When violence broke out in Ukraine several weeks ago, most of us didn’t pay much attention. The big news out of the former Soviet Union was the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi. Russian leader Vladimir Putin appeared in an illustration on the cover of The New Yorker, as a figure skater competing before a bank of judges, each of whom look just like Putin. Despite the astronomical amount of money the Russians spent on transforming Sochi into an Olympic site, for the rest of the world the Winter Games had an eerie quality: the threat of terrorism; Putin’s grotesque comments about gays and lesbians; and the menacing situation about a thousand miles northwest in Kiev.
But what caught many Westerners by surprise was Putin’s swift response to the toppling of the Russian-backed government in Ukraine and the swift exit of the deposed prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych. Hardly a household name in America, Yanukovych’s repressive rule (and the cruel imprisonment of his predecessor, Yulia Tymoshenko) became front page news. And when Putin threatened to send troops into Crimea, the world was faced with an international crisis the likes of which some of us could well remember from the Cold War.
When I was searching for topics to discuss this week, my wife, Meme, reminded me that I had been so troubled about the tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and she thought maybe I should discuss that, and perhaps offer some younger listeners a little background on what the end of the Cold War has meant to the world in the last 25 years.
From roughly 1946 until the Berlin Wall was toppled in 1988, America and the NATO powers played an international chess game with the Soviet Union and its Communist leaders. This tension was far greater than any the world had known before as a result of one thing: nuclear weapons. America and Great Britain, in particular, were armed to the teeth and so was the U.S.S.R. On a couple of occasions, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, there was a very real threat of mutual annihilation. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk said on Oct. 24 of that year: “We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked.”
For the Baby Boom generation—one of which I am and so is President Putin—those crises were critical to the formation of our views of the world. It is said that Mr. Putin has a reverence for the now-gone days of Soviet power, especially as it was in 1952, the year he was born, under Premier Josef Stalin. From the perspective of some Russians whose families had survived and even succeeded under Stalin’s boot, perhaps such sentiment is understandable. But history is not kind to the sort of brutal force that Stalin employed to consolidate his power and push the Soviet Union into the 20th Century and to victory in the second World War. Nor is it cordial to the tactics of his successors, including Nikita Khruschev, Leonid Brezhnev, and then a series of weak and elderly leaders until the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.
Gorbachev was a realist, and though he was a former leader of the KGB secret police, he recognized the value to his own people of glasnost and perestroika, the policy changes that led to warmer relations with the West. Surely one of the greatest achievements of President George H.W. Bush in his single term was to set the terms for the post-Cold War era and to usher in a time of good feelings between East and West. This was perhaps most dramatically on display in the orchestration of the Persian Gulf War, in which the crumbling Soviet Union declined to side with its ally Iraq against the international force that struck after Iraq invaded Kuwait in summer 1990.
It is in this new world, the one that has emerged since 1988 and 1990, that Americans under the age of 35 have grown up and matured. For them, debating whether Putin’s threats are a reversion to the Cold War, or as Hillary Clinton suggested, acts of aggression like the Fascists of Germany and Italy in the 1930s, all seem rather abstract, even far-fetched. But for me, someone for whom the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real for the first 40 years of his life, it isn’t mere rhetoric.
The Cold War was perhaps the most obvious feature of America life in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, it was a golden era for many—with neat new suburban homes, financed under the GI bill, modern schools to accommodate the post-World War II generation of children, snazzy cars and modern interstate highway systems. And then there was television, the explosion of rock music and the arrival of the counterculture of the 1960s. Women’s lib, civil rights, gay rights. It all followed. But every bit played out against those international tensions. For instance, would there have been an antiwar movement in the 1960s if it had not been for the resistance to the war in Vietnam and the military draft? And would American troops ever have been sent in such great numbers to a tiny Asian country if the threat of Communist takeover had not been so great?
It has always been my feeling that the Civil Rights Movement would have not gained the immediacy it had had it not been for the Cold War. Constant depictions of the cruelty under the Communist rule invited comparisons of the hardness of life in segregated America, especially in the Jim Crow South. After all, many African Americans had felt that by fighting Nazi tyranny in World War II, they were paving the way for fairer treatment back home. And it began to come—through President Truman’s integration of the armed forces in July 1948. And that same year, when professional baseball saw the integration of the Brooklyn Dodgers with the hiring of Jackie Robinson. The rise of Rose Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others in the 1950s pushed this along. But through it all was the international specter of Soviet tyranny.
Not coincidentally, Americans who opposed equal rights for blacks frequently called Dr. King and others “communists.” Even the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, had King monitored because of suspected Communist activities. These were groundless suspicions, of course.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I began my career at The Courier-Journal, our publisher Barry Bingham Sr., today remembered as a generous and warm-hearted civic leader, was widely regarded as a leftist, if not a Communist. So was his great friend Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, who made two unsuccessful runs for president in 1952 and in 1956. I remember taking calls in the newsroom from angry readers who referred to the location of the newspaper’s headquarters building at Sixth and Broadway as “Red Square.” The Communist slurs increased as the newspaper’s editorial opposition to segregation became more significant and effective. I’ve been called a Communist on a number of occasions.
Finally, growing up in the 1950s it was impossible not to have the Red Menace drilled into us through highly effective propaganda. On television, civil defense sponsored lurid cartoons that illustrated the threat of communism and the danger of nuclear war and the radioactive fallout. Periodic “civil defense” drills required we children either to crawl down under our desks, or else to march into the hallways and to huddle single file against the walls with our coats covering our bodies. At a particularly memorable Kentucky State Fair in the early 1960s, someone (I suspect the federal government) built a “typical Soviet home.” It was made of ugly and rough materials (I don’t even think the sheetrock walls inside were painted). The furniture was sparse and the open cupboards had little in the way of food. Most memorable of all? A tractor was parked in the living room. In a land where we were accustomed to the domestic bliss created by television moms like June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson, this seemed the ultimate threat. A tractor in the living room!
Today all of that sounds crude, and maybe even a little quaint. Were we Americans so gullible? Or was it really such a striking difference to grow up in Russia a half century ago? I believe there was such a difference, and I believe it is why the end of the Cold War may have been the single greatest international achievement of the 20th Century. After all, the Cold War was an outgrowth of World War II, and that great conflict was the extension of unresolved economic, social, political and military issues raised by World War I. And it is why threats of a renewed Cold War are taken seriously by many of us. Let us hope that the American people as well as the people of Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere can take them seriously, and resist any steps that threaten to return us to that dark time.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.
He’ll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. Thursday during Here & Now.
Read his past WFPL commentaries here.