Three Steps Forward: Why Russia is Winning the Cold War
In October of 1961, Russia took a significant lead in the Cold War. In the long shadows of descending arctic winter, Khrushchev dropped the bomb to end all bombs. It was the Tsar Bomba, the King of Bombs, a ringing designation that persists through decades of foggy history like the first rays of light in the east at dawn, piercing the air and the night and signifying diurnal change, but only dimly so. It was the most powerful explosion in all of human history, and one hopes it will remain so for many years to come, but it killed exactly zero people. To many earnest scholars, the event is little more than a footnote in history. To many it was a terrifying but shallow display, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. In the grand scheme of the Cold War, it signified only a blustery show of strength made in desperation by a despotic regime clinging to a failed philosophy. No hill was gained, no flag was planted, and no hand was forced. In that sense, some historians treat the fifty mega-ton thermo-nuclear explosion over Mityushika Bay as a hastily produced and gratuitously expensive act of propaganda. So far as the last few generations have thought it through, consensus seems to be that the outcome of the bomb was the historic Partial Test Ban Treaty, and aside from the novelty of the bomb itself, the bomb is not often discussed as having had a meaningful or lasting impact on the broader course of events. However, when one tugs on this one historical thread hard enough to pull it lose, the constructed tapestry of Cold War historicity begins to unravel. It is the contention of this historian that the significance of Tsar Bomba, in the “greater scheme of things,” has been long neglected by an endless succession of worthy scholars.
Historians of the Cold War typically begin the discussion in the period immediately after World War II. Those who do generally break the war up into a few distinct parts, with western historians, such as Gary Hess, especially concentrating on Roosevelt’s policy of accommodation, Truman’s “Get Tough” policy, Kennedy’s conflict and crisis, Johnson’s conciliation, and Nixon’s coexistence. The later is hyper-extended through the next several US administrations, and is generally accepted to have concluded with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the evacuation of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. During this period, from the first Strategic Arms Limit Talks to the end of the first Bush administration, the US prerogative shifted from five-alarm communism to five-alarm terrorism, and with a brief and pompous show of bravado, the Cold War just sort of ended.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was widely hailed as a success of western diplomacy backed by superior military strength and cultural tenacity. In truth, it was an eyesore and a constant source of stress and conflict that, after the seventies, served no real purpose but to remind everyone of an outmoded regime whose ideas died with Khrushchev. The Russians were as happy to be rid of the thing as anyone. Its destruction, like Tsar Bomba, might just as easily have been dismissed as another over indulgent act of propaganda, but its symbolism and context was more readily understood by the citizens of the world. It was a more accessible metaphor for division, and much more visibly present and constant in Germany. Pictures and videos survive of people tearing the colossal thing down from both sides, and in those too there is a readily accessible metaphor for unity and cooperation. The “Eastern Question” was visibly solved after half a century of intractable enmity, and everything was going to be alright. Both sides could be seen doing “what was right” as a mutual concession of old rivalry to new progressivism, as opposed to a unilateral concession from one to the other, which simply never would have occurred. Whether or not Bush Sr. and Gorbachev sincerely believed the widely celebrated event actually marked the end of the cold war is beyond the purview of this paper. The point for each of them would have been that the people in Germany and the world accepted the gesture.
There are problems with this model. The first is that to view the war through the evolution of various foreign policies obscures the range of perceivable outcomes, especially if it is the physical destruction of a wall that is supposed to mark the end of those policies, which would imply that Cold War Policy per se, ended in 1989 and became something else. It did not. The second problem with this model is the commonly held assumption that the Cold War was not a Hot War, and thus could be concluded with some flashy diplomatic showmanship. This popular characterization is engrained in the historicity of the Cold War, but it is the most absurd half-truth. It obscures not only the root causes of the Cold War, but the tragic devastation endured by the rest of the human race for the following eighty years. The third major flaw in the model is the acceptance of another lie: that the U.S. and Russia are no longer at war. This is by far the most dangerous mistake historians have made, because it perpetuates a misconception that lulls the successive generations of scholars into the comfortable mythology of shallow revisionism. It fails to address history and the present with a critical eye.
