The Hard-won Wisdom of the Cold War

This ran as an op/ed in newspapers in Virginia in March, 2022.


When civilization found itself, after World War II, in possession of nuclear weapons while still divided into nation-states that had seriously conflicting interests, it generated shock and confusion.

After thousands of years of societies engaging in no-holds-barred battles, the two nuclear superpowers found that long-established habits of thinking about war might lead to the annihilation of everyone.

Old habits do not die easily, and so some continued to imagine how a nuclear war might be fought and won. But over time, a lot of very smart people thinking deeply about the ramifications of the new situation brought forward the notion that the only real use of nuclear weapons was to prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used.

Eventually, the superpowers – despite their mutual hostility and distrust — were able to cooperate in building “structures of deterrence” to minimize the chance that either side would take the first steps along the escalatory path that could lead to an all-out nuclear conflagration.

  • No side, for example, should have the ability to successfully destroy the retaliatory ability of the other side.
  • No side should ever fear it must “use it or lose it,” i.e. launch a nuclear strike in a panicked decision.
  • And – as part of the understanding that arose out of this historically unprecedented situation into which the unprecedentedly destructive new weapons had plunged humankind – both nuclear superpowers should avoid any direct military conflict with each other.

(The United States might fight against Soviet proxies, and the Soviet Union might fight against American proxies, but it was essential to avoid having Americans and Russians firing against each other. For that might lead to Armageddon.)

When I recall how many years it took so many brilliant minds to arrive at, and institute, that whole set of understandings, I tell myself I should not get annoyed with the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy is a true hero for our times, as so many have recognized. And it is not altogether reasonable to expect a leader of a nation and people undergoing such a murderous assault to see his situation in a truly global perspective.

But, nonetheless, I’ve grown annoyed with his continual complaining about the failure of the West to provide him with, for example, a “no-fly zone.”

I’m sure people have been explaining to him that for the U.S. or NATO to undertake that would be a major violation of the hard-won wisdom of the Cold War: declaring a no-fly zone means taking the step across the forbidden line of direct military confrontation between two nations possessing enough nuclear warheads to end the human story, if things get out of hand.

But then I think about how people Zelenskyy’s age – he was still a boy when the Cold War ended — have grown up in a world in which the stark challenges to human survival represented by nuclear arms, and the nuclear arms race, were no longer foremost in people’s minds.

It seems this is one situation – in an era where many of my generation must turn to their kids and grandkids for help coping with the digital revolution – in which the generation that learned how to think strategically during the Cold War has a better understanding than our youngers.

President Biden reflected that wisdom when he declared from the outset that Americans would not enter into Ukraine to fight the Russians. We would stay within the “rules” that allow us to provide our friends the means to fight the Russians, and we would employ economic pressures to deter or defeat the Russian aggressors.

Nuclear superpowers can take such measures, according to the modus vivendi that enabled the two superpowers to survive the Cold War without catastrophe. (Notwithstanding Putin’s claim that the sanctions are “an act of war.”)

The atrocities Putin is inflicting on the Ukrainians are terrible. But in the nuclear age, the full magnitude of what’s at stake in avoiding war between nuclear superpowers is hard for the human mind to comprehend. (That’s why it took a lot of very smart people working for decades to steer the Cold War onto a less dangerous path.)

And while I wish that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy could see his nightmare in that larger perspective, I’m glad that the leaders of the West are fighting this battle with respect for what people came to understand during the Cold War.

Would that we could be sure that Putin will also respect that wisdom.

(While the U.S. would cross a forbidden line by declaring a no-fly zone, if Putin were to extend his aggression into NATO territory – not to mention actually use the nukes he’s recently brandished – that would be him crossing the line.)

We’ve lived for more than seventy years knowing that our enemies held our survival in their hands. Veteran warriors hated that vulnerability, but it became an inescapable fact, and people came to terms with it. With weapons that must never be used, nations hold each other hostage.

During the Cold War, President Nixon had his “madman theory,” according to which one might benefit, in the nuclear intimidation game, from making one’s foes think one might be crazy enough to push the nuclear button.

Never has it seemed more possible than now that a true “madman” has his finger on such a button.

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