The state of things

After receiving the nth email from a listener asking what’s going on with Inward Empire – is it continuing? Am I even alive? – I realized it’s time to write a short note of explanation.

Ever since wrapping up the Diem Experiment series in July 2020, one thing after another has made it tough to produce more episodes. First there was teaching high school in the 2020-21 school year — a rewarding but astoundingly time- and energy-consuming process even in pre-pandemic times. While I’m grateful I was able to spend the year teaching in person instead of online, work-related anxiety and depression landed me on medication (which seems to be helping. Fingers crossed. Maybe I can get an endorsement from Zoloft). If you teach or know teachers, you know how all-consuming the job can be.

Things kept happening. My deeply-loved cat Vivian died of terrible stomach ulcers in October, a year after her sister died from FIP. I still haven’t fully processed that. Around January, I got covid. My piece-of-shit car kept breaking down. My dad, who is 82 and in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, broke his hip. My fiancée and I went through a stressful move to be closer to family. She lost two grandparents and her 14-year-old dog, Belle, this year, too. With the bad news piling up, I couldn’t find the time or the energy to work on Inward Empire.

But the rain of body blows seems to be subsiding, and I hope that the next few months will find me with the time and energy to keep podcasting. I still have my vision, and my bucket list grows ever longer. Barring an apocalypse, my patience and that of my listeners will be rewarded in good time.

Crest. A Haiku | by Giovanni Sonier | House of Haiku | Medium

Guest appearance on Daniele Bolelli’s “History on Fire”

Over the summer, I was invited to join a project called Ripples of History, hosted by Daniele Bolelli, the creator of the podcast History on Fire. Daniele manages, somehow, to be a professor, author, martial artist, and dad on top of producing two podcasts (the second is the philosophical The Drunken Taoist) — the kind of person whose productivity provokes awe and not a little envy.

History on Fire

Ripples of History is a collaboration between some of the best long-form history podcasters. Each of us chose an event that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but which ended up having long-term significance beyond what those at the time could have foreseen.

I chose Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (or if you prefer the more combative original title, “Resistance to Civil Government”). It’s a dense little tract, written by a proto-hippie survivalist after spending a single night in jail in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s cantankerous, individualist, anti-authoritarian, yet sheer diversity of movements that have looked to this text is, frankly, weird. Libertarians and tax resisters like it — but so did leaders of mass movements like Gandhi and MLK. Pacifists like Gandhi were inspired by its message — but so were Danish resistance fighters who blew up Nazi infrastructure. In my segment, I take a close look at Thoreau’s ideas to understand why this essay, unknown when it first appeared in the 1840s, has had such an outsized influence on world history.

Other segments of Ripples of History tackle Bacon’s Rebellion, The Iliad, and the origin of suicide bombing. What’s not to like about that?

You can listen on Itunes here or PlayerFM here. I’ll add other listening options as they become available.

Episode 14: The Diem Experiment (Part Five)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

Support Inward Empire by becoming a patron!

In November 1963, a faction of South Vietnamese generals overthrew and assassinated Ngo Dinh Diem with the support of the Kennedy administration. In the final part of this series, we’ll explore how infighting, ambition, and miscommunication sealed the fate of the Diem Experiment and set South Vietnam on the path to disaster.

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.


Christian Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003)

Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (New York: Holt McDougal, 1977)

Monique Demery, Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu (New York: Public Affairs, 2013)

Duong Van Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2014)

Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006)

Howard Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)

Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Thoughts on “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975” by Max Hastings

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 is the most disappointing book I read this year.

Hastings’s book is the most recent entry in a long tradition of giant books on Vietnam written by Western journalists. The best-known is Vietnam: A History, written by American journalist Stanley Karnow, but there have been plenty of others, too, by writers like John Prados, Frances Fitzgerald, and David Halberstam. These books were mostly written in the 1960s-80s, and Hastings’s book is likely to be the last in this tradition. Many of them mixed personal recollections with the broader story of the French and American wars in Indochina. Hastings, who was a young correspondent during the American phase of the war, is smart to not succumb to this temptation. He gets a couple of personal stories out of the way in the introduction and gets on with the show.


Hastings establishes two key ideas in the introduction. First is the idea that the war was “primarily an Asian tragedy”; 40 Vietnamese died for every American who fell on the battlefield. Second is the idea that the American War from 1965-73 was an ugly, amoral struggle without good guys. “No side had a monopoly on virtue,” Hastings says.

