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The Cold War Was My Life

The Cold War Was My Life October 1, 2021

It’s imminent. My Global History of the Cold War 1945-1991 will be out from Palgrave Macmillan later this month. As with any book, it’s a pleasure to see it actually in print, but I have special reasons for welcoming the culmination of this particular project. I am following on here from recent posts by Chris Gehrz about the process of writing his Lindbergh book, and how that has intertwined with his own life. Let me go one step further and say that in a weird way, I have been writing autobiography.

The official description of the book declares that it

provides a dynamic and concise overview of the Cold War. Offering balanced coverage of the whole era, it takes a firmly global approach, showing how at various times the focus of East-West rivalry shifted to new and surprising venues, from Laos to Katanga, from Nicaragua to Angola. Throughout, Jenkins emphasizes intelligence, technology and religion, as well as highlighting themes that are relevant to the present day. A rich array of popular culture examples is used to demonstrate how the crisis was understood and perceived by mainstream audiences across the world, and the book includes three ‘snapshot’ chapters, which offer an overview of the state of play at pivotal moments in the conflict – 1946, 1968 and 1980 – in order to illuminate the inter-relationship between apparently discrete situations. This is an essential introduction for students studying Cold War, twentieth century or Global history.

Well, I’m biased, but that is indeed what I claim.

So where does autobiography come in? I was born in 1952, and the very first images of news I remember watching on television depicted war in the Congo, which must have been in 1960. Throughout my life, I remember seeing and reading successive news items about the great events of the Cold War. I saw my father start to breathe again when the radio news announced a settlement of the Cuba crisis. I followed the Soviet-US rivalry in the space race, which right through about 1966 was very serious competition indeed, and it was not clear who was going to win. Back then, that meant following news of launches by means of short wave radio, as the internet was still a generation away.

If you think of the Cold War as running from 1945 to 1991 – and we can debate that – then its precise midpoint, its pivot, was in 1968, a year I recall very well indeed. (As I grew up in Britain, I never stood any risk of being drafted for an actual war, then or later). In 1968, one big event for me was attending the Russian Exhibition in London, a spectacular cultural and trade showcase event that the Soviets had planned for years. It was indeed very memorable, not least for the space-related exhibits – but just as it was getting under way, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, and the glitzy show was overrun by protesters. I bagged it and went to see Kubrick’s 2001, in Cinerama. I never looked back.

People sometimes talk about “nuclear paranoia,” which is absurd. At multiple points in these years, there was a very, very, real chance of a war going nuclear, and if it did, the industrial area I lived in Britain was going to be a certain target. That was even more true living in Cambridge in later years, surrounded by all those crucial air bases. Worrying about such an event was not paranoia. Most people sort of accepted the chance but paid little attention to it, although there were tense moments. All but forgotten now, the Yom Kippur war of 1973 made a nuclear exchange seem a very hot probability, and even more dangerous was the crisis of 1982-1984. To put this in context, I used to read a lot of science fiction. If anyone projected the world going forward beyond the end of the twentieth century without some damn good explanation – like a sudden alien invasion – I was extremely skeptical of that author. Just how were we to escape a meltdown? 2021 was not something we needed to be concerned about.

I became quite deeply involved in the debates of the era about what role the Eastern Bloc was playing in mobilizing terrorism in the West. I was skeptical about that linkage, but I do recall the shock I felt in 1973 when a well-informed Irish radical contact explained in strict confidence that not only were the Soviets really arming and paying the Provisional IRA, they were also supplying them with fragmentation weapons not yet available to Warsaw Pact forces. My involvement in those debates led to the interest in terrorism that has formed quite a sizable part of my academic career, my writing and teaching.

In the late 1970s, my wife and I played host to some of the first students from “Red China” to visit the West, and we met actual people from the Chinese mainland – which at the time seemed beyond unthinkable. They were in fact former Red Guards, veterans of the Cultural Revolution, and they were, oddly, quite delightful people. Appropriately enough, I tell this story on China’s National Day, which commemorates the anniversary of Communist power in that nation, back in 1949.

Attitudes to the Soviet Union defined the Left in ways that might be hard to convey today. In 1978, I had the interesting experience of attending a mass anti-racist, anti-Nazi rally and rock concert in London, and engaging in intense debates with other participants who could not understand why someone like me who was on the “anti” side in such things could also be very anti-Soviet. I remember the total weirdness of landing at Prague airport in the mid-1990s, visiting a place that in previous years had seemed somewhat more distant and unattainable than the Crab Nebula. And with others, I enjoyed the scavenger hunt feel of trying to find any signs whatever that the Soviets had ever been in Prague: I did see a couple of EXIT signs in Russian at theaters.

Did I contribute to any of these stories, by shaping or making policy? Of course not, not in the slightest. But the Cold War was the soundtrack or the wallpaper of my life, over a period of thirty years. Let’s not get started here on whether the Cold War has fully resumed in the past few years, with a somewhat reshuffled cast of characters, of heroes and villains.

If I think why I decided to write the book, the answer is simple enough: I just had so much material that I wanted to explore and expound, and I felt that I had lots of things to say that other people did not know, or (to my mind) did not fully appreciate. But the greatest reason, in retrospect, was that I wanted to understand the world that was the context of my life, or a large portion of it.

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