The term “cold war” goes back to a 14th-century medieval writer named Don Juan Manuel, who referred to the uneasy peace between Muslims and Christians in Spain. But it was George Orwell, in a piece titled “You and the Atomic Bomb,” who applied the term as we know it best to the protracted economic, geopolitical and ideological battle between the United States, the Soviet Union and their shifting allies.
The precise dates of the Cold War are the subject of debate, though most agree that it began at some point in the summer of 1945 and continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Whatever the case, it dominated global politics and culture for the entire second half of the 20th century, and its effects are ongoing.
To bring you up to speed, we present five things you didn’t know about the only war that categorically could have ended all wars through total and complete annihilation -- the Cold War.
1- It cost the U.S. about $8 trillion
Eminent foreign relations historian Walter LaFeber has put the U.S. military expenditures bill for the Cold War at around $8 trillion. This is a reasonable figure when you take into consideration wars in Korea and Vietnam; intervention in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Chile, Grenada, and elsewhere; psychological warfare through covert CIA operations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Radio Free Europe; and, of course, the research, development, testing, and construction of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons (at a high point in the late 1960s, both the U.S. and the USSR were each spending $50 million a day on those weapons).
By way of comparison, the U.S. is currently spending roughly $8 billion per month on the war in Iraq. Money spent on the Cold War could fund that operation for another 80 years.
2- It was predicted by Adolf Hitler
Historian John Lewis Gaddis’ We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History begins with Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous 1835 Cold War prediction, and follows it with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s lesser-known 1945 one, quoted from Francois Genoud’s 1961 work, The Testament of Adolf Hitler: The Hitler-Bormann Documents:
“… there will remain in the world only two Great Powers capable of confronting each other -- the United States and Soviet Russia. The laws of both history and geography will compel these two Powers to a trial of strength, either military or in the fields of economics and ideology. These same laws make it inevitable that both Powers should become enemies of Europe. And it is equally certain that both these Powers will sooner or later find it desirable to seek the support of the sole surviving great nation in Europe, the German people.”
With Hitler, it always comes back to Germany, but considering the intense Cold War battleground that Berlin became, he was more right than wrong on this one.
3- Its first casualty was a Christian missionary
In 1942, John Morrison Birch was working in occupied China as a Christian missionary when, by accident, he came to the rescue of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his Tokyo Raiders, who had to bail out during the Doolittle Raid, the first U.S. aerial raid on Japanese soil. The men had been hiding from Japanese troops and Birch led them to safety. Doolittle hooked Birch up with his CO, who noted that Birch’s experience and contacts in China, along with his command of Mandarin, would make him an outstanding intelligence resource. From then until the end of the war in the Pacific, Birch served with distinction in the U.S. 14th Air Force.
Just 10 days after Japan officially surrendered on August 15, 1945, Birch was sent by the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) on a mission within China. There, he and the men he led ran into a group of Chinese communists who took them prisoner and ultimately executed Birch. As a result, many regard him as the Cold War’s first causality.
4- It ended in part because of Apple
The hobbyist culture and the economic flexibility in the U.S., both largely absent in the Soviet Union and Soviet-bloc countries, encouraged guys like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to take on industry giants like IBM. As a result, the information age erupted, spreading information that wasn’t spun by news outlets or crafted by governments into propaganda, but expressed by everyday citizens.
The most remarkable testament to this comes from Professor Karen Dawisha, director of Miami University’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. Dawisha quotes a Czech microcomputer maker in the mid-1980s moaning about the impact of PCs: “With these computers comes not only technology, but also ideology… Children might soon begin to believe that Western technology represents the peak and our technology is obsolete and bad… [I]n 10 years’ time it will be too late to change our children. By then they will want to change us.”
5- At one point, the U.S. had more communists on its side than the USSR
In 1969, the CIA concluded that there was no possibility of an alliance with the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, Soviet troops were exchanging gunfire with Chinese troops along their shared border, leading China to wonder how far the Soviets would take the aggression, and further, what they could do to prevent it. The solution was to open discussions with their most imminent new enemy’s biggest enemy: the U.S.
Meanwhile, the U.S. wanted China in their corner regarding their increasing troop commitment in Vietnam. President Nixon’s 1972 trips to China proved a diplomatic coup for both countries, and following them both, Henry Kissinger penned a memo to Nixon calling China “a tacit ally,” swinging 870 million communists to the U.S. side. This shaky alliance is considered a pivotal moment in bringing the Cold War to an eventual end.
Why is it Searched?
Although the 2007 release of the Tom Hanks film Charlie Wilson’s War has spurred some renewed general interest in the Cold War, the topic itself is fascinating -- and terrifying. It is almost incomprehensible to imagine that world diplomacy and foreign affairs were directly guided by a concept as staggering as Mutually Assured Destruction.
Length on the public's interest?
In December 1989, George Bush Sr. and Mikhail Gorbachev declared an official end to the Cold War, but it’s hard to believe either man actually believed this. Fallout can still be seen on many fronts, thanks in part to more than a few examples of strange bedfellows, particularly in the case of the U.S.: the backing of future Chilean monster Augusto Pinochet; the CIA-backed coup that brought the Shah to power in Iran and led to 1979’s Islamic Revolution; and contributions from the U.S., Egypt, the UK, and Saudi Arabia in support of Mujahideen rebels during the Soviet war in Afghanistan which, when ended by the Geneva accords, left the country in ruins and paved the way for groups like the Taliban.
Finally, before a conflict as massive and globally important as the Cold War can be evaluated with any accurate historical perspective, a certain amount of time must pass, key people need to die or start talking, and a number of classified documents need to be declassified. This information, dispatched by books and movies, should sustain a moderate level of public interest for some time to come.