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  • Understanding the Cold War: A Historian’s Personal Reflections
  • Thomas P. M. Barnett
Adam B. Ulam , Understanding the Cold War: A Historian’s Personal Reflections, 2nd expanded edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002. 410 pp.

There is really only one legitimate measure of an autobiography, and that is its ability to bring the author to life for the reader, giving a sense of who the person was and what it must have been like to have known him or her. On that score, Adam Ulam's "personal reflections" succeed on every level. To spend time with this book is to spend time with Adam himself, and I say that as someone who served as his research assistant for five years in the latter half of the 1980s and who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation under Adam's guidance. In the former capacity, I developed a great friendship with Adam, [End Page 170]spending far more leisure time with him than professional time, and on that basis I can state unequivocally that this autobiography captures both his personality and his academic brilliance in all its glory. When I finally put the book down, I found myself missing the man more than ever and appreciating his enormous skill as a historian in a way I never had before.

The book alternates between Ulam's somewhat shy but nonetheless truly personalreflections on his life and his deft summing up of all his magnificent research publications, which effectively span both his own life and that of the Soviet Union. Reading his book was comparable to watching a farewell concert in which the musician not only replays all his "greatest hits," but somehow reinterprets them in a way that enhances the audience's understanding of both their historical significance and their profound influence within the genre. In short, the book left me wanting to go to my shelf and reread all of Ulam's original "recordings."

The book unfolds in four parts. The first two sections ("Farewell to Poland" and "A Polish Youth in a New Land") are the most straightforward autobiographical portions, covering Adam's tumultuous and tragic early life. These sections provide due context for the observation by Mary Ulam (Adam's former wife and the volume's main editor) that "he devoted the rest of his life to seeking an understanding of how the 20th century could unleash such terrible forces" (p. x). The bulk of the book is found in Part Three ("The Professor"), in which he recounts both the Cold War and his career as a scholar of Soviet history and politics. On these pages, the reader finds not merely a rundown of Adam's shrewd judgments about the Soviet Union and its relationship with the United States, but also a host of biographical sketches of the many historical figures he encountered across the decades. However, the best material in this section showcases Adam's sly wit in his descriptions of both the strange academic field of "Kremlinology" and his own ambivalence at being one of its foremost practitioners.

Part Four offers the only disappointment, consisting of a hodgepodge of remembrances of Adam by his colleagues and family members, including a truly awful chapter entitled "Ending," which recounts Adam's last days and death. Ulam was a man of great natural dignity, which one immediately senses throughout the book, but he was also a man of great privacy, as witnessed by his brief but poignant remarks about the death of his older brother, Stanislaw (a mathematician of world renown who played a pivotal role in the early development of America's nuclear arsenal), in 1984: "His many contributions to science have been acclaimed in numerous publications and places throughout the world. What he meant to me as a brother, friend, and mentor in loco parentisin my youth cannot be put into words" (p.124). I cannot imagine that a man of such quiet dignity would have wanted his own death described in such banal detail as provided in this excruciatingly misguided offering. Although I realize that the editor wanted only to honor Adam's memory by including these reminiscences, they end the book on a...