The last cold warrior

Our lives continue to be defined by the Cold War, even as the phrase itself has devolved into an artifact of language.

The Cold War once summoned images of hammers and sickles, the moonlit fedora hats of spies and ballistic missiles parading down the streets of Moscow like apocalyptic floats. Today assigning meaning to the “the Cold War” takes a moment. Even members of Generation X must pause and mentally box the period into an anecdote of history like “the Revolution” or “the New Deal.” Ask an American teenager about The Cold War and they’re libel to think you’re speaking of the latest video game from the makers of Grand Theft Auto.

I grew up near a major Air Force base and spent summers barbecues with adults who offered pleasantries such as, “Well, if the Soviets ever do strike we won’t have anything to worry about, because we’ll be the first to go.”

One heard this often. Standing knee-high, you would look up at these fatalists and think, “That’s good.” There was peace in that; in knowing that if this thing called The Cold War turned hot, the geographical choices of your ancestors positioned you to be vaporized before the people you loved suffered.

And then the 1980s became the 1990s, and it all ended. Nuclear annihilation vanished from the domain of public gossip. It was as if overnight all the B-52s, Tupolovs and ICBMs had transformed into compact discs and Sega Geneses. The Soviet Union dropped its sleek and spooky name and became a bit of a bore. Suddenly we were supposed to call it “Russia,” and Russia was just another country that needed a loan.

Political economists will tell you that the Cold War was won by outspending Russia. There is an element of truth to that, but not an overwhelming truth. Not the flood of reasoned clarity that clears the mind of other notions. The Cold War consumed hundreds of thousands of lives in war zones from Korea and Vietnam to 1980s Afghanistan. Over a half-century, the Cold War’s dueling parent nations spent trillions of dollars in state treasure in a custody battle over planet Earth. No arms race ended that. Nations will print money when they need more rockets, but rockets alone don’t breed converts over the long haul.

The Cold War was a propaganda campaign, and propaganda invokes the soul of marketing executives more than four-star generals. Its combatants surrender to the truest song. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union teetered at the brink and the world waited for a tipping-point. Then came the thermonuclear weapon of messaging: Michael Jackson.