Twilight Struggle: The Cold War was Not Stable or Simple


The Offshore Balancer

Gosh, I miss the Cold War,” President Bill Clinton remarked in 1993, with a chuckle. His nostalgia was serious. “We had an intellectually coherent thing. The American people knew what the rules were.” Others share Clinton’s nostalgia. When he was secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates recalled the Cold War as a “less complex time,” being “almost nostalgic” for its return. For Secretary of State John Kerry, compared to the bipolar world, “today’s world” of accelerating change and connectedness “is more complicated than anything we have experienced.” More complicated, and therefore more dangerous. Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, misses the time of rational bipolar stability when both understood mutually assured destruction, both “knew” what the other “had,” and the Soviet Union could restrain its client states. Today’s rivals in China, North Korea and Russia “are not rational, not logical, they’re nuts.”

Yet, this warm tale of a simple and stable Cold War is inaccurate and dangerous.

Politicians and professional militaries appear to see our current season of globalized insecurity as singularly complex and dangerous. As the Cold War recedes into the distant past, it becomes almost attractive compared to today’s unsettled “threat picture,” with revolutions and invisible enemies, an imploding Middle East, and repeated fiscal crises. The Cold War becomes shorthand for a yearned-for clarity, though clarity of a spartan kind. For the nostalgic, it was grim work to patrol the battlements and keep watch against the Soviet empire. But at least, the logic goes, we knew what and where the threat was. And we knew who “we” were.

There is also a whiff of condescension in this nostalgia. Alongside admiration for the “wise men” who steered the West through the crisis, the resistance behind the Iron Curtain, and the spies and militaries who guarded us in our sleep, the conceit of a simpler, more stable time reflects a tendency to look down on one’s forbears, or one’s former self. The Cold War becomes quaintly straightforward and passé. This may reflect a wider phenomenon. In 2014, the centennial of the First World War revealed that despite historians’ best efforts, folk memory still recalls the war’s participants as essentially stupid, innocents marching enthusiastically to war in the summer of 1914 expecting a short and glorious picnic, when actually they expressed a more stoic sense of duty during national emergency. We convert the dilemmas of 1914 into a parable to serve other impulses, for reassurance that we now know better. Likewise, the stable and simple Cold War appeals for reasons worth investigating.

To acknowledge a basic truth: The Cold War was a long security competition between two superpowers that defined a period in international life. It cast its shadow across the world from the escalating rivalries of the late 1940s until the collapse of the Eastern bloc and then the Soviet Union itself between 1989 and 1991. There was an obvious major adversary, and most Americans and their allies agreed it was worth containing it while it slowly rotted. For periods, there was agreement on the essentials and a degree of consensus. All this looks enviable in a time of ambiguity abroad and partisan deadlock at home.

But upon closer inspection, the wishful reminiscence and patronizing dismissal of a simpler, more stable time both fall apart. These distortions do violence to the ambiguities, danger, and demagoguery of that world. They blind us to the bloody realities of a struggle, bound up in other struggles that brought terror to nearly the entire world. The appetite for a simple and warm Cold War memory comes from troubling impulses about how to interpret and handle the present. An interrogation is due.

Let us begin at the end. Consider the unanticipated shock of the Cold War’s ending, the systemic transformation that took place with the sudden, bloodless collapse of the adversary. The sudden “peace shock” caught off guard defense intellectuals like Zbigniew Brzezinski, political scientists such as Kenneth Waltz, and historians such as John Lewis Gaddis, who had interpreted the U.S.­–Soviet order as an enduring fact of international life. The termination of the struggle surprised most intelligence agencies and most of the politically articulate class, from journalists to policymakers. If the nature and timing of the most important aspect of the conflict — its ending — fooled just about everyone, only in retrospect can the story be retold as simply predictable.

Rewinding slightly further to the final decade of the struggle, it becomes clear that the Cold War played out not as a discrete, sealed-off conflict between two giants. It was coiled within larger, interlocking historical processes, such as the unravelling of European colonial empires and the ascent of nationalisms and militant faiths. Consider the aggregation of crises that confronted policymakers in the 1980s. In the Middle East, the Iraq–Iran war raged, confronting both the Soviet Union and the United States with the problem of who to back, how to manage equilibrium in the Gulf, and how to address the threat of revolutionary Islamism. The Irish Republican Army terrorized Britain, and America’s apparent tolerance for the group’s accomplices on its soil strained relations with London. Also straining was the Falklands War, when a fascist junta Washington had courted invaded the sovereign territory of America’s leading ally. Questions of lesser and greater evils loomed also over South Africa, as “constructive engagement” with white supremacists tainted the reputation of anti-communism with the charge of complicity in colonialism. Indeed, to conflate the two was a conscious Soviet strategy, and victims of re-education camps in Vietnam discovered that a commitment to third-world liberation did not cancel out the methods of Stalinism.

