A Failed Propaganda Exercise: Christmas at the Berlin Wall, 1963

For 18 days over Christmas in 1963 there was a rift in the Berlin Wall. For the first time in over two years the 87 mile barrier could be crossed and divided families were — briefly — reunited.

A ‘border pass agreement’ — Passierscheinabkommen — between the West Berlin Senate and the East German government meant that 24-hour visas were available between 18 December 1963 and 5 January 1964, allowing West Berliners to visit their families in the East of the city. East Berliners were not permitted to travel.

The short lived opening of the Wall was hardly a magnanimous act. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev put pressure on Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader, to reach an agreement because he felt the Eastern Bloc was falling behind in the battle for international opinion.

In July, President Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech had been a propaganda coup. By proclaiming that ‘All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin’, the president lifted the spirits of a population marooned far behind the Iron Curtain. In December, the Soviet Union hoped a border pass agreement would have a similar effect on public opinion.

The visa agreement heralded a joyful but austere Christmas for East German families. Presents carried by West Berliners could not be wrapped – in order to permit inspection at the border – and severe restrictions were enacted: Only half a pound of coffee, tea, or cocoa was allowed to be taken across the border. Audio recordings were banned outright; there would be no rocking around the Christmas tree.

Nethertheless, the opportunity was enthusiastically welcomed by families fractured by the Wall. 730,000 West Berliners took advantage of the travel agreement, making 1.2 million journeys. Many queued for up to 10 hours in the cold to receive the necessary visa stamp.

As intended, the agreement generated international press interest. Newsreels featured Christmas at the Wall. An iconic image of two brothers reuniting resonates even today. It seemed that humanity had broken out in Cold War Berlin.

However, it’s difficult to portray the Berlin Wall’s Christmas opening as a propaganda coup for the Socialist Bloc. Paul Schultz was one of 136 victims killed at the Wall between 1961 and 1989. He was shot by East German border guards on Christmas Day 1963. The 18 year old’s death sparked instant protest in West Berlin: should any agreement be signed with a regime willing to shoot teenagers at Christmas?

The episode was, however, an important marker in relations between the two German states. Until this point, East and West Germany had no formal relationship – in fact, even the 1963 border passes were issued by the post office in order to avoid the use of official diplomatic channels.

Ulbricht delighted in the fact that the West Berlin authorities had recognised his regime as legitimate negotiation partners. He hoped this would be the first step in normalising relations between the two Germanys and establishing East Germany as a legitimate state. Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, advocated a ‘policy of small steps’ to overcome the division of Europe. In this way, the 1963 border pass agreement was an important precursor to Ostpolitik later in the decade.

But there would be no easy path to cordial relations, as the shooting of Paul Schultz and subsequent protests made painfully clear. Recognising an East German government that shot citizens simply trying to move to the West would remain unpalatable to many.

Perhaps this is why the 1963 Christmas at the Berlin Wall is less well remembered as a propaganda exercise than the JFK speech which preceded it in July. While families were briefly reunited – the agreement would continue over the festive season for the next three years – the Berlin Wall continued to claim its victims, even at Christmas.

‘Post-fact’ political debates aren’t new

Following Brexit and Trump’s victory, there’s a big push to highlight the emergence of a new ‘post fact’ political environment. There’s even a new BBC guide to help journalists understand statistics rather than take them at face value.

But problems with the reliability of facts — and statistics in particular — is nothing new. Ever since the state began to collect data in the 19th Century and statistics emerged as a field of science, numbers that inform political decision-making have been miscalculated, misstated, and misrepresented.

Injecting numbers into political debate has the effect of adding credibility, regardless of the accuracy of the data underpinning the number. Winning a political argument can sometimes result from the establishment of a single statistic as a talking point, which becomes the anchor around which an issue is debated. A recent example is the notorious ‘£350 million to the NHS’ claim from the Brexiteers. 

A numerical element to an argument suggests objectivity; a ‘fact’ has been established. But the opinions that affect the data underlying the statistic are not objective. The process behind the creation of the statistic is more often than not left unchallenged, even by its opponents. If opponents take the time and effort to refute the number, they get accused of ‘getting bogged down in detail’ and not addressing the substantive issues of the debate. Questioning numbers in a debate is often seen as nitpicking. Refuting numbers also robs the opponent of precious air-time, which is not spent explaining their own position.

