What Kept the Cold War “Cold”?

Reagan and Gorbachev hold a discussion (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been working on this essay for my War in Modern History course and figured it fit well with the theme of the blog. I’m interested in the strategic and diplomatic factors as well as the traditional realist explanations (MAD, Kahn’s ladder, etc.) This essay aims to mix old-school nuclear theory with analysis of Cold War diplomatic culture in all its usual weirdness. WordPress gave me trouble with the footnotes, but sources are included at the end.

The Cold War, known for decades-long arms races representative of the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union, produced some of the most destructive weapons known to man.  While the United States ushered in the atomic age at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union’s nuclear program quickly followed suit. The two powers remained neck-in-neck for decades, constantly engaged in the delicate dance between deterrence and containment.  And yet, in spite of the massive firepower available to each hegemon, conflict between the two states remained restricted to proxy wars and never escalated to open nuclear war. How, despite the tensions between the US and USSR (as well as the numerous “near misses” that almost triggered fatal escalation), did the Cold War keep from becoming “hot”?  This essay will focus on the strategic and diplomatic mechanisms that kept the war “cold,” as well as several proxy war case studies that illustrate how the US-Soviet military dynamic played out across the world.

Strategy Gone MAD: Realist Nuclear Theory During the Cold War

At the close of the Second World War, it became clear that the US and the USSR espoused adversarial geopolitical interests.  While a US-led coalition had swept through Western Europe to subdue Germany after Operation Overlord, the Soviet Union had retained control over Eastern Europe and rapidly established a number of satellite states.  Western European states remained wary of Soviet incursion into their territory, as did the United States. The Soviet Union possessed the firepower to threaten Western Europe, as well as both a security and ideological motive to do so.  As one American policy document put it, “Soviet expansion constitutes the realisation of Imperial aspirations … Soviet policy is essentially defensive in nature, derived from that aspect of communist ideology which postulates a showdown between two divergent economic systems as historically inevitable.”

Out of this atmosphere of international tension arose a new line of strategic thinking: the preparation for possible nuclear war, but more importantly the drive to avoid it.  As historian Lawrence Freedman notes, “The study of nuclear strategy is … the study of the nonuse of these weapons.”  The United States and Soviet Union found themselves forced to make constant tradeoffs as they built up their respective nuclear arsenals.  Both states alternated between conventional and nuclear buildup and, within the realm of nuclear strategy, between offensive and defensive nuclear armament.  Although the arms race certainly blurred the lines between offensive and defensive warfare (the Cuban Missile Crisis furnishes a perfect example), nuclear armament proved largely defensive rather than offensive.  After all, policymakers quickly deemed nuclear weapons far too destructive for tactical use, in spite of MacArthur’s nuclear adventurism during the Korean War. Still, this did not stop either state from engaging in a measure of nuclear brinkmanship.  As Freedman argued, nuclear weapons served a diplomatic as well as military purpose: they existed as a “peacetime symbol of the American commitment to Europe, and as a possible means of signaling resolve in the event of war.”

The US and Soviet Union constantly adjusted their own nuclear strategies to keep pace with one another, bound by the principle of mutually assured destruction as long as each state’s capacity to wage nuclear war remained equal to the other’s.  Each state attempted to build nuclear arsenals capable of protecting its cities and waging a “second strike” — a retaliatory nuclear response levied after absorbing a “first strike” attack.  As one can imagine, this locked both states into a self-perpetuating security dilemma.  Freedman, quoting strategist Thomas Schelling, writes of this dilemma that “There would be successive cycles of ‘he thinks we think he thinks we think … he thinks we think he’ll attack; so he thinks we shall; so he will; so we must.’”  Despite the terrifying implications of the security dilemma, strategists found that a model known as the “nuclear escalation ladder” helped to impose order and temper the chaos of the security dilemma.  According to this model, developed by Herman Kahn, states proceed up the “rungs” of the ladder (pictured below) in discreet, rational steps and only turn to nuclear conflict as a last resort.  In this way, MAD and the principle of rational escalation kept both states in check.

Kahn’s “Escalation Ladder” (Source: Baloogan Campaign Wiki). Kahn’s ladder is a fascinating theoretical model, though it has been debated by some strategists who argue that nuclear escalation would take place in an illogical and irrational fashion — not one organized in discrete steps.