I find the second point especially interesting because much the historiography of the American War is full of white-hot moral arguments. In Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald or The Vietnam Wars by Marilyn Young, the National Liberation Front are the good guys while the Americans wage an evil counter-revolutionary war. The moral values are reversed in revisionist histories like Triumph Forsaken by Mark Moyar or The Necessary War by Michael Lind. In these books, Ho Chi Minh is a stooge bent on furthering the plan for communist world domination. I was genuinely interested, even excited, to see Hastings follow through on his idea that nobody really “deserved” to win this war.

Hastings needed to do a couple of things to achieve his objectives. First, he would put Vietnamese (and Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong, etc.) experiences front and center, keeping the narrative focused on the places where the war actually happened. This is an easier task than it was when, say, Karnow was writing the first big pop-history rendition of the war. Vietnamese, Soviet, and Chinese archives have all opened to various extents since the 1980s. In the past 20 years, a new generation of historians has produced dozens of books based on these materials. Second, it would look in depth at the aims and conduct of all sides to support the claim that there was no “right side” in the war.

But Hastings really doesn’t center Asian experiences or sources — although, to his credit, he includes a decent sprinkling of Vietnamese perspectivesThe chapters on 1973-75 do a good job of mostly telling the story from their points of view, and the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army are fairly well represented throughout the book.

Yet in most chapters, these perspectives are swamped by a flood of stories about American soldiers. We learn far more about US adviser and POW Doug Ramsay or Marine Walt Boomer than we do about any Vietnamese. An example: Chapter 25, which focuses on Operation Linebacker and the final phases of the Paris peace negotiations, devotes 11 1/2 pages to the experiences of B-52 aircrew and less than 2 to the experiences of North Vietnamese, primarily soldiers manning SAM sites. Even the chapter title — “Big Ugly Fat Fellers,” a nickname for the B-52 — emphasizes US equipment rather than the lives of people on the receiving end of the bombs. This disparity is present in other chapters on 1965-73.

On top of problems with emphasis are problems of omission. Foremost are Hastings’s skimping of the war in Laos and Cambodia — really inexcusable if he wants to portray the war as “an Asian tragedy” first and foremost. Hastings makes a few too many gross claims about these places. I was floored to read that Laotians “giggled through the war” and that Cambodia was an “erratic, eccentric little country.” For all Hastings’s research and interviews with survivors of the war, statements like these suggest a lack of curiosity about, and even callousness towards, what these places went through.

Another unacceptable omission is the role of South Korea, which contributed some 300,000 troops to the American War. Meanwhile, Hastings devotes over ten pages to Australia, which sent 60,000 men. Hastings establishes Australian political context and waxes lyrical about the skills of the Australian SAS, while South Korea receives a passing mention on a single page.

Worst of all, civilian perspectives are almost nowhere to be found. While Hastings claims to be keen on reconstructing “what the war was like,” in practice this only applies to military personnel. There’s no reason for these omissions in a book of this size.

There are other frustrating claims in Vietnam, too, chief among them Hastings’s assertion that racial strife in the US military after 1968 was primarily caused by the Black Power movement. This is emblematic of a deeper problem: Hastings is a military historian first and foremost, and Vietnam is disappointingly light on the social, cultural, and political (apart from high-level dealing) dimensions of the war. Because politics and war were so intertwined in this conflict, any book that focuses primarily on its military dimensions is going to feel unsatisfactory. Passages on Vietnamese village life and culture feel slapped-together, like Hastings is compiling a few facts in lieu of deeper knowledge or understanding. The antiwar movement receives no attention apart from a few brief jabs at the naivete of some protesters towards the NLF. We learn far more about the mechanical failures of the M-16 rifle or bombing tactics during Rolling Thunder than we do about the evolution of the antiwar movement in the US or how the giant US military presence changed the social and economic fabric of South Vietnam. It’s also annoying to see Hastings totally fail to engage with 20 years of new scholarship on the Diem regime; his one-dimensional screed could have been written by David Halberstam in 1963.

So much for focusing on the war as “an Asian tragedy.” What about the author’s second objective, the Vietnam War as a war without good guys?

Well, Hastings has a habit of undercutting this claim, too. In fact, there are lots of good guys in An Epic Tragedy, and they are the dutiful soldiers on all sides trying to do their best in an awful conflict. Fair enough! Even in the worst war, some people will keep their moral compass and try to do the right thing. Yet Hastings never really assesses the merits of the causes all these good soldiers were fighting for. In just war theory, half the equation is just cause. If the cause isn’t just, it doesn’t matter how good the conduct of your soldiers is.

