blooming with the caption “everybody dies.” I concluded when I was on an episode of the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns and Colin Salt that it is hard to make a story where the Cold War goes hot that is dramatically compelling as the devastation would be swift and total.

Enter Brendan Dubois’ Resurrection Day, one of the books that I read as research for that podcast episode. Dubois has the great nightmare of the sixties come to life: the confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba (and American missiles in Turkey) ends with the missiles flying, the doomsday machines in both superpowers activating, bathing the world in nuclear hellfire.

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The Problem of Détente

The late 1960s were a time of upheaval in the transatlantic relationship. Charles de Gaulle had withdrawn from NATO’s integrated military structure and was seeking equidistance for France between the Soviet Union and the United States. Willy Brandt, West Germany’s first center-left chancellor, was pursuing Ostpolitik. Britain had finally been admitted to the European Economic Community, which — in Washington — raised fears of a united Europe challenging American primacy in the West.

Mired and later defeated in Vietnam, America’s prestige was at a postwar low. The oil-producing countries of the Middle East were starting to use their economic power for political gain. Japan was emerging as a global powerhouse in the East. The Atlantic alliance looked divided and exhausted.

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The Devil’s Alternative

The Devil's Alternative

Frederick Forsyth wrote the outstanding Cold War thrillers The Day of the Jackal (1971), which was made into one of the best spy movies of all time (our review here); The Odessa File (1972, our review of the film adaption here) featuring an underground organization of former Nazis; and The Fourth Protocol (1984, our review here), about a Soviet plot to kick Britain out of NATO.

He demonstrates his mastery of the genre again in The Devil’s Alternative.

The story begins in Turkey, where an Ukrainian nationalist recovering in hospital is recruited by Andrew Drake, an Anglo-Ukrainian determined to strike a blow against the Soviet empire. Drake’s machination will set in motion events that bring the superpowers to the brink of war.

He is aided by hardliners in the Politburo, who are pushing for war to avoid making concessions in negotiations to buy wheat from the United States. A fungicide has inadvertently poisoned the Soviet wheat crop. Without imports, millions will starve.

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