If you came of age after 1990, I’m not sure what the Cold War (traditionally 1946-1990) means to you. I can speculate:
- A past period in which people somehow got by and had fun (if one can call it that without computers and cell phones) in spite of knowing that, at any minute, everyone might learn that their world could have twenty minutes to live.
- A weird time full of fallout shelters, black-and-white duck-and-cover films in school, conscription (which means when you turn 18, it’s either go to college and be in the military later, or just get it over with now), and anti-Communist hysteria.
- Nothing at all, since it’s before your time, and history is boring.
In fact, it is your time. Control of nuclear weapons technology is looser than it was during the Cold War. The threat of nuclear mines is greater than ever. The bomb doesn’t have to create a mushroom cloud: nuclear weapons exploded in the upper atmosphere would create electromagnetic pulses, disrupting everything within a certain very large radius that contains electronics (including most refrigeration). Chemical and biological weapons still exist, and can even be produced in homebrew fashion (though none of that would do as much harm as their military grade versions).
If anything, we were safer then than you are now, because the few Cold War nations with the capacity to deploy such weapons had very vested interests in ensuring that no one dared deploy them. A bunch of religious or political fanatics might not care. So, unfortunately, we didn’t win or end the Cold War. In the end, we just shifted it around. I know I feel less safe now.
But I promised to explain our Cold War to you. I will. It will explain a lot about your parents and grandparents.
During the Cold War, US policy involved combating avowedly socialist and communist world powers and their proxies or pawns. We did this by fostering and promoting our own proxies or pawns, which we called ‘allies.’ Non-aligned nations, of which there were many, would play both sides or just try to stay out of it all. Some, like Finland, had to do so as a matter of national prudence. Others, like India, realized that they had nothing of value to gain from embroilment in the Cold War, or had quite enough to deal with at home and on their own borders.
As a people, we liked to see the world in terms of ‘friends’ and ‘enemies,’ blinding ourselves to the truth: nations don’t have friends, just interests. But that has always been our besetting sin, has it not? The desire to see the world in terms of good and evil, white hats and black, with us of course always as the good guys and gals in the white hats? Old Western movies and series did more to foster this mentality than many may realize, but if so, it only worked because it was what we liked to hear and think.
Few of the avowedly socialist or communist countries were actually making an effort toward those political philosophies; they were simply blinds for authoritarianism. Even there, at the top, the leaders lived like royalty and the population suffered exploitation. The most successful model, in hindsight, was the Eurosocialist model. However, during the Cold War, US military power and protection gave northwestern Europe security it could not obtain on its own, greatly facilitating the Eurosocialist model. Not always, though; Finland and Sweden were among the most successful examples, and both were non-aligned, then as now. But make no mistake: nations who could take advantage of our defensive shield did so, because it was in their interests, and that helped them raise their standard of living above ours.
That also helps explain how Europeans decided to create an economic union that would become increasingly political. Divided, they would remain more vulnerable. United, they would gain economically. Europe is a much more stable place without fear of war between France and Germany.
It worked like this. ‘Socialist’ was a dirty word; ‘communist’ a dirtier one. In the 1950s, during the Red hysteria, we did what every country does in time of hysteria. We committed gross, ignorant miscarriages of justice. The logic was that one could look at the USSR and PRC (People’s Republic of China) and see where that led: shortages, general poverty, forced labor camps, secret police and zero popular voice in government. And it was true, though decreasingly true over the years in the case of the more developed USSR. Both countries eventually learned that a profit motive, while guaranteed to create wealthy elites who would surely take over the show, was also more conducive to economic growth and plenty than Utopian notions of the selfless evolution of the human spirit. Both countries kept up the fiction for a long time. Even in the 1970s, the Soviet government was promising ‘True Communism’ by 1980. The PRC still tries to present its system was ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ which only the uneducated can fail to identify as ‘capitalism.’
It was bullshit. However, our own elites used it to get richer. If you were in a Latin American or African or south Asian country in the 1960s and 1970s, both sides warred for your soul; we, the US, also warred for your money. In many cases, US political activity during the Cold War was designed to further our corporate interests. So, if your country elected a pro-Soviet or pro-Chinese leader, we did our all to destabilize him; your people’s interest and choice did not matter. If it elected a pro-US leader, we did our all to sustain him; your people’s interest and choice did not matter. And it was nearly always a him, because this was when women in political leadership were very rare. We justified this at home by repeating over and over: “Capitalism is always better. Look at how they live in Russia and China.” In reality, for developing countries, there wasn’t that much difference, because they did not have the means to live at a First World standard. They were the playing pieces of a global political game.
At home, our politics were far saner than today. Leaders on both sides were less tied to ideology and more to the national interest, which meant we had the concept of compromise. That has changed greatly between my day and yours. The landscape was very different, but it was a time of great social change. The Civil Rights movement got traction. Open racism fell out of fashion. What we called Women’s Liberation (which must now sound very quaint to you) sought progress toward gender equality. We still had domestic secret police, though, and they were still mostly focused on counter-insurgency; in most cases, however, it was necessary to identify the supposed insurgency as communist or socialist (the average American never learned the actual meaning of either word, and still has not). There were exceptions, such as the infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1960s and 1970s, we had a low-level domestic terror movement which openly boasted that it was communist or socialist, which obviated the need for a scorecard. Despite this, most people did not live in fear of becoming terror victims, though anyone attending a university might think a little bit about detouring around the ROTC building.
