Fear and the Cold War

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US nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. Air Force Museum. Public Domain.

Accidental wars

World War I started by accident in 1914. A disgruntled Serb, Gavrilo Princip, killed the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which brought Russia on the side of Serbia. Soon, all of Europe and the Middle East and the United States, were fighting a meaningless trench and chemical warfare global conflict that killed millions and wrecked Europe and the world. The war came to an end in 1918. It destroyed the Austrian Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Turkish empires, as well those of Belgium and England. The war set Russia on fire over privileges and communism, with communism triumphant. The communist government killed the Russian monarchy in favor of an imaginary workers’ communist state, which called itself Soviet Union.

The bomb of extinction

WWI also sowed the seeds for another global mayhem in late 1930s and early 1940s. A German fanatic, Hitler, started World War II. This man hated the Jews so much that he exterminated some six million of them in German concentration camps / factories of death. Moreover, Hitler and his troops pushed Europe into the dark ages. Soviet Union joined England and the United States and defeated the monstrous Germans. The United States defeated imperial Japan, but not before August 1945, when it wiped out two large Japanese cities, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, with a new weapon that smashed the primordial form of matter, the atom. This “atomic” bomb was the first of its kind in the history of warfare. It was extremely powerful and destructive, well beyond human understanding and ethics, even in the savage ways people kill each other.

It did not take long before the atomic bomb became the nuclear / hydrogen bomb, a thousand times more destructive than the atomic bomb. And, of course, the secrets of bomb making passed to the Soviet Union. This infuriated America so much that, in no time, the communist Soviet Union that lost about 30 million soldiers and civilians to the savagery of the Germans, was America’s new enemy. The US government excused its insane armaments race to the fear of communism. It founded NATO to face off the communist Soviet Union and its communist recruits in Eastern Europe, the so-called Warsaw Pact. The entire world was put in peril, what with the ceaseless testing and creation of nuclear bombs, stockpiling them in America and the Soviet Union like sardines in a can. Both America and the Soviet Union spent unfathomable sums of money and technical talent for preparing themselves for Armageddon. Accidents happened, several times the satellites and computers predicted falsely incoming missiles loaded with nuclear bombs. The decades of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s had reversed human life and culture to the madness of the bomb of the Cold War, the nuclear bomb hanging over civilization and the planet, literally, by a thread.

Nuclear bombs in Cuba

I arrived in the United States in 1961, completely ignorant and oblivious of the bomb. I watched on television the high drama of the discovery of Russian missiles and nuclear weapons in Cuba. Fortunately, both President John Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev understood the trap and dangers of nuclear war. They met and talked and ended the deadly confrontation. The Soviet Union returned its bombs and missiles home, and the United States took its missiles and bombs from Turkey. Five months after Kennedy denounced war and praised peace to the students of the American University in Washington, DC, he was assassinated in Texas (November 22, 1963). Khrushchev was removed from power. America and the Soviet Union entered the dark age of fear of the bomb. The Cold War became chilly. Barbarism covered America, Europe and the Soviet Union. American enthusiasts of the bomb taught children to hide under wooden desks to avoid exploding nuclear weapons. Eventually, the US government realized that such measures were utterly stupid. They abandoned them in favor of digging shelters in mountains for the government.

Netflix is rewriting the history of the Cold War

In several hours of a documentary, Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War, Netflix tried to depict the history of the Cold War. I watched this lengthy story with great interest and disappointment. It brought me back to my studies in history at the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin. In addition to Greek history, I took graduate classes in Russian and Soviet history. So, seeing the pictorial representation of the Cold War and hearing the accounts of experts jarred me as if I was waking up from a nightmare. The first four hours of the documentary focused on the monster bomb, its birth in the brains of “atomic” scientists, all fired up by WWII and the unthinkable possibility German scientists might give the bomb to Hitler. So, American scientists under the administration of Robert Oppenheimer won the race and built the atomic bomb in the deserts of New Mexico. But the military grabbed the bomb and detonated two of them in August 1945 over Japan. Those explosions showed defeated Japan and the Soviet Union and the rest of the world that America was the bomb hegemon of planet Earth.

The Netflix documentary brought out the unbelievable idiocy of the heads of American and Soviet governments embracing death in the form of the shining bombs. Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist government of the Soviet Union, saved the day — temporarily. He saw through the unacceptable dangers of the bomb and the Cold War. He met with President Ronald Reagan and the two heads of state hit it off. They agreed to reduce the huge stockpiles of the bomb. And had it not been for Reagan’s delusion of a nuclear shield around America, Gorbachev and Reagan might have brought the bomb to extinction. But it did not work out. The bomb business as usual dominates global politics.

Propaganda for the war in Ukraine

The last four parts of the Netflix documentary explain why. Gorbachev’s glasnost (transparency) / perestroika (reformation) expired soon after he foolishly allowed the reunification of the two Germanies.

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Perestroika / Reformation on a Soviet postage stamp of 5 kopek in 1998. Public Domain.

Gorbachev obviously did not think of the consequences of weakening, in fact, dismembering the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact disappeared but its enemy, America’s NATO, did not. Then the military coup against Gorbachev and the rise of Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin all but dissolved the Soviet Union into a dangerous Third World country. For example, the Netflix documentary reported that during the disastrous administration of Yeltsin, Soviet Kazakhstan was peddling purified uranium to the highest bidder. The US sent a cargo airplane in 1994 and bought for 30 million dollars bomb-ready uranium enough for dozens of nukes that would have cost billions to refine.

Yeltsin probably was aware his country was collapsing. In an act of desperation and wisdom, he appointed Vladimir Putin in his place. But the damage was done. America went back to its promises not to recruit former Soviet republics to its NATO camp. It did. President Obama displayed not a little ignorance of Russian history and hubris when he said Russia was merely a regional power. The bone of contention has been Ukraine. And it is Ukraine that muddles the Netflix documentary. Its producers made it a propaganda film against Russia and Putin. That way, Biden’s war against Putin receives lots of misleading support. Unfortunately, the Ukraine war has fired up the Cold War. The future of America and humanity, once again, is shrouded by war games and accidents. We simply refuse to learn from history.

I urge policy makers and concerned citizens to read Thucydides. They will feel the fear of Russia was not that much different than that of Sparta. And they are bound to recognize the hubris of the United States follows that of Athens. The war in Ukraine is another version of the Peloponnesian War, which in our time is known as the Cold War. The problem, of course, is that this Cold War draws inspiration from the bomb, that is death. For the sake of civilization and our children, we need to come to our senses and bring this war to an end.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.