As We Enter a New Cold War, Let’s Correct Widespread Misconceptions about the Old One (Part I)

A United States Navy aircraft shadowing a Soviet freighter during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 – Public Domain

“The New Cold War: The United States, Russia, and China.” “Biden Adds to Talk of a New Cold War.” “Sliding Toward a New Cold War” “NATO’s Vilnius Summit: Hints of a New Cold War” “Russia Stands With North Korea, Communist China as New Cold War Takes Shape”

Americans are looking at a second Cold War, yet there’s little evidence that we properly understood the first one. Throughout the Cold War the American people were relentlessly propagandized, given half truths, ahistorical perspectives, and twisted interpretations, all of which successfully promoted a single world view: United States good/Soviet Union bad, capitalism good/communism bad. As author Gore Vidal explained in 1999:

“Thus were two generations of Americans treated by their overlords until, in the end, at the word ‘Communism’, there is an orgasmic Pavlovian reflex just as the brain goes dead.”

I went to high school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the short-lived détente between the US and the USSR collapsed, and the Cold War raged again. Our leaders and media were full of alarm, warning us about the “Soviet threat”, and our teachers and the other adults in our lives all seemed to agree. At the time, I did not realize how we were being misled. I believed what we were told.

On a superficial level, it’s not hard to see why I and so many others were fooled–the USSR was a dictatorship, and the bureaucratic caste which dominated it not only repressed their own people but the people of Eastern Europe as well. Moreover, the ruling Soviet bureaucracy, constrained by its own lies, crimes, myths, and half-truths, was unable to argue its own case very effectively, even on the rare occasions when it was given the opportunity to do so.

But because the USSR was wrong in some things does not mean it was wrong in everything, and it wasn’t–not even close. As they say, the problem isn’t what propagandists tell you, it’s what they don’t tell you. And in the Cold War years, there was a lot that we weren’t told. Instead, we were usually willing to believe the worst about the Soviets and their allied communist countries.


What we were told: President Richard Nixon was a shrewd politician who was the first president who was “able” to make peace with the USSR and China.

Nixon won numerous liberal and Democratic votes in his 1972 landslide largely due to this breakthrough, including those of my parents, who explained, “I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him, but I voted for him because I like his foreign policy.”

What we weren’t told: the United States could’ve had arms control and détente with the USSR whenever it wanted. There were three obstacles to a president moving in that direction:


1. The American big business class whose wealth, rule, and extensive foreign investments were threatened by communism.

2. The American military-industrial complex, whose enormous power was fed by and dependent upon the Cold War.

3. The relentless “soft on communism” demagoguery of American political leaders like Richard Nixon, until Nixon himself changed course

Why did Nixon launch détente with the USSR? After a long, losing war in Southeast Asia, the US military and the defense establishment needed a respite.

In the latter years of the Vietnam War, in addition to large-scale draft-resistance, the US’ draftee army was falling apart. Many soldiers engaged in “combat refusals”, went AWOL, and/or were on drugs. Some were even killing (“fragging”) their own officers.

The Vietnam War was one of the few wars in which the average American came to understand a fair amount about the deception and lies involved, and many Americans had “Vietnam Syndrome”–the desire to avoid new overseas military conflicts.

Moreover, the war was expensive, helping set off an inflationary spiral, and there was little sentiment for continuing high military spending.

Nixon’s détente was the perfect solution.

Nixon’s arms control agreements gave the US the breather it needed. The Soviets were agreeable because it’s what they had always sought. With an economy half the size of ours, why would they ever have wanted to go up against us in an arms race? Regardless of whatever modest scruples the Kremlin oligarchs might have had, one thing was obvious to everybody on both sides of the Iron Curtain–the money spent on each missile, each airplane, and each tank hurt the Soviets much more than it hurt us.

This respite lasted only as long as America needed it to. When we wanted it to end, the US found the necessary pretexts to junk détente and restart the Cold War.

