Holger Nehring: The Cold War ... the forgotten impact of a war that didn't happen

Roundup: Talking About History

[Holger Nehring is Lecturer in Contemporary European History at the University of Sheffield.]

In his great novel Rabbit at Rest, John Updike’s protagonist Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, a retired car salesman, bemoans the end of the Cold War: 'The cold war. It gave you a reason to get up in the morning. … Without the cold war, what’s the point of being an American ?' If anything, the nostalgia for the Cold War has been even more pronounced in Europe. The shape of contemporary East and West European societies was forged during the Cold War. And the fundamental norms that underpin the ways in which politics should be conducted still contain traces of the conflict.

The Cold War's precise legacy is far from clear, however. Unlike the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War does not appear to have left any memorials, although there are plans to build a Cold War museum in Berlin. Yet in contrast to the First World War, there is no real Cold War battlefield tourism, there are no Cold War commemorations, no Cold War fallen soldiers. Perhaps the closest one gets to specifically Cold War sites of memory are the bunkers and disused military installations scattered around the US, Britain (often maintained by the National Trust) and Europe. But while some of these installations may exude an eery silence and while they remind us of how the Cold War was quite literally dug into the landscape and the environment, their main impression is of an abstract threat that could be tamed through rational behaviour and modern equipment such as telephones, switchboards and, later, computers. Looking at these installations now, one cannot help but feel that this was a war waged from protected command stands, without the cruel face-to-face warfare that had characterised the previous world wars.

There is a certain nostalgia for the Cold War in both Eastern and Western Europe, and this nostalgia prevents us from seeing the various ways in which the Cold War has framed today’s international relations. As the key feature of the Cold War was that it stayed cold it is now seen fondly as a ‘long peace’. What dominates many assessments of this period is that it was, despite the drama during the crises, a period without history, without movement: crises happened and were resolved, only to result in the establishment of the status quo. Against the backdrop of the present crises in international affairs, the Cold War appears as one undifferentiated epoch, a chunk of four decades in international affairs that left its imprints across the globe. From such a perspective, the Cold War is as a series of summits and treaties, of an ideological confrontation with occasional crises, solved by courageous statesmanship and brave and clever military men. Defence and foreign policy commentators and many politicians think back fondly to the alleged rational and predictable behaviour of their Soviet enemy, especially when comparing the Soviet Union to the West’s current adversaries, such as an often unpredictable Russia and China and Al Qaeda terrorists.

But the nature of the Cold War looks quite different if we go back to the origins of the terms and investigate the ways in which people experienced it. George Orwell first coined the term in English, discussing the meaning of the atomic bombs. Writing in 1945, Orwell wondered whether the invention of nuclear weapons might lead to, in a combination of internal repression and institutionalised conflict between a few great powers, to a universal totalitarianism in which some powers used the threat of nuclear war against people unable to retaliate and thus to ‘a permanent state of cold war with its neighbours’. In the United States, first uses of the term – by the journalists Walter Lippman and Herbert Bayard Swope – were more narrowly defined, referring to the breakdown of discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union over the establishment for a global control of nuclear weapons in 1946/7. Both Lippman and Swope drew on uses of the term common in the 1930s: that of a cold war by Hitler’s Germany against France and other European countries. They did not see it as a fundamentally novel phenomenon. Rather, to them the cold war was a new example of a phenomenon they already new. It was a short period that would be overcome, rather than the label for an entire epoch. As a consequence of the forty-odd years of superpower conflict in Europe, the story of the genealogy of the term in the epoch of the two world wars and its character as a label for a period of transition have now been lost.

Even less certain is what the impact of the Cold War was after Orwell, Lippmann and Swope had come up with their definitions. After all, the label refers to a war that never happened. Unlike previous wars, an all-out nuclear war has never been waged. It has only existed where it was talked about, by policy makers or by anti-nuclear weapons protesters. As an all-out nuclear war never occurred, it could only be imagined, through the military’s combat exercises and government officials’ calculations of the destructive power of nuclear weapons on the one hand; and, through the fears of anti-nuclear-weapons protesters on the other. These simulations and images of nuclear war, and the fears they created, formed the essence of the Cold War. The Cold War was an imaginary war. Its battles were, therefore, by and large symbolic.

Cultural symbols might easily be dismissed as marginal for real power-political conflicts. Yet the character of the Cold War as a war lay precisely in its reliance on symbols and images, transmitted and magnified through the mass media. The Cold War was primarily waged by trying to make them believe in the logic and ‘rationality’ of nuclear deterrence and in the bipolar ideological opposition between capitalism and communism. And many of the images are with us: the current images of terrorists and terrorism are not accidentally related to images of communists and communism in the West, as governments tried to counter ‘terrorism’ with the same type of propaganda and the similar state-private networks that were used to counter communism. This, then, is a form of warfare that, like the Cold War, is highly mobilised, results in levels of unprecedented surveillance through CCTV cameras, the scanning of e-mails and telephone messages and imminent fears of an another attack. And yet, the heightened security at airports, train stations and many public buildings notwithstanding, one would be hard pushed to define this state as war. War has become something that flickers over TV screens in the evening news, but it is nothing that directly affects us.

From this angle, the picture of a ‘long peace’ loses much of its plausibility. In Europe and the US, its central component was not stability or peace, but an ebb and flow of constant fears that another total war – following the first and second world wars – would break out, this time fought with nuclear weapons, leaving total destruction in its wake. The Cold War was experienced as a state of constant pre-war. The destroyed cityscapes of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both destroyed with nuclear weapons in August 1945, became the symbols of the dangers of the nuclear age. With the advent of nuclear missiles in the late 1950s that were able to cross continents and oceans Hiroshima and Nagasaki could now take place everywhere. The ‘clock of doom’, shown on each issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, brought this danger home graphically, in terms of minutes the world was away from high noon or doomsday.

This disjuncture between the lack of combat operations and constant war preparations in Europe has had an enormous impact on the meaning of military strategy and civil-military relations...

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