International Relations – Cold War
THE MODERN RELEVANCE of the COLD WAR ERA
Background and History of the Cold War:
Even before the formal end of hostilities at the conclusion of World War II, antagonism, mutual distrust, and mutually incompatible intentions with respect to Western Europe developed between the United States and the Soviet Union. Many historians believe that the decision by President Harry S. Truman to use nuclear weapons against Imperial Japan in August 1945 was precipitated more by the need to demonstrate American military power to the Russians than to avoid heavy combat losses projected in conjunction with a U.S. invasion of mainland Japan.
The two nations emerged as global major superpower after collaborating against the Axis powers, but by 1948, conflicting interests for the future of Germany and the rest of Western Europe resulted in an escalation of antagonism that culminated in the Soviet blockade of Berlin, forcing the supply by air of civilian needs behind the “Iron Curtain,” a term coined by Winston Churchill describing the perception in the West of the Soviet approach to geopolitics in the region (McNamara 1995).
Within only five years of the end of the American-Soviet alliance that had achieved victory in Europe in 1945, the two nations opposed each other in the first major proxy war conducted through the Korean War through 1950. Wary of provoking each other into a costly direct military confrontation, both U.S. And Soviet leaders conducted operations with great secrecy, to the extent that U.S. military pilots found themselves facing experienced World War II-era Soviet pilots in civilian clothes instead of military uniforms over the skies of the Korean Peninsula.
This “cold war” (so named because no shots were fired directly between continued into the following decades, entirely shaping the conduct of American strategy and operations in Southeast Asia, throughout the Vietnam War, geopolitics in the Middle East, and in U.S. clandestine logistical support and supply of war materials to the Mujahedin forces fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan throughout the decade-long Soviet war in that region. The Cold War nearly turned hot several times, most notably in connection with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but also several times in later decades by virtue of mechanical errors suggesting to the Soviets that American first strikes were imminent; those later near-catastrophes were never acknowledged to have occurred until decades afterwards (Langewiesche 2007). The first successful Soviet nuclear weapons test in 1949 and first thermonuclear weapon test four years later intensified Western fears of Soviet aggression, particularly in conjunction with the first successful launch of a manmade object into orbit in 1957. By the time the Soviet Union sealed of East Berlin from West Germany in 1961, U.S. intervention was impossible without risking all-out nuclear war between the two nations.
The principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD) evolved to describe the nature of the delicate geopolitical situation in which both the United States and the Soviet Union developed sufficient nuclear retaliatory capacity and system redundancy to annihilate each other even after an all-out peremptory nuclear strike by the other.
Between 1960 and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Cold War drained the national economies of both nations tremendously, ultimately triggering the end of the Soviet Union 75 years after the Communist Revolution in which it was born.
Global Implications of the Collapse of the Soviet Union:
The release of information under the glasnost element of the policy reforms of perestroika instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev during the last half-decade of the former Soviet Union revealed how large a role paranoia played in the American military buildup throughout the Cold War. Ever since the administration of President John F. Kennedy, the justification for American investment in military spending was the purported need to close the “gap” between Russian and American military strengths.
Specifically, the nuclear triad, consisting of bombers on constant alert under the control of the North American Air Defense (NORAD) program, nuclear-armed submarines, and permanent land-based missile silos that absorbed the bulk of American defense spending were largely unnecessary (McNamara 1995). In retrospect, with access to Soviet records from the Cold War era, analysts have since determined that no “missile gap” (and therefore, justification for the tremendous expense of American financial resources on defense spending) ever existed.
The same access to formerly secret information from the Cold War era also revealed the extent to which Soviet infiltration of the highest level of American military projects had served to further exhaust the American economy by necessitating continual development of strategic and tactical weapon systems to counter escalating technological improvements in Soviet military systems. The first successful test of a Soviet nuclear weapon in 1949 was directly attributable to Soviet infiltration of the top secret Manhattan Project; American pilots flew combat missions against Soviet Mig fighters developed with information stolen from American weapon designs through espionage; and that dynamic persisted virtually throughout the Cold War (Langewiesche 2007).
The financial strain of continuous nuclear deterrence and the perpetual modernization and updating of sophisticated strategic weapon systems was among the principle causes of the eventual collapse of the former Soviet Union. By 1989, the protracted war in Afghanistan had all but bankrupted Russia and the deprivations associated with military spending inspired much of the public support for changes in Soviet geopolitics and in the internal social inadequacies under prevailing national politics in Russia. In that regard, the final battle in the U.S. Cold War against the Soviet Union in the American support of the Afghani Mujahedin finally achieved victory represented by elimination of the perceived threat of a “hot” war between the superpowers.
Global Terrorism and the 21st Century Relevance of the Cold War Era:
The most significant contemporary aspect of the Cold War era is the potential proliferation of nuclear materials maintained in the former satellite countries of the former Soviet Union. Since 1990, the U.S. has spearheaded the international efforts to identify and secure all the fissile material produced for Soviet nuclear weapons. To date, approximately half of all the nuclear materials removed from dismantled Soviet thermonuclear weapons – both highly enriched uranium and plutonium – have been removed and re-engineered for use in civilian nuclear reactors in the U.S. (Langewiesche 2007).
However, the other side of that coin is profoundly troubling: numerous facilities both in Russia and in other Soviet satellite republics house substantial amounts of fissile materials under completely inadequate security, in several instances, unguarded altogether and secured by nothing more than (literally) a padlocked chain (Larsen 2004). Since 2001, Osama bin Laden has repeatedly issued public statements of his full intention to perpetrate an “American Hiroshima” consisting of coordinated nuclear detonations in as many as seven major American cities, including New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. With sufficient monetary resources to fund the procurement of sufficient quantities of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium to assemble the weapons to achieve his goal, about all that stands in the way of such an unparalleled American catastrophe is the availability of the fissile material itself (Larsen 2004).
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous instances of attempted theft and smuggling of highly enriched uranium have been prevented by proactive intervention of Interpol, Russian security forces, and U.S. authorities. However, the impoverishment of the Russian population directly attributable to the deprivations resulting from Soviet military expenditures throughout the Cold War have created an economic climate sufficiently conducive to the continuing economic incentive for smuggling nuclear material into the global black market. In fact, it may very well be only be a matter of time before enough weapons-grade nuclear material of Soviet origin eventually finds its way to bin Laden and other entities sympathetic to Muslim extremism (Larsen 2004).
Should terrorists manage to smuggle enough fissile material into the U.S. To detonate nuclear weapons on American soil, the irony would be that the proverbial pigeons of the Cold War would have finally come home to roost. In that case, a small group of individuals would have achieved the catastrophe that trillions of dollars (and rubles) were spent on preventing through proxy wars and espionage conducted by the last of the global superpowers for nearly half a century since the end of World War II. REFERENCES
Allison, G. (2004) Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.
New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Langewiesche, W. (2007) the Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girouh.
McNamara, R. (1995) in Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House.
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