The major pretext was the December 1979 Soviet “invasion” of Afghanistan. Imbibing the anti-Soviet hysteria of the time, I wrote a vituperative opinion column for my high school newspaper condemning the USSR’s “drive to take over the world” and calling for reinstating the draft. In reality, the Soviets were merely propping up a friendly regime on its southern border against US-armed Muslim fundamentalist rebels.

President Reagan understood that, since the arms race hurt the USSR far worse than it hurt us, it was in America’s interests to escalate it. The US launched Cold War II with a tremendous arms buildup, straining the smaller Soviet economy.

When Reagan campaigned for president in 1980, the Soviets had dismissed his hostile, overblown rhetoric, figuring that, once in office, he would cut deals, just as Nixon had. They saw détente as a long-term American policy, not a short-term maneuver. They were wrong.

Some of the Soviet people were also fooled. During my time in the Soviet Union in 1984, I was repeatedly surprised that the one American that the average Russian most wanted to toast was Richard Nixon. Why? As military spending was again vacuuming up most of the best production the USSR could muster, the Cold War-weary Soviets desperately wanted the break in hostilities of the Nixon era to continue.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

What we were told: Kennedy heroically defended the US against Soviet aggression after the USSR placed missiles in Cuba.

What we weren’t told: The Soviet installation of missiles in Cuba was a reasonable and proportional response to America’s previous deployment of Jupiter missiles on the Soviet border in Turkey, just 16 minutes from Moscow. In fact, many in the US defense establishment predicted that the Soviets would consider putting their missiles in Cuba as a response.

Churchill biographer Benjamin Schwarz explains:

“Because [Jupiter missiles] sat aboveground, were immobile, and required a long time to prepare for launch, they were…of no value as a deterrent, they appeared to be weapons meant for a disarming first strike…The Jupiters’ destabilizing effect was widely recognized among defense experts within and outside the U.S. government and even by congressional leaders.”

For instance, Senator Albert Gore Sr., an ally of the administration, told Secretary of State Dean Rusk that they were a ‘provocation’ during a closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1961, more than a year and a half before the missile crisis. He added, “I wonder what our attitude would be” if the Soviets deployed nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba.

If a Soviet leader had done what Kennedy did–pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war because the other side did to us what we had already been doing to them–we’d consider him a nuclear terrorist who pushed the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Proxy Wars & ‘Soviet Aggression & Adventurism’

What we were told: Third world revolutions and proxy wars were largely inspired by the USSR. Countries targeted by the USSR included: Nicaragua, Vietnam, Angola, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Korea, Afghanistan, and others. In its actions in the 3rd world, kindly old Uncle Sam was simply defending its “friends” against the USSR’s aggressive attempts to expand its power worldwide.

What we weren’t told: When the USSR backed sides in these 3rd world conflicts, more often than not it was the right side. While the aid they provided was at times significant, it was hardly disproportionate.

In Angola, the USSR provided material aid to Cuba. With breathtaking hypocrisy, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger decried “Cuban armed intervention in the affairs of other nations struggling to decide their own fate,” and President Ford called Castro “an international outlaw” committing a “flagrant act of aggression”. What did Cuba and the Soviets do to earn such harsh criticism? Cuban armies successfully beat back a US-sponsored invasion of Angola by apartheid South Africa.

In Nicaragua, the Soviets aided the then-popular Sandinista government in its fight against US-created and US-backed terrorists known as the “contras”.

In Vietnam, the USSR aided the Vietnamese communists’ fight to liberate country from colonialism and foreign rule, and the Vietnamese communists clearly enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Vietnamese people.

However, in Ethiopia and the Middle East, the USSR aided corrupt dictatorships, largely playing a role similar to the one the US played in backing pro-American dictatorships in dozens of countries.

In many other cases, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, the USSR generally did little to help “their side”, and the Soviet role was wildly exaggerated in order to justify US aid to brutal regimes.

Note: Part I of this column has dealt with the Soviet’s role internationally. Part II will deal with what Americans were told–and not told–about what occurred within the Soviet bloc.

Glenn Sacks teaches social studies at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was recently recognized by LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner for “exceptional levels of performance.”