U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Did the Cold War Just End?

[Editor’s note: This guest post comes to you courtesy of S-USIH member Bryn Upton. Bryn is an associate professor of history at McDaniel College. He recently completed a book titled Hollywood and the End of the Cold War: Signs of Cinematic Change (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). – TL]

It appears that Throwback Thursday has taken on new meaning today as everywhere I look there are stories about our Cold War era foes Cuba and North Korea. At one time these two nations represented the front lines in the global struggle between Western Democracy and Soviet sponsored Communism, but now the last vestiges of the Cold War are being swept away.

So much of the Cuba story from the 1960s was about proximity. During the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the decades that followed we heard the refrain, 90 miles off the coast of Florida. A communist country parked ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Soviet missiles could be launched from ninety miles off the coast of Florida. The thing that always seemed to make Cuba an immediate threat was its location. With yesterday’s announcement from the White House opening a new chapter in US-Cuba relations we hope for improved relations with all of Latin America, as our insistence on maintaining the embargo has long since been viewed as bad policy by our southern neighbors.

The North Korean cyber-attack on Sony Pictures demonstrates how unimportant proximity has become. For all of the saber rattling by North Korea over the years; missile tests aimed at Japan, imprisoning of American journalists, the West has rarely taken North Korea very seriously: until now. Now that North Koreans have forced Sony not to release their comedy about (and this is a guess based on trailers, the oeuvre of the people involved, and limited research) a pair of underachieving man-children who luck their way in to an interview with Kim Jung-un and are subsequently recruited to kill him.

The most often used cliché with regard to the Cuban Missile Crisis is that in a staring contest between east and west the Soviets blinked. This week Sony blinked. The World Wide Web has altered the importance of proximity but it can never take it away entirely, wars and acts of terror might not always be relegated to neighbors but the fallout from these things, especially in terms of refugees and physical devastation will always have a disproportionate affect on neighbors.

So why bring all of this up on a blog dedicated to the work of Intellectual Historians? There are questions that have been filling my mind since all of the above news began to break this week. First, I wonder if this new era of détente between the US and Cuba will alter how we write about and define the Cold War? Will Obama be given as much credit for ending the Cold War as Reagan has been given? Will this be an epilog to the Cold War or will it be viewed as something else entirely? How will we view the importance of proximity in international relations going forward? What of the idea of a battle line being drawn between a government and a corporation? Have we witnessed that last desperate gasp of communism?

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Provocative. I would offer a somewhat different view.

    The Cold War ended in 1989-1991; I think the standard date cited, for convenience perhaps as much as anything, is the treaty known as the Charter of Paris (1990). But symbolically and practically, the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the implosion of the Warsaw Pact regimes in E Europe, followed by German reunification and the dissolution of the USSR itself, mark the end of the CW.

    Compared to this, Obama’s welcome move to normalize relations w Cuba is nowhere near the same historical magnitude. The Raul Castro regime was slowly, I think, moving in the direction of some economic reforms, which this will speed up. Political reforms seem much less likely, though there may be some freeing of more dissidents from prison etc. (I am certainly no Cuba expert, however.) So contrary to the post’s title, the Cold War didn’t and couldn’t “just end”, b/c it’s been over for roughly a quarter-century.

    The existence of North Korea and the frozen situation on the Korean peninsula, as the post suggests, are outcomes and relics of the CW, but it’s not accurate to say the West hasn’t taken N. Korea seriously until now. OTOH, the Sony thing may represent a new-ish style of action by NK. Certainly it seemed to get more widespread attention than another missile test, even another underground nuclear explosion would have.

    David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy, was on the NewsHour fulminating about how “we” can’t let hostile powers like NK interfere with our “way of life,” as if going to see some stupid movie is an integral part of the American “way of life.” Still, there is a valid concern about censorship and self-censorship, in response to threats, hiding in Rothkopf’s effusions, and it’s hard to argue with the proposition that a foreign government has no right to interfere, via cyber attacks/hacks and threats of violence, w a studio’s decision to release whatever movies it wants and with the public’s right to spend (or waste, as the case may be) its money on whatever movies it wants.

    In sum, I don’t think US/Cuba normalization will much alter how historians write about and define the Cold War; histories of the Cold War may now tack this on as a postscript. But inasmuch as Cuba is not going to soon turn into, to use the cliché, a Jeffersonian democracy (though Jefferson might approve of some of the more egalitarian features of the society), and North Korea is probably going to remain a closed country and an extremely authoritarian (if not totalitarian) regime for the foreseeable future, I would caution against reading too much into these events. The US/Cuba normalization is a big deal for US/Cuba relations (virtually all other countries have had diplomatic relations w Cuba all along), but it’s not a transformative world-historical moment like the end of the Cold War was.

