What the Cold War Taught Us

Nick Nielsen
Jan 17, 2016 · 15 min read

The Cold War forced us to think in global terms. In other words, it forced us to think in planetary terms. The planet was divided into two armed camps, with one camp led by the US, presiding over NATO, and the other camp led by the USSR, presiding over the Warsaw Pact. Every action taken, or every action forborne, was weighed and judged against its planetary consequences, and this became most evident when faced with the ultimate Cold War nightmare, a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers that came to known as MAD, an acronym for mutually assured destruction. It is at least arguable that the idea of anthropogenic existential risk emerged from the Cold War MAD scenarios.

What do I mean by “anthropogenic existential risk”? An existential risk is a risk that threatens the existence of life on Earth, or, more narrowly, human life or human civilization. Threats that originate from human action are anthropogenic, so an anthropogenic existential risk is the risk of the extinction of human life or of human civilization as a result of human action. The paradigmatic form of human action that could result in human extinction or the end of the civilization has been a nuclear war, or, more specifically, a scenario of mutually assured destruction in which nuclear powers employed all of their nuclear assets in one sudden spasm, a massive exchange of missiles, rather than risk losing these assets or conceding loss in a nuclear war. Once both sides in the Cold War had armed themselves with intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, this was a possibility that the world faced every day throughout the Cold War.

The visionary thinking of the Cold War period has been tainted by its association with what was then openly called “the unthinkable” — a massive thermonuclear exchange. These true visionaries wasted no time with utopian fantasies that we would all have liked to believe, but rather they were the ones who unflinchingly explored the implications of what Karl Jaspers called “the new fact.” Anthropogenic extinction became technologically possible with the advent of the nuclear era, and because it was made possible, it became a pressing need to discuss it honestly. In this sense, the great visionaries of the recent past have been men like Guilio Douhet and Herman Kahn, who grasped the new facts of warfare in industrial-technological civilization and gave an account of them much as Machiavelli sought to give an account of real rather than imaginary political life:

“…it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.”

from Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XV

Machiavelli is particularly apt in the context of Cold War realpolitik, since was precisely the determination neither side would neglect what must be done for what ought to be done, and not to be destroyed among so much that is evil. Machiavelli would have recognized Cold War politics as his progeny, several generations removed, as Machiavelli, too, sought to think the unthinkable.

Giulio Douhet’s work predates the nuclear age, but Douhet was a great visionary of air power, and the extent to which Douhet understood that air power would change warfare is remarkable. Here, for example, is a quote from his treatise The Command of the Air:

“No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquility, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians. The defenses on land and sea will no longer serve to protect the country behind them; nor can victory on land or sea protect the people from enemy aerial attacks unless that victory insures the destruction, by actual occupation of the enemy’s territory, of all that gives life to his aerial forces.”

from Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari, Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998, pp. 9–10

There have been many predictions for future warfare that have not been borne out in practice, but with hindsight we can see that Douhet was right about almost everything he predicted, and, more importantly, he was right for the right reasons. He saw, he understood, he drew the correct implications, and he laid out his vision in admirable clarity.

The Cold War standoff between the US and the USSR was a consequence of the implications of air power already glimpsed by Douhet in 1921, and which were then raised to a higher order of magnitude by advanced technology weapons systems. When Douhet wrote this work, there were as yet no jet engines, no ballistic missiles, and no nuclear weapons, but Douhet’s vision was so comprehensive and accurate that these major technological innovations did not alter the basic framework that he predicted. Citizens did become combatants, and the citizens of each side were held hostage by the other. This is the essence of the MAD scenario.

Despite the targeting of civilian population centers being the essence of deterrence through mutually assured destruction, there is both a distaste and a hesitation in acknowledging this. A particular example of the unwillingness even of scholars to acknowledge a reality that Guilo Douhet foresaw long before it became a reality, is furnished by the declassification of a Strategic Air Command target list from the 1950s, titled, “SAC Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959.” The report was authored in June 1956, and was released to the public in December 2015, almost 60 years after it was written. It includes the most extensive target list ever published from previously classified sources.