The closest Hastings comes to assessing the merits of a cause is when he talks about the DRV. He emphasizes NLF and NVA atrocities, as well as those of the Hanoi government against their own population. American and ARVN atrocities are mentioned, too, but Hastings never passes up a chance to remind the reader, just in case you’ve forgotten, that the communists were just as bad if not worse. He does not reverse the reminders when discussing American or ARVN atrocities. Combined with Hastings’s persistent attacks on liberal US journalists for misreporting the war, I really do suspect that he thinks that his audience are a bunch of ’60s radicals with NLF flags in the closet and chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win” ringing in the back of their minds. It’s honestly strange seeing an author take such great pains in a 2018 book to show that, yes, the communists committed atrocities in Vietnam, too. The discourse has moved on, Max! It’s not 1970 any more.

But hey, it ain’t all bad. When he’s taking us knee deep in the big muddy alongside the troops, Hastings’s ability to describe combat is unmatched. His renditions of the US combat experience are especially powerful, and I appreciate that he included some lesser-known perspectives, like Chinese and Soviet support personnel who helped turn North Vietnam into the most heavily-defended airspace on the planet. These passages can be incredibly gripping.

Yet for all the blood and gore, and all the years of misery and suffering in its many, many pages, Vietnam feels like a lightweight Dad History book. At the end, I felt like my understanding of the social, political, and cultural dimensions of the war hadn’t improved. Among the one-volume histories of the war, the best I’ve read Vietnam: A Concise International History, by Mark Lawrence. In about 200 pages, Lawrence covers the important political and military stuff while also covering topics like the development of the US antiwar movement and even finds time to talk about war memory. If you want visceral personal stories, there’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides by Christian Appy, which covers a much more diverse range of perspectives than Hastings. Read these two books together. Combined, they’re as long as An Epic Tragedy, and you’ll learn more.

Oh, PS … what’s up with starting the book with the viewer discretion warning from the Ken Burns series? Did Sir Max write a 750-page book to cash in on its popularity?


Episode 13: The Diem Experiment (Part Four)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

Support Inward Empire by becoming a patron!

After destroying his rivals in the Battle of Saigon, President Diem sets out to build a new nation in South Vietnam. On the one hand he offers land reform and a glittering new middle class, built on a tide of American aid. On the other hand is a ruthless anti-communist campaign of denunciations, torture, and re-education camps. A sprawling cast of characters comes together in this complex chapter: Saigon oligarchs, French philosophers, American New Dealers, landlords, peasants, Viet Cong guerillas, communist double agents, and rebellious paratroopers all help to shape the fate of the Diem experiment in its tumultuous early years.

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.

The Lost Mandate in Vietnam - A Distant Mirror of Our Day - Juicy ...


Christian Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003)

Jessica Chapman, Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018)

“Constitution of the Republic of Vietnam,”

Demery, Monique, Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu (New York: Public Affairs, 2013)

Duong Van Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy (New York: Harper, 2018)

Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)

Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (New York: Harper & Row, 1972)

Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

“Ngo Dinh Diem’s 10/59 Edict (1959),”

The Pentagon Papers, Volume 1, Chapter 5, “Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960”. Accessed April 5, 2020.

Truong Nhu Tang, A Viet Cong Memoir (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985)

Tieng Chuong, “Letter from Tieng Chuong to Wesley Fishel, 14 July, 1956,”

“WGBH Openvault.” Vietnam: A Television History; America’s Mandarin (1954 – 1963); Interview with Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, 1982. Accessed April 5, 2020.

Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)

Image gallery

Episode 12: The Diem Experiment (Part Three)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

In the 1950s, most Americans viewed the Cold War as a battle between freedom and tyranny. There was just one problem: how to explain alliances with anti-communist authoritarians like Ngo Dinh Diem. In this episode, we’ll explore how American politicians, lobbyists, and one very enterprising Navy doctor imagined the new Republic of Vietnam as a bastion of democracy and freedom led by “a mandarin in a sharkskin suit who’s upsetting the Red timetable.”

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.

Image result for ngo dinh diem tom dooley


Thomas Dooley, Deliver Us From Evil (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1956)

Wesley Fishel, “Vietnam’s Democratic One-Man Rule,” New Leader, November 2, 1959 pp 10-13.

Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (New York: Viking Press, 1956)

Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006)

Seth Jacobs, “Fighting Words,” Boston College Magazine, summer 2002,, accessed August 2019.

