An elegantly written, vivid history of the early years of the Cold War, culminating with the Bay of Pigs crisis. Noting that the flood of materials from archives in this country and abroad has substantially deepened, and sometimes considerably altered, scholars' view of events, veteran Cold War historian Gaddis (The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1972, etc.) has set out to provide an overview for a general audience of the leaders, policies, and international crises that shaped the late 1940s to the early '60s, concentrating on the two great antagonists, the US and the Soviet Union, and their leaders. While no one figure shaped the Cold War, Stalin came closest, injecting an obsessive paranoia, duplicity, and an aura of menace into the relations among postWW II states. ``Suspicion, distrust, and an abiding cynicism were,'' Gaddis observes, ``not only his preferred but his necessary environment.'' And while these qualities, along with an extraordinary capacity for cruelty, extended and preserved the USSR, they also, Gaddis argues, ensured its downfall. ``The killings Stalin authorized, the states he seized . . . the sphere of influence he imposed provided no lasting security for the Soviet Union.'' They inspired resistance that, when Soviet leaders lost the taste for repression, could not be contained. In a series of chapters on American and Russian conflicts in the third world, on the place of nuclear weapons in the uncertain balance of power, and on the increasingly uncomfortable relations between America and Russia and their respective allies, he does a superb job of synthesizing a wide range of sources, drawing clear and persuasive lessons from events. His reading of the motivations of figures as diverse as John F. Kennedy and Chairman Mao seems balanced and acute. Gaddis has written a lively, deeply informed summary, the most accessible and compelling guide to the international conflicts, issues, and dominant ideologies of the early Cold War era.