The good old days of the Cold War

Paul Kennedy is a professor of history and the director of international security studies at Yale University, and the author of "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers."

IT WAS FUNNY, in a grim sort of way. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates responded to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s polemical attack on the United States by remembering the 50-year Cold War as a “less complex time” and saying he was “almost nostalgic” for its return.

Gates should know. He himself is the quintessential Cold Warrior, having served nearly 27 years in the Central Intelligence Agency (facing off against the likes of Putin, who was for 17 years an agent in the foreign intelligence branch of the Soviet KGB). So we should take him seriously when he suggests that the problems of 20 or 30 years ago were in some ways more manageable than our current global predicament.

Nor is he alone. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia these days for the familiar contours of that bygone conflict, which has been replaced by a much more murky, elusive and confusing age.


The argument goes as follows: The Cold War, although unpleasant, was inherently stable. It was a bipolar world — centered on Washington and Moscow — and, as UC Berkeley political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued, it was much more predictable than, say, the shifting, multipolar world of the 1910s or 1930s, decades that were followed by calamitous wars. Yes, it’s true that the two sides possessed masses of nuclear weapons aimed at each other’s biggest cities, but the reality is that they were constrained by a mutual balance of terror.

They had divided Europe and divided Asia, and no one, except in the Korean War, crossed those lines. Even that conflict confirmed the essential stasis. Of course, they carried out surrogate wars — in Asia, Africa and Central America, in Vietnam and Afghanistan — but they never came into direct conflict. Hot lines, summit conferences and SALT treaties kept things under control. Polish and Czech dissidents might get tossed into prison but, hey, that was not a cause for an international crisis. Those were indeed the good old days. East was East and West was West.

Today’s world is far less stable and indeed much less favorable to the comfortable Western democracies. It is not just that we face an almost-impossible-to-manage “war on terrorism,” with all of its capacities for asymmetrical damage to ourselves, our allies and everyone else, even as we swat the occasional terrorist group. It is not just that we are deeply mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the whole Middle East may totter because of the failure (one hopes not, but let’s not blink) to win on the ground. It is not just that we haven’t a clue how to deal with the present, disturbing Iranian regime. It is not just that we haven’t the energy to block Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez from his arrogant anti-American policies across Latin America.

It is not just that Putin is advertising his anger against the United States in speeches and continuing his manipulation of global oil and gas prices, his support of Iran, his intrusions into the Middle East. It is not just that the Chinese leadership is openly staking a new place in the world order, in its Africa diplomacy, its missile tests and its move into hitherto Western-dominated international institutions. And it is not just that a dozen or more fragile states, chiefly in Africa, are collapsing into chaos, while various other societies, chiefly in South America, are unraveling. It is the unnerving fact that all of this is happening at the same time, though at different speeds and different levels of intensity.

So is it true? Was the Cold War era, on the whole, a safer era? Ponder the following counterarguments:

First, however tricky our relationships with Putin’s Russia and President Hu Jintao’s China are nowadays, the prospect of our entering a massive and mutually cataclysmic conflict with either nation are vastly reduced.

We seem to have forgotten that our right-wing hawks argued passionately for “nuking” communist China during the Korean War and again during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1954. We also have apparently forgotten — although newly released archival evidence overwhelmingly confirms this — how close we came to a nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Likewise, we’ve forgotten the shock of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which prompted then-German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to ask, “Is this the new Sarajevo?” a reference to the outbreak of World War I. And who still remembers 1984-85, when we were riveted by Jonathan Schell’s argument in the New Yorker that even a few nuclear explosions would trigger such dust storms as to produce a “nuclear winter”?

Those were really scary times, and much more dangerous than our present circumstance because the potential damage that could be inflicted during an East-West conflagration was far, far greater than anything that Al Qaeda can do to us now. No one has the exact totals, but we probably had 20,000 missiles pointed at each other, often on high alert. And the threat of an accidental discharge was high.

None of today’s college-age students were born in 1945, 1979 or maybe even 1984. None lived with those triangular signs proclaiming their schools to be nuclear bomb shelters.

To recapture those frightening atmospherics these days, university professors must resort to showing Cold War movies: “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Fail Safe,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “Five Days in May,” “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” Students look rather dumbfounded when told that we came close, on several occasions, to World War III.

Yet what if, for example, Josef Stalin had prevented American and British supply aircraft from flying into Berlin in 1948-49? Phew! The years 1945 to, say, 1990 were horrible on other accounts. China’s Mao Tse-tung’s ghastly Great Leap Forward led to as many as 30 million deaths, the greatest loss of life since the Black Death. The Soviet Union was incarcerating tens of thousands of its citizens in the gulags, as were most of the other members of the Warsaw Pact. The Indo-Pakistan wars, and the repeated conflicts between Israel and its neighbors, produced enormous casualties, but nothing like the numbers that were being slaughtered in Angola, Nigeria, the Congo, Vietnam and Cambodia. Most of the nations of the world were “un-free.”

It is hard to explain to a younger generation that such delightful countries as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Poland and Czechoslovakia (to name only a few) were run in those days by fascist generals, avowed racists or one-party totalitarian regimes. I am ancient enough to remember the long list of countries I would not visit for summer holidays; old enough to recall how creepy it was to enter Walter Ulbricht’s East German prison house of a state via Checkpoint Charlie in the late 1960s. Ugh.

Let us not, then, wax too nostalgic about the good old days of the Cold War. Today’s global challenges, from Iraq to Darfur to climate change, are indeed grave and cry out for solutions.

But humankind as a whole is a lot more prosperous, a great deal more free and democratic and a considerable way further from nuclear obliteration than we were in Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy’s time. We should drink to that.