Bridging the Divide: Cold War Diplomacy

Realist nuclear strategy explains a great deal of Cold War politics, but does not completely explain how the United States and the Soviet Union maintained relative peace for so long.  The strained conditions of the Cold War necessitated compromise on both sides, and both the US and USSR practiced defense through skilled diplomacy as well as through nuclear armament.  In some cases, diplomacy took direct aim at the security dilemma. As antiballistic missile technology began to threaten the promise of MAD, for instance, the US and the Soviet Union began to examine new solutions to the nuclear arms race.  Under the Kennedy administration, the US and its allies began to adopt a strategy of “flexible response.” Under this strategy, the allied coalition would focus on diplomatic and economic, as opposed to simply nuclear or military, solutions to the Soviet challenge.  SALT (the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) also paved the way for the end of the arms race by restricting both states’ ABM use.  In Freedman’s words, SALT “[confirmed] the supremacy of the offense,” forcing the US and USSR to rely on MAD rather than on technical “solutions” that would only perpetuate the cycle.

In other cases, diplomatic activity focused on augmenting both states’ “soft power” and easing tensions through scientific and cultural exchanges.  Scholar James Critchlow writes that “Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including professional groups … academic associations, theaters, museums, Sister Cities International, sports associations, and other civil organizations, played an active role in exchanges… with or without U.S. government support.”  Such interactions opened the way for Kantian peace in an era known for polarization and mutual suspicion.  In 1958, for instance — long before the era of perestroika — the US and USSR agreed to exchange “science and technology, agriculture, medicine and public health, radio and television, motion pictures, exhibitions, publications, government, youth, athletics, scholarly research, culture, and tourism.”  Naturally, both sides demonstrated a fair amount of skepticism towards these exchanges.  The US feared Soviet espionage, and the Soviets feared the impact that American culture might have on the public (even to the extent that the Soviet government began planting agents at American cultural exhibitions to confuse the visiting presenters).  

Even so, American and Soviet citizens proved eager to learn about “the other” whenever possible.  The Soviet Komsomol and American Council of Young Political Leaders participated in an exchange; the English-language publication Soviet Life circulated within the United States, and its Russian-language counterpart Amerika “reached enough [Soviet] readers to make an impact, as evidenced by its high price on the black market.”  Western radio programs traversed the seas, introducing the Soviet Union to American jazz.  Meanwhile, the CIA bankrolled a program to supply Russia with American books via the US embassy in Moscow. 

Naturally, these sorts of programs faced some opposition during eras of increased political suspicion (the Stalinist era, for instance).  Still, they operated with often staggering success — sometimes, too much so.  One American radio broadcast in Hungary, for instance, incited an uprising when “many Hungarians who listened … believed that they were being promised U.S. military assistance if they fought against the Soviet troops,” leading to “an unknown number of deaths and an international scandal.”  Fortunately, these sorts of violent incidents only took place on a small scale, much like the Cold War’s many “hot wars” that transpired around the Global South.  The following section will examine some of the characteristics of these “small wars,” as well as their impact on the US-Soviet relationship.

Localized “Hot Wars”: Proxy War Case Studies

Cold War proxy wars, fought on an incredibly localized scale, forced the United States and Soviet Union to adopt new, unconventional styles of warfare in remote and unfamiliar theaters.  Both hegemons alternated between support for insurgents and counterinsurgents, each attempting to amass a physical and ideological sphere of influence. Two conflicts illustrate this phenomenon especially well: the Vietnam War, during which the US deployed troops to fight Soviet-backed insurgents, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which saw the US lend covert support to insurgents resisting the Soviet regime.

The United States, driven to war by the threat of “domino theory” and the spread of communism in Asia, began a long and bloody counterinsurgency campaign in former French Indochina.  It quickly became clear that American military policymakers relied too heavily on technology and firepower, as well as brute-force tactics that failed to win the hearts and minds of the population.  American soldiers were often ordered to kill civilians rather than cooperate with them, and maintain inaccurate and misleading Viet Cong “body counts.” Such treatment understandably turned the Vietnamese population against the American cause.  The Viet Cong, backed by China and the Soviets, successfully retained control of North Vietnam and, once the US backed down from its counterinsurgency efforts, swept through the ARVN-controlled south.

