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What the real Cold War meant

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

With the Litvinenko affair and Russia's tough new image under Vladimir Putin, there is much talk of another Cold War but what was the original one like?

George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1989 summit off Malta
The Cold War ended in smiles all around back in 1989

Two things can be said about the Cold War with some certainty: the dates it was formally announced and formally ended.

Bernard Baruch, a US financier who advised President Harry Truman, coined the term to describe the conflict emerging between the former World War II allies in a speech to Congress on 16 April 1947. Just over a year earlier, Britain's Winston Churchill had talked of a Soviet "iron curtain" descending on Europe.

On 3 December 1989, the US and Soviet presidents, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, officially declared the "war" over at a summit aboard a Soviet cruise ship in the Mediterranean.

The temperature in Moscow that night was about 15C below zero. I know because I was out a lot that week, coming back late through the frost.

[I] could not fall asleep at night trying to figure out how I possibly will be able to take all my teddy bears with me when the nuclear bomb is dropped and I have to run to a shelter as fast as I can
Linda, Riga
BBC News website reader

I had been living secretly with some Soviet student friends in a high-rise suburban flat after "escaping" from a horrible student hostel in the city centre.

My friends could have got into serious trouble at their university for consorting with a foreigner, let alone putting one up in their flat.

They still lived in dread of stukachi (informers), the Komsomol and the gebeshniki (KGB) but showed none of the ideological mistrust of the West and Westerners associated with previous Soviet generations.

Instead, I remember our mutual enthusiasm for getting to know people from a country, a political system, which had seemed for decades as remote as a different planet.

Churchill's card

Though the greatest crisis in US-Soviet relations was probably the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, it was the first years of the Cold War which were the coldest, Russian historian Eduard Radzinsky argues.

(from left) Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945
Within two years of defeating Hitler the Allies were divided

"After World War II, Joseph Stalin wanted to cut the USSR off from the rest of the world because he had a deep fear of cold drafts coming in under a badly shut door - this talk of human rights and other things which would have landed a Soviet citizen in prison," Mr Radzinsky told the BBC News website.

"When Churchill delivered his Iron Curtain speech, Stalin must have danced for joy because no dictator can live without an external threat and Churchill handed it to him.

"Poor Truman tried to play down the Churchill speech but Stalin would hear none of it: he instantly shut the door and began preparing the country for World War III."

After Stalin's death in 1953, he says, Cold War rhetoric was put on the back burner, to be turned up again on occasion, as in 1962.

COLD WAR MILESTONES
5 March 1946: Churchill's "iron curtain" speech
16 April 1947: Baruch coins the term "Cold War"
1948-49: Berlin blockade marks first test of resolve
4 April 1949: Nato is created
29 August 1949: USSR explodes its first atomic bomb
1950-53: First major proxy war is fought in Korea
5 March 1953: Stalin dies
1962: Cuban missile crisis brings USSR and US to brink of actual war
3 December 1989: Bush and Gorbachev declare Cold War to be over

In the West, he argues, Cold War rhetoric became a card to be played at election time.

Margot Light, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, is less cynical about the origin of the Cold War, preferring to see it as a straight struggle between two belief systems.

"The central fact of world politics was the bipolar split between two very strong ideologies because America's anti-communism was almost as strong as communism," she told the BBC News website.

It was a division which deadlocked the United Nations Security Council for decades and brought foreign espionage to new levels.

Prof Light, who began visiting the USSR in 1967, found "great suspicion of foreigners and a great suspicion within the Soviet Union that anyone associated with foreigners was capable of treachery".

Superpower rules

One of the few positive effects of the "Cold War" situation, Mr Radzinsky adds, is that countries lived by fixed rules and there were few surprises in international life.

Headlines in New York papers announcing that Moscow has exploded an atomic bomb
Moscow's test of an atomic bomb in 1949 shocked Americans

"The nuclear bomb made a world war impossible and everybody was afraid without being afraid," he says.

The Cold War can only be seen as a period of international security in retrospect, according to Prof Light.

"We now know that there was, in fact, a set of rules that both sides were following but we did not know that at the time so there was a lot of fear," she says.

Tacit rules that the sides were following meant that nuclear weapons access could be strictly controlled and borders, in Europe for example, were sacrosanct.

