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We the People: What led to the Cold War? Fear of nuclear weapons annihilating all life on Earth, for one thing

Dec. 19, 2021 Updated Thu., Dec. 30, 2021 at 1:18 p.m.

President Richard Nixon, left, and Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev sign the First Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in May 1972.  (Associated Press)
President Richard Nixon, left, and Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev sign the First Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in May 1972. (Associated Press)
By Pip Cawley For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: During the Cold War, what was one main concern of the United States?

There are two official answers to this question. One is that the U.S. was concerned about the spread of communism. The other is that the U.S. was concerned with the possibility of nuclear war. The myriad ways the fear of communism influenced the United States are too numerous and complex for this brief article.

Instead, I want to discuss the fear of nuclear war. It is easy to forget that since the invention and proliferation of nuclear weapons, we now have the technology available to exterminate our entire species. The fear of nuclear war was ever-present and influenced every aspect of American life. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the celebrated author William Faulkner stated, “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”

Let’s discuss how we got to this point.

The Cold War, so named because the two major powers, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, never “heated up” or fought open war in Europe, lasted from 1945 to 1990.

Some historians argue the Cold War started during the end of World War II and that the use of the first nuclear weapons on Japan was intended, among other things, to intimidate the Soviets.

The Cold War impacted not just military concerns but was a ubiquitous concern for everyday Americans. A real fear of nuclear war was ever-present in American society. Government-backed films like “The Red Menace” reminded the public of the threat of nuclear war, and families built bomb shelters in their yards and basements.

Schools practiced drills where children were taught to hide under their desks in the case of nuclear war. Obviously, a small desk won’t protect a child from nuclear bombs, but it was part of what is called “security theater.” Security theater is the performance of security or safety measures that realistically do nothing to increase the individual’s safety but give a small sense of control and comfort. They are doing something, and even if what they’re doing is useless, it still helps them feel better.

In reality, there is nothing we could do to protect ourselves from the devastation nuclear weapons bring. Those not killed in the blast instead die of radiation exposure. If enough nuclear weapons are detonated, it will cause a nuclear winter in which the sun’s rays are blocked by clouds of dust and debris. Without warmth from the sun, temperatures on Earth would radically drop, killing all plant and animal life on the planet. This was, and still is, a new and frightening reality.

We arrived at this new reality thanks to what is called the arms race. The U.S. and the USSR sought to get or maintain a technological and tactical advantage over each other. Both countries invested immense amounts of resources to develop new and more powerful weapons. For example, if the U.S. built one aircraft carrier, the USSR would build two, which would prompt the U.S. to build three more even larger aircraft carriers, and so on. The constant one-upmanship of the arms race led to the development of nuclear weapons, first in the U.S. and then in the USSR.

Eventually, these stockpiles of weapons became so large that the two countries each had the capability of destroying all human life on Earth. If one country attacked, the other would retaliate and the conflict could eventually escalate to the use of nuclear weapons, which would then lead to our own extinction.

For that reason, the two countries agreed not to directly attack each other in what is called Mutually Assured Destruction.

Since neither side wanted to end all life on Earth, they agreed not to directly attack each other. This kept an all-out war from breaking out between the two countries.

They did wage proxy wars against each other all over the globe. The U.S. and the USSR demanded that other countries pick a side, theirs or their enemy’s. The USSR expanded its sphere of influence toward Europe, drawing an Iron Curtain across the territory.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan and spent 10 years fighting for control of the country. On the other hand, the U.S. invaded Korea and later Vietnam in order to prevent the countries from “falling to communism.” Meanwhile, the push for decolonization in Africa led to armed conflicts, often funded or supplied by one of the major powers. In Iran and several South American countries, clandestine plans and espionage were used to unseat governmental leaders, some of whom were democratically elected, and replace them with new leaders who would be friendly to U.S. interests.

Today, the U.S. and Russia possess the most nuclear weapons, and despite disarmament treaties and downsizing of stockpiles, both still possess enough nuclear devices to destroy the planet several times over. In the years since the Cold War ended, other countries have obtained nuclear capabilities. There are nine countries with nuclear weapons; some others are seeking to obtain their own.

While fear of nuclear war no longer influences our daily lives, as it did during the Cold War, it remains a real concern in international relations.

Pip Cawley received her Ph.D. in political science from Washington State University in Pullman.

This article is part of a Spokesman-Review partnership with the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

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