What happens when the Cold War never happened?

Rep. Duncan Hunter - bombs (sort of) away!
Rep. Duncan Hunter – bombs (sort of) away!

Responses to Salon’s left-wing alarmism aren’t really Jilt-worthy, but this piece on U.S. Representative Duncan D. Hunter (R-California) caught my attention. Overall, the short summary of Hunter’s recent C-SPAN interview highlights his ambivalence on foreign policy: he wants to nuke Iran, but not intervene. He will support Israel militarily, but wants to stay out of the Middle East.

This underscores the G.O.P’s mixture of militarism and isolation that vomitous political reporters find so enthralling (it’s a paradox! a civil war! Bush’s profligate preemption doctrine vs. the Tea Party’s “fuck the world” frugality!). But this alleged rift has, in fact, been part of the Republican party’s ideological makeup since at least the 1940s, back when the archconservative Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) stood beside the socialist President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-America) and vocally supported the U.S. entry into World War II. True isolationist conservatism went extinct. The final death blow came in the late 1950s, when most Republicans were left-of-center and the conservative movement was so marginalized that its agenda could be set by a group of men small enough to meet comfortably in a coat check. Around 11:36 p.m. on the evening of August 23, 1955, William F. Buckley – sitting alone on his yawl anchored off the coast of Fishers Island, Connecticut – determined that laissez-faire economics, religious nationalism, and Cold War militarism were the perfect cocktail for a cultural hegemon. It took a few years, but eventually Buckley got all conservatives and 39% of everyone else thinking his way. Sure, every now and then a Pat Buchanan waxed rhapsodic about Charlie Lindbergh or a Republican Congress opposed intervention in Kosovo. But these were fringe figures and political maneuvers. On the whole, mainstream conservatives are not isolationists. They’re militant anti-internationlists: pro-war, anti-U.N. They either lead coalitions into war or they go it alone. Kings of the world. The Tea Party will be no exception.

So the Salon article is basically pointless. Except it got me thinking about the Cold War.

how to survive an atomic bombRep. Hunter’s “tactical nuclear devices” reminded me of Henry Kissinger’s early work on limited nuclear exchanges. Salon likely finds Kissinger as distasteful as Hunter, but they’re wrong if they think Hunter represents a newfangled brand of crazy: it has always been there. Prior to Reagan’s second term, the possibility that a nuclear war would occur was constant. And as long as the possibility hung in the air, you had people defending the proliferation (and use!) of nuclear weapons. During the Truman years, a nuclear exchange seemed inevitable – a consequence of the Korean War, or maybe Berlin. Terrifying, right? Not at the time. A majority of Americans wanted General MacArthur to drop atom bombs along the Chinese coast. They were looking to pick an atomic fight.

Within a decade, things had changed. Nuclear war was synonymous with apocalypse. But nuclear weapons were also a horrific fact of life. With the anti-proliferation movement in its infancy, the majority of Americans fretted over Soviet superiority and missile gaps; they were no longer looking for a fight but, by the late ’50s, they felt desperate for protection. And so proliferation marched on…

Around this time, the idea that a nuclear exchange could be very small, limited, and practical seemed totally obvious to academics and strategists like Kissinger. Sure, the idea would have sounded bizarre and horrifying to the general public (except, maybe, to the nearly 40% of voters who supported Barry Goldwater in 1964). But in theory, you could have a little nuclear war between China and Korea, maybe a medium-sized nuclear exchange between China and Russia, without severe escalation. In 2010, Robert Kaplan practically licked his lips as he reread Kissinger’s early work, imagining little nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, North Korea and whoever. No biggie!

But throughout the Cold War – in the midst of unprecedented armament, extremely aggressive foreign policy, and often lax attitudes toward the prospect of thermonuclear war – eight U.S. presidents and six of their Soviet counterparts worked earnestly to decelerate and ultimately halt the production of nuclear weapons. With the possible exception of Nixon at his craziest, no Cold War president seriously considered launching their nuclear weapons or provoking the U.S.S.R. to launch theirs. The possible value of small, tactical strikes was entertained (esp. during the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam) but invariably rejected as politically and morally untenable.

Now we have a rising generation of political leaders who didn’t experience the Cold War. And unlike, say, the Civil War or the Great Depression, the Cold War has not left an indelible impression on American culture. (Don’t confuse the Cold War with total U.S. economic and military supremacy 1946 – 1973: that we remember. That we want back.) George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” should have looked and sounded a bit like the Cold War, but it didn’t. Sure, he threw a few anti-communist tropes around, but he was heavier on the World War II language. “Axis of evil” is the obvious example. He frequently compared our prolonged presence in Iraq not to Korea, a not-terrible analogy, but to Japan and Germany. This was partially to improve the forecast: Japan and Germany are more stable than the Korean peninsula. But he also understood that references to America’s WWII foes were more palatable. More awesome. Then the Great Recession hit, and WWII analogies were swapped for Great Depression analogies. Semi-thoughtful allusions to the recessions of the 1970s and ’80s popped up, but they never mentioned Brezhnev.

Despite the fact that the United States ruled the world throughout and because of the Cold War, its Cold War narrative is startlingly vague: something to do with communism, cowardice, spies, submarines, missiles, and a wall. Things were tense for a while, but eventually we won because we got the idea to take down the wall.