The Cold War did not end. Mutually Assured Destruction is still a thing. Americans and Russians are still in profound danger of a nuclear attack, and to a greater degree in the twenty-first century than ever before. The world has not progressed away from the threat of nuclear war, but towards it, and with rapacious tenacity. The wall was a straw-man. Its destruction was a meaningless gesture, conceived as a temporary expedient: a psychological reprieve for the masses who identified all their pressures and solutions with the literal wall, instead of the international status quo. For them, the Cold War ended, but for collective humanity, the wall was just a signal that it was finally safe to look away.
Further examination of the context in which the Bomb developed forces a reevaluation of the entire Cold War as it is taught. For the purposes of this paper, the Cold War begins at Alamogordo, prior to the Potsdam Conference in 1945, and does not end. Its first phase is the nuclear phase, which concludes with the detonation of Tsar Bomba in 1961. Its second phase is the Missile Phase, which concludes with the establishment of the Missile Technology Control Regime in 1983. Its third phase is the Proxy Phase, which proceeds through the eighties and nineties into the twenty-first century and concludes concurrently with the Bush administration, and the rise of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.
Each iteration of the Cold War signifies a paradigm shift in the outlook of both the US and Russia. From President Obama’s and President Putin’s view, the conflict is presently in its Economic Phase. Each of these phases represents a significant tactical and strategic departure from the one before it, but each one builds upon the previously established infrastructure, and so as the war shifts from one front to another, its implications accumulate exponentially. The war itself, however, never stopped being about the bomb from day one. It has always been about the bomb, and it is still about the bomb. The distinction is subtle, but substantive.
During the Kennedy and Khrushchev administrations, tensions in and between the two nations were very high. Many were certain that nuclear war was imminent. Departure from that frantic national state has come to serve as a surrogate for peace, and its distance from the modern mindset is held up as a measure of how far the world has come, but that distance is an illusion. The two nations may feel they have moved away from imminence, but they have each moved with juggernaut determination towards rather than away from the probability of global nuclear war. The masses may content themselves with the delusion that the two countries rationally and maturely avoided a war with each other while keeping in tact some image of self-determined potency, but almost every ground war that has been fought since has been a by-product of the Cold War relationship between the US and Russia. The modern Economic war with Russia proceeds from the Proxy War with Russia. The Proxy War was a by product of the Missile phase, which was a direct outgrowth of the race for nuclear superiority. With Tsar Bomba, Russia won that preliminary competition, making the transition from a mutual focus on nuclear advancement to a mutual focus on missile technology inevitable.
The goal of the cold war, in some respects, was to avoid a third world war. At Yalta, in 1945, the great powers laid out a series of initiatives to be implemented upon Germany’s surrender. Russia, Britain, France, and the US agreed to divide Germany into four zones, thus originating the infamous “Eastern Question,” as liberalized western powers were soon appalled by the totalitarian excesses of the Stalin regime. Along with this fateful decision to divide one city amongst four imperialist nations, Yalta also promised the trial of Nazi war-criminals (later at the famous Nuremburg trials), the establishment of governments in freed nations, a reparations plan to recoup the economic losses of WWII, and a declaration of a liberated Europe. These were to be the initiatives set in motion at the Potsdam conference later in the year. The US and Russia were to be partners in a greater European coalition dedicated to cleaning up Hitler’s mess.
But Roosevelt’s death brought Truman to power during this period, and the culmination of the Manhattan project at the Alamogordo testing facility changed Truman’s view of that emerging coalition. Prior to Alamogordo, the US had a pressing incentive to work with the Russians against Japan in the Pacific, but success at Bikini Atoll gave Truman the boost of unilateral confidence he needed to write Russia and the controversial Stalin regime out of US foreign policy altogether. This single event at the Alamogordo testing facility, more than any other, cemented the shift in US foreign policy from the Land Lease deals and economic aid that defined Roosevelt’s accommodation, to Truman’s tough talking belligerence and the subsequent exclusion of Russia from the Marshall plan.