At the time the report was written the US relied almost exclusively on the Strategic Air Command’s bombers to deliver a nuclear strike. ICBMs began to appear in 1958 and 1959, both in the Soviet Union and in the US, and submarine launched ballistic missiles were still many years in the future. So any massive strike at the time would have to be delivered by bombers.

Commenting on the recently released target list, The National Security Archive page states in relation to planned “systematic destruction” of urban targets, (quote) “Purposefully targeting civilian populations as such directly conflicted with the international norms of the day, which prohibited attacks on people per se (as opposed to military installations with civilians nearby).” (unquote)

The New York Times article on the report release, 1950s U.S. Nuclear Target List Offers Chilling Insight, has this to say:

It lists many targets for “systematic destruction” in major cities, including 179 in Moscow (like “Agricultural Equipment” and “Transformers, Heavy”), 145 in Leningrad and 91 in East Berlin. The targets are referred to as DGZs or “designated ground zeros.” While many are industrial facilities, government buildings and the like, one for each city is simply designated “Population.”

“It’s disturbing, for sure, to see the population centers targeted,” said William Burr, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University that obtained the target list in response to a request first made in 2006. Mr. Burr, who specializes in nuclear history, said he believed it was the most detailed target list the Air Force had ever made public.

It is a bit odd that these sources should be cited expressing surprise at the systematic bombing of population centers, as in 1956 the memory of the bombing of Germany — during the day by the Americans, and at night by the British — was still relatively fresh in the minds of many who participated. Curtis LeMay, who was in charge of SAC when the recently released report was written, was in large measure responsible for the efficacy of US daylight raids in Germany. He rode in the lead plane and would court martial crews that turned around.

The plan to employ nuclear assets to level the Soviet Union, including targeting population centers, was the logical and linear extension of the policy actually pursued against Germany and Japan during the Second World War. Everyone knew what was being done. Bombing was insufficiently accurate to precision bomb exclusively military targets, so “area bombing” campaigns with the object of “de-housing” war industry workers was explicitly and systematically executed.

Everyone knew what was being done, and many found it distasteful. At the end of the Second World War, Arthur “bomber” Harris, who had presided over RAF efforts as LeMay had presided over American efforts, retired to South Africa because of the opprobrium that had become attached to the ruthless efficacy of his strategy. After Dresden, even Churchill had second thoughts. But the war was won and the Nazis were defeated, and this was equally well understood at the time by everyone as a war aim that could only be attained by the unconditional surrender of Germany.

Since the end of the Second World War, there has been much discussion of strategic bombing. An explicitly philosophical treatise has been written to denounce it as immoral, as in A. C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? And in Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden, Marshall de Bruhl questions the utility and rationale of strategic bombing. Caleb Carr denounces it in his The Lessons of Terror. But it is misleading to try to understand strategic bombing in exclusively moral or political terms. Strategic bombing is an expression of our culture.

Let me try to explain how this is so, with a detour through political philosophy. Hannah Arendt is especially remembered for her argument that twentieth century totalitarianism and fascism is a political outcome of the emergence of mass man in history. Arendt wrote:

“What will happen once the authentic mass man takes over, we do not know yet, although it may be a fair guess that he will have more in common with the meticulous, calculated correctness of Himmler than with the hysterical fanaticism of Hitler, will more resemble the stubborn dullness of Molotov than the sensual vindictive cruelty of Stalin.”

While Arendt professed not to know the full consequences of mass man as a political phenomenon, the Second World War revealed the social dimensions of mass man in mass warfare. Indeed, I would argue that mass warfare is a nearly inevitable historical outcome of the emergence of mass man in history. It may be horrific, but it is not to be treated as some kind of anomaly: this style of warfare perfectly matches the structure of our society today. Twentieth century campaigns of mass death and strategic bombing are brought into being by popular sovereignty, not in spite of it. Where vox populi is law, to influence the feeling or perceptions of a mass population, through terror or other means, is a coherent strategy of war.

