BBC2 is currently running a season of programmes to mark “The Cold War – 50 Years On” but is it really 50 years on, is the BBC saying the cold war began in 1963?
The Cold War in fact is widely accepted to be 1947 to 1991 and came about following the division of Germany (and countries under its control) following World War II between Britain and her allies such as the USA and the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe and East Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union and West Germany by Western Allies. The exception was Berlin which despite being in East Germany, was sub-divided into 4 quarters, Soviet, American, British and French Sectors. It became quickly apparent that the two doctrines of Capitalism to West and Communism to the East where mistrusting of each other despite being allies in World War II. That mistrust caused a freeze in relations. We now know this as The Cold War.
The term “Cold War” was first used by George Orwell in an essay entitled “You and the Atomic Bomb” in 1945, although it was a general term used to describe living in a world following a nuclear war. The first use of the term in relation to east west tensions was by a US Presidential advisor by the name of Bernard Baruch. In a speech he stated “Let us not be deceived: we are today in the midst of a cold war.”
So the BBC is wrong? Well yes and no. What was going on in 1963 might shed some light on why. Berlin was divided by a Wall in 1961 and during this period of time both the US and Soviets were locked in a nuclear arms race which, just the year before, had brought the world to brink of destruction. The Cuban Missile Crisis is widely regarded as the most dangerous time in the history of the nuclear weapons and it saw East square up against the west in a game of “who will blink first” neither side of course, wanting to lose face. Eventually “cooler heads prevailed” and a tactical withdraw was arranged of missiles from Cuba in return for (unofficial) withdraw of US missiles from Turkey. It was after this that President Kennedy delivered the now famous American University Speech (A Strategy of Peace) in which he set out America’s commitment to negotiations over nuclear weapons which led to a partial Nuclear Weapons testing ban treaty with the Soviets. This is the period of Détente in which the soviets appeared willing to talk and work towards a world without World War 3.
What had changed from the 1940’s was that the world had moved into the Thermonuclear age with hydrogen bombs. This meant that bombs were now measured in megatons and whole cities could be destroyed with a single missile. It was also the era of the space race and it’s by-product, the intercontinental ballistic missile which meant weapons could be exchanged over vast distances. The superpowers now possessed enough weapons and the methods for delivering them to wipe the human race from the face of the earth. Despite détente there was still a deep mistrust between the two superpowers and the threat of oblivion was a constant between the early 60’s through to the 90’s. Its this period that most people think about when referring to the Cold War. So whilst not “technically” correct, from the perspective of the public it is. The period that changed Britain in particular being caught on the fringes of Europe but allied firmly to the US. In the struggle between capitalism and communism. It is exactly that struggle that brought about some of the features that are still in our life today such as the welfare system that was brought in largely to show how much better capitalist lives were compared to the totalitarian eastern block and their communist ideology.
It was also in the 60’s that the British Government made their major plans for what would happen in the event of a nuclear war. Things such as the massive underground complex in Corsham that still exists today. Bunkers such as Hack Green and Kelvedon Hatch were utilised as centres of refuge for high ranking officials and political leaders. It was probably the most paranoid time of the Cold War also with all sides spying on each other, and often, themselves. Agents, double agents, KGB, MI6, CIA these were all buzzwords of the period, and their legacy very much lives on.
Following a series of treaties signed between the superpowers in the late 80’s and early 90’s the nuclear arms race stalled and relations between the east and west thawed to the point the cold war effectively ended leading some to say it was the “War that never came”. Perhaps a better explanation would be the “war that hasn’t happened yet”.
So to answer the original question, is it 50 years on? Yes, and No.
BBC2’s Cold War – 50 Years On season is running throughout November 2013 and more information can be found here.
Strange Days – Cold War Britain is on BBC2 12th November 2013 at 9pm.