Please Stop Misusing the Phrase ‘Height of the Cold War’
Historians point out the conflict’s true peak
For the love of history, please stop saying “the height of the Cold War.”
You’ve heard the phrase before. It’s become a de rigeur bit of language reporters apply in just about any piece of journalism about the Cold War. It’s meant to signify that there was an especially tense geopolitical atmosphere for the reference time period.
But thanks to that overuse, it’s an effectively meaningless phrase that mangles history and popular understanding of an important historical phenomenon.
The result is that now, according to journalism, almost every year of the Cold War was “the height of the Cold War.”
Sure, this is a thoroughly pedantic complaint. And the reporter who hasn’t used a cliche is just a reporter who hasn’t written very much.
But the abuse of “the height of the Cold War” isn’t just about making Clio, the muse of history, shed a tear every time you write something mildly historically inaccurate. It highlights how we misunderstand and misapply that period in other contexts today.
Lest you doubt the extent of journalistic abuse of the “height of the Cold War” War Is Boring compiled an utterly unscientific sampling of major news outlets’ use of the phrase.
With the exception of four years spread across the the very beginning and end of the conflict, there’s at least one article in a major news outlet proclaiming every year of the period to be “the height of the Cold War.”
So what could credibly be called the “height” of the superpower standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union?
To determine the most appropriate use of the phrase, we polled three historians of the Cold War—and all were fairly consistent in their judgment.
The historians are: Dr. William Burr, director of the nuclear history documentation project at the National Security Archive of George Washington University; Dr. Mark Kramer, program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center; and Dr. James Hershberg, professor of history in international affairs and former director of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center
All three men pointed to years leading up to and including the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as the late 1940s and early ’50s, when the U.S. faced off against the Soviets and the Chinese over Berlin and the Korean War.
The Cuban Missile Crisis is a fairly obvious choice for the period of greatest tension during the Cold War. U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev squared off over the Soviet Union’s stationing of nuclear intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba, with both sides tiptoeing up to the edge of nuclear confrontation.
“As the most tense ‘height of Cold War’ episode,” Burr says, “the Cuban Missile crisis remains the inescapable candidate in terms of the seriousness of the situation, where both sides realized they faced a dangerous crisis and were nuclear forces were on high alert.”
The period of the ’40s and ’50s, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin played a tense game of brinksmanship over control of Berlin with a blockade of the city and the Korean war briefly brought the U.S. to war with China, are also a logical candidate for the Cold War’s rightful “height.”
In the latter half of the Cold War, the superpowers largely duked it out through proxy conflicts in the third world. While those conflicts exacted a bloody real-life toll on the participants, they prevented the U.S. and Soviet Union from facing.
The late ’40s and early ’50s were different. “You had repeated military proximity between the western and communist side and real fears that this could have led to a larger war,” Hershberg says.
Both Burr and Hershberg also mention the events surround NATO’s Able Archer exercise in 1983 as a reasonable—if less widely understood—candidate for the Cold War’s peak.
The election of Pres. Ronald Reagan and the subsequent increases in U.S. defense spending and anti-Soviet “evil empire” rhetoric made the Soviets nervous enough as it was.
The Soviets’ mistaken downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007 and the U.S. deployment of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, which the Soviets feared could allow for a swift NATO nuclear first strike, made the Cold War even tenser.
The Soviets were so concerned that the Reagan Administration might be preparing for a nuclear sneak attack that it embarked on Operation RYAN, an attempt by Soviet intelligence services to detect preparations for nuclear war in the West.
The intelligence tripwire, detailed to Western allies by the KGB’s Rezident and British spy Oleg Gordievsky, tasked Soviet spies to monitor a seemingly bizarre set of metrics that would indicate preparations for nuclear war.
In one instance, KGB spies in London were told to check for signs that blood banks were hoarding plasma as Communist Party bosses believed that the West would start hoarding medical supplies on the eve of war.
In this context, the Soviets worried that the 1983 NATO exercise Able Archer, meant to simulate a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, was a pretext for the West to carry out a surprise attack.
A lack of primary sources slightly obscure the war game’s status in the hierarchy of Cold War close calls, according to Hershberg.
While KGB intelligence requirements at the time certainly indicate grave concern on the part of the Soviets, in the absence of detailed accounts of the Politburo’s thinking at the time, it’s harder for historians to say precisely how close the two superpowers came to war at the time.
Annoying though it may be, the misapplication of the “height of the Cold War” cliche is hardly the most serious abuse of history in popular discussion. It does, however, fit into a larger popular misunderstanding of just how dangerous the Cold War really was.
As Russian president Vladimir Putin’s pushes to recapture the former territories of the Soviet Union, sinking U.S.-Russian relations to a low, many are quick to label it a “new Cold War.”
Russia’s actions are dangerous and deplorable. And they certainly put the U.S. on notice that Moscow is willing to use military force to try and restore its former empire.
But a review of the darkest moments of the Cold War — when the West came perilously close to nuclear exchange with Russia — shows that, bad as things might be now, the temperature still has a way to go before it plunges to the icy depths of the Cold War’s darkest days.