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8 Ways America Was Better Off During the Cold War

In many ways the Cold War era in America was a nightmare. In other ways, we're actually worse off now.

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Ike was prompted to give the speech because of his disputes with Congress over the military budget.  He feared nuclear war and firmly opposed all talk about such a war being fought in a “limited” way.  He also knew that, when it came to the Soviet Union, American power was staggeringly preponderant.  And yet his opponents in the Democratic Party, the arms industry, and even the military were claiming that he hadn’t done enough for “defense” -- not enough weapons bought, not enough money spent.  President-elect Kennedy had just won the 1960 election by frightening Americans about a purely fictitious “missile gap” between the U.S. and the Soviets.

It’s true that Ike’s warning would have been far more meaningful had it been in his first or even second inaugural address, or any of his State of the Union speeches.  It’s also true that he had approved CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala, and had green-lighted planning for an invasion of Cuba (that would become Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs disaster).  He had also established Mutual Assured Destruction as the basis for Cold War military strategy, backed up with B-52s carrying atomic bombs in the air 24/7.

By the end of his second term, however, Ike had changed his mind.  His warning was not just against unnecessary spending, but also against institutions that were threatening a crisis he feared would bring the end of individual liberty.  “As one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization,” the president urged his fellow citizens to resist the military-industrial complex.  None of his successors has even tried, and in 2013 we’re living with the results.

...But there is one thing I do NOT miss about the Cold War: nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alert.

Our Cold War enemy had nuclear weapons capable of destroying us, and the rest of the planet, many times over.  In 1991, when the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union had more than 27,000 nuclear weapons.   According to the Federation of American Scientists, these included more than 11,000 strategic nuclear weapons -- warheads on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched missiles, and weapons on bombers capable of attacking the US -- along with more than 15,000 warheads for “tactical” use as artillery shells and short-range “battlefield” missiles, as well as missile defense interceptors, nuclear torpedoes, and nuclear weapons for shorter-range aircraft.  We  learned in 1993 that the USSR at one time possessed almost 45,000 nuclear warheads, and still had nearly 1,200 tons of bomb-grade uranium.  (Of course, sizeable Russian -- and American -- nuclear arsenals still exist.)  In comparison to all that, the  arsenals of al-Qaeda and our other terrorist enemies are remarkably insignificant.

Jon Wiener teaches American history at the University of California-Irvine and is a contributing editor at the Nation. His latest book,  How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America (University of California Press), has just been published.

Copyright 2013 Jon Wiener

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