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The Cold War is a poor euphemism for what had really been a series of intense political impasses, economic showdowns, and bloody proxy wars in the mid-20th century. Emerging victorious of World War II, the US and the USSR immediately set on the path of competition for spheres of influence. Because the two had immense nuclear stockpiles, they teetered precariously on the brink of mutually assured annihilation. The relationship between the two superpowers veered between visceral hostility and détente throughout the Cold War, but was never truly amicable. The dissolution of the USSR allowed the US to spread its tentacles into the hitherto unreachable parts of the world. It catapulted the US to the status of the world’s single superpower. The USSR, on the other hand, splintered into a number of weakened states. By the end of the 2010s, however, the Soviet Union rejuvenated in the form of an independent Russia, seeking to challenge the American-dominated world order.
This paper will begin with the historical excurses into the Cold War, focusing on the watersheds of this historical event. It will then segue into the discussion of how the Cold War shaped the US and how it affected the relations between the US and an independent Russia. Finally, it will focus on the recent resurgence of the Cold War, explaining its potential implications for the US. Given the tasks of this paper as they are described above, the bottom line of this paper seems straightforward: recent developments in the world show that the collapse of the USSR marked a lull in the Cold War rather than complete triumph of the US.
Excursus into History
Although the US and the USSR were allies during World War II, the early relationship between these countries was characterized by a complex interplay of economic, political and ideological factors. Whereas the Soviet leaders condemned the commitment of the American administration to capitalist values, the Americans loathed the oppressive nature of Soviet communism and, particularly, the nefarious enormities of Joseph Stalin. Ultimately, the differences in the ideologies of the two nations prevented them from establishing friendly and mutually beneficial relations. The two countries made cautious overtures of friendship in the early 20th century, but they did not even establish diplomatic relations until 1933. The need to destroy the Nazis made strange bedfellows of the US and the USS, but the brittle alliance fell apart once the threat of Hitler’s regime receded into history.
Those early ideological differences resurfaced with renewed force in the wake of World War II. By this time, the two countries had the most powerful economies in the world. Consequently, they had sufficient wherewithal to develop their nuclear programs. Each superpower saw nuclear weapons as one of the ways to assert their international influence. Naturally, the inexorable development of nuclear weapons poisoned the well of cooperation between the US and the USSR. Importantly, in addition to sheer expansion of their respective nuclear potentials, the two superpowers resorted to more threatening actions. Following the establishment of NATO, in 1949 the US deployed its intermediate-range nuclear missiles and bombers in several European nations and Turkey as a bastion against the USSR. More specifically, the missiles were meant to contain the spread of Soviet communism further into Europe and to assure a prompt retaliation against the USSR in case of its transgressions.
Nuclear tensions reached a flashpoint in 1962, when the Soviets stationed their nuclear weapons in the immediate proximity of the US. The move had one immediate and one long-term goal. First, it was meant to deter the likelihood of another American attempt to invade Cuba and orchestrate a regime change on the island. Second, it effectively showed the US that the Soviet Union could also strike American targets in case of emergency. Commentators argue that the short-lasted Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought the two superpowers closest to the point of nuclear warfare. Ultimately, however, the two nations agreed to make concessions, thereby finding a mutually acceptable solution to the crisis. Even so, the relations between the US and the USSR sank to a nadir in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis.
Likewise, because the US and the USSR had sufficient wherewithal to promote their imperialist interests across the world, they commonly locked horns on real battlefields. Each superpower needed more allies to enhance their international clout. Perfidiously enough, the US and the USSR used other nations as pawns in their confrontation. Few American troops killed Soviets and vice versa. The direct casualties of the Cold War in other nations were alarming though. Goldstein estimates that as many as 180,000 people perished in armed conflicts every year between 1950 and 1989, which roughly translates to seven million during these four decades. Although many of the wars that the US and the USSR supported would have broken out in any case, the two superpowers stoked tensions and were, thus, directly responsible for the majority of these human losses.
One of the major proxy wars of the Cold War era was the 1955-1975 Vietnam War. When the French relinquished their grip on Vietnam, the US and the USSR scurried immediately to exploit the void to achieve their own imperialistic interests. Unlike in the previous proxy wars, when the two did not send substantial reinforcements to the belligerents they supported, the US deployed a vast army in Vietnam to succor South Vietnam. The only exception was the Korean War of 1950-1953, when the US lost about 54,000 troops. According to the most conservative estimates, 58,000 American troops lost their lives in Vietnam during the two decades of hostilities. The USSR, by contrast, limited its assistance in North Vietnam to military equipment and other non-human resources. Because it was more pusillanimous or – to use a diplomatic expression – more restrained and shrewd, the Soviet Union also lost fewer soldiers. Apparently, it was the Vietnamese civilian population that bore the brunt of the Vietnam War, but the US also lost a substantial part of its reproductive population. The Vietnam War and the Korean War each claimed slightly more American soldiers than World War II if only combat deaths are counted. Hence, there are ample grounds to suggest that the Vietnam War as a direct outgrowth of the Cold War cut a more irrevocable swath through the American population than World War II had.