The complicated world of arms control


In the cold war, SALT II ratification, like Brexit, was a horrendously complicated issue. To fully grasp the substantive issues, one needed a deep understanding of technical aspects of numerous weapon systems of both superpowers, projections of advances in these weapons systems, and also a firm understanding of Soviet intentions. These final two aspects were essentially guesswork.

Ratification of the SALT II treaty ultimately failed because its opponents – led by the Committee on the Present Danger – distilled a complicated issue down to a simple slogan of ‘you can’t trust the Soviets’. In support of this position, they created reams of statistics that attempted to justify an alarming reading of Soviet strength and intentions – i.e. the inherently unknowable aspects of the debate. The headline statistic became the (non)fact that under SALT II, the Soviets would be permitted to deploy 500 Backfire bombers which could reach the US from the USSR (they couldn’t). These numbers were stated as fact and the approach to how these estimates were compiled left unexplained. Many were incorrect and all were based on a worst-case reading of the available data.

There’s a strong echo in the Brexiteer’s ‘take back control’ slogan and the ‘£350 million-a-week’ statistic. Could the vastly complicated issue of Brexit really be distilled to ‘taking back control’? Evidently, it could. Could one statistic really substantiate that slogan? Evidently, it could.

In 1979, facts did not particularly matter in the SALT II ratification debate. If you decided that you didn’t trust the Soviet Union, then the Committee on the Present Danger’s statistics supported your position. If you decided that you were prepared to trust the Soviet Union … you had to challenge the CPD’s numbers.

(While it isn’t the case that the CPD’s statistics were singularly responsible for the defeat of the arms control treaty, they did set the terms of debate in the media and in the Senate.)

My point: Important political debates — such as SALT II and Brexit — decided on shaky facts is nothing new.

Do ‘facts’ ever matter in politics?


Controlling an issue’s narrative as it enters wider political debate is vital. The Committee on the Present Danger was able to establish the terms of the SALT II ratification debate because the Carter Administration — working through the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) — waited too long to begin its own campaign in support of ratification.

The ACDA’s materials were then created in direct response to the Committee’s (non)facts; proponents of SALT II ratification were on the back foot from the start of the debate. Those Senators already predisposed to distrust the Soviet Union would be difficult to persuade otherwise.

How often do voters – whether Senators in a treaty ratification debate or the electorate in a referendum – weigh up the complex facts before deciding on an issue? Did Senators carefully weigh up multiple sources of data given that SALT II involved so much subjective data? Many were persuaded by data-backed pamphlets by the Committee on the Present Danger that the vote was about whether or not the US could trust the Soviet Union. Similarly, did all voters in favour of Brexit read the various economic forecasts in order to assess which was the most accurate prediction of the effects of Brexit? I don’t think so. They voted based on their reading of the what the vote was about, and Brexiteers successfully made the case that the vote was about ‘taking back control’.

Claims that we now live in a ‘post-fact world’ simply aren’t true; we’ve always relied on shaky data. The additional facet to the problem today is that we are bombarded with ‘viewpoints’ and ‘comment’, a result of journalists’ need to come up with clever ideas that attract page views in deference to a 24-hour news cycle. This means that we now have truckloads of ideas and strong opinions but hardly any content that carefully assesses the available data, explains nuance, and acknowledges complexity. 1 It’s often seen as boring work and boring reading and most readers already know where they stand on the issue, so why bother with this difficult and time-consuming task? Will this type of article expose banner ads to more readers than opinion? Probably not. Most readers are actively looking for facts to support their worldview, not more data and critiques of that data in order to dispassionately consider their stance on an issue.

What is the solution to this? I’m not sure. I’m just a historian. But it isn’t true that we’re entering a post-fact world. We’ve always had to deal with questionable data buttressing political viewpoints.

  1. Let’s not kid ourselves. An explainer infographic put together in an hour or two citing one unquestioned data source does not constitute a rigorous understanding of an issue. 

Rethinking the Cold War: Reflections from An African Volk by Jamie Miller

I recently wrote a book about how the Nationalist apartheid regime in South Africa (1948-1994) responded to the emergence of a hostile post-colonial world. I came to this topic from an unusual angle: Cold War history. It was the Southern African theatre of the Cold War that initially attracted me to the topic, and from there my focus zeroed in on what became the subject of the final project.

Like many authors, seeing the book finally in print has prodded me to reflect on the journey. In that vein, the following are a few brief thoughts about how we might think about the Cold War in more interesting and fruitful ways moving forward.

Ideology and Social Control

The first is that we should understand anti-communism primarily as an ideology of social control.