Public perception plays an odd role in 1945. Few outside the history discipline remember the Open Door policy of forced markets that provoked the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, but almost everyone remembers the hallmark horror of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In these instances, nuclear detonations are themselves acts of diplomacy to which policies and perceptions become subordinate. It was the bomb that changed Truman, not the other way around. In that same sense, Tsar Bomba gave Khrushchev the same unilateral boost of confidence. Had the test failed in 1961, one might reasonably argue that the Cuban Missile Crisis and the subsequent test ban treaty could have gone dramatically differently, if either event even occurred at all.
For the indiscriminant deaths of more than 150,000 people, Truman is remembered as a victorious hero, while Stalin is remembered only as a tyrant, and Hirohito is hardly remembered at all. Nevertheless, it was the bomb at Alamogordo that convinced Truman he didn’t need Russia, and the events in Japan bore out that premise. Stalin countered with First Lightening in 1949. It is left to pure speculation how history might have gone differently if the US and Russia had spent the next ten years commemorating an alliance based on participation and shared victory. What occurred instead was an arms race perpetuated by belligerence and rising tension. At first, the metrics were simple. One side had to have bigger bombs and more bombs than the other. This assertion was granted the status of inalienable gospel, and over the next fifteen years, both the US and Russia invested heavily in nuclear testing and industrial infrastructure. The lion’s share of the bombs and missile facilities constructed during this time still exist, which means all the old strategic questions and imperatives are still in play, even if they seem to have grown visibly dormant in the public consciousness.
By 1952, the Atomic bomb had grown into the thermo-nuclear bomb, and the tragedy of ‘Big-Mike’ foreshadowed the dire consequences of this course. Intending to produce a 5MT yield, the engineers in the Marshall Islands failed to understand the physics of the lithium6 core, and failed to predict the lithium7 sub-reaction that tripled the yield of that bomb and endangered the lives of all who participated in its testing, as well as oblivious Asian fishermen many miles away. By then, the Soviet Union had fully engaged in nuclear research and development. The US had detonated the first Hydrogen Bomb, and the Soviet Union had its own megaton range version by 1955. The nature of this contest was linear. Whoever built the biggest bomb was the more powerful adversary, and thus could dictate (instead of negotiate) terms of policy. The open assumption for the west was that the US would “win the war” on the shoulders of better men, better science and technology, better industry and economy, and a better philosophy of government. Had that assumption been correct, the implication would have been that the US had the upper hand, essentially, as a function of capitalism, and so long as the US had the upper hand, the superiority of capitalism over communism was self-evident.
In 1957, that illusion was shattered. The Russians made permanent history with Sputnik, beating the US into space, and foreshadowing by many years the scope and extent to which this war would evolve. By conventional standards, Russia took a strong lead here, not only matching the US in technological capability, but also taking the dominant role in the competition and redefining the yard-stick by which superiority would be measured. This was an invaluable act of diplomacy, and like the bomb, the satellite subordinated policies and perceptions thereafter. The US struggled desperately to regain this initiative, and arguably made a significant impact with the Moon Landing. Unlike Sputnik, however, Apollo-11 played no practical role in the strategic or tactical questions that drove the arms race. It was an incredible advance in science and technology, but in politics, it was an act of stagecraft, driven and funded by political imperitive. The problem was one of distance. The US simply could not threaten Russia the way Russia could threaten Europe without far eclipsing the Russians in technological capability. Additionally, the northern latitudes offered the Russians an unmatchable inherent advantage in the actual physics of launch capability, meaning it was easier for the Russians to capitalize upon the Earth’s orbit and speed, factors which actually work against American Engineers.
In 1961, Tsar Bomba added insult to Sputnik’s injury. It was an act of diplomacy, not of war, and certainly not of propaganda. In the same sense that Alamogordo signaled a change in the relationship between the two countries, Tsar Bomba ended the Nuclear Phase of the Cold War. To exceed the Soviets in nuclear yield capability was by then already an extraordinarily unpopular prospect, would have been very difficult, very dangerous, and would have succeeded at best only in an anti-climactic celebration of second-place. The bomb was so big that a bigger bomb didn’t matter.
