When Was the Cold War?

When Was the Cold War? August 31, 2020

The labels and limits we apply to historical periods do much to shape how we define and study them, and sometimes, those labels are really misleading. On occasion, multiple competing labels exist, but one becomes important enough to swamp the others, to the extent that we forget that those competitors ever existed.

As a case in point, I am presently writing a history of the Cold War, which is a very well studied topic in all fields – we study Cold War religion, Cold War politics, Cold War fashion, Cold War cinema … Fine, but when exactly did this Cold War happen? Like virtually all others, my own book covers the period 1945-1991, but I also flag in my introduction that there are real problems with these limits.

When you hear the words “Cold War,” what images come to mind? For most of us, we surely conjure images of the 1950s or early 1960s. For Americans, these might include the McCarthy hearings, the 1962 Cuba missile crisis, or Duck and Cover civil defense drills. Crises accumulated between 1947 and 1954, and then became ever more acute with the arrival of hydrogen bombs and ICBMs in the mid-1950s. The years between 1958 and 1962 were uniquely perilous. But such a chronological focus is misleading, as the same fundamental themes, realities, and dilemmas persisted through the 1980s. So, of course, did the personalities. That Cold War reached a frightening new height between 1981 and 1984, and the world was arguably as close to annihilation in 1983 as it had been in the early 1960s.

But think about that chronology from the perspective of other societies outside the US. From a Soviet standpoint, the key moment in the story was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which created a new Communist order. From 1919, the Soviet-directed Communist International, the Comintern, encouraged Communist causes and militancy around the world. The subsequent decades witnessed numerous assaults intended to destroy that Communist order. In 1936, the grand alliance between Hitler’s Germany and militarist Japan was called the anti-Comintern Pact, the Agreement against the Communist International. Between 1941 and 1945, Germany undertook its near-lethal assault on the USSR, but Soviet history had always involved bitter contention with capitalist nations, including the US. From this perspective, what Westerners call the Cold War was only one phase of a conflict that had been in progress since 1917, made immeasurably more dangerous by the new nuclear component.

In that view, the Cold War lasted from 1917 through 1991. But not just for the Russians. For West European nations like Britain and France, relations with the Soviet Union in the years between the two world wars had often involved conflict, espionage, and subversion, both in home nations themselves and in their colonial territories. In 1924, false charges of Comintern interference in Britain did much to overthrow a Labour government in that country. Many of the spy scandals and exposés that we commonly think of as quintessentially Cold War events involved espionage activities that occurred in the West during the 1930s, but which were only revealed in the 1950s. In this framework, the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s was one of the great set-piece military struggles of the longer-term Cold War, and the heavy Soviet aid supplied to left-wing forces closely foreshadowed later events in Korea, Vietnam, and (in a different way) Afghanistan. Hmm, think of the four greatest battlefields of the Cold War as Spain, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan: that’s an interesting sequence.

Both from the Soviet and the West European points of view, the Second World War marked a brief and unusual period of alliance and cooperation, which speedily collapsed soon after Nazi Germany was destroyed. Between the wars, Winston Churchill was legendary as a fire-breathing anti-Communist, a role he promptly resumed after 1945, when he popularized the term “iron curtain.” Normality was restored.

Other countries had their own chronologies. For Poland, the post-1945 conflict was a phase in a much longer historical struggle for freedom from Russian rule, which dated back to the eighteenth century.

Such re-writings affect our sense of historical period. Scholars sometimes describe the East-West tensions of the 1980s as a “Second Cold War,” the assumption being that the first or “real” Cold War occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. I would argue that the whole post-1945 history was itself a “second” phase, resuming the hostilities that had prevailed between 1917 and 1941.

If we assume that the Cold War ran from 1917 through 1991, a period of 74 years, then most standard accounts omit about a third of that vital story. One of the absolute best and essential books on the Cold War is the collection of essays in Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War (three volumes, 2010), which runs to some two thousand pages altogether (!) The book certainly has some coverage of that 1917-41 period, but by far the bulk of the material is 1945 and after.

So what happened? However standard it may seem today, the notion that the fundamental Soviet-Western rivalry was somehow new after 1945 was chiefly an American perspective. US armed forces had intervened against the Bolsheviks in 1918, and the country had a lively domestic Red Scare over the following two years. In the US Congress, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was fervently seeking out Communist infiltrators from 1938 on. Even so, the nation’s politics through the interwar years had emphasized isolationism, and avoiding confrontation with other Powers. The administration of Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45) sought peaceful relations with the Soviets, and in 1933 the US finally gave diplomatic recognition to the Soviet state. Roosevelt tried to place the US in opposition to the European powers in attitudes towards colonial empires and decolonization. Only after some serious internal debate was the US prepared to take the lead against Soviet advances after 1945. That was thus seen as the start of a new historical epoch, the Cold War.

From such an American viewpoint, the Soviet confrontation appears more novel and demanding of explanation than it might appear elsewhere in the world. US global predominance over popular culture and the academic world ensured that gradually, that US chronological perspective became the norm in other nations that increasingly forgot their own older experiences.

Although the period that I use for the Cold War – from 1945 through 1991 – does have a clear unity and historical utility, we should never forget that it was overwhelmingly an American construct.

So when we talk about the Cold War, it’s useful to ask: which one do you mean? And what exactly does that shift of focus do for our thoughts about (for instance) Cold War religion?



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