One of the hallmarks of the apartheid regime was its relentless use of anti-communist norms to justify its rule and legitimacy. This process has often been seen by scholars as little more than a ruse, a ploy to gain support from Western countries like the United States (more on this later). But a more nuanced approach would be to explore how anti-communism as a self-sustaining ideology (that is, as a coherent set of ideas and tropes in its own right) performed important functions in terms of both gaining legitimacy abroad and establishing social control at home. This is hardly a new analytical key; authors of the New Left like Gabriel Kolko and his intellectual fellow travelers made similar claims in the 1970s about anti-communism in the United States. But this approach has fallen out of favour along with the politics of its adherents. (Who knows, with the rise of a post-Third Way Democratic Party, maybe both the politics and its history will re-emerge.)

South Africa provides a clear exemplar of the merits of this approach. Within the white power structure there, anticommunism had a long history pre-dating the Cold War. Already during the Rand Rebellion of 1922, the gov­ernment of Jan Smuts feverishly condemned the (largely white) miners’ strike as a “Red Revolt” and “Bolshevist conspiracy.” The 1925 decision of the South African Communist Party (SACP) to move away from activating the white proletariat towards targeting its black counterpart only fueled white anxieties. Communist opposition to the existing social structures accelerated during the 1930s and 1940s, as labor organisations championed a unified working class that transcended the color bar.

All of this should make us focus our attention on the value and benefits of anti-communism as a localised political ideology, indeed even in ways divorced from any association with the Cold War as a geopolitical conflict. That value and those benefits should be obvious: anti-communism served to articulate the dangers of widespread material distribution across the population as a whole and coalesce white political power on the basis of that fear. In 1948, the first apartheid Prime Minister, D. F. Malan observed: “Communism can be more destructive in South Africa than elsewhere not merely because of its ideology, but because of the fact that it makes a special appeal to the country’s non- European population, and if the communists achieve in South Africa what they want to achieve as far as the non- European population of the country is concerned, the death knell will have been sounded for white civilization in South Africa.” Quite so.

Geopolitics and Domestic Politics

The post-World War Two incarnation of apartheid South Africa as a staunch, pro-Western, anti-communist Cold War ally therefore served to fortify an element that already existed in the ideological structure of white power in the country. This should lead us down new intellectual avenues. As a concept, the “Cold War” tends to make one think of conflict between states, of geopolitics, and of the diplomatic and military dimensions of history. These are all important, and will continue to matter even as scholars broaden dramatically their understanding of the thematic scope of the Cold War (see the relatively recent Cambridge History of the Cold War). But it seems to me that any approach into the political dimension of the Cold War, which is undeniably central to the field, has to take account of the nexus between geopolitics and domestic politics.

Apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy was aggressively anti-communist. In the very early days of the Cold War, the National Party hastened to send deployments to both the Korean War and Berlin Airlift. It then unilaterally closed the Soviet consulate in Pretoria, and banned the Communist Party itself. (It is worth noting, for comparison, that in other major Western ex-settler colonies, like Australia, Soviet diplomatic offices remained open and active, and efforts to ban communist parties were crushed by the judiciary as unconstitutional.)

As my book shows, by the 1970s the apartheid regime eagerly looked to build relationships with black African states and distance itself from fellow white regimes in Rhodesia and South-West Africa, all to prove the viability of a multi-racial future for co-existence on the continent. Towards communist regimes, with the brief exception of Mozambique in 1974-75, however, Pretoria was unstinting in its hostility. Put another way, shared whiteness was not as strong a foundational principle for the regime’s statecraft and its vision for the future as anti-communism was. The rationale for this surprising reality is to be found by looking at how foreign policy served domestic ends. Actions like leading a multi-racial anti-communist coalition in the Angolan Civil War, or obsessing over the (very limited) ability of the distant Soviet Union to undermine the regime’s rule, or the launching of desperate, even pathetic efforts to ingratiate the regime with a series of (broadly) reluctant American administrations, were driven by the difficulties of sustaining the anti-communist raison d’être in the context of South Africa’s unique socio-economic situation far more than the actual, “objective” realities of the foreign policy problem in question. This led the regime to repeatedly overplay its hand in a series of extraordinary foreign policy blunders, because the stakes were distorted. Time and again, expert information about, say, the chances of a military success, or the disposition of a foreign government that the regime looked to cultivate, were wildly distorted as elites forced the information into the Cold War binary that suited them.