Overall, the US and the USSR got embroiled in more than 80 proxy wars of different kind: political conflicts, territorial disputes, armed rebellions, regime changes, crises, wars, insurgencies, and other military operations. Regardless of the degree of involvement, each Cold War-era proxy war put a strain on the budgets of the two superpowers. Many also saw the deaths of either American or Soviet troops. As mentioned before, the US lost over 100,000 combatants in Korea and Vietnam. The USSR also sustained heavy casualties in some particular conflicts. For example, as it circled the grindstone of violence in Afghanistan over nine years, it lost over 25,000 of its troops.
During the Cold War, tensions between the US and the USSR raged not only on earth but also in the outer space. However, space race that lasted throughout the Cold War was not as dangerous. Nonetheless, it was an important appendage to the Cold War. The two superpowers used space as a symbolic battlefield for proving their superiority over the ideological adversary. Each scored coups over another. The Soviets were the first to send a cosmonaut into space, while the Americans were the first to send a man onto the Moon. While not inherently dangerous, the space race further abraded relations between the US and the USSR as well as pushed them forward into the abyss of relentless competition.
Propagandistic warfare was yet another attribute of the Soviet-American competition in the post-World War II period. The two countries resorted to mendacious propaganda to both demonize the adversary and justify its own causes. The impeccable performance of the sophisticated propagandistic machines in the US and the USSR led to a surge in animosity that can be still perceived even today. Older generations in the US and the USSR, brought up on the politically charged books and TV reports, still have an antipathy or even stronger hostility towards the representatives of the opposing nation.
The Lingering Impact of the Cold War on the US
The US and the USSR undertook several earnest attempts to achieve a thaw in their relations during the Cold War. The US moved from the containment policy on the earliest stages of the Cold War to the policy of détente later on. The USSR, in its turn, also made a series of concessions and participated in the nuclear disarmament process with relative willingness. None of these initiatives, however, was as effective for the rapprochement between the adversaries as the collapse of the USSR. Russia proclaimed itself a true inheritor of the Soviet legacy, but was not strong enough economically to continue competing with the US for global domination. The Cold War destroyed the Soviet economy, but the US emerged from it seemingly unscathed in terms of economic losses. Its economy in the 1990s was even more exuberant than it was in the early 1950s.
Indeed, one positive effect of the Cold War was that it generated competition between the US and the USSR. This competition, in its turn, stimulated the US to develop its economic capabilities, ultimately propelling it to the status of the undisputed world leader. Importantly, economic development entailed social betterment and political development. It is true that the American economy was strong even before the 1950s. Yet, even if the Cold War was not the primary motivation for economic development in the US, it certainly helped the country to sustain and even increase the tempo of this development. The USSR had a mantra of “catching up to and overtaking the capitalist world” (Rosenstein, 2003, p. 152). The US, while not as forthcoming in its declarations, certainly had a similar mantra. Overall, it would not be a folly to conclude that the Cold War was one of the factors stimulating economic growth in the US.
Another positive impact of the Cold War on the US was that it prompted the Washington government to build a powerful army and otherwise reinforce its security system. With an estimate $8 trillion spent on the military during the Cold War era (Jenkins & Pyeatt, 2010), the country ensured that its military capabilities would remain unsurpassed well into 21st century. The trend still persists. Similarly, the threats emanating from the USSR induced the US to oversee the establishment of a globe-spanning security alliance, namely the NATO. The organization still performs its functions with commendable effectiveness and the US still plays a leading role in it.
But the impact of the Cold War on the US was not as unambiguous as it may seem after the previous two paragraphs. On the negative side, the US diverted enormous funds from the budget to the purposes of imperialism. Minimizing its defense expenses at the time when the Soviet-threat was all-pervading would have been an imprudent move, of course. Yet, the US could have found a better use for the billions it dissipated on the support of popularly detested regimes around the world.
Another negative effect on the Cold War on the US that was resented back at the time and is still resented today is the heavy death toll of this improperly named conflict. Using its aspirations of global leadership as the only pretext for engaging in bloody wars in the distant regions like Southeast Asia, the US suffered enormous casualties. Many Americans themselves have spoken of the absurdity of these wars, accusing their leaders of imperialism. Looking at America’s involvement in Vietnam, Korea, and several other major proxy wars of the Cold War era with the benefit of hindsight, it appears that they all had a good reason to express such ideas. To say that the US embarked on the path of imperialism only during the Cold War would pervert historical reality. Yet, the Cold War certainly amplified America’s penchant for imperialism. Being an outgrowth of the Cold War, America’s persistent imperialism sill claims many lives of American troops nowadays.
