A child’s enquiry about the Cold War brings back memories and raises concerns for the future
The other day a friend’s child asked me, what was the Cold War? Children ask about history all the time, but perhaps in this case it was triggered by the many media references to a new Cold War between the US and China. I resist using that term, partly because the situation is quite different from the US-USSR relationship, and partly because there is still some hope that we can avoid descending into that kind of dangerously adversarial relationship.
It’s always chastening to realise that what is for young people “history” is for me personal memory. This often happens when teaching finance, when even the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-08 seems a long time ago to some of my students, let alone the Latin American debt crisis of 1982, with which I compare it.
I grew up in Lincolnshire, a large but relatively unfamiliar county in England, a place that people from London travel through quickly on their way to the North or Scotland. There are two famous people who have come from Lincolnshire. One is Isaac Newton, who lived at Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham, in a house that you can still visit and see the tree where (perhaps) he discovered gravity, in 1665 during a period of evacuation from Trinity College Cambridge because of plague.
The other famous person is Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, a controversial figure in her lifetime and since, but without doubt influential. Thatcher lived in Grantham, a small market town on the East Coast main rail line from London to Edinburgh.
My only connection to Margaret Thatcher is that my family also lived briefly in Grantham, where my middle brother was born. I vaguely recall life there, happily going to a baker’s called Pearl’s, where the owner (Pearl) would give me a sticky bun, that my mother would thank her for, then safely take away from me to avoid unhealthy eating.
Lincolnshire is mostly flat, apart from the beautiful hills to the east called the Wolds. In the Second World War, the flatness and relative closeness to Europe made it a good place for bomber airfields. Fighter aircraft, having shorter range, were stationed in Cambridgeshire and in south east England.
There is no official start to the Cold War, which came to be the name for the geopolitical tension between the USA and USSR that started soon after the Second World War ended in 1945, and concluded with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. As a child I knew nothing of this, but I do recall that on trips to the beautiful cathedral city of Lincoln, with its cathedral and castle both mounted gloriously on a hill (simply and appropriately named Steep Hill), we would have to stop the car to allow RAF Vulcan bombers to take off from the airbase at RAF Waddington.
The Vulcan, named after the Roman god of fire and metalworking, was a huge, delta-winged aircraft with unbelievably noisy engines. When it took off, the car would shake from the vibrations, and this strangely shaped, rather sinister aircraft, which to me looked like a giant metal moth, would somehow lumber into the sky. As a young boy, I was very impressed by the Vulcan and the fact that something so heavy could actually fly.
It was only years later that I came to realise that the Vulcans, one of three British so-called V-bombers (the others were called the Valiant and the Victor), were designed with a single goal: to destroy Moscow. UK nuclear deterrence, combined with the relatively small size of the British economy, meant that the UK could not credibly threaten to destroy the entire USSR (which was US policy – the Single Integrated Operation Plan also entailed an attack on China, even if China had not been part of any attack). But, the UK government believed, a credible threat to destroy the Soviet capital and inflict a million or more deaths, would be enough to deter a Soviet nuclear attack on the UK.
It was only then, as an older child about the age of the one who recently asked me about the Cold War, that I realised what the nuclear balance of terror really meant, though even then I don’t think I fully understood how horrific was the game that we were all playing. Carl Sagan, an American scientist famous first for his explanations of the cosmos and later for drawing attention to the danger of a nuclear winter following any nuclear war, described it thus:
The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/117594-the-nuclear-arms-race-is-like-two-sworn-enemies-standing
When I was a young child, the US-USSR relationship was going through the relatively calm phase known as détante, a reaction to the frightening events of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But by the early 1980s, a period sometimes called the second Cold War, tensions had risen again, new intermediate range and cruise missiles were being installed on both sides of the central European frontier. There was a palpable sense of fear across Europe. Everyone went to bed, to some extent wondering if they would wake up at all. How this compares with the existential dread many young people have today because of climate change, I’m not sure. Fear of a sudden catastrophe, versus slow and potentially catastrophic change: humans are remarkable adaptable, but in the face of such grave matters, I’m not sure how we cope.
It’s different this time
I believe four things distinguish the current US-China relationship from the Cold War. First, there is less of an ideological aspect. China naturally believes its way of government is superior to others; the US believes the same. But the relationship takes place within a somewhat broadly agreed conception of a capitalist economy, though the Chinese Communist Party might not like to describe it this way. China does not appear to be trying to create world revolution (unlike during Mao’s time).
Second, because both countries are part of a global capitalist trading system, the US and China are vastly more connected through trade, finance and foreign investment than the USSR and US were. Despite the talk of offshoring and “friend-shoring”, it will be very difficult to decouple the world’s largest two economies. By contrast, the USSR had a centrally planned economy, it did very little foreign trade apart from oil, and it kept its foreign exchange (from the sale of oil) out of the US, placing it in banks in Europe instead (which helped to create the Eurobond market).
Thirdly, although the US and China both have nuclear weapons, there is much less of a balance of terror at present, partly because the two are not facing off over a single border, which was the case in Europe during the Cold War. China reportedly plans to increase its nuclear arsenal, and is resisting arms control talks from a position it would regard as one of weakness. In Sagan’s terms, it only has one match, still enough to ignite the gasoline, while the US has four or five.
Fourth, although there was a so-called non-aligned movement of nations during the Cold War which refused to join either the Western or Soviet camp, it had limited influence. India and Indonesia both took part in that movement but lacked the economic power to have much impact. This time, India, Indonesia, the rest of South East Asia plus countries in Africa and Latin America have a far greater share of global GDP and are much better placed to influence the global balance of power. I hope that proves a constructive difference from the Cold War.
Having the history of the Cold War to learn from, it would be nice to think we can do a better job of managing national tensions and competition this time. Ultimately that is a matter of leadership, not just in the US and China, but in all those other countries which refuse to take part in any second cold war.