The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin, $17). Gaddis is the most insightful Cold War historian of them all, and this monumental work is quite possibly his best. He writes as a historian should, without worrying about pleasing the Left or the Right, while overturning received notions with rigorous evidence and thoughtful argument.

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer (Random House, $17). This was the controversial first volume of a longer saga that Mailer did not live long enough to finish. It's told principally through the eyes of a disillusioned Central Intelligence Agency officer who's pondering the lifetime he spent battling Communism.

Arms and Influence by Thomas Schelling (Yale, $22). If you want to understand both the cleverness and the chilly pragmatism of America's Cold War strategy, read Nobel laureate Schelling's at once accessible and compelling 1966 book. You'll likely look at today's conflicts through very different eyes.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré (Penguin, $15) The novel that launched le Carré's career remains durable after half a century. A combination of character, constant forward motion, and subtle but nagging moral questions, it has not been bettered by any spy thriller since. Le Carré never doubts who the good guys are here, but he expresses serious doubts about the good guys' tactics.

The Fifties by David Halberstam (Ballantine, $18). Though Halberstam's masterpiece is not, strictly speaking, a book about the Cold War, the conflict's tensions serve as a backdrop to every chapter. This portrait of one American decade is a remarkable book — detailed and witty, with some pearl of wisdom on almost every page.

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner (Anchor, $18). Most nonfiction books about the Central Intelligence Agency are not very good. This one is outstanding. Weiner's well-researched effort proved so controversial that the CIA offered a public rebuttal. Even if the agency caught him out here or there, the overall narrative presents a powerful indictment of the inadequacy of American intelligence resources and analysis, particularly during the Cold War.

Stephen L. Carter is a novelist and Yale law professor. His new thriller, Back Channel, puts a black Ivy League student in the thick of 1962's Cuban missile crisis.