Custom Search


The Cold War

Interior of spy submarine HMS Ocelot

The Cold War was in some ways a waving of antlers, a struggle in which two stags face off in a display which largely avoids the necessity for actual fighting. Each side had weapons which were designed to look so frightening that they would not be used. In some ways, however, the Cold War was the complete opposite of antler waving. Antlers are up on a stag's head, clear for all to see. The nuclear weapons of the Cold War were hidden, in silos, or beneath the sea in submarines. Huge efforts went into working out if a given set of antlers were as impressive as they were made out to be. In this sense the Cold War was as much about state of mind as it was about how many missiles each side had. It was the state of mind of Russian premier Stalin, whose paranoia seemed a crucial initial driving force. A similar paranoia infected many in the West, led by figures such as Joseph McCarthy, senator for Wisconsin 1947 - 57. This was a war of illusions and delusions. It was global, and somehow existed in an individual's head. There was no spirit of the blitz. You were on your own with it.


The Cold War began as early as 1944 - 1945, during the Second World War, when Russia and the western allies were unlikely partners in the defeat of Germany. With Russia pushing in on Germany from the east, and the western allies pushing in from the west, the two sides met in May 1945 in the middle of Germany. Almost as soon as this happened, there were suspicions about Russia's future intentions. Some historians - beginning with Gan Alperovitz argued that US secretary of state James Byrnes wanted to use America's new atom bomb before the end of World War Two as a demonstration of strength to the Russians (see Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam 1965). During the Cold War the resolve to actually use atomic weapons was often questioned. In Alperovitz's view Byrnes wanted to begin any potential new struggle against Russia by demonstrating US resolve in the most graphic way possible. So, this argument suggests, even though in August 1945 the Japanese were ready to surrender, two Japanese cities were destroyed with atomic bombs as a demonstration to the Russians. This view has not been supported in its original form since the 1960s as archives have opened up. However, the testimony of senior United States officials who later regretted their actions - George Kennan, and Robert McNamara for example - to some extent supports the view that ruthless decisions were taken (see Introduction in The Cold War by S.J. Ball). Whatever the truth behind the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, Stalin undoubtedly posed a serious danger. Following the end of World War II Soviet forces did not withdraw from the areas in eastern Europe and eastern Germany which they had occupied. In fact plans were put in place for a possible invasion of western Europe. The Americans fought back not with their atomic weapons, but with aid. In a project known as the Marshall Plan, a vast amount of American money was offered to Europe, in the hope that Europe would be tied in by American money to a capitalist type economy. It was also hoped that countries helped by America would look to that country for their lead rather than the Soviet Union. Aid was even offered to Russia, but was refused. The Russians knew Marshall Plan money was meant to buy loyalty to America as well as rebuild shattered European economies. Countries in eastern Europe under Soviet control - Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary. Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania - were all forced out of the Marshall Plan by Russia. Then efforts were made to disrupt Marshall aid in western Europe, by encouraging communist trade unions to use strike action to prevent economic recovery. This policy was most successful in France where there was a virtual general strike during November 1947. It had been earlier in 1947 that democratic party representative Bernard Beruch had given a speech to the legislature of South Carolina in which he said: "Let us not be deceived. We are today in the midst of a cold war." The new conflict now had a name.


Portsmouth, scene of a famous Cold War incident when in April 1956 a navy diver named Lionel Crabb was sent by MI6 to spy on a Russian cruiser moored in the harbour. He was never seen again. According to a Portsmouth harbour guide this was the quay from which Crabb went into the water.

In Europe the threatening antlers of east and west kept an uneasy peace. In 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, and neither side felt it could risk war. But tensions boiled over at a distance, in the Korean peninsula where the American supported south of the country waged war on the communist supported north. In 1953 the Korean War eventually settled into stalemate after President Truman sacked General MacArthur, the leading proponent for expanding the war. 1953 was a turning point, bringing not only the end of the Korean war, but the death of Stalin. A number of prominent Soviet hard liners wanted to continue the Cold War in its established form, while men like Beria, Malenkov and Molotov spoke in favour of peaceful co-existence. Nikita Khrushchev, who held an intermediate position between conciliators and hard-liners, became Soviet premier. It was Khrushchev who had the difficult job of making Soviet stag antlers appear bigger than they really were. In November 1957 he claimed that the Soviet Union had twenty intercontinental ballistic missiles available, when in fact the first successful Soviet ICBM was only deployed in 1962. To make up for this shortfall Khrushchev decided on a dramatic gesture. In 1962 a number of nuclear missiles were secretly delivered to the communist island of Cuba in the Caribbean, close to the Florida coast. This led to the most dangerous phase of the Cold War. The critical moment came on 27th October 1962, when an American spy plane was shot down by hot headed Cuban gunners and feelings were running high. But the same day Khrushchev backed down. Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba in return for a secret withdrawal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey.


