FC139: New Rules for A New Game: the Evolution and Anatomy of Cold War Crises



By 1948, the United States and Soviet Union had established their respective spheres of influence in Western and Eastern Europe. However, unlike World War I when a definitive treaty emerged to determine a new balance of power, no such treaty emerged after World War II because of the quick falling out between Stalin and the Western allies. So far, the post-war settlement had been determined without direct conflict between the two superpowers. But, by 1948, when the two superpowers had established their spheres of influence, they started confronting each other in what is known as the Cold War.

The Cold War crises always stopped short of direct war between the two sides because their growing nuclear arsenals made such a war potentially suicidal to both sides. Already by 1945 two world wars in quick succession had shown the spiraling destructive potential of modern technology. At first, it took a while for both sides to realize nuclear weapons were much more than just big conventional bombs. Even when that lesson sank in with the realization that nuclear war was played by a different set of rules, it still was not clear just what those rules were; but it was clear we could not risk such a conflict. Before the twentieth century, diplomacy could more freely use war and/or the threat of war as tools in its arsenal. However, with the nature of war so radically different, the rules of diplomacy also had to change drastically. The question was how. To the diplomats and leaders who had gone through two previous world wars, the answer largely lay in analyzing what had gone wrong in 1914 and 1939.

Wars and crises up to 1945

The root of the problem lay in the mismatch between the slow rate of change in cultural attitudes toward war and the accelerating pace of technological change triggered by the industrial revolution. By 1914, industrialization had spawned revolutions in communications, transportation, and warfare. In communications, the telegraph and telephone drastically cut the time of communications between governments. That alone might have been manageable, except that, with the telegraph used in conjunction with railroads, armies could mobilize much more quickly, giving diplomats hardly any time to reflect on their situations and negotiate a settlement. As a result, the various powers’ provocative behavior in 1914, especially Russia’s mobilization (an act once accepted as a legitimate diplomatic strategy) spun out of control into war.

During World War I new weapons such as the machine gun, poison gas, and more powerful artillery unleashed a level of carnage and destruction hitherto undreamt of. Between the wars, diplomats, in their efforts to prevent another such disaster, focused on, and tried to avoid the provocative diplomacy of 1914. Unfortunately, they went too far in their efforts to keep the peace in the 1930s, constantly meeting Hitler’s aggression with appeasement. This only encouraged more aggression while Hitler built up his power. Therefore, the Second World War II broke out only twenty years after the end of the First.

In 1939, the tank and airplane, which had just made their debut in the previous war, came into their own. Tanks, rather than eliminating the continuous front, made it mobile, thus spreading the swathe of destruction from a limited static front to one that engulfed all off Europe. Airplanes exacerbated this effect, especially with long-range strategic bombing that now made cities and their civilian populations primary targets.

Unfortunately, if the Second World War seemed to spawn another quantum leap in the destructive capability of modern technology, the entry of a weapon of even more devastating power heralded the end of that era and the start of a whole new era in the history of human warfare: the atomic bomb. Even more ominous was the development of thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bombs just seven years later using a fusion reaction to generate an explosion that dwarfed that of the of the Hiroshima bomb’s fission reaction in much the same way that it had dwarfed conventional bombs. Whereas a simple chemical reaction was the basis of warfare in the age of gunpowder (c.1500-1945), the key to the Atomic Age was a much more complicated chain reaction taking place inside the nucleus of the atom, something so small we still didn’t have microscopes powerful enough to see it. But we could unleash, if not control, its destructive force. Now the very survival of civilization was on the line, and a way had to be found to avert a clash between the two nuclear superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union.

The new rules of the game

Therefore, the Cold War assumed the form of a series of crises that were resolved along two lines of development: either by non military means or by fighting by proxy (substitute) where one or both powers fought each other indirectly by supporting smaller allied states in regional wars. The Korean (1950-53), Vietnam (1954-75), Arab-Israeli (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982), and Afghan (1979-89) wars were all examples of the superpowers exploiting regional conflicts to promote their own ends.

Crises involving the Americans and Russians in a direct confrontation ran a higher risk of erupting into all out war. Therefore, each side would carefully assess the seriousness and strategic value of the crisis to its own and the other side to calculate how far it could go without starting World War III. This assessment would be based largely on three factors. First was the strategic value (in terms of location and/or resources) of the target country at the center of the crisis. For example, any crisis over the oil-rich Middle East would have serious implications. So would a crisis over any strategic choke points such as the Suez and Panama Canals or Turkey’s control of the Hellespont threatening Russia’s access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

The second and third factors were which superpower’s sphere of influence the target country occupied and the diplomatic ties it had with each side. These would usually, but not always, belong to the same power, giving that power a decisive “home field” advantage in the crisis. However, crises where diplomatic ties did not correspond to the sphere of influence tended to run the highest risk of escalating into war because it wasn’t clear who held the all-important home field advantage.

Two examples of such a situation were the Berlin Blockade in 1948-9 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In the former crisis, West Berlin had strong diplomatic ties with the West but was located in the middle of Soviet controlled East Germany. The Cuban Missile Crisis saw just the opposite situation, with Cuba in the United States’ traditional sphere of influence, but having strong diplomatic ties with the Soviets. In each case it was unclear who had more at stake and was willing to go farther in defense of what it believed to be its “home turf”. This was where the chances of miscalculation and the risk of war ran the highest.

Having assessed the risks in a crisis, each side needed to pursue a strategy between being too aggressive and too weak, such as those which led to World Wars I and II respectively. This needed to meet three criteria. First, it must show strength and resolve without being too provocative. Second, playing a dangerous game known as brinksmanship, it should push the other side into a position that would make any further escalation of the crisis run the risk of war, thus forcing it to back down. For example, during the Berlin Blockade, the United States and Britain airlifted supplies into West Berlin rather than crashing the land blockade Stalin had set up. This avoided committing an act of aggression that might lead to war and it forced Stalin into the position of either letting the planes through or actively shooting them down, which would also lead to war.

Finally, the strategy in a crisis should provide the opposition a face-saving way to back down without feeling publicly humiliated. The United Nations could play a valuable role here as mediator to defuse the crisis. So could secret diplomatic deals between the two powers, such as the secret agreement by the U. S. to remove its missiles from Turkey if Russia would publicly agree to take its missiles out of Cuba in return for a public commitment that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. Recognizing the value of such secret “back channels”, the two powers installed a “hot line” after the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus providing direct communications with one another during any future crises.

It is important to note that these were not hard and fast rules that were ever written down in a handbook so both sides knew exactly how to deal with one another. Rather they were vague principles that evolved through trial and error as the two sides struggled to find a way to deal with the new sort of world nuclear weapons had created. However poorly articulated these principle were, during the most dangerous half-century of human history to that point they helped the United States and Soviet Union break the pattern of resolving differences through total war. In the process, they avoided nuclear Armageddon and provided some glimmer of hope that the human species might survive its technological adolescence.