The ideological need to engage in such distortions only got greater with time. By the mid-1970s, culminating in the Soweto riots, it was evident that the rationale underpinning the homelands vision—that Africans wanted that vision as much as the regime did—was a vast fiction. From then on, anti-communism was virtually the only ideological pillar left entirely intact in a severely damaged Nationalist edifice. In a global perspective, the ensuing period saw Cold War dichotomies usually becoming less important in ideologies of rule, receding in the face of concerns with superpower détente, human rights, materialism, geopo­litical multipolarity, north-south disputes, economic liberalisation, energy sus­tainability, and emergent globalisation. Not so in South Africa, where anti-communism assumed the form of “total onslaught”: a doctrine mandating that any and all opposition to the regime was the result of a Moscow-oriented assault. Total onslaught may have originated in the South African Defence Force as a means of processing geopolitical hostility towards the regime, but it soon became the starting point for the regime’s entire political agenda. Prime Minister-cum-President P. W. Botha’s (1978-1989) biographers describe his approach to governance in telling terms:

South Africa was now struggling for its life, and the total onslaught against it necessitated one thing above all others, namely change—rapid, visible change: the replacing of outdated political principles, the restructuring of race relations, the rejection of baasskap, the removal of humiliating discrimination and injustice, equal opportunity and rights, fewer restrictions— and a new [constitutional] disposition.

Total onslaught fully externalised the mounting range of threats to the polity in ways that did not focus on apartheid policies. However, the casting of total onslaught in this pivotal role tethered the viability of the regime’s new ideology to the existence of a viable communist enemy as a counterpoint. This had much to do with why the fall of apartheid was (roughly) contemporaneous with the fall of commu­nism: once the existential foe was in terminal decline, the regime could no lon­ger avoid confronting that it was too split on what the future of South African society should look like to endure.Veg, 19 December 1969.

Veg, 19 December 1969.

Anti-communism as diffuse

Ever since Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War, historians have conceptualised the Cold War with much more geographic breadth. The trend in the field has been to globalise, bringing the motives and actions of actors in the global south into the picture. My book builds on this consensus by emphasising the intersection of the Cold War and local political agendas, looking at how Cold War ideologies shaped contests over different political visions within global south states.

Yet we should go further. If anti-communism is to be studied as a stand-alone ideology, and if anti-communism served to bolster diverse forms of rule and social control across the Western-aligned world, it follows that anti-communism was itself not a centralised or unified entity. To put it bluntly: anti-communism as an ide­ology was not only diffused outward from superpowers to other actors, it was defined and redefined by those on the frontlines in the global south for their own purposes. Indeed, superpowers had very little control over the concepts and principles that they created. They found this deeply frustrating—not least when the white South Africans insisted, repeatedly, that they represented a legitimate part of the Western value system.

But how did ownership of the anticommunist mantle become so diffuse in the first place? The answer is to zoom out, and look at common socio-economic factors. For the rise of Cold War discourses among the Nationalist power structure in South Africa was part of a much broader global process. The Second World War broke down social orders, undermined old ideologies, and exposed those serving both on the frontlines and on the home front to new ideas and forms of social organization. In many societies, the conflict broadened the political spectrum and expanded the realm of the possible. In this context, the Cold War as a political reality was sustained by an intersection of elite inter­ests in diverse societies around the world. By casting domestic struggles in the Manichean mold of the Cold War, those grasping the reins of power were able to control localized social ferments and impose their own particular agendas.

Drawing on his research into postwar East Asia and the United States, histo­rian Masuda Hajimu writes: “[T] he actual divides of the Cold War existed not necessarily between Eastern and Western camps but within each society, with each [divide], in turn, requiring the perpetuation of the imagined reality of the Cold War to restore and maintain order and harmony at home.” The conflict was, in essence, about localized social warfare and domestic politics. In South Africa, Nationalists engaged relentlessly in this process. The rigid bifurcation of the Cold War paradigm, coupled with the Nationalist community’s legend­ary group- think and intolerance of dissenters, flattened perceptions of the volk’s predicament into crude dichotomies. The African opposition was continually presented as Moscow’s stooge (which it was not), while Southern Africa was portrayed as one of the prime targets of communism’s worldwide march (it was not; it was just low-hanging fruit given the surging power of nonracialism in global political discourse).

