Frostbitten

Decoding the Cold War, 20 Years Later

As the years pass, the Cold War increasingly appears as an undifferentiated chunk of history that stretched across time and space, with a vast cast of characters and occasional moments of drama. It is presented as a curious concatenation of summits and negotiations, alliances and clients, spies and border posts, ideological dogmas and underground resistance, and a combination of arcane theories about deterrence and some nasty actual wars.

Because the most important feature of the Cold War was that it stayed cold -- and did not become the third in the twentieth century's series of world wars -- it is often recalled almost fondly as a time of calm and stability. The standoff between the West, led by the United States, and the Soviet Union and its satellites has taken on an institutionalized, ritualized quality that rarely seems to have posed any danger of giving way to the chaos and catastrophe of total war. It is now common to talk of the reassuring rationality and predictability of the old Soviet adversary, with unfavorable comparisons to Washington's current enemies.

Yet it did not always feel that way. The sense of danger and uncertainty ebbed and flowed. Besides the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, many of the Cold War's more alarming moments are fading from memory. Few remember, for example, that as late as 1983, the geriatric leadership of the Soviet Politburo began to panic that the United States was planning a surprise nuclear attack, and so they dangerously raised the alert level of their own forces.

The character of the confrontation was shaped by the shared fear of total war, which was reinforced by nuclear weapons and by sharp ideological and geopolitical divisions. As both sides searched beyond their core alliances for strategic advantage, the Cold War began to affect the trajectories of states and political movements across the globe. Since the Cold War touched on all aspects of human affairs, it came to define a whole epoch. In this way, the term "cold war" became a convenient label for more than four decades of international history.

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