The Second World War was the background to the Cold War, and, in a sense, we can think of the Second World War as the “proof of concept” of the mass destruction of mass population centers, a concept initially suggested by the first global industrialized war, which we call the First World War, and initially formulated as doctrine by Guilo Douhet. In the same way that the Second World war was the background of the Cold War, the strategic bombing of the Second World War was the background to the strategic bombing envisioned by nuclear war planners during the Cold War. This brought the development of mass war to its logical end with nuclear weapons, the telos of mass destruction, which was then formulated as doctrine in mutually assured destruction. This was mass war for mass man, and in such mass war against mass man, mass man in the form of industrialized cities and their suburbs were targets of war, as Douhet had foreseen decades before.

The increasing scale and efficacy of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems did not substantially change Douhet’s framework, but by raising the stakes of destructiveness, nuclear weapons, jet bombers, and missiles did change the scope of warfare from mere localized destruction to a potential planetary catastrophe. Many scientists began to discuss the potential consequences of the use of nuclear weapons for life and for civilization, and many of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project later felt misgivings for their role in releasing the nuclear genie from the bottle.

These concerns were not confined to western scientists. In an internal report to the Soviet leadership, Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov, for whom the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow is named, wrote bluntly about the possibility of human extinction in the event of nuclear war in a document titled “The Danger of Atomic War” from 1954:

“Calculations show that if, in the case of war, weapons that already exist are used, levels of radioactive emissions and concentration of radioactive substances, which are biologically harmful to human life and vegetation, will be created on a significant portion of the earth’s surface. The rate of growth of atomic explosives is such that in just a few years the stockpile will be large enough to create conditions under which the existence of life on the whole globe will be impossible. The explosion of around one hundred hydrogen bombs could lead to this result.”

“There is no hope that organisms, and the human organism in particular, will adjust themselves to higher levels of radioactivity on earth. This adjustment can take place only through a prolonged process of evolution. So we cannot but admit that mankind faces the enormous threat of an end to all life on earth.”

from Igor Kurchatov “The Danger of Atomic War”, 1954

Kurchatov’s formulations are striking in their unaffected naturalism and in the bluntness of the message that he sought to communicate. Even as Kurchatov wrote of the end of the world, he avoided histrionics. His account of human extinction is what philosopher Colin McGinn might call, “flatly natural.” The effect of a flatly natural and dispassionately scientific account of the end of the world is perhaps the more powerful for avoiding emotional and rhetorical excess. The all-too-real possibility of human extinction at the hands of human beings needs no histrionics, and would only be weakened by the attempt at dramatic effect.

The space age began three years after Kurchatov’s memo on the dangers of nuclear war, when Sputnik was launched on 04 October 1957. Thereafter a “space race” paralleled the arms race and became a new venue for superpower competition. While the space race provided many inspiring moments that continue to resonate even today — almost fifty years later we continue to cite landing a man on the moon as one of the signal technological triumphs of our civilization — there was also a darker side to this exuberant rivalry. Bertrand Russell, for example, was scathing in his righteous ridicule of the space program as being merely a symptom of the Cold War and superpower competition.

Russell had a point. We would never have gone to the moon in 1969 if this achievement had not been insistently driven by superpower competition. But this isn’t the whole story; we cannot reduce the origins of the space program to superpower competition, though we must acknowledge the crucial role played by this competition. Rocketry in the second half of the twentieth century was a classic risk/opportunity trade off, like artificial intelligence or nano-scale engineering today. Building rockets was necessary for mastering the technology of ballistic missiles, and the development of this technology carried the risk of warfare that could destroy civilization across the entire planet in less than one hour, but the same technology carried the opportunity of peaceful uses that could change the future of civilization as certainly as military uses could end the future of civilization. As of today, the risk has remained unrealized, but the opportunity has already played a role in reshaping human perceptions of themselves and their place in the universe.

It has become a commonplace of commentary on the Apollo missions that this was the occasion of an intellectual turning point in our collective self-understanding. The photograph of Earth taken from space on the way to the moon — sometimes called the “blue marble” photograph — was a way to communicate to the public some hint of what Frank White calls the “overview effect”. Again, we were forced to think in planetary terms by this new image of Earth hanging isolated against the blackness of space. Earth was achingly beautiful, as we all saw, but also terribly vulnerable.