Many historians argue that the size of the bomb made it impractical. At twenty-seven tons, it required a very large airplane, risked the lives of the pilots, and from a tactical point of view, was just too heavy and cumbersome to be useful in conventional warfare, where such an aircraft would be extremely vulnerable to being shot down well before reaching its intended target. Those same historians go on to discuss the Cuban Missile Crisis without ever giving a second thought to Tsar Bomba, or Sputnik for that matter, and without ever contemplating the revelatory significance of Russia’s willingness to take such a bold and decisive step. Americans especially seemed to miss the connection between the world’s biggest bomb and four nearly completed missile facilities built right under western noses in Cuba. A twenty-seven ton bomb may be impractical for most aircraft of the day, but on a cargo ship it would have barely raised the water line.
If the Cold War to this point had been defined by technological advancement, strategic capability, and willingness to confront the enemy on his own turf, the Soviet Union must be awarded full points for all three categories. If Truman and Eisenhower had intended to contain Russia, to inhibit the spread of communism, and to dominate the western hemisphere in accordance with the Monroe Doctrine, the US failed at all three objectives. If either country is to be credited with diplomatic success in the partial test ban treaty that followed in 1963, recall that it was signed in Moscow, not in Washington, and not in some neutral venue like Versailles or Vienna.
For both nations, it was back to the drawing board. If the US wasn’t going to eclipse the Soviets with nuclear capacity, the new path forward would be a profound expansion of delivery capability. Obviously the Cuban Missile Crisis implies that missile technology was well out of its infancy by the early sixties, but declassified base commander training videos from the period reveal how aggressively the US had pursued this technology, with Trident Missile Systems already in place along a working basis of dispersal that reflected an early and clear conception of the principles of Mutually Assured Destruction that colored the later part of the decade. Both countries quickly amassed an armament of nuclear war heads and missile systems capable eliminating the human population from the earth several times over.
The pace of technology became its own imperative. Missile defense systems had to be conceived and implemented. Advances in computer processing and radar technology had to be forced. Satellites went up. Mobile launch facilities, such as big trucks and airplanes that never land, went into place. The larger strategic missiles gave way to smaller, more powerful missiles. The days of the slow, beastly bomber planes gave way to fighter jets as missile technology evolved its own intercontinental capability. Guided missile systems intended to deliver a single warhead were rendered obsolete virtually overnight as intercontinental ballistic missiles emerged, followed by multiple reentry vehicles capable of delivering a volley of warheads, simultaneously, to overwhelm missile defense systems. Nuclear launch facilities first moved around in big trucks, then underground, into “hardened” facilities, less vulnerable to preemptive strikes, and finally, underwater, into the Polaris submarine, where they could be anonymous, invisible, and most importantly, always available.
The Soviets were quick to match every advancement in war technology, but after Tsar Bomba, the best efforts of both nations in the Missile Race were for naught. Against all restraints, both sides had successfully demonstrated the capacity for profound destruction. Regardless of the Missile Gap, both sides obtained submarines capable of reaching each other’s shores; and both sides witnessed the rise of commercial and military satellite technology, effectively making the laborious question of missile delivery a moot point. Missile packages essentially became a flashy way to pacify the impotent paranoia of lost generals and to reassure the lay public of either nation’s capacity for self defense. The same way the US once had to acknowledge that nuclear superiority was no longer sufficient to intimidate the Soviet Union, the sixties demonstrated that the capacity for delivery would not be a US monopoly either. Russia, especially in the Brezhnev era, understood that the US was not in control, was not willing to wage nuclear war, and therefore, was not a threat. Meanwhile, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Latin America were all visible signs that the US was incapable of “containing” communism. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978 was absolute proof that the US was unwilling to risk a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union and expose the world to nuclear war.
In keeping with Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization, the US chose to funnel guns and money and diplomatic support to the Mujahidin and other radical fundamentalist groups in the Middle East. This new strategy was intended to mobilize uncompromising religious resistance against communist influence. In conduct of this strategy, the US embroiled itself in Middle Eastern politics, where it was often poorly received for its alliance with Israel. The US allied with Saddam Hussein in an eight year war against Iran, where the newly installed Ayatollah famously discredited the US, calling it the “Great Satan.”
