This story is part of The World-Herald's Memorial Day special section “On the Brink.” Click here for more from this section.
The 20-something students, who arrive at college with zero childhood memories of the Cold War, stare at professor Terry Clark as if he were wearing a coonskin cap.
He's struggling to convey to them what it felt like to live in a world utterly dominated by a contest between two superpowers with mutually exclusive ideologies.
When he was a schoolboy in the 1960s, he tells them, one pupil in each class was assigned to run to the window during an atomic attack, spread his fingers onto the pane and gauge the size of the mushroom cloud. That would indicate how far away the blast was.
“It's a little difficult for them to understand,” said Clark, a Creighton University specialist in international politics.
It's not just the pervasive fear that's hard to grasp. The closest parallel his students have is the terror of 9/11, he said, and that pales alongside staring at the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Even harder to fathom is what it felt like to live in a bipolar world, where all events, all relations were seen as mere parts of a two-nation tug of war.
The Cold War “defined the world,” he said. “Everything was dichotomous — all black or white, no grays. A single narrative.”
So it's no surprise the Cold War's end is more baffling still. How could something so all-consuming and entrenched just sputter to a halt? No bang, just whimper and amazement.
Historians and political scientists still puzzle over details. But some consensus has emerged: The Soviet system was fatally flawed from the start, doomed by its command economy — in which nearly all decisions, even down to what shoe sizes to produce, were made by government. That's horribly inefficient, said Clark, who began his career as an Army counterintelligence agent and a Russia scholar.
It meant the U.S.S.R. was bound to fall behind in a superpower contest — eventually. And assuming the planet wasn't incinerated first.
Only the shape and speed of the end were in question. And that had a lot to do with the other player: the United States.
After the trauma of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Americans' taste for the Cold War — at least for waging it by sending U.S. troops to any jungled corner of the world — was at a low. The draft ended. Military spending sagged.
Moreover, most Americans stopped thinking of the Cold War's ultimate chapter, a nuclear exchange, as something winnable or even survivable. Nukes meant nuclear winter, an end to humanity — an oddly comforting thought in a way, Clark said, because it implied that nuclear war was simply unthinkable and that the Cold War could just be a reliable guide for how the world runs.
So Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter for a time practiced détente, a way to make the Cold War at least less chilly. Arms control treaties. Human rights pacts. Smiles and handshakes.
That superficial warmth vanished overnight in 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put the Cold War back into deep freeze. The United States boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow and began sending guns to Afghan guerrillas.
And America, putting aside some of its post-Vietnam skittishness, began a dramatic military buildup, especially under President Ronald Reagan. The B-1 bomber. The MX missile. New missiles for Europe. More nuclear subs.
And a plan for a vast, high-tech shield, dubbed “Star Wars.”
With a knack for oratory, Reagan coupled the spending with tough talk, challenging the “evil empire” to reform, to pull back its troops, to “tear down this wall” in Berlin. What he really was challenging the Soviets to do, Clark said, was to keep up.
They couldn't. Their lumbering command economy couldn't match the productivity and innovation of a free-market one.
“That's what destroyed the Soviet Union,” Clark said.
Abetting the fall was the country's inability to retire its circle of rigid, 70-something leaders — plus an opening of information spigots that let people worldwide, especially Russians themselves, see the problems.
The suddenness of the end startled many, he said, but it wasn't unforeseen. U.S. strategists had feared that the imbalance between superpowers was opening a dangerous window, a time of uncertainty that might tempt Soviet leaders into desperation. They had been urging Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, to try to accelerate the end of the U.S.S.R. by outspending it. Shorten the window of danger, they advised.
The final Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried in vain to rescue the system through reform. Perestroika and glasnost, he called it. They might as well have been the Russian words for “fat” and “chance.”
He withdrew the Red Army from Afghanistan, cut deals to reduce arms, hinted that troops would no longer crush disloyalty at the far edges of the Soviet realm.
In a rush in autumn 1989, Eastern Europe threw off its Soviet-puppet rulers like a tree drops leaves. Gleeful Germans immortalized the feat by smashing the Berlin Wall to bits one night. The Iron Curtain was down.
Two years later, the end came for the U.S.S.R. Gorbachev tried to remodel it into a loose club, but dismayed hardliners imprisoned him. Then crowds reversed that by flooding into Moscow's streets to face down tanks.
By Christmas 1991, even would-be reformers declared the Soviet Union dead.
The Cold War — the way of the world for nearly half a century, so gripping we can't yet coin a name for the current era except “the post-Cold War” — was over.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1140, firstname.lastname@example.org