Paul Kennedy: The good old days of the Cold War?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Paul Kennedy is a professor of history and the director of international security studies at Yale University, and the author of "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers."]

IT WAS FUNNY, in a grim sort of way. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates responded to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's polemical attack on the United States by remembering the 50-year Cold War as a "less complex time" and saying he was "almost nostalgic" for its return....

Was the Cold War era, on the whole, a safer era? Ponder the following counterarguments:

First, however tricky our relationships with Putin's Russia and President Hu Jintao's China are nowadays, the prospect of our entering a massive and mutually cataclysmic conflict with either nation are vastly reduced.

We seem to have forgotten that our right-wing hawks argued passionately for "nuking" communist China during the Korean War and again during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1954. We also have apparently forgotten — although newly released archival evidence overwhelmingly confirms this — how close we came to a nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Likewise, we've forgotten the shock of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which prompted then-German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to ask, "Is this the new Sarajevo?" a reference to the outbreak of World War I. And who still remembers 1984-85, when we were riveted by Jonathan Schell's argument in the New Yorker that even a few nuclear explosions would trigger such dust storms as to produce a "nuclear winter"?

Those were really scary times, and much more dangerous than our present circumstance because the potential damage that could be inflicted during an East-West conflagration was far, far greater than anything that Al Qaeda can do to us now. No one has the exact totals, but we probably had 20,000 missiles pointed at each other, often on high alert. And the threat of an accidental discharge was high.

None of today's college-age students were born in 1945, 1979 or maybe even 1984. None lived with those triangular signs proclaiming their schools to be nuclear bomb shelters.

To recapture those frightening atmospherics these days, university professors must resort to showing Cold War movies: "The Manchurian Candidate," "Fail Safe," "Dr. Strangelove," "The Hunt for Red October," "Five Days in May," "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." Students look rather dumbfounded when told that we came close, on several occasions, to World War III.

Yet what if, for example, Josef Stalin had prevented American and British supply aircraft from flying into Berlin in 1948-49? Phew! The years 1945 to, say, 1990 were horrible on other accounts. China's Mao Tse-tung's ghastly Great Leap Forward led to as many as 30 million deaths, the greatest loss of life since the Black Death. The Soviet Union was incarcerating tens of thousands of its citizens in the gulags, as were most of the other members of the Warsaw Pact. The Indo-Pakistan wars, and the repeated conflicts between Israel and its neighbors, produced enormous casualties, but nothing like the numbers that were being slaughtered in Angola, Nigeria, the Congo, Vietnam and Cambodia. Most of the nations of the world were "un-free."

It is hard to explain to a younger generation that such delightful countries as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Poland and Czechoslovakia (to name only a few) were run in those days by fascist generals, avowed racists or one-party totalitarian regimes. I am ancient enough to remember the long list of countries I would not visit for summer holidays; old enough to recall how creepy it was to enter Walter Ulbricht's East German prison house of a state via Checkpoint Charlie in the late 1960s. Ugh.

Let us not, then, wax too nostalgic about the good old days of the Cold War. Today's global challenges, from Iraq to Darfur to climate change, are indeed grave and cry out for solutions.

But humankind as a whole is a lot more prosperous, a great deal more free and democratic and a considerable way further from nuclear obliteration than we were in Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy's time. We should drink to that.

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