In the name of anti-communism, non-whites in South Africa were violently denied real political agency. But they were not the only tar­gets of such politics. At a time when the interests and social values of Afrikaners were diverging, the mobilization of anti-communist tropes served to coalesce different social classes in order to keep the regime’s claim to “national” representa­tion credible. In this sense, anti-communism served as an agent of social control within Afrikanerdom, not only within South African society more broadly. Moreover, anti-communism was one of the central mechanisms (the other being race) by which the National Party reached out to English-speaking whites. In 1958, the National Party received only about one per cent of the white anglophone vote. But starting in the 1960s, a number of developments caused the National Party to move away from its identity as a uniquely Afrikaner party and towards this unlikely bloc. Anti-communism did not elevate Afrikaners over English-speakers in any significant way; it thus hastened the political rapprochement of the two white communities. Why talk about old antagonisms between the two groups when one could talk of common fears? Again, Pretoria’s foreign policy was both reflecting and reinforcing domestic political needs, often in surprising ways.

Cold War as discourse

The final point is that we need to look at the Cold War as a discourse. The Cold War was a way of thinking about and processing the world, and anti-communism was an ideology that existed within that paradigm.

On a recent trip to South Africa, I gave a series of talks on the book. Invariably, somebody would ask a version of this question in the Q&A: “But surely the regime realised that it was black political aspirations that were the real threat to its viability? I didn’t realise it was all about the communists.” Such questions themselves are a product of the extraordinary success that the regime had in fusing the swart gevaar [the black threat] to the rooi gevaar [red threat]. The regime’s localised political need (to maintain white privilege and security) was expressed in an ideology of global currency. Some leaders stood outside this process, fully cognisant of what they were doing. But discourses have a power of their own, and often serve to capture their own drivers. One 1966-67 survey showed that only 9 percent of (white) respondents saw domestic African nationalism as “the greatest threat to South Africa,” while fully 73 percent chose global communism. These ordinary respondents were not all in on the con. Their votes reflected the awesome power of anti-communism as a discourse through which to express political fears in South Africa at the time.

In short, the waving of the anti-communist banner was no ruse to gain foreign support in the West, whether from states, nongovern­mental organizations, or public spheres. Instead, the Cold War had far-reaching and diverse impacts upon the most fundamental ways in which the architects and supporters of apartheid understood the merits of their system. It was a self-perpetuating belief system. Instead of scoffing at such notions as “delusions”, we would do well to think about how political classes represent “objective” problems through similarly “irrelevant” discourses today.

It is here that the post-linguistic turn approach to political history holds out so much promise. We need to focus on how people understood the world, and how these beliefs were refracted into political languages and worldviews, not chase some chimeric objectivity of how the world “was”. Perception itself, as expressed through discourse, matters a great deal to understanding the motivations and actions of political actors, both in Cold War history and beyond.

— Dr Jamie Miller (@jamiemiller85) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh

An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival is published by Oxford University Press.

How the world reached the brink of nuclear war not once but twice in 1983

Nuclear missile system of the era. Zack Frank

Nick Blackbourn, Edinburgh Napier University

In the autumn of 1983, at the height of Cold War tensions, the world was only saved from nuclear disaster by the gut feelings of two soldiers during different incidents.

In the first incident, on September 26, a Soviet lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov saw that according to the early-warning system, the Americans had launched numerous missiles against the Russians. He suspected an error and ignored the warnings. His decision to breach protocol and not inform his superiors averted a panicked retaliation.

Lt Gen Leonard Perroots. wikimedia

The second incident is less well known. An American lieutenant general, Leonard Perroots, also chose to ignore warnings – this time that the Soviet Union had gone on high nuclear alert. Like Petrov, he did nothing, and once again may have prevented an accidental nuclear war.

This was the “Able Archer War Scare”, which occurred over ten days in the November of the same year. Recently declassified documents inform Able Archer 83, a new book by the Cold War historian Nate Jones which shows just how close the world came to disaster.

Two tribes

Superpower mutual suspicion was rife in the early 1980s. President Reagan’s notorious “Evil Empire” speech, combined with imminent plans to deploy the Pershing II missile system in Europe, which could destroy Moscow with 15 minutes warning, had made the Kremlin especially paranoid. Was the US preparing a first strike to win the Cold War? The USSR’s ageing and sickly premier, Yuri Andropov, certainly thought Reagan would have no qualms about it. “Reagan is unpredictable. You should expect anything from him,” he told Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassdor to the US, at the time.

Another reason the leadership feared a US first strike was Project RYaN, an intricate Soviet intelligence-gathering effort designed to detect preparations for a surprise nuclear attack. It was being kept busy by US aircraft testing Soviet air defence systems by flying towards USSR airspace as part of the PSYOPs (psychological military operations) programme.

