Opinion

No, the Cold War hasn't ended. It may have only just begun

To understand Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine it is critical to understand the history of the Cold War

J Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves at the Trinity Test. Image: Courtesy of Netflix

Image: Brian Knappenberger

The excellent, multiple Academy Award-winning movie Oppenheimer depicts the creation and testing of the world’s first nuclear weapon at the Alamogordo bombing range in New Mexico. The ‘Trinity Test’ was a turning point in human history. Days after the test, then-US president Harry Truman told Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that the United States had a new weapon “of unusual destructive force”.

Not much more was said between the leaders about the bomb, but that was an understatement. The invention of nuclear weapons was so profound it changed nearly everything that came after and set the stage for the world we live in today.   

For our series Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War, that explosion is the beginning. This nine-part Netflix series is the culmination of a two-year worldwide effort in which our team traveled to seven countries and interviewed over 100 people to tell the epic story of the Cold War.

From interviews with policy makers like Robert Gates or Condoleezza Rice and historians, academics and researchers to international heads of state like president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the series dives deep into the political and cultural reverberations still felt by that blast. 

On 29 August 1949, the Soviets successfully tested their own bomb. Soon nuclear weapons like the ones developed by Oppenheimer became thermonuclear devices that have many times more destructive potential. These weapons began to proliferate rapidly and took on a wide range of forms – some fit in a reasonably large duffel bag, others were the size of a school bus.

As author Alex Wellerstein says in the series “there was a tremendous variety of weapons” and the US had a nearly “unlimited budget and unlimited ideas”. By 1983, the world’s two superpowers had amassed over 50,000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy all life on Earth. By that time a dangerous theory had become dominant. Mutually assured destruction, or MAD. If we could only build more and more deadly nuclear weapons, only then, the thinking goes, could we be safe. 

While it has been argued that the invention of nuclear weapons did bring an end to the massive, large-scale wars that had defined the human race up to that point, it also forced tension into new battlegrounds. Since the offensive use of nuclear weapons would amount to a suicide pact, the Cold War played out in often very deadly proxy wars around the world. Both superpowers propped up some of the world’s worst dictatorships.

The Cold War is also a war of disinformation and misinformation, a battle over thought and allegiances that is still with us, only now it is amplified by technology. It also fuelled clandestine services like the CIA and the KGB and created a surveillance state that never went away.

The Cold War was also a story we told ourselves. In America, that story was about possibility and individual freedom. The Soviets had a competing story, about the essential unfairness of capitalism and the stratospheric difference in wealth it caused. But the truth was far more complex.  

To understand Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine it is critical to understand the Cold War and in particular the break-up of the Soviet Union. For the west that was the end, it was a triumph. But for Putin, the former KGB agent, it was “the worst geopolitical tragedy in history”. Crucial decisions made at that time led to grave economic hardships in Russia and a disillusionment in democracy that fuelled Putin’s rise.

Now Russia has been taken over by an authoritarian regime that questions the post-Cold War borders. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the largest land war in Europe since the end of World War 2 and has caused immeasurable death and destruction. 

For a lot of people, one of the more positive aspects of the Cold War was that at various moments of relative cool-headedness and diplomacy the superpowers were able to make breakthroughs in the form of nuclear weapons treaties. In 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev even floated the idea in Reykjavik of banning all ballistic missiles entirely.

Unfortunately, even though those treaties have had bipartisan American support for the last 50 years, that is now eroding. The INF treaty – an enormous accomplishment of Reagan and Gorbachev – was undone in 2019 by President Trump who also slow-rolled the extension of the New START Treaty. The Biden administration extended New START within only a few weeks of taking office because it was about to expire.

But now we only have one treaty between the United States and Russia that limits US and Russian nuclear forces. The problem is that New START expires on 4 February 2026. If relations don’t improve, we are looking at the first time in 50 years where there is no limit on the total number of nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia can deploy. China is also rapidly building their nuclear arsenal. 

It is not too much to say that the Cold War is the story of the human species – both in all of its ugliness but also with all of its possibility and hope – after we invented a weapon that could kill all of us. That story is not history, it is the world we live in today. 

Brian Knappenberger is the director of Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War, out now on Netflix.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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