“Did anyone really win the Cold War?” was the question that Samantha Jones asked after the recent shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. After all, many assume that as the USSR collapsed in 1991, the US won the Cold War. Instead, Samantha argues that nobody really won this war. Here she explains why.

 

With the recent shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, tensions in some ways similar to those felt during the Cold War are once again being raised upon the world stage. With President Putin’s reaction to the crisis and the obvious Russian military presence between the border of Russia and Ukraine, this hostility links back to events and ideologies that brought about the Cold War. Once again the rivalries between various countries have influenced nations and people worldwide. No longer is this a matter of communism versus capitalism, or socialism versus democracy, but is instead a power struggle that goes beyond two major superpowers. The aftermath and rivalries from the Cold War are still present today. Why? Perhaps it is because the Cold War was a war that had no final end without a final winner.

An East German soldier guarding the newly-formed Berlin Wall in August 1961.

An East German soldier guarding the newly-formed Berlin Wall in August 1961.

AN UNUSUAL WAR

The Cold War was a war that was never won. Despite the massive cost and time spent on the conflict, little physical confrontation occurred between the super-powers. This was not a normal war. Simply put, the Cold War was a series of cooling, warming and frosty interactions between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States (US). Although these superpowers are said to be the big players, the hostility between these countries caused a catalyst for revolutionary worldwide events and issues. It involved the Third World, the Middle East and the Western sphere of influence. From the aftermath of World War Two, a vicious rivalry between communism and capitalism arose, bringing the world into a new age of technological warfare with nuclear weaponry. Welcome to the modern world.

It is widely believed that owing to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US won the Cold War by default. But this really is not the case. By analyzing the physical conflicts, technological aspects and scale of this worldwide conflict, one can see the deep layering and complications to this. To have a winner, one must have a loser. But what did the US win? It did not receive any territory, reparation payments or a formal apology from the USSR. It was a war with no surrender or defeat. Yes the Berlin Wall came down and yes the USSR is no longer a communist nation. However, this does not mean the US won the Cold War. In my opinion the Cold War has no winner, which is why remnants of the conflict continue today.

For a world war there was very little physical confrontation in regard to the scale of the conflict. In no way do I mean any disrespect to those that did fight during the Cold War; however in comparison to the world wars, the armed struggle was small. The Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are probably the most noted military contests during this time. Even so, both superpowers were defeated in Vietnam and Afghanistan and retreated after a series of long battles and the loss of many human lives. Also, both superpowers were overcome by an enemy that was not the USSR or the US. Of course the presence of each superpower was evident behind the battleground, such as supplying resources, aid and even initiating certain conflicts. But in a physical sense, it hardly seems reasonable to announce a winner when both the USSR and the US failed to decisively win militarily during the Cold War.

 

GLOBAL BATTLE, UNCLEAR WINNER

As mentioned before, the Cold War was also a revolutionary conflict in terms of technology, truly introducing the world to nuclear weaponry. The Space Race and the Hydrogen Bomb reveal how warfare took on a new meaning at this time. In this sense, the Cold War was a war that almost happened, or a war that could have been. What I mean by this is that it is a real victory for both superpowers as they decided not to use this form of weaponry against each other on a massive scale. Since neither superpower actually used their nuclear weapons and this war was not fought in outer space, the US does not deserve the title of ‘winner’ in this particular arena.

Lastly it is quite insular and ignorant to believe that the Cold War was only fought between the USSR and the US; therefore to announce one winner is incorrect. The crises in the Middle East, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the rise of Mao’s China, the Korean War, the Berlin Wall, the imposition of communism on Eastern Europe, and numerous nations fighting for their independence can all be connected to the Cold War. Countless personalities and politicians outside these two superpowers were involved in continuing and trying to stop this worldwide division. It was not just an ideological struggle between the democratic capitalists and the dictatorial communists. After World War Two the world entered into a period that broke with traditions of the past, such as colonization. The extreme layering in each piece of the Cold War puzzle does not add up to one clear victory. It is unjust and unfair to only include the US and the USSR in this debate and the question of who won.