We had national moods come and go. I wasn’t alive during the 1950s, but I would describe them as prosperous yet paranoid. The 1960s were radicalized and manic-depressive, alternating between bummers like the King and Kennedy assassinations, the realization of futility in Vietnam, and the grossness of hippies who didn’t want jobs or baths, and happy stuff like the space program, relief of the Cuban missile crisis, and advances for blacks and women. In the 1970s, we lost our first war for real and for true, gas prices suddenly quadrupled and more; to imagine the impact, picture gas going to $15/gallon within a week. Nixon and his VP both resigned after evidence emerged of their scumbaggery, and Carter chose to deal with double-digit inflation and interest rates by pestering the world about human rights. (My student loans were at 9%, payable beginning 1986, and they were a bargain by the standards of the day.) We tied up the shit sandwich of the 1970s with a neat little bow when the Shah of Iran was overthrown (making us notice radical Islam for the first time), most of our embassy was taken hostage, and we couldn’t even mount a rescue mission without a fiasco. The 1980s saw a major investment in US military power under Reagan, and whatever one may think of him today, the national mood became buoyant and proud. And everyone born in 1965 or earlier will never forgive or forget the Iranians. They occupied the place of the Imperial Japanese of my parents’ generation, or the Bin Laden of yours: enemies to the grave. To understand your parents, understand that a significant number of them still think Iran is owed punishment with weapons of mass destruction.
It must seem bizarre to millennials, raised in an era in which everyone in military uniform receives instant promotion to Hero, and sports all begin with orgies of obligatory patriotic expression, but the military and the flag got no respect between 1965 and 1980. Patriotism and nationalism were very unfashionable. If you raised a flag outside your home, people thought you a weirdo. Even in the early 1980s, when I was in uniform on occasion, older hands would counsel me on how to avoid friction with the public. They had served in the 1970s, when it meant mostly abuse. I’m dead serious. Your great-uncle, whom everyone says was never the same after Vietnam, very probably did get off the plane Stateside to verbal abuse as a supposed “baby-killer.” I am not sure which was worse for the Vietnam veterans (many of whom were drafted): the horrors of guerrilla war to the knife in Vietnam, or the rejection and ridicule they faced back home after surviving the war. So why the enormous pendulum swing? In 2003, I was watching with my Vietnam vet father-in-law as the country fell all over itself to gush about our troops in Iraq, brushing aside the little detail that the war itself was stupider than a ‘social media consultant’ on a reality show. He was an old Texan with a heavy drawl. “Know what that is?” he asked, as the news showed the patriotic bacchanal. “Guilt,” I said. “Yep.” That’s what drives this. You are looking at people who are trying to make it up to the ‘Nam vets without actually giving the VA any money to help take care of them.
The Cold War supposedly wound down when the Soviet economy began to collapse in the late 1980s. It is popular today to attribute this to Reagan’s new arms race, but I’m not convinced that was the main cause. I’m sure the arms race didn’t help the Soviet economy, but a lot of other things were also changing at the time. In my college days (1981-86), the personal computer was a rare and costly luxury. By 1988, I was selling them for a living. With PCs came modems and networking, and the conversion of Arpanet into the Internet you know today was visible in the distance. I am not sure the USSR would not have come unglued on its own. In any case, it did disintegrate. It happened so fast that there wasn’t time for things to sort out before the Olympics, where the former USSR’s components competed as the ‘Unified Team.’
At that point, we faced an existential crisis. Our leaders had always had a Main Enemy to teach us to fear and hate. They did not adapt well at all. Until Bin Laden managed to get our attention with his second World Trade Center attacks in 2001, which you remember (his first was in 1993, but since it didn’t kill enough people or knock down a building, it didn’t get our attention), our leadership was in the unfamiliar position of not knowing who to tell us to hate. Showing a tremendous lack of imagination, they simply continued the Cold War as best they could, railing about socialism (communism being too bankrupt for anyone to get worked up about).
Now we reach your times, and you know what happened as well as I do. But that’s how we got there.
In my view, to understand an age group, it’s helpful understand the world in which it came of age. Let’s take my parents, born in 1935 and 1941. They came of age during the Red hysteria of the 1950s, and even today my mother worries about ‘falling into socialism,’ a term she cannot even define. They married and had children in the 1960s, where they saw large-scale civil disobedience and more prevalent drug use. They feared greatly for their children, that we might either be drawn into hippieism and drug addiction (they equated these two automatically), or worse yet, that we might all be incinerated by nuclear weapons. As their children hit their teens, my parents’ sense of national power and pride fell with the economy and the increasing struggle to make a living. Unsurprisingly, they turned heavily toward religion. They could not understand why their children rebelled and rejected it. In the 1980s, the pace of technological change empowered my father (who was perfectly positioned, educationally speaking, to embrace it), but bewildered my mother (who wasn’t and still isn’t). My father would be nearly eighty today; my mother turns 73 in exactly two weeks. The world looks nothing like the Kansas of their youths. Not even the Kansas of today looks like that of their youths.
Looking at your elders’ world, you can reach your own conclusions about why they now do and say what they do and say. I think it’s worth your time to do so, even if only because they expect you to pay into their benefits. Same for your parents’ world: if you know the times they lived through, you can understand them better. In my case, that meant understanding Depression-era grandparents and what it did to them. (Short version: epic cheapskates.)
There’s another reason, and let’s be blunt. Your generation is taking a lot of flak, most of which I happen to think is not deserved. I’m betting that you, quite reasonably, would like to be understood and respected. I’d like that for you as well. Life has taught me that the best way to get is to give, which is why I took a couple hours to write this piece about a world mostly witnessed through my own eyes. If you then give by seeking to understand those who came before you, one of two things will happen. Either you will get understanding in return, or if not, you will at least know what you are dealing with.
You can’t lose.