Later, from a much farther vantage point in our solar system, we would see Earth not as a “blue marble,” but merely as a “pale blue dot,” further diminishing our home in the cosmos. This perspective of an overview effect of even greater distance provided a stern lesson in Copernicanism.

The Cold War arms race and space race came together during the latter part of the twentieth century in a kind of cosmic fatalism and pessimism over the very possibility of the longevity of any civilization whatever, extrapolated far beyond the Earth to the possibility of any other inhabited planet.

When Carl Sagan wrote his Cosmos: A Personal Journey during the height of the Cold War, the concern over nuclear war was such that the final term L in the Drake equation (the length of time a SETI-capable civilization is transmitting or receiving) was frequently judged to be quite short, only a few hundred years at most. This is given a poignant depiction in a dream described in the last episode of Sagan’s Cosmos television series.

Sagan narrates a dream sequence of visiting a planet that is home to an alien civilization. Gazing down on the planet from space, he sees the lighted night side of the planet, but as he watches, the whole world goes dark. He checks the “Book of Worlds” — what in an earlier episode he called the Encyclopedia Galactica — and finds that the world was rated as having less than a one percent chance of survival for the next hundred years.

As the narration continues, Sagan comforts himself for this loss by listening to radio and television broadcasts from Earth. Most of the snippets of news in this aural montage feature stories of atomic weapons or political tension. As he is listening, the broadcasts from Earth are suddenly interrupted and fall silent. Disturbed by this, wondering why the broadcasts from Earth suddenly stopped, he looks up the entry for Earth in the Book of Worlds, and reviews it. He finds that Earth, too, was given a chance of survival of less than one percent over the next hundred years. “Not very good odds,” as Sagan observes. He sees that terrestrial civilization has been destroyed by a full nuclear exchange, and he then recites a melancholy litany of things that will be no more with the end of human civilization.

Sagan’s cosmic perspective on the terrestrial woes of the Cold War was, ironically, one of the legacies of the Cold War. It could be said that nuclear weapons and space exploration driven by political competition opened our eyes to our place in the cosmos in a way that might not have made a similar impression if the stakes had not been so high. Samuel Johnson is often quoted for his line, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Similarly it could be said that the Cold War and the nuclear arms race brought the whole of humanity face-to-face with extinction, and we pulled back from the brink.

Perhaps someday we will speak of Cold War civilization as a subclass of industrial-technological civilization, as I have at times spoken of Soviet civilization, despite the Soviet Union having existed for so short a time. Despite the ephemeral nature of the Soviet Union, its leaders aspired to represent a new stage in human civilization, so we can at least speak of Soviet civilization in aspirational terms. The Cold War was a standoff between two distinct visions of the future of civilization, and, as what Hegel would have called a world-historical event, there is a sense in which we can legitimately speak in terms of Cold War civilization.

For several decades we constructed a civilization focused on warfare that was indistinguishable from self-destruction. The Egyptians built pyramids; medieval Europeans built cathedrals; we built strategic weapons systems, early warning radar stations, and fallout shelters. We not only saw the possibility of mutually assured destruction; we meticulously planned and prepared for a massive nuclear exchange that never happened. We frantically erected the infrastructure of our own self-immolation. Fortunately for us, this was a wasted effort. And this is another existential lesson of the Cold War: that a civilization can exhaust itself in the production of works believed to be socially necessary, but which are ultimately shown to be pointless, or, at least, not used for the ends intended by their builders. Pyramids and cathedrals are now used as tourist attractions, but the infrastructure of the Cold War, perhaps less beautiful and more ephemeral than pyramids or cathedrals, unintentionally taught us that our fate is in our hands, and we have the power to destroy ourselves.

The danger is not over, but the human species has been changed by its experience of imminent destruction.


This post is the basis for the script of a spoken word production on Youtube, Existential Lessons of the Cold War, and is based on several previous blog posts, including Existential Lessons of the Cold War, Carl Sagan’s Dream, and Mass War and Mass Man.

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