The aircraft would deliberately provoke an alert and monitor the Soviet command and control responses, while demonstrating American strength and resolve at the same time. It was an example of the “Peace Through Strength” policy that was seen as vital by Reaganites to help the US emerge from its own perceived era of military weakness under President Carter.

But this US chest-beating led to a resurgence of intense mutual mistrust, with tragic consequences. On September 1 1983, Korean Air Lines flight 007 was shot down by a Russian fighter, killing all 269 passengers and crew. The Kremlin claimed the jet was an American spy plane deep in Russian territory.

Cleared for take-off: flight 007. Wikimedia

In this climate of extreme tension, NATO’s “Autumn Forge” war game season kicked off. NATO war games had been an annual occurrence, but the Soviets feared this particular edition might be cover for a surprise attack.

The final phase of the 1983 series, codenamed Able Archer 83, was different from previous years: dummy nuclear weapons, which looked like the real thing, were loaded on to planes. As many as 19,000 American troops were part of a radio-silent airlift to Europe over 170 flights. Military radio networks broadcast references to “nuclear strikes”.

This sent Project RYaN into overdrive and the Soviets went on high nuclear alert. Warsaw Pact non-essential military flights were cancelled; nuclear-capable aircraft were placed on alert; nuclear weapons were taken to their launch vehicles; and Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov descended into a command bunker outside Moscow to coordinate a possible response to a NATO strike.

Fresh light: new book.

There is a debate about the Kremlin’s intentions here. Were they genuinely afraid of an attack or simply trying to turn world opinion against the US to prevent Pershing II deployment? At the time, Reagan wondered if the Soviet panic was just “huffing and puffing”. In Able Archer 83, Nate Jones presents new documentary evidence to suggest the Kremlin’s fear was indeed genuine. It was only the decision by Lieutenant General Perroots, sitting in the Able Archer command post, not to respond to this extraordinary alert that avoided further escalation.

The book demonstrates how American leaders failed to appreciate the alarm that their actions might prompt in the Kremlin. In addition, Jones supplies fresh evidence for the argument that Reagan changed his mind on Soviet relations. By his second term, having been influenced by Able Archer and the other events of 1983, he chose to pursue peace far more vigorously than strength.

Why Able Archer matters

Intentions are as important as capabilities, and the Soviet leadership misread American intentions in the early 1980s. Agents informing Project RYaN reported “facts” without context or interpretation. KGB analysts in Moscow were actively looking to confirm a hypothesis, not to explore the situation rationally.

Likewise, American leaders misread Soviet perceptions. Even with Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric and 1983’s unusually realistic war game scenario, the American intelligence community could not conceive that the USSR took the threat of a first strike seriously.

The way that the events of 1983 influenced Reagan’s approach towards the Russians is as important as the economic pressure of Reagan’s Star Wars defence programme when it comes to explaining why the Cold War ended. As Reagan later wrote in his memoirs, he had come to recognise that “Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike”.

Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev discussing detente at the Rekyavik Summit in 1986. Wikimedia

Too often, intelligence agencies collect data and fit it into whichever threat hypothesis is in vogue. We should learn from Reagan’s 1983 insight and not wait for the brink of war: in the nuclear age, whatever an adversary’s political goals, we cannot afford to downplay their genuine fears about military posturing.

We have never yet returned to the awful global tensions of 1983, but the rivalries between the world’s three leading powers remain real enough. We need to ensure that we are never again left relying on the gut feelings of one or two soldiers to avoid stumbling into disaster.The Conversation

Nick Blackbourn, Research Content Officer, Edinburgh Napier University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A History of Peace Through Strength in the 1970s


The term ‘Peace Through Strength’ has a long history, dating from the ancient world. It remains a popular phrase in American politics, often seen as epitomising Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The history of the term ‘Peace Through Strength’ in the 1970s is a little more complicated, however, as this post will show.



It was actually President Ford, who first used ‘peace through strength’ to describe American foreign policy (in this case in the Pacific).

For Ford, ‘Peace Through Strength’ encapsulated the strategy of pursuing peaceful coexistence while at the same time maintaining a strong defence to ensure parity. Military strength alone was entirely insufficient. Ford spoke of his dedication to

America’s bipartisan policy of pursuing peace through strength and dedication to a new future of interdependence and cooperation with all peoples

Anticommunist groups’ criticism of Ford centred around this dedication to maintaining good relations with America’s Cold War rival, the USSR. They argued that promoting good relations ignored the fact that the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to the American way of life. The key to Soviet relations should be on maintaining military strength, they maintained, and not pretending that good relations would in any way resolve the Cold War struggle.