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)

Edward Lansdale, In the Midst of WarsAn American’s Mission to Southeast Asia (Fordham University Press, 1972)

Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)

John Prados, “The Numbers Game: How Many Vietnamese Fled South in 1954?” The VVA Veteran, January/February 2005,, accessed August 2019.

Image gallery

Episode 11: The Diem Experiment (Part Two)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

Back in Saigon in 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem becomes premier of a country shattered by war and partition. With reunification elections looming, Diem barely controls the grounds of his own palace. Hostile Frenchmen, religious militias, a crime syndicate, ex-emperor Bao Dai, and Diem’s own military conspire to end his rule before it can begin. Baffled American diplomats do political triage to avert a coup, urging Diem to bring his rivals to the table. But the new premier has other plans…

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.

Battle of Saigon 1955


J Lawton Collins, Lightning Joe: An Autobiography (New York: Presidio Press, 1979)

Jessica Chapman, Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018)

Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)

Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam(Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2013)

Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)

Thoughts on Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, by Stephen Platt

I had a history prof who once suggested that US history would have turned out for the better if, at the end of the Civil War, the federal government had wiped out the entire leadership class of the Confederacy – “like the end of the Taiping Rebellion,” she added.

The what? Leaving US history aside, the Taiping rebellion (or Taiping Uprising, or Taiping Civil War) is something that never pops up in most westerners’ history education. But it should. Not only was it the bloodiest civil war in human history; western nations, as historian Stephen Platt makes clear in this book, played a major role shaping the course of the bloodshed.

Image result for autumn in the heavenly kingdom

I’m ignorant about the historiography for this event, so I can’t really comment on Platt’s argument. What I can comment on is his craft as a writer of historical narrative.

Platt has two keys to telling the story of the Taiping Rebellion well. First, Platt focuses his narrative of this massive bloodletting on a concise cast of characters. The two big ones are Taiping policymaker Hong Rengan and the Confucian-scholar-turned-general Zeng Guofan. Fascinating minor characters round out the cast: arrogant British diplomats, conniving American mercenaries, and delusional missionaries from everywhere. Platt’s good at connecting the sweeping themes and events with the first-hand observations of the poor bastards who had to actually slog through the misery.

His introduction of Zeng Guofan is Exhibit A for How To Introduce A Character. Watch Kurt Vonnegut’s video on the shape of stories on Youtube. Characters’ stories need shapes. They need to start somewhere and go somewhere, up or down. Zeng’s story has a crystal clear shape. He starts low: he’s old, suicidal, sick (puking, in fact), holed up in the mountains. Yet this old Confucian nerd ends up becoming the Chinese Ulysses Grant, saving a corrupt, collapsing dynasty before getting the cold shoulder and suffering a sad, obscure retirement. Make a graph for that and you have a nice clear shape.

Platt’s second key is sensory detail. Like the shapes of characters’ stories, historians aren’t always great at this, even though it’s a fundamental writing skill … remember all your English teachers who harped about “show, don’t tell?” When historians do sensory detail, it’s usually a throwaway. The weather was nice when President X took the oath of office. The eccentric inventor has unkempt hair and a twirly mustache. The historian will mention it once, in a couple of throwaway lines at the start of the book or the first time a character pops up and never mention it again. Novelists don’t do this. They know your  ape brain won’t remember a few pages later which character had a hooked nose and muttonchops, or that there was green ivy on the walls of Lady Whatever’s estate. They weave that stuff into the text, repeatedly. Readers need that. We like it.

Platt does this, and he’s good at it. (Check the author’s bio, and you’ll see he has an English degree.) Go read his description of the Anglo-French expedition up the river to Beijing. It’s awesome, and it’s because of his rich use of sensory details pulled from primary sources. The mud sucking at the marines’ boots as they storm the forts at Taku, the sparks from cooking fires illuminating the steamships’ rigging at dusk, the churning fog offshore … it’s all there, and it’s enthralling. It turns a “they went from x to y to z” narrative into a Heart of Darkness journey. Every historian should print this passage out and post it on their wall.

My one minor complaint is that Platt is sometimes a bit too enamored with dissecting articles in the British and American press. I love close reading, but these sections crop up a bit too often and go on a bit too long, gumming up the works and slowing down the narrative. It takes us out of the character-driven stories that make the rest of the book so compelling.

Image result for taiping civil war

So yes, you should read this book if you’re interested in Chinese history, the global history of the 19th century, western involvement in Asia … But (for me anyway) the best thing about this book is that it’s an example of a kind of historical writing that few can do well. Like Barbara Tuchman, Platt cares about what these experiences looked, tasted, and smelled like. He cares about characters. He cares about tone. Books like this one make the case for writing history with a novelist’s eye.

