The Empire Strikes Out: Why Star Wars Did Not End the Cold War

When it comes to Cold War politics, the early 1980s appear, in retrospect, an embarrassment all around. The American left earnestly warned that with Ronald Reagan in the White House, nuclear annihilation was plausible or even likely. Self-styled Cassandras tried to roust a complacent public with overwrought doomsday polemics such as Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth (recently described by Michael Kinsley as "the silliest book ever taken seriously by serious people") and the TV movie The Day After.

The right acquitted itself no better. Pointing to an alleged U.S. "window of vulnerability," Reaganites ranted as if Soviet world domination were imminent, matching the left's hysteria with their own bombastic rhetoric and films such as Red Dawn in, of all years, 1984. "I believe we are seeing the same situation as when Mr. Chamberlain was tapping the cobblestones of Munich," Reagan said, implausibly, during the 1980 presidential campaign. In dealing with the Soviet Union, both sides ignored John F. Kennedy's advice: the left wanted to negotiate out of fear, while the right feared to negotiate.

Today, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet empire, we know better. The Soviet Union, we have learned, was already in hopeless shape by the 1980s. As Americans aimed to counter what they perceived as expanding Soviet power, the Soviets, although waging war in Afghanistan, were beginning to retrench. In other words, the United States probably need not have let the early 1980s become, as Frances FitzGerald puts it in her new book, Way Out There in the Blue, "the worst period of friction in U.S.-Soviet relations since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962."

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