Israel proved to be the thorn in the US diplomatic side. Disaffected Arabs were not oblivious to the US involvement in the assassination of Sadat, in the overthrow of Nasser, or in the constant suppression of a Palestinian State. The US failed to accept that this new strategy against the Soviets was counterproductive. Further involvement with Middle Eastern regimes, often dictatorial and cruel, undermined what little credibility and moral authority the US had left. The US proved that it would trade weapons of war to hostage taking terrorists to save American lives, and that it would sell crack cocaine to its own citizenry to pay for weapons to aid South American rebels in a coup against a democratically elected regime, weapons which congress had solidly refused to fund out of principle. Continued support of Israel, now bolstered by the fanatical rise of the conservative religious right in American politics during the Regan administration, would persistently be an undermining force responsible for the sudden turn of an American supported Islamic ally at the margins of Middle Eastern politics into a dominant, well-established network of violent extremists and religious fanatics, hell bent on destroying the capitalist world. At the very least, the US left a trail of diplomatic failures which only simplified and incentivized Russian competition.
In desperation, the US had turned from a manageable enemy to an uncontrollable ally. In order to beat the villainous red monster, the US created an abomination that it has struggled to conquer ever since. Afghanistan was Pandora’s Box. Al Qaida, the Taliban, and at the time of this writing, ISIS, are all modeled on the successes of the Mujahedeen. Like the nuclear weapons and guided missiles of old, the gravest threats to present international security are the products of America’s Cold War effort. In many cases, Russia is the natural benefactor of these missteps, and as such is a likely source of tangible support for any regime which rejects and opposes the American agenda in the region.
The progression from a nuclear strategy to a missile strategy to a proxy war strategy illustrates another peculiar phenomenon which has not helped the US in its struggle against the former Soviet Union. At each turn, the US creates its own bigger problem, which it must then expend endless energies trying to contain. The creation of the Atomic bomb led to a surge in US diplomatic confidence, but that surge was quickly followed by the realization that the bomb was now the new thing it had to deal with. When Russia brought their own bomb to the table, the priority for the US was to build a bigger bomb, and later to create an Atomic Regulatory Commission in 1949. When Russia built the biggest bomb, the strategy changed irreversibly to missiles. The two nations got twenty good years of pushing the missile gap before the US realized, yet again, that its solution was now its biggest problem. While trying desperately to perfect the guided missile and to install it in as many strategic places as diplomacy and arm-twisting and bribery would permit, the US had to create yet another regulatory agency to control the proliferation of the weapon it once thought would end the war. The Missile Technology Control Regime was comprised of seven members when it began, and by the end of the Iraq war, over thirty member nations participated in the export control program it established.
Within two years after the fall of the Berlin wall supposedly ended the Cold War, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy squared off in the most brutally intense conflagration since the Third Reich. The west stood by and watched protracted genocidal massacres, impotently urging peace talks and diplomatic negotiations, sending what aid they might, and repeatedly threatening both leaders with intervention. This was the Cold War battle that Germans had been spared. When it looked as though the Americans and British were finally going to put boots on the ground, however, the two leaders (Croat and Serb) made a deal with each other and turned on the Muslim population in between them, whom they butchered in Bosnia. The dissolution of Yugoslavia was permitted to happen, and the world moved on to happier subjects, hoping that such atrocities would never come any closer to dirtying European shores. The Mujahidin made significant contributions to the conflict, however, and grew in strength and noteriety as a result. The Muslim world now had an autonomous fighting force without geographical or political boundaries, and also a clear demonstration of whose interests would be sacrificed when Christian powers collided. This stateless model autonomous violence has perhaps permanently undermined the established methodology for maintaining domestic and trade security in the region.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and isolated, low-budget, terrorist cells have become another irreversible threat with its origins in US efforts to find a potent weapon against the Soviet Union. Once again, the US has been forced to organize dozens of nations into a coalition dedicated to fighting the spread of terrorism. A pattern emerges that reveals the future like a crystal ball. The US now fights terrorism with the next great innovation in warfare technology: the unmanned aerial vehicle, better known simply as the drone or the UAV. The MTCR all but conceded in 2011 that this new UAV technology was virtually beyond international regulation. Terrorists can use commercially available navigation systems to convert regular planes into drones, and developed countries can do far better. The required engineering capital is substantially lower for UAV mock-up systems than for guided missile and ICBM systems, and the level of investment required is far exceeded by that of satellites and submarines.