Okay, I exaggerate a little. But here’s what bothers me: we have a rising generation of political leaders like Rep. Hunter who don’t really remember the Cold War, who don’t remember arms races, and who aren’t interested in history except as a source of propaganda and rhetoric. They posses no clear concept of thermonuclear war, have never imagined what it might look like, have never felt helpless against its apparent inevitability, and yet they speak casually about a nuclear exchange: in part because they’re idiots but also because they missed the War. We can mock them for not doing their homework, but at the end of the day, they’re much closer to the button than we’ll ever be. And I guess that’s my point: there’s still a button!

Today, Israel (a nuclear power) is terrified by a potential nuclear enemy. I don’t blame them. But the United States existed for forty years with an armed, strike-ready nuclear enemy just across the pole. During most of that time, American life was uneventful; domestic issues dominated U.S. politics. But when the Cold War turned even lukewarm, the fate of modernity seemed to dangle over an abyss. It was terrifying. And very soon, the men and women with fingers on the button won’t remember a time when catastrophic nuclear warfare was a serious geopolitical concern and a part-time cultural obsession.

Of course, this may not matter in the long run. Political leaders born after 1991 may hesitate to press the button as much as Jimmy Carter would have.

But something unprecedented is happening, and at the very least it’s worth noting: within a decade or so, thermonuclear weapons will continue to exist but virtually no one will remember the conditions that created them.

I don’t.

8 thoughts on “What happens when the Cold War never happened?”

  1. Brilliant post. I really enjoyed it.

    This is indeed an extremely disturbing trend. North Korea’s missile testing has prompted some in South Korea to push for developing their own nuclear arms as a deterrent. Although the Japanese government has never officially admitted this (and would never admit even if such allegations were true), there are people here who claim that one reason Japan was quick to embrace nuclear energy after the war was so that it could develop its own nuclear technology that could be “converted to other uses” if needed. What is true was that Japan was one of the pillars in Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” policy, another facet of the Cold War that probably few people remember.


    1. Thanks David! Fascinating insights about Japan. I’d forgotten the phrase “Atoms for Peace” – amazing. And even before Eisenhower…basically from the moment we dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, we started planning to use Japan as a base against the Soviets.

      The more I learn about the execution of the Second World War, the more it feels like the liberal nations were trying to finish with Germany and Japan as quickly as possible so they could start fighting the REAL enemy. After a few months of fighting, the U.S. started to treat the Nazis like a nuisance, a massive deadly army inconveniently placed in central Europe, needlessly blocking their shot at the USSR. We were like a bunch of kids starting up an MMPORG: we put all our effort into preparation, set-up, and ancillary skirmishes, only to feel bored and disappointed when we finally get around to an actual mission. (Thanks to “South Park” for that analogy.)


      1. That is a great analogy.
        Japan willingly complied after the war by allowing us to set up bases (more accurately put, use the existing bases in the country) to keep the Soviet Union at bay. Any nascent Communist political movement within the country was viewed as a threat to social stability, something SCAP and the Japanese government did not want.
        You probably heard about this last year, but the US and Japanese government finally admitted they had a secret pact which allowed US subs armed with nukes to pass through and dock in Japanese waters during the Cold War. So much for “Atoms for Peace”.
        Fast forwarding to the present, they are some politicians here who hold views just as crazy as Rep. Hunter. The first who comes to mind for me is Shintaro Ishihara, writer turned politician who served as Tokyo’s governor for nearly 10 years. This article is from last year, but it provides you with an idea of how extreme some of the political discussion has become here.

        [ Ishihara was quoted on June 20, 2011, as saying: “Japan must possess nuclear weapons. Until it does, it will never be treated as a sovereign nation. The only way for Japan to survive is to establish a military regime. Failing to do so, Japan will become a vassal state of some other country. I believe we should revive military conscription.”

        And on Aug. 5 of that year, he said, “Unless Japan becomes a great military power, it will completely and absolutely lose its presence (in the international community).” He went on to insist that Japan should do simulations of nuclear weapons, noting, “We’ve got mountains of plutonium.” ]



  2. I was actually talking about this last night with a friend. He made a comment to the effect that nuclear weapons were a product of the past. I first nodded in agreement, then realized: these things still exist. It felt stupid to say it out loud, and even more stupid to realize that it doesn’t really feel like nuclear weapons are a going concern.


    1. Some of the old ICBM silos out here in SD have been converted into a National Historical Site, the branch of the Parks service that handles like Monticello and the Old North Church. When you look at the list of official monuments, the silos stick out like a radiated thumb. Between stuff like that and “Atomic Cafe” era videos, we’re conditioned to imagine the Cold War as very old, very retro. And the nastiest part of the cold war – thermonuclear weapons – really, really isn’t.

      Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing those silos one of these days.



    2. The 1980s classic “War Games” with Matthew Broderick may feature incredibly antiquated computer technology, but it paints a scenario that is still incredibly relevant today. Cyber warfare could be used to hack into missile systems and simulate launches that provoked a retaliation to a perceived strike that was actually non-existent. Although North Korea is still bent on establishing itself as a nuclear power, it’s also working to build up its cyber warfare capabilities. Cyber warfare requires very little investment, but delivers the maximum effect. The cyber attacks which temporarily crippled the banks and financial institutes in South Korea this year are a testament to that.


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