“How can you have a war without a war?”, a listener asked me a few months ago. “If the Cold War was a war, can’t any type of diplomatic activity against another country be called a cold war?”
“Touché”, I said, in part being polite and in part as they had a point.
The Cold War is a misnomer if ever there was one.
The battle for the world
The Cold War was probably the most intense, long-term battle that the world has ever known. Only, in ways different to other battles.
This battle, this war, was between the USA and the USSR and lasted from the end of World War 2 until (about) 1991. The USA emerged from the ashes of World War 2 as the world’s supreme power, but the Soviet Union, although greatly weakened by that war, was the second most powerful. And these two powers had opposing systems – democracy and dictatorship, capitalism and Communism. This great difference is perhaps most famously (and most partisanly) summed up by Ronald Reagan, in his ‘Evil Empire’ speech in 1983:
“They preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth. They are the focus of evil in the modern world.... So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
On re-reading that, this led me to a different conclusion.
The term Cold War isn’t a misnomer – what made this Cold War different was its size, reach, and the ideological differences of the two countries that opposed each other. The two powers never came to direct blows, in large part due to the advent of nuclear weapons, but they did battle each other in all corners of the world on an unprecedented scale.
Do the Berlin Airlift, Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin Wall, Vietnam War, Korean War, nuclear weapons, the SALT negotiations, the Renewed Cold War, and the Prague Spring ring any bells? The Communists and the US faced off against each other in all of these battles, but were ultimately able to avoid war, although equally able to avoid peace.
The Cold War was so much more than a war though. It also involved humor. Well, a bit.
But the Cold War wasn’t all serious
There were indeed some humorous incidents, like the time that Chinese leader Mao, met Soviet leader Khrushchev in the swimming pool, or the time that an 18-year-old German pilot, Mathias Rust, managed to evade Soviet defense systems and land a small aircraft in central Moscow.
But, the scariest and funniest (if you like really dark humor) events of the Cold War were the near nuclear misses. Nuclear weapons radar systems were not terribly advanced, shall we say, meaning that the super-powers came to the brink of launching weapons against each other on far too many occasions. We can and should learn something from all this, right?
Well, let’s hope modern world leaders have read up on their history. And that they think the term Cold War isn’t a misnomer. Better still (if rather cheekily), that they’ve listened to our podcasts..
Who was the greatest figure involved in the Cold War?
We may be asking the impossible here. There are so many choices for so many reasons, but do let us know what you think below!
This is the first in a regular series
of (sometimes) humorous introductions to topics in history as part of the
‘117-second History’ blog. The Cold War History series of podcasts is
available by clicking here. Episode 1 in that series is available below.