Since the conflict over decolonization and racial emancipation was complicating the issue, the Cold War in its more divisive moments did not furnish the clarity now attributed to it. The cast of leading players outside Moscow and Washington were shaped by the violent demise of white European empire, and the possibilities this opened up: Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Mohandas Gandhi, just as their opponents, like France in Algeria or Portugal in Mozambique, had more than anti-communism on their minds. America’s war in Vietnam brought together several crises. The burden of an expensive and divisive war ran into and reinforced its own racial conflicts and social divides.

Visions of the Cold War as a tidy world of patrons governing clients or of central powers dominating their orbits imply that weaker states were passively willing to allow the Cold War to freeze over them. But over time, such clients became harder to manage. The most effective players of the non-aligned movement, such as Nasser, effectively tilted between and triangulated against the superpowers, while even loyal satellites on either side of the Korean peninsula could still play on their patron’s fears of collapse, thereby wagging the dog.

On other reasonable measures, the Cold War was not significantly more simple nor stable. As Robert Golan-Viella observes, the “challenges” John Kerry cites as distinctive in our time were worse during the Cold War era. Nuclear proliferation was a pressing concern, and most of the proliferation that has ever taken place happened during those decades. U.S. policymakers considered anticipatory strikes against China and even debated pre-emptive war against the Soviet Union. The annual number of refugees worldwide rose greatly between 1960 and 1992, when it reached 17.8 million — compared to 13 million last year. The greater Middle East endured severe conflicts, from Israel’s occupation of Lebanon to the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Is this the world policymakers miss?

The master strategic concept of “containment” proved to be ambiguous. It was a coherent basis for some far-reaching initiatives, from NATO to the Marshall Plan. Beyond that, it was the question rather than the answer. The concept’s intellectual father, George Kennan, despaired when what was supposed to be a selective and restrained doctrine grew, against the alarm created by the Korean War, to be universal and militarized. Containment could mean a discriminate “strong-point” defense, the holding of vital military-industrial centers to preserve a balance, or it could mean a more indiscriminate “perimeter” defense, the checking of every Soviet probe for fear of dominoes falling, the kind of posture codified in NSC-68.

And what counted as the adversary? The memory of a clear opponent in a bipolar world loses sight of the intensive debate over Asian communism and the unknown of how much control Moscow actually enjoyed. How exactly would the threat manifest itself? Even against this straightforward question there were several answers. Other than direct aggression, Cold Warriors might focus on “salami slicing.” They might look to the prospect of communist parties seizing power peacefully in free elections in war-ravaged Japan or Western Europe. Or they might fear that failure to act against expansion at the periphery (say, in Vietnam) might erode credibility and lead to allies appeasing Moscow. Were the dominoes material and territorial, or were they psychological and therefore susceptible to falling beyond contiguous territories? How could one conduct this amorphous conflict over time without exhausting oneself? Today’s leaders bemoan that threats come from everywhere and nowhere, but knowing where the Soviet Union was located was not much consolation. That only indicated the target in a mutually cataclysmic conflict. We know too that the Islamic State is hostile to the West and we know where its headquarters are located, but that doesn’t make it easy to determine how to secure ourselves against it effectively at an acceptable cost.

The intelligence and propaganda wars, too, are strangely neglected in the “stability” narrative. Part of the problem lies in the emphasis on the exterior, in the form of a stable militarized dividing line in Europe, with static and tacitly agreed spheres. This captures only part of the conflict, however. Thanks to the Venona decrypts, we now know how thoroughly the Soviet Union penetrated the U.S. government and its nuclear program in the early Cold War. The formal military front might have firmed up, stabilized, and become mutually agreed upon by the mid-Cold War, but the actual strategic boundaries were not clear and not reducible to the Berlin Wall. Fears of enemy fifth columns could be hysterical and demagogic, but did not draw entirely on fiction. Neither side was content to stop its advances at the border.

The memory of the stable Cold War also falsely links deterrence with stability. The avoidance of direct war rested on mutual deterrence, which in the nuclear age effectively meant threatening genocide in order to prevent genocide. But it was hard to yolk deterrence to stability. Deterrence, in fact, did not yield strategic stability, at least for lengthy periods. The pursuit of deterrence, on the rationale that security could be achieved through mutual vulnerability, spawned instability. It grew through unstable interactions and conditions: through a fear that capabilities were unequal and disparate, through arms competitions and technological development, through a fear of having an inferior nuclear arsenal, and through a fear that one’s assured capacity to retaliate was threatened. This is why the United States attempted two strategic initiatives to “offset” Soviet conventional military advantages: the “New Look” strategy of nuclear build-up in the early 1950’s, and the mid-1970’s effort to exploit precision munitions, stealth and reconnaissance to destroy forces behind the lines.