Carter, who defeated Ford in the 1976 election, promised to shift the focus of foreign policy away from an ‘inordinate fear of communism‘ towards policies reflecting values of ‘decency’ and ‘optimism’. Once again, suggested critics, a president was overlooking the realities of the Cold War.

Pretending the Cold War was over – the ‘illusion of detente’ – could only last so long before the USSR achieved military superiority, which would inhibit America’s ability to resist communist expansion for fear of escalation. The Cold War would eventually be lost.

The Anti-SALT II Campaign

In late 1978, a debate formed around the SALT II treaty. It quickly became a ‘lightening rod’ issue that expanded to encapsulate defence policy more generally. SALT II, its critics argued, was being negotiated from a position of weakness, a result of neglect by American leaders.


Paul Nitze, the most prominent of these critics, said it was a bad deal pursued only to maintain the ‘illusion of detente’ and would ‘lock in’ Soviet superiority in the arms race. This, he argued, was a terrifying development and became known as the ‘Window of Vulnerability’.

Nitze, a former SALT II negotiator and the Committee on the Present Danger’s Director of Policy Studies, formulated a series of detailed studies that criticised what he saw as the technical deficiencies of the SALT II negotiations. In particular, he emphasised the limitations of America’s nuclear weapons and its conventional forces and advocated substantially increased defence spending to match the capabilities of the Soviet Union. Only then, he argued, could a fair deal be negotiated.

The Committee on the Present Danger’s arguments were directed towards the political elite. They described their pamphlets as ‘bureaucrats memoranda’ rather than propaganda leaflets and were unlikely to even reach, let alone persuade, a mass audience.

To gain a wider audience for the anti-SALT message, the American Security Council announced the establishment of the Coalition for Peace Through Strength on 8 August 1978. Its objective was to reject ‘unilateral disarmament’ and restore American military strength.



To restore military strength the Coalition for Peace Through Strength created a Congressional caucus, counting 145 Congressman among its initial membership. It also affiliated with a number of anticommunist groups to amplify disparate efforts to oppose the SALT II treaty.

The meaning of this version of the ’peace through strength’ slogan had shifted since Ford’s 1975 speech. It no longer described the need to pursue peaceful policies alongside military strength to meet American objectives. Now, for the Coalition, ‘peace through strength’ expressed the notion that there would be no peace without sufficient military strength. There was no mention of interdependence or cooperation that Ford had regarded as equally important.

The SALT II Debate

What did the Coalition really mean by ‘strength’?

This question was the heart of the debate over Cold War strategy in the mid-1970s. Should America possess superior strength than the Soviet Union, or was it inevitable that parity would emerge? But it wasn’t clear how such parity might be measured.

The principal concern of the SALT II agreement was to create an equal ceiling of the number of nuclear launchers for each side. The ceiling would count the total number of devices capable of delivering a nuclear warhead: missiles, planes, submarines.

Agreeing what should be included within this equal ceiling occupied negotiators for years. For example:

– A single missile launcher could now contain multiple warheads (missiles were now MIRVed). How many should be permitted?

– Would emerging ‘cruise missile’ technology be counted in the limit on strategic launchers?

– Was the Soviet Backfire Bomber a medium-range or long-range launcher (it could only reach the American mainland on a one-way mission), should it be counted in the SALT II agreement?


The Coalition for Peace Through Strength wasn’t interested in such technicalities, its message was clear: America had been unilaterally disarming and had permitted the Soviets to gain military superiority. The SALT II treaty was therefore unacceptable as it threatened to place limits on the very defence programmes the Coalition deemed necessary to address military weakness.

To make this case, the Coalition for Peace Through Strength produced leaflets and TV documentaries designed to reach a mass audience and persuade that SALT II be rejected.

The following film predates the Coalition For Peace Through Strength (it was commissioned by its parent organisation, the American Security Council Education Foundation), but accurately demonstrates its argument.



Were They Right?

Comparing US and Soviet military strength was always ambiguous and fraught with uncertainties. Each side focused on – and was better at – different defence technologies. Claiming ‘prudence’, the Committee on the Present Danger and the Coalition For Peace Through Strength often assumed the worst of US capabilities and the best of Soviet capabilities.


