A Contest in the Cold

Nicholas Thompson
Paul Nitze and George Kennan at Kennan’s farm in Pennsylvania, mid-1950s

The hopes for a peaceful, rational world, which had sustained so many of those who struggled through World War II, did not long survive the peace. The smiles of the San Francisco Conference, which, in June 1945, had agreed on the Charter of the United Nations, soon faded. Two months later the first nuclear bomb exploded over Hiroshima, radically changing the nature of power among the world’s strongest states.1 In February 1946 Josef Stalin, in a speech at the Bolshoi Theater, blamed the West and capitalism for World War II and assured his audience that the Soviet Union would be able, in the near future, “not only to overtake but even outstrip the achievements of science beyond the borders of our country.” Some four weeks later Winston Churchill made his Iron Curtain speech in which he denounced Soviet control of postwar Eastern Europe.

The capacity of the fledgling United Nations to keep and enforce the peace was based on the assumption that the leaders of the victorious wartime alliance would cooperate in this and other tasks. It soon became clear that this was an illusion. Not much later it also became obvious that the relations between the two superpowers were likely to become the greatest threat of all to the peace of the world. The situation came to be called the cold war, an ever-present possibility of nuclear Armageddon that dominated both international relations and the policies of Moscow and Washington. The world at large learned to live with, and worry about, a situation described, in another cliché, as the “balance of terror.”

It is useless, though tempting, to speculate on who was most responsible for the cold war and for the fantastic risk and expense that it entailed. The paranoia of Stalin; the aggressive language of the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism; the wild exaggerations and panicky assumptions, sometimes for short-term political objectives, that created dangerous reactions; the tendency, on both sides, to confuse military capacity with military intentions; the mutual ignorance and hostility that led to the most hazardous and expensive arms race in history—to none of these factors, or to the people involved in them, can be confidently assigned the entire blame for a phenomenon that held the world in dread and suspense for more than forty years. The contestants in the cold war, it now seems, were all caught up in a monstrous nuclear nightmare of fear, anger, suspicion, and irrationality that no leader seemed able to dispel.

That nightmare was occasionally interrupted by flashes of common sense. The fear that a regional conflict might trigger a nuclear war between the superpowers led to the development of international peacekeeping as a firebreak against the ultimate disaster. It now seems clear that both sides were convinced from an early stage that…

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