    This is just one off-the-cuff perspective, of course, and I’m sure others may have other reactions.

    • Louis,
      I would not be so quick to dismiss this moment. I am not saying that this will completely rewrite Cold War history but it should not be ignored. North Korea being in the hands of a leader who has only ever known the insular world the Kim Jung-Il could prove more dangerous and the stunt with Sony might just be the beginning. This type of activity is more dangerous than their missile program. Normalizing relations between the US and Cuba might not seem significant but this piece of the Cold War has lingered for a quarter century and now things are changing – is it because of the change in rulers there or here? This could be more than a mere epilog.

  2. P.s. There is another (somewhat obvious) point here, I think, which is that NK’s anger at the Sony movie is an indication not only of that regime’s sensitivity but of the reach and influence of globalized US pop culture. Though it’s hard to sort out how much of this episode is due to the NK regime’s somewhat paranoid (for lack of a better word) character and how much to its perhaps not unreasonable fears that whatever standing Kim Jong-Un now has in the world will be diminished by a Hollywood comedy that may (?) ridicule him but, in any event, does (or did) involve his (fictional) assassination.

  3. Perhaps one way to read the (over)reaction of Kim Jung-Un is to recognize how he was brought up within the regime – he might actually believe the propaganda of his father’s regime. This would mean that he believes in his unique position in the world and would see this film as an insult worthy of bringing the full weight of his government down on Sony.

    • Bryn,
      Yes, I guess it’s possible that Kim Jong Un believes in the regime’s propaganda. I was under the impression that he had spent time at school somewhere in Europe, but even if that’s so he could still have internalized the official line. Hard to know, I would think.

      As for Cuba/US normalization, I didn’t mean to imply it isn’t significant; I think it is.

  4. I think the further we get from thinking about the Cold War as principally a great power conflict between the US and USSR the more permeable its dates get. There is an argument to be made that the Cold War never really ended and that we are still engaged in a struggle against communism abroad (North Korea, Venezuela, PRC, etc.). I actually think there is a pretty compelling argument to be made that the Cold War began before World War II as well. The US government had been fighting an ideological war against communism since the early 1920s and the alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II was simply a case of my-enemy’s-enemy.

  5. @Matthew Linton:
    I think your point about a start date in the 1920s is quite defensible. On when the CW ended, I don’t see much point in making a fetish of dates for their own sake. But it seems to me that despite major shifts and ups-and-downs in intensity etc., the CW basically did revolve around the US/USSR conflict. So the dissolution of the USSR and its satellite bloc in E Europe has to be taken, I think, as a geopolitical landmark, and ‘the end of the CW’ seems a reasonable label to put on it.

    There has been talk of a revived US/Russia Cold War with Putin’s moves in Ukraine (and Crimea annexation). But despite Putin’s authoritarian tendencies, this new conflict lacks the strong ideological component, it seems to me, that the US/USSR conflict had (notwithstanding that the Sino/Soviet split made clear that Communism was riven by its own ideological and geopolitical schisms). And as for the PRC, ISTM it does not really present itself to the world as the embodiment of a competing ideology to liberal (or neoliberal) capitalism, despite the fact that it remains a one-party state. Its economy has capitalist and certainly market-oriented elements, despite a substantial degree of state control, and is pretty deeply integrated into the world economy. So I don’t see the PRC as the same kind of competitor to the US that the USSR was, and thus doubt that there is still “a struggle against Communism” in that sense. Sure, there are a couple of Communist regimes left, the PRC being the most obvious, and there are Maoist movements in India and Nepal, and there is Chavismo in Venezuela, but I don’t think it adds up to a grand ideological struggle as the US/USSR conflict at least seemed to at its height. I think ideologies, official and otherwise, are still important in world politics, but in somewhat different, perhaps messier ways.

    • A belated p.s. to note that the PRC has certainly pushed back on occasion, rhetorically at any rate, vs. (perceived) US domination. E.g., just now I ran across, in a file of saved articles, a Wash. Post piece from Oct. 2013 headlined “US debt crisis spurs Chinese calls for a ‘de-Americanized’ world.” There is also, e.g., an essay of several years ago, which I’ve been meaning to read, co-authored by G. Arrighi, which refers to a ‘Beijing consensus’ as competitor to the ‘Washington consensus’ (though perhaps one doesn’t hear the latter phrase as much now as one used to).

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