Despite this ambiguity, it was certainly disingenuous to claim the United States was ‘unilaterally disarming’. As Henry Kissinger pointed out:

[Assuming the] equal ceilings were established at the American level, the Soviet Union would have to undertake an essentially unilateral reduction of its forces. If they were set at the Soviet level, we would acquire the right to a buildup for which we had no program or strategic theory.

The ‘strategic theory’ behind the Coalition’s mass campaign was simple and proved popular: to be Number One. ‘Peace Through Strength’ was a more appealing slogan than ‘Deterrence Through Rough Parity’.

The Result

The Coalition’s impact in the SALT II ratification debate was significant. Its various campaigns reached millions of Americans and influenced undecided Senators to signal their opposition to the treaty. There were never enough votes for ratification of the treaty, even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter withdrew the SALT II treaty from Senate consideration in January 1980.

Later that year Reagan maintained the ‘Peace Through Strength’ slogan for his campaign. On a platform of restored pride and renewed confidence – in both domestic and foreign policy – he won the 1980 election.



Despite the Senate never ratifying SALT II the Reagan administration observed the treaty’s provisions until 27 May 1986, suggesting that the negotiations were not as one-sided as critics initially argued. However, the perception of weakness that the SALT II debate contributed to was critical. Carter’s own limitations, the accusations of the Committee on the Present Danger and the Coalition For Peace Through Strength, and the actions of the Soviets themselves – real and imagined – meant that Reagan’s confidence and promise of strength proved popular at the polls.

Further Reading:

Dan Caldwell, The Dynamics of Domestic Politics and Arms Control: The SALT II Treaty Ratification Debate

Raymond Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan

Strobe Talbott, Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II


Dr Strangelove Would be Proud: How to Hide a Nuclear Missile

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was introducing all kinds of intimidating weapon systems. After its Cuban Missile Crisis experience, Kremlin leaders wanted to ensure the USSR would never again be outgunned, a sort-of ‘Cuban Missile Syndrome.’1

As a result, during the 1970s the USSR added new nuclear missile systems. The SS-18 ‘Satan’:


SS-18 “Satan” Missile System. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dnepr_rocket_lift-off_1.jpg

Read more

  1.  Zubok, Vladislav M. A Failed Empire : The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007., 243

The Butter Battle Book: Which Side Do You Butter Your Toast?


Published in 1984, Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book is about two societies, the Yooks and the Zooks, who disagree on which side their toast should be buttered. An arms race ensues.

This is a classic cold war analogy that was turned into a cartoon in 1989. It’s available to watch on Youtube, and here’s the IMDB entry.

The Story of the First Woman to Travel into Space

The BBC is today highlighting the story of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, on its magazine site. A radio programme was also broadcast today and is available online here.

Cosmonaut Tereshkova has spoken infrequently of her experiences in space, so I’m very much looking forward to catching up on this programme.

The article makes clear that being the first woman in space came at a heavy cost to Valentina, who was subsequently used as a propaganda tool by the communist regime. Being given away in marriage to another cosmonaut by Premier Khrushchev seems quite bizarre.

There also appear to be lingering rumours about the performance of the flight; the fact that no woman followed Valentina for another 20 years is a curious one. This should not take anything away from Tereshkova’s achievement which also served as inspiration for woman worldwide. Her story is fascinating.

If you get a chance to listen to the Radio 4 programme leave your comments below!

The Greta Garbo of space

The textile worker spent three days orbiting the earth then returned to her factory in an open-top car, laden with flowers. Treated like royalty, she was the perfect proletarian heroine. In the Cold War space race, she became an icon for gender equality.

Click here to view original web page at www.bbc.co.uk

In 1987 Mathias Rust Landed a Plane in Moscow: So What?

On 28 May 1987 a German teenager landed this plane in the very centre of Moscow:

Read more

‘You Just Sank The Airforce Budget’: JFK Swears at General on the Phone

Here’s a fantastic clip of President Kennedy dressing down an Airforce General after a public relations disaster: a Washington Post feature on an Airforce funded maternity suite for Jackie Kennedy, at Otis Airforce Base.

The $5000 refurbishment (featuring Jordan Marsh furniture shipped from Boston) was photographed with an Airforce attendant standing at the ready.

Unsurprisingly, President Kennedy was fuming. Personal embarrassment aside, if the Airforce could afford this type of expenditure why shouldn’t Congress cut its budget?

JFK called the general on July 25, 1963 to inform him that he ‘just sank the Airforce budget,’ and asked if ‘they were crazy up there?’

He concluded: ‘this is obviously a fuck-up.’