Through the period 1963 - 72 American policy was one of demonstrating continuing firmness, of waving its antlers vigorously. But nuclear missles continued to make poor antlers, sitting quietly in silos, and in submarines beneath the sea. A more visible demonstration of power and commitment was required. This demonstration was made in a small south east Asian country, called Vietnam. In 1960 communist North Vietnam began guerilla operations against American supported South Vietnam. The United States thought it necessary to make a public show of resistance against a small communist offensive as a statement about the wider struggle. There were those in the United States government, such as Clark Clifford and assistant secretary of state George Ball who thought the war was misguided. They argued that the result of an unwinnable guerilla war in Vietnam had little to do with the wider Cold War. But they were overruled. It seemed there had to be some sort of public war to take the place of a war that essentially could not be fought because the consequences were too terrible. Two advisors to President Kennedy - Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow - went to Vietnam in 1960, and reported back on a likely link between the two communist powers Russia and China in operations against south Vietnam. This link was almost entirely imagined since the Chinese and Russians distrusted each other almost as much as they distrusted the United States. But this was in the nature of the Cold War. It combined public antler waving along with hidden threat, and this toxic mixture could often lead to delusion. Largely on the basis of illusory fears, the Vietnam War dragged on until the US withdrew in 1972. This was a year when finally it seemed that sense might prevail. Leonid Brezhnev had taken over as Russian premier. A cautious man he increased spending on the military, whilst also making it clear that he was open to negotiation. Treaties on limitations to anti-ballistic missile systems, and limitations in the numbers of ballistic missiles - the ABM and SALT treaties - were signed by Richard Nixon in Moscow in 1972.


Cold War display at the Imperial War Museum, London

Then just as progress seemed to be made, in August 1972 Nixon was forced to resign. Under his successor Gerald Ford, the American government followed a less conciliatory policy. When Jimmy Carter took over in 1977, he made speeches about arms control and had good intentions. But all of Carter's radical proposals, taken to Moscow by Cyrus Vance in March 1977, were rejected by the Soviets. Now Carter came under pressure to adopt a hard line, and he did so. A SALT II treaty was signed in Vienna in June 1979, but the US position was nevertheless much tougher. Relations deteriorated further in December 1979 when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. This was an attempt to protect a Soviet backed communist Afghan government from muslim insurgency. Carter now saw the Soviets as potentially threatening the whole of the Middle East and its vital oil supplies. On 23rd January 1980 he declared: "Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. And such an assault will be repelled by the use of any means necessary, including military force" (quoted in The Cold War by S.J. Ball P186). 1980 saw the Moscow Olympics boycotted by the United States.


Ronald Reagan's administration continued to take a hard line. Early in 1983 the idea of the "Strategic Defence Initiative," or "Star Wars" emerged. This was a plan to use satellites to destroy in-coming Soviet missiles before they could reach targets in America. This project as well as offering the slim chance of protection would, it was hoped, push the Soviets into a programme of weapons development they could not afford. Certainly in economic terms the Soviets were losing the battle. As S.J. Ball says: "By 1981 one Soviet farm worker could feed eight people, one American farm worker could feed sixty five" (The Cold War P194). This economic mismatch was to spell the end of the Cold War. In March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed to oversee Soviet economic restructuring, but in trying to emulate America he faced an impossible task. By 1989 a tipping point was reached. Refugees were leaving Hungary through its partially opened border with Austria, and by the beginning of 1989 one million people in East Germany had applied to emigrate to the west. West Germany now offered massive economic aid to East Germany which could not possibly be matched by the Soviets. The Marshall Plan of the 1940s came to fruition as the East German government realised its future lay with the wealth on offer from West Germany. In November crowds of East Germans converged on the Berlin Wall, built to stop East German refugees flooding to the west. Panicky soldiers phoned their superiors, none of whom wanted to take responsibility for a massacre. The 9th November 1989 is the day when the Berlin Wall is considered to have fallen, and the day on which the Cold War ended. This does not quite match reality. The wall was manned by soldiers after this date, and some attempts were even made to repair it. But for all intents and purposes the war was over.

The Cold War was largely a hidden struggle of subversion, diplomatic manoeuvre and intelligence gathering. In past centuries combatants knew that a good display could sometimes avoid the need for any risky physical violence. It is surprising how many castles have been rarely, or never, used in battle. Their appearance was enough of a deterrent. Into the twentieth century things changed. The Cold War had centred itself on the idea of deterrent, but this deterrent was now hidden, invisible fears replacing big castles. Even during the Second World War leaders had given up directing operations from some impressive castle or government building. Now they sat underground, as Churchill did in the Cabinet War Rooms below Whitehall. Now there was the worry that some mistake could be interpreted as an attack and trigger a war. It seemed difficult to correctly gauge how strong an enemy was. There was a risk of lashing out in the dark, fighting an enemy that might not be coming towards you after all. Growing up during this period the war was unreal. The Cold War was global but it was also claustrophobic, fought in hidden closed places, like the spy submarine HMS Ocelot now on display at Chatham Dockyard. The Cold War was in a very real way an inner struggle. I remember worrying about it all when I was a little boy, and watching the Morecambe and Wise Show to cheer myself up.



Torpedo Room, HMS Ocelot.

There are not many places to visit relevant to the Cold War. However, there is a former Cold War bunker open in Scotland, as Scotland's Secret Bunker. The tunnels beneath Dover Castle, Kent were prepared as a headquarters in the event of nuclear attack. The upper levels of these tunnels can be visited. But HMS Ocelot at Chatham Dockyard in Kent gives in my opinion the definitive, claustrophobic Cold War experience. Clambering through the submarine it is hard to imagine living in such cramped confines for months on end. In some respects I found that Ocelot had the atmosphere, and formica surfaces, of the 1970s caravans in which I used to spend summer holidays. The captain's cabin had a flimsy little two piece door that was just like the one on our caravan. It was during a caravan holiday in Scotland as a young boy that I saw the dark shape of a British nuclear submarine sailing along Holy Loch on its way to the sea. The threat of nuclear weapons kept a lid on things, like those pressure cookers that were popular in the 1970s. My mum had a pressure cooker. It would sit and simmer for hours, the safety valve jumping every now and again.







©2006-2010 InfoBritain