The Heights of the Cold War

3 Dec
Above: The height of Cold War satire.

Above: The height of Cold War satire. Slim Pickens as USAF Major ‘King’ Kong rides the bomb in Dr Strangelove.

A recent article in the Daily Mail, plus a subsequent Twitter conversation, has provoked me to address this blog post to journalists everywhere. This is not some academic lecturing from his lofty ivory tower (it’s actually made of brick, and my office is only on the first floor), rather a plea for a little bit of historical thinking.

Daily Mail journalist Matt Hunter examines on a tense standoff between the air forces of the United States and the Soviet Union in October, 1986. Hunter notes that “The incident above the Barents Sea, near Soviet waters, took place between a US Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and a MiG-31, the premier Soviet interceptor aircraft, at the height of the Cold War 30 years ago.”

Please, stop casually throwing the phrase “the height of the Cold War” around so casually. Yes, this might sound pedantic. Yes, this might sound like a droning academic elitist. Yes, yes, yes to a whole variety of other potential accusations. The important fact is, though, that many more people will read that one article on the Daily Mail website than will ever read my scholarly journal articles on Cold War issues.

October 1986 was not – by any reasonable standard – “the height of the Cold War” (if you care to measure these things). It was the era of genuine dialogue between Reagan and Gorbachev, the negotiations over the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, Gorbachev’s eventual appeals for assistance over the Chernobyl disaster, perestroika, and many other major changes that affected US-USSR relations and the general terrain of the contested period we call the Cold War.

If you really want to find the “height of the Cold War”, you need to look at events in the 1948-53 period, or the time from the late 1950s to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, or perhaps even Ronald Reagan’s first term in office. All of these saw serious bipolar tension and incidents which could have – but thankfully didn’t – escalate.

It seems that in popular discussions, “the height of the Cold War” is simply an easy way to imply great tension and the threat of nuclear armageddon. But, you can’t simply map it on to any year from 1947 to 1989 and claim it to be true. So this is an appeal to journalists everywhere: if you’re going to write about the Cold War (and historians are generally delighted when you do!), please think about the history and nature of a complex and contested period in human history.

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