Inward Empire summer reading list, 2019

For the curious, here’s what I’m (aspiring to) read this summer. I’ll be posting reflections on these as I go.

Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

Walter Lafeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America

Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

Clay Risen, The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

Daniel Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present

and, just for kicks…

Stephen King, 11/22/63

Gaming the domino theory in Twilight Struggle

“… a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France …” – Dean Acheson

“If Southeast Asia is also swept by Communism, we shall have suffered a major political rout the repercussions of which will be felt throughout the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East and in a then critically exposed Australia.” – NSC 48/1

“Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” – President Eisenhower

Image result for twilight struggle

Recently I’ve become totally addicted to Twilight Struggle, a Cold War-themed board game (also available in an excellent digital version). The more I play, the more impressed I am with how the game models the domino theory, one of the fundamental ideas in US foreign policy during our half-decade struggle with the Soviet Union.

American statesmen developed the domino theory in the late 1940s and early ’50s, a time when communist movements were spreading rapidly around the world. As the quotations above make clear, these statesmen believed that communists in places like Greece or China would try to spread their movements to neighboring countries and regions. A communist regime, even in a tiny country that posed no direct threat to America, could destabilize an entire region if left unchecked. Therefore, it was vital for the US to contain communism wherever it popped up.

The mechanics of Twilight Struggle simulate this theory beautifully. It’s a two-player game (one player is the US, one is the USSR), and the board is divided into nations and regions. Players take turns placing influence around the board, and can win the game by scoring points based on controlling different regions (there are other paths to victory, too, like winning the space race).

So where’s the domino theory? It comes with a brilliantly simple twist: players can only place influence in a nation where they already have it, or in neighboring nations. Just like Acheson and Ike said, influence spreads in a linear fashion from one country to the next, and players who ignore enemy moves will find an entire region slipping swiftly into their opponent’s camp.

The one exception to the linear spread of influence comes with cards, which the US and USSR take turns playing. Each card represents a real-life event from 1945-89: Nasser taking power in Egypt, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the OPEC embargo, Kruschev declaring “We Will Bury You!”, and so on. Cards allow players to break the rules of how influence spreads by suddenly opening up new fronts around the world. The USSR, for example, starts the game with no influence in Latin America or the Caribbean, but playing the “Fidel” card allows them to take control of Cuba.

The cards make for fantastic and nail-biting twists and turns in each game of TS, but they also contribute to the game’s simulation of American ideas in the era of the domino theory.  For much of the Cold War, US policy-makers tended to view communist movements in the “Third World” as fronts of a single global movement led by Moscow. This is exactly the way it is in TS: it’s the USSR that decides when Vietnam revolts, when Nasser or Fidel take power, or when communist agitation sweeps South Africa. The same goes for events that favor the US. It’s up to the players when pro-democracy agitation breaks out in Eastern Europe, for example.                                 Image result for twilight struggle fidel

The card mechanic sacrifices historical accuracy while hewing more closely to the imagined dynamics of the domino theory. As the game’s creators say in their design notes:
Twilight Struggle basically accepts all of the internal logic of the Cold War as true—even those parts of it that are demonstrably false. Therefore, the only relationships that matter in this game are those between a nation and the superpowers. The world provides a convenient chess board for US and Soviet ambitions, but all other nations are mere pawns (with perhaps the occasional bishop) in that game. Even China is abstracted down to a card that is passed between the two countries. Furthermore, not only does the domino theory work, it is a prerequisite for extending influence into a region. Historians would rightly dispute all of these assumptions, but in keeping with the design philosophy, we think they make a better game.”

In reality, Soviet and American leaders struggled to control movements around the world. Leaders from Venezuela to Vietnam had their own agendas, and popular movements (even massive ones, like the revolutions of 1989) often caught American and Soviet leaders off-guard. TS simulates this lack of total control to an extent by randomizing the cards players hold each round. It also frequently forces players into situations where they have to play a card that favors their opponent. Still, it’s the superpowers that decide when, and sometimes if, these events take place.

So while TS isn’t a great simulation of the dynamics of the real Cold War, it is stone-cold brilliant at depicting the way US policy-makers imagined the conflict. On top of that, it’s a phenomenal strategy game. A glance at the Twilight Strategy fan page shows its daunting depth. If you have even a passing interest in the Cold War or in historical strategy titles, I strongly recommend picking up a copy. And if you don’t mind dealing with a neophyte player, let me know — I’m hungry for some competition online!