The Cold War and its Aftermath

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in New York, December 1988. National Archives and Records Administration

Karl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of policy by other means. By extension the Cold War can be defined as warfare by other (non-lethal) means. Nonetheless, warfare it was. And the stakes were monumental. Geopolitically the struggle, in the first instance, was for control over the Eurasian landmass and, eventually, even for global preponderance. Each side understood that either the successful ejection of the one from the western and eastern fringes of Eurasia or the effective containment of the other would ultimately determine the geostrategic outcome of the contest.

Also fueling the conflict were sharply conflicting, ideologically motivated conceptions of social organization and even of the human being itself. Not only geopolitics but philosophy—in the deepest sense of the self-definition of mankind—were very much at issue.

After some forty-five years of political combat, including some secondary military skirmishes, the Cold War did indeed come to a final end. And, given its designation as a form of war, it is appropriate to begin with an assessment deliberately expressed in terminology derived from the usual outcomes of wars, that is, in terms of victory and defeat, capitulation and postwar settlement. The Cold War did end in the victory of one side and in the defeat of the other. This reality cannot be denied, despite the understandable sensitivities that such a conclusion provokes among the tenderhearted in the West and some of the former leaders of the defeated side.

A simple test reinforces the above assertion. Suppose at some stage of the Cold War—say, ten years ago or even earlier—one were to have asked: What might be a reasonable but also substantive definition of a Western or American victory? Or, alternatively, what might a communist or Soviet victory look like? The answers are revealing, for they indicate that the final outcome was even more one-sided than most dared to expect.

Until 1956 some in the West might have defined victory as the liberation of central Europe from Soviet domination.

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