The pursuit of deterrence was not sufficient to prevent both sides coming to the brink. A series of high-stakes nuclear near-misses was caused by fear, misperception, false alarms, or system errors. In 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff pressed the Kennedy administration to attack Cuba, not knowing that Soviet combat forces possessed nuclear-tipped missiles and were authorized to use them, and a Soviet submarine commander who believed the war had started had to be dissuaded by fellow officers not to fire a nuclear torpedo. At other moments, warning systems misidentified the moon, a flock of geeseand military exercises as nuclear attacks. Do these cases show deterrence ultimately succeeding, with the help of luck? Yes. But narrowly avoiding nuclear war and having one’s school designated as a nuclear bomb shelter is not a reassuringly stable existence.

Each side rarely knew what weapons the other possessed with sufficient certainty, let alone their intentions and how they might use their arsenal. Indeed, reliable knowledge of what the enemy possesses and how it might use it (or not) could be even more dangerous by enabling one side to neutralize its opponent’s second-strike capability. Deterrence relied upon a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty in order to ensure a credible threat of retaliation. The flip-side of that coin was that ambiguity made threat inflation possible too. Deterrence is not a mechanical system that can be designed into existence — it depends on the will of the subject to remain deterred. Periodically, on both sides of the line, powerful voices insisted that this was too fragile to be counted on, that the enemy was striving not for stable co-existence but war-winning capabilities, and that therefore the United States should too. The possible failure of deterrence haunted governments and societies for decades, prompting debate about how far to jeopardize the stable structures of peace by aiming for victory, preparing the ability to neutralise the opponent’s retaliatory capabilities and survive a nuclear strike. So deterrence existed only within an unstable framework of co-operation and competition, self-restraint, and racing for advantage, skill, and luck.

If simplicity and stability are relative rather than absolute concepts, the point of reference for the central actors and observers at the time was World War II. Two public intellectuals who coined the phrase “Cold War,” Bernard Baruch and Walter Lippmann, used it to refer to a strange and contradictory kind of conflict that collapsed categories of war and peace, sharply at odds with the world war just passed. Nuclear weapons made the large rivals effectively unconquerable at the price of infusing the peace with permanent insecurity in an age of ideological struggle. Kennedy captured the paradoxical nature of the time by calling it a long “twilight struggle” — “not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are.”

For Europeans and Americans, it was World War II that looked more and more like a brutally simple prehistory, a direct conflict launched with formal declarations and terminated with formal surrenders. Despite its unimaginable horror, it attracted nostalgia. British spy literature of the Cold War, pessimistic visions of a world of decline and betrayal, suggest so. Protagonists looked back on “the war” as the last honorable and relatively simple conflict, as the benchmark against which to judge what came after, a low, corrupting, and seemingly unending crisis. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the Sovietologist Connie recalls the war of 1939–1945 as “a good time … a real time. Englishmen could be proud then.” That this consoling view of World War II was fantasy — a war with its share of deceits and moral compromises — is a caution to today’s efforts to oversimplify the past.

Why does this matter? To indulge the false memory of a simple and stable time is one of the ideological pillars of a delusion — that because our times are singularly dangerous and complex, this warrants extraordinary measures, from vast increases in state power to a ceaseless call to arms. To consign strategic “rationality” to the Cold War museum, and to assume that today’s adversaries are “just nuts” is to risk the rejection of diplomacy itself. There is not much evidence that the regimes of Pyongyang, Moscow, Tehran, or Beijing are ruled by reckless lunatics. Their pattern of behavior, if anything, suggests a determination to survive and make careful calculations. The mix of policy responses must strike a careful balance of coercion and diplomacy — as did strategy during the Cold War. In the increasing alarm being voiced about a world unravelling, it is worth contemplating the advice of James Dobbins, that today’s disorder is troubling but not appreciably worse than the crises the West has managed since 1945. To be sure, our times are more dangerous than the period between 1991 and 2001, but still less threatening and difficult than the struggle with a nuclear-armed totalitarian enemy. A little proportion is due.

Finally, a more speculative suggestion: The notion of an exceptionally dangerous present does more than merely sidestep the proportionate measurement of threats. It supplies something hinted at in the “Je suis Charlie” movement, the longing for a collective banner of self-identification to rally around, a threat-level so grave that it defines us. Ever since the Soviet Union perished, the question of who we, the West, “are” has never been settled. The craving for Cold War simplicity that never really existed, is the 21st-century version of the Kriegsgemeinschaft ideal of 1914, the nation as tribe rediscovering its shared self through conflict, with Islamist terrorists or resurgent Russia as the demons to rally against.

The complexities of memory are endless — stories change, perspectives shift, survivors die, and the history never sits still, as policymakers invoke the past to legitimize and delegitimize action in the present. But one simple difference divides the Cold War as it was experienced and the Cold War as it is remembered. At the time, nobody knew the future. Nobody knew where things were headed, either temporally (when?) or substantively (how?). Only because the struggle ended with liberal democracies triumphant, without a major war, is it possible for the victors to tell a gratifying story of a stable time. In coping with today’s ambiguous security environment, there will be sources of wisdom to draw on. Cold War nostalgia, closely allied with condescension, is not one of them.


Professor Patrick Porter is the academic director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter.  He is the author of The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power.