As one could write an entire book on this subject, I have only touched the tip of the iceberg here. Hindsight tells us that the Cold War was unlike any other war in history for so many reasons – including that there was no clear winner or loser. Yes the USSR collapsed, but this was not due to any direct action caused by the US, rather domestic issues rotting the superpower from within. And yes the capitalist US did survive when the USSR did not, but just what did it gain? Reagan’s large increase in military spending in the 1980s caused the US to greatly increase its debt as well as use methods that can be argued to be crimes against humanity.

And was it worth it? After all this, parts of the world are still at war, the US and Russia aren’t friends, small nations are fighting for their independence in civil wars, and superpowers continue to dominate those that are weak. It seems that not much was learned from the Cold War.

 

Do you agree with Samantha’s argument? Did the Cold War not have a winner? Let us know your thoughts below…

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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I thought that I would be refreshing my knowledge for this blog post. But, it would be much more than that. The Great Powers blog post took me back to the depths of organized civilization. I mused, “that’s history in a nut-shell – it goes very far back.”

That is a very obvious thing to think.

Personally, I’ve read about the great powers, most notably in Paul Kennedy’s classic, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Amazon US | Amazon UK), but what I didn’t realize were the sheer number of Great Powers over the centuries, especially in the pre-European age (by which I mean, the age before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas). Sure, I was aware of the Mongols and the great Ancient Empires, but there are so many powerful empires in history.

The history of the Great Powers is truly a history of the world. Even in a world as disconnected as that of 100AD. Of course, in 100AD it was hard for leaders to control territory as effectively as they do now, or to quickly send armies to far flung parts of the globe, but nonetheless there were Great Empires that controlled large parts of the densely populated parts of the earth.

There were great Ancient Empires in many parts of Asia, from Babylonia in the Middle East to China in the Far East, while there were also several great African Empires amongst others.

And then I remembered

Ethiopia 2 069.JPG

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit to some of the lesser visited regions of the globe. And soon enough, it hit me. I remembered learning about some of these kingdoms. Take the Axumite Kingdom (or the Kingdom of Aksum). It consisted of parts of several modern-day countries in Africa and the Middle East, and came into being sometime around 100AD. I visited the town of Axum, in northern Ethiopia, the former capital. The main site that remains from the days of the Axumite Kingdom is a series of stelae in many fields within and around the town. While there I was told about Axum’s Ancient glories, but it was hard to recognize that this was the center of a truly Great Power. It was only when I started to read more about it that I understood its importance as a base between modern-day Egypt and India.

The same thing happened when I visited Georgia (the country, not the state!). While there I was told of it’s (albeit quite brief) glorious age, but again I found myself surprised on finding out about its regional influence during the Georgian Golden Age around the year 1200.

Not truly Great Powers, but..

A great power can be defined as a country that has significant extra-territorial influence, but there is a problem that I have when thinking about countries such as Georgia in the year 1200 as Great Powers. And this is in spite of being well-read in the European Great Powers over the past centuries.

The problem is the Cold War. I compare such powers to the USSR and USA, and think of how little influence they actually had outside of their own regions. But, that is why the USA and USSR were known as super-powers, not merely Great Powers.

There’s most certainly a lesson here. History stretches back a very long way and just because things are as they are now, it doesn’t mean they’ve always been that way. By which I mean, the word super-power was coined for a reason.

Anyway, the point of this blog post was to provide an introduction to the two powers in the Cold War as an introduction to some posts covering topics in the Cold War. I guess that I will have to do a post on the super-powers first now.

“Oh, why must history go so very far back?”, I just lamented.

Is there a Great Power that intrigues you?

If so, please tell us a little about it so that we can learn something from you!

George Levrier-Jones

 

This post was written as part of a regular series of (sometimes) humorous introductions to topics in history as part of ‘117-second History’.

We discuss how the USA and USSR emerged as Great Powers (or super-powers), in our book, “Cold War History - To the brink of nuclear destruction - From World War 2 to the Cuban Missile Crisis - Part 1: 1945-1962 (Required History)” - available by clicking here.