A burning Viet Cong base camp during the Vietnam War (Wikimedia Commons)

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the US interpreted the occupation as a threat to American oil and natural gas interests across the Middle East and Central Asia.  Unwilling to mire itself in an open conflict as long, bloody, and unpopular as Vietnam, American policymakers supplied covert aid to mujahedin insurgents resisting Soviet control.  The United States, operating through the CIA and also working closely with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, supplied the mujahideen with weapons, funding, and even Stinger missiles.  The USSR, eager to maintain its hold on Afghanistan, had taken on the role of counterinsurgent.  The US, on the other hand, framed the Afghan insurgency as a gallant struggle against global communism (even to the point at which one Western newspaper article lauded a certain “mountain warrior of mujahedin legend,” Osama bin Laden).

Much like the United States in Vietnam, the Soviet Union failed to “win hearts and minds” in Afghanistan, relying too heavily on firepower and eventually finding itself forced to withdraw.  The success of the American “ghost war,” however, would prove a pyrrhic victory. Ironically, the CIA’s support for the mujahideen would continue to haunt the United States after the USSR’s collapse and into the “unipolar moment,” as the insurgents’ training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan quickly became breeding grounds for radicalism.

An examination of the political dynamics behind the Vietnam War and the Afghan “ghost war” reveals key details of the unique relationship between the Cold War-era United States and Soviet Union.  While each power demonstrated a willingness to expand its global influence and curb the ambitions of the other, neither state became sufficiently invested in its proxy conflicts to risk nuclear war (or even truly “conventional” war).  Both the US and the USSR lost thousands of soldiers and billions of dollars defending their interests in Vietnam and Afghanistan, but neither state proved invested enough to endure a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign. For comparison, the USSR sacrificed millions of soldiers in the Second World War (a defensive war for the Soviets) but only a few thousand in Afghanistan. 

Because the Vietnamese and Afghan campaigns did not directly threaten the American or Soviet homeland, neither state saw a need for nuclear escalation. To return to Kahn’s ladder, the Vietnam and Afghanistan campaigns constituted, at best, “limited conventional war” — still several “rungs” below nuclear escalation.  Neither of these wars posed the existential threat that, for example, the Korean War did (at that point during the Cold War, American nuclear firepower outstripped that of the Soviet Union, rendering MAD futile; the Korean War also took place much closer to the Soviet homeland than did the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan).

The Cold War officially came to a close in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but the era of nuclear diplomacy had only just begun.  Moreover, the unipolar moment that began with the Soviet Union’s collapse has begun to disappear in the historical rearview. Some scholars speculate that war with China is not only likely, but inevitable, unless both the US and China take diplomatic steps to reduce growing economic and political tensions.  While some experts argue that nuclear peace will hold, the existence of the escalation ladder (as well as the threat of proxy wars like those that occurred between the US and Soviet Union) erode the notion of total nuclear peace. While history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme; as the United States transitions from a unipolar moment into a bipolar one, the lessons of the Cold War will help policymakers determine the best strategic courses of action to take.

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning. China currently possesses two aircraft carriers to the United States’ eleven, but recent political and economic tensions (along with China’s military and economic growth) have some experts fearing a war. (Photo credit: Baycrest at Wikimedia Commons)


Critchlow, James. “Review Essay: Public Diplomacy During the Cold War: The Record and its Implications.” Journal of Cold War Studies 6, no. 1 (2004).

Freedman, Lawrence. “The First Two Generations of Nuclear Strategists.” In Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, edited by Peter Paret, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Fisk, Robert. “Anti-Soviet warrior puts his army on the road to peace: The Saudi businessman who recruited mujahedin now uses them for large-scale building projects in Sudan.

Robert Fisk met him in Almatig.” The Independent, 6 December 1993,https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/anti-soviet-warrior-puts-his-army-on-the-road-to-peace-the-saudi-businessman-who-recruited-mujahedin-1465715.html .

Haska, Jan. “Rethinking the unthinkable: Revisiting Kahn and other classics of nuclear strategy.”

Futures Conference, 15 June 2017, https://futuresconference2017.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/hanska.pdf .

Report, “Soviet Strategy — Possible U.S. Countermeasures.” Truman Library. 1 December 1951. https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/research-files/report-

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