So what began with the US trying to contain communism very quickly grew into an effort to contain communism and the bomb, then into an effort to contain communism and the bomb while guaranteeing missile parity, then into an effort to contain communism, the bomb, the missile technology, and the Islamic radicals. Each of these was intended as a means to the original end. When the Berlin Wall fell, Communism was no more contained than the bomb. Sure the Soviet Union fell, but Russia has become no more cooperative with the US. With its fall, the US got a break from trying to contain Communism, which if ever had been a threat, would have precipitated nuclear holocaust long before then. But in its wake, the US was left trying to control the bomb, the missile technology, and the Islamic radicals. As a result, the world in general is less safe, and yet somehow, more relaxed, than it ever had been under the long dripping red shadow of Communist encroachment. The US now engages in an economic war against Russia, while sustaining a gross national public debt of eighteen trillion dollars. Much of this was borrowed from oppressive Communist China to fight a desperate oil war in Iraq. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), “Nine countries together possess more than 16,000 nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia maintain roughly 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high-alert status – ready to be launched within minutes of a warning. Most are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.”
Stalin once said that Russia would defeat the US without ever having to fire the first shot. He said that the US would whither on the vine. It is evident that much of the fruit born on the vine of US foreign policy has been rotten. A world where Democracy might someday have to defend itself against an opposing ideology might have seemed intolerable to Truman and Eisenhower, but a world littered with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, nearly a dozen nuclear armed countries, enough missiles to rain down hell from the sky in every hemisphere, and a swarming hornets nest of psychotic religious fundamentalists just itching to get their hands on any of it…that is down right terrifying.
The Nuclear Question, thankfully, remains unanswered, but Russia never subordinated to the US, and as a result, all of the foreign policies of both nations are still shaped and molded by the concept of a really big bomb suddenly arriving from almost anywhere. While the US pursues newly opened markets in areas previously dominated by Soviet control, it also spends heavily on strategic infrastructure and diplomatic dog-wagging to ensure a strong military presence around Russia’s borders, just in case.
With Russia, however, the question of having sufficient nuclear capability has long been since resolved. The major question focus in the nuclear question has shifted from Russia to Iran, where Communism is the least of anyone’s worries. Iran has become Russia’s counter to the US’s Israel. If Iran launched a nuclear attack on Israel, the extant system of alliances would likely precipitate another world war, which would align itself along all the fissures and fractures which materialized during the Cold War, would in all probability be fought with nuclear bombs, launched from submarines, land sites, unmanned aerial vehicles, and satellites.
Tsar Bomba was emblematic of a major transition in many aspects of the Cold War, including how the war was fought, and how the stakes were perceived by the people of both nations. It changed the cultural imperative by illustrating the underlying premises and setting the tone for all events to follow, as well as by resolving many of the lingering open questions that the Cold War had produced between the two nations concerning each other’s character and capacity for technological brinksmanship. To understand this view, however, the bomb must not be relegated to a bullet point or a sub heading in a broad, linear outline of the war. It must not be subordinated to the passing whims and ways of successive regimes, but must be the lens through which those regimes are studied. The bomb must not be taken in the context of the culture and current events of the day, to be explained in the spirit of sixty-one, sandwiched hap-hazard in between the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs. This monumental symbol of destruction was the cap-stone for the first era of a war that never ended.
Image Source: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-0aKK8zT5MSI/Up1PBME-fZI/AAAAAAAAfJI/Fas0ZMmH1DQ/s1600/1ninetymileso3RYD1rn1831o1_500.png
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