The Cold War had not only immediate adverse effects on the US but also insidious long-term effects. One such negative long-term effect of the Cold War has manifested itself many years after the Cold War ended. At the height of the 1979-1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan, the US did not want to wait until the mujahedeen would crush the Soviets. Instead, it came to play a subversive role in the conflict, training, financing and otherwise succoring insurgent groups. It is known from unimpeachable historical sources that the US indeed rendered assistance to terrorist groups in Afghanistan during the Soviet military entanglement in this country. Little did American leaders know that these insurgent groups prospering on the back of American assistance would turn against the US itself in just one decade. According to Grau and Gress, “the hit-and-run bloodletting across the war’s decade tallied more than 25,000 dead Soviet soldiers plus a great many more casualties and further demoralized a USSR on the verge of disintegration”. Clearly, some of these deaths were due to American support of the Afghani insurgents during the late phases of the Cold War. However, as cynical as it sounds, it could also be said that some of the deaths in the September 11 attacks were also due to American support the Afghani insurgents during the late phases of the Cold War. After all, it was in part because of America’s assistance that al Qaeda’s predecessors gained ground.
Hence, it is evident that the legacy of the Cold War has had both positive and negative reverberations in the US. To say whether positive effects of the Cold War for the US outweigh its negative effects or vice versa would be a subjective decision. From the vantage point of this paper’s author, positive effects do outweigh the negatives.
Resurgence of the Cold War
Following the collapse of the USSR, the US became the most powerful nation in the world bar none. With the threat of the Soviet Union in abeyance, it enjoyed a period of unchallenged world domination. Ever more world countries, including the USSR’s former allies and satellites, slipped into the American orbit or sought to enhance their relations with the Washington government.
Russia, by contrast, was limping from one crisis to another throughout the 1990s. In the early 2000s, the Putin administration rode rising oil prices to prosperity – for the government and Putin’s coterie, at least. By the late 2000s, Russia had certainly become stronger relative to its performance in the wake of the Soviet dissolution. Likewise, the rise of President Putin to power in Russia signaled the resurgence of the country’s imperial ambitions. In the late 2000s, Russia sought to reassert its influence in what it had always seen as it backyard: the post-Soviet space. In 2008, for example, the Kremlin rolled its tanks into Georgia, marking the beginning of a short-lasted war. The US did not intervene, limiting its response to diplomatic condemnation of Russia’s actions.
In the early 2010s, Russia’s imperialist ambitions spread even further in all directions. In a move that was supposed to prevent the neighboring Ukraine from wooing the western world and vice versa, The Kremlin fomented sedition in Ukraine’s east in the spring of 2014. It has been actively supporting Ukrainian separatists since that time. The US, by contrast, extends political and financial support to the supporters of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. Its military assistance is very modest. Yet, the odds are high that Russia’s vehement actions in Ukraine’s east could entail greater American involvement in the conflict.
At about the same time, the US and Russia found themselves supporting different belligerents in the Syrian civil war. Whereas the Kremlin supports the ruling regime, the US and its allies succor Syria’s insurgents. In the best traditions of the Cold War era, the two countries engaged in propaganda to vilify the adversary and to laud their own cause.
The new Cold War is not as menacing as the previous one, but it is also fraught with security threats to the US, Russia and the entire world. Russia is, essentially, a colossus on the feet of clay, but it is nonetheless stronger than it was two decades ago. Recuperated, it seeks to settle scores with the US. Whether it will manage to achieve this goal is doubtful. But the Kremlin is sure to continue its provocations, not so much because it needs to have Syria on its board but more because it needs to broadcast its power towards the region and, potentially, the world.
The two countries will unlikely come to close quarters on the battlefields in the nearest future. Diplomatic efforts to solve the existing imbroglios will also be stillborn as in the mid-20th century. The winner will be the one who will have sufficient resources to ride out a series of protracted proxy wars. Meanwhile, the bilateral relations between the US and Russia will continue to stagnate.
This paper has shown that the forty-year-long epic named the Cold War had a detrimental impact on the Soviet-American relations. Even before the beginning of the Cold War, the two nations never enjoyed cordial relations. They did not even have diplomatic relations until 1933. The looming threat of Nazism in Europe and across the world prompted the two to unite their efforts in the fight against Hitler. Yet, once Hitler was undone, the US and the USSR settled on the path of fierce competition. Throughout the next four decades, the two pitted their strengths on battlefields, at negotiation tables, in space and in many other dimensions that their competition assumed. They seldom entered into direct confrontations, preferring to wage proxy wars instead. However, as tensions soared, the two commonly approached the precipice of mutually assured nuclear destruction. Even after the USSR crumbled in 1991, the lingering legacy of the US continued to manifest itself in multiple forms. Interestingly, the long-term effects of the Cold War for the US have been largely positive. Yet, such nuances as the rise of terrorists in the Middle East could also be partly explained through the lenses of the Cold War. Importantly, this paper has shown, the Cold War between the US and Russia – essentially, a lacerated version of the Soviet Union – has resurfaced recently. Although Russia is not as powerful as its harbinger, it nonetheless seeks to defy the American order. The recent events in Syria demonstrate this point clearly. Overall, the ill-named Cold War will likely continue in the future, with occasional flare-ups jeopardizing global security. While the US is at a favorable position, it still needs to be wary of the Russian threat.