Yet if both sides understood that direct conflict was just too dangerous, they were involved indirectly in "hot" wars on their peripheries, Prof Light notes.

"Proxy" wars fought between the US and the USSR in Africa once reduced much of that continent to a state of chaos not unlike what is happening in Iraq today, says Mr Radzinsky, but ordinary Soviet citizens "did not take such conflicts seriously".

"Africa was the Soviet government's way of proving the success of its world view to its own people," he argues.

Disillusionment

Both sides know there will be no new Cold War because money binds them so closely, Eduard Radzinsky believes.

Queue outside a McDonalds in Moscow, January 1990
The novelty of McDonalds has long worn off in Moscow

The only people who stand to suffer are students who may have visa problems and perhaps some small businessmen, he says.

Margot Light also believes there cannot be another Cold War.

"You only have to look at how the supply of oil and gas has divided Europe to understand that there isn't that same kind of solidarity on the Western side while Russia has no real allies," she says.

"Nor is there any ideological divide. There is probably more belief in socialism in the West now than there is in Russia."

What does divide Moscow from the West, she says, is a deep sense of disillusionment: Westerners accuse Vladimir Putin of undermining democratic reform while "on the Russian side, they feel very feel let down by the process of dismantling communism".

A selection of your Cold War memories follows. To see them in full, along with many others, click here:

One morning, in 1958, I was delivering the morning Los Angeles Times newspaper, riding on a bicycle. At about 5:30-6:00 AM, there was a bright flash in the eastern dawn sky. Less than an hour later, there was a huge thud of a shock wave, almost like an earthquake. I read in the newspaper later that this was the day of one of the last above-ground atomic tests...
Steve, USA

I was stationed aboard a US ballistic missile submarine during the late 70's. On occasion we would hold missile launch drills which were initiated with an announcement over the public address system stating "Man Battle Stations Missile". The crew did not know at this point as to whether or not it was a drill or a real missile launch. I recall that my shipmates would always be in a very somber and reflective mood once they reached their assigned battle stations. Although many of us believed that a launch would never occur, we were still held by thoughts of home - wondering if our families were safe, wondering if there would be anything to return home to. There was always a collective sigh of relief when the ship's captain would announce over the PA "This is the captain, this is an exercise". At that point, even though we were still at battle stations, the crew became jovial and talkative... life went on.
Jim, Richland, WA, USA

In 1986-88 as a conscript soldier of the Warsaw Pact I was allocated to an antiaircraft command post watching in "real time" war games over the Aegian, and laughing my bottom out at the few taking themselves seriously enough to think that WW III was coming. As service men we knew that our life expectancy was about 3-5 minutes, so there was not much to worry about anyway... My only annoyance, at the time, was that... I had to rot underground watching out for an impossible enemy and feeding an occasional mice with my 6 o'clock wafer...
vergil, tombstone, vanuatu

I was 4 years old during the Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962, living with my parents in San Antonio, Texas. I vividly remember my parents stocking up on canned food and distilled water. They heard that San Antonio might be in range of Soviet missiles, and were so concerned about a possible nuclear attack that they took themselves and me to stay with my grandmother on a farm in the Texas panhandle about 500 miles to the northwest. On the drive up, I clearly remember missiles sticking up out of the Texas pastures, with steam venting from some of them. On the way back after the crisis was diffused, there were only cattle and oil wells to be seen...
William, Cleveland, USA

I remember my mother once told me when she was about 4 years old and the threat of nuclear war was in the air, her mother was sewing masks for my mother and her 3 siblings. There was nothing else she could protect them with so that was the only thing she could do. What a horrific feeling that must have been.
Helen, former USSR country

I remember hauling through Angola on operations, hiding from MiGs by day and moving by night, and being party to either the destruction and/or capture of Russian supplied kit (tanks, radar etc.). Africa seemed a bit more chilly in the late 80's :-)
John, Gauteng, RSA

My grandfather lived, in Korea, in a village not too far from the DMZ. Before the Korean War there wasn't a lot of food in the village, so he took cattle, I think it was, down to Seoul in order to sell and left his family in the village, thinking he could come back. Later, he would realize that he was dead wrong, and because of the Korean war, he never saw his first wife or their children again.
Hannah Lee, New York City, USA



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