So we all know that good, red-blooded Americans hate those pinko Commies, right? But why? Well… because… they’re Communist? Sure. But why was Communism seen as antithetical to our American values?
the u.s. vs. communism
If you go back and read Karl Marx, which you don’t need to unless you want to impress strangers on a train and get yourself on a government list, he was pretty clear about what he did not like about modern society. Capitalism was the root of modern evil because it creates such widespread inequality. Karl Marx predicted that eventually, as societies industrialize, the poor people at the bottom will realize that there are more of them than there are factory owners and the common people – or the proletariat will rebel. And this rebellion will be, as Karl Marx put it, a “violent overthrow” of the capitalist system.
The United States has a lot of values that we hold dear: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness (whatever that means). Originally, the inalienable rights according to John Locke were supposed to be “life, liberty, and property” but the Founding Fathers took out property as a right. Optimistically, they did this because they knew this was almost an impossible thing to promise every citizen of a nation. But cynically, they also did it because the fact that they owned property – including slaves – was what put them at the top of the hierarchy and gave them privilege. From the very beginning, capitalism has been a core tenet of the United States. So when communists come along saying they want to violently overthrow your entire way of life, that doesn’t go over so well to most Americans.
By the Cold War, though, most Americans wouldn’t have been able to give you that answer if they were asked why they hated Communists. But they didn’t need to. Because most Americans by the 1950s hated Communists because, as far as they could tell, Communists were always trying to kill Americans or at least stop what we were trying to do – in postwar Germany, in Korea, everywhere. In this way, Communism is actually pretty similar to how a lot of Americans, unfortunately, view Islam today. Most Americans know nothing about the religion of Islam, they just know that all around the world it seems like Muslims want to kill us or stop what we’re trying to do. This is problematic for a lot of reasons, but we’ll talk about it more next episode.
American cold war policy
So how do you fight a War on Communism? Well, neither side wants to openly fight because now both the United States and the USSR have nuclear weapons. So they keep things cool and instead just try to expand their influence around the world and gain allies, or at least stop the other side from gaining support for itself. In the United States this policy is called containment.
The U.S. decided that the best we could do was contain Communism and stop it from spreading out from the USSR. The idea was that if one country in a region became communist, a domino effect would occur and other countries would fall, too. So we made it our mission to stop communism – or anything that sounds like communism – from gaining control in any part of the world.
I want to be really clear: officially, the Truman Doctrine – the original declaration of our policy in the new Cold War – said that we would fight for democracy around the world. But that is definitely not what we did. We fought against anyone who espoused communist or socialist ideas and supported their enemy, regardless of who they were or what they wanted. As long as you were fighting communists, you had the U.S. support.
The best example of this is during the War in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviets had invaded and set up a communist government but there were tons of resistance fighters, generally called the mujahideen. We supplied these resistance fighters with money and weapons to fight the Soviets. One of the groups we supported was led by a young man named Osama bin Laden. Yeah. That Osama. So we gave weapons and support to the Taliban because they were fighting communists. And then they would turn around and use our own weapons against us in the 1990s. Ouch.
This is just one example of what’s called a proxy war. Basically, the world was a chess match between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Every country was a pawn and each side would get involved in smaller conflicts, either directly or indirectly. So the US and the Soviets never actually fought – the war stayed Cold – but they got really involved in other conflicts around the world to gain allies.
The two biggest examples are the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where the U.S. actively supported the south (in both countries) that was fighting against communist nationals in the north. The Soviet Union supported the other side but didn’t actually send troops like the U.S. did. In this way, both sides could avoid a direct conflict that might escalate into nuclear war. Pretty smart. Also pretty terrible for the rest of the world that had to do all the fighting.
the nuclear arms race
As we were fighting or supporting these proxy wars, both sides were also building up insane nuclear arsenals. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had 8,000 and the USSR had 11,000 nuclear weapons. Like, who needs that many? That’s crazy. People lived in constant fear of nuclear war. Kids in school did drills to protect themselves from the shrapnel from a nuclear blast (obviously a desk isn’t going to protect you if the bomb drops on your school, but still.) There was a great video with a cute turtle named Bert to teach kids what to do: “Duck and cover.” Also, I’m writing this episode while my students are watching Red Dawn because I’m a great teacher. And if people in the 1980s actually believed that if the Soviets and Cubans invaded, they would do it in rural Colorado… man, that’s paranoia.
So both sides have an unnecessarily large nuclear arsenal. But the philosophy was that if both sides had a ton of weapons, neither side – and no one else in the world – would be crazy enough to attack the U.S. or the Soviets because that would mean the end of the world. This idea was called Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. Honestly, just watch Dr. Strangelove and you’ll get it.
To me, MAD sounds eerily similar to the idea of alliances before WWI, right? “No one would ever be crazy enough to start a war with any major European power because that would mean a world war!” Enter: Serbia.
Who knows? Maybe MAD will work forever – it has so far. But I feel like everyone’s forgetting about the little guys. The groups or nations that don’t care if the world burns because maybe they can gain something out of the ashes. Or maybe that’s what they want to happen? Mutually Assured Destruction works as long as no one gains nuclear weapons who might not act rationally to avoid a global conflict. Wait… North Korea does have nuclear weapons? Oh damn.
the space race
So since we couldn’t achieve tactical superiority over the Soviets on earth, we decided to race them to space! In the Space Race! In 1957 the Soviets launched the first satellite called Sputnik which is the Russian word for “traveler”. This freaked us out and so we invested heavily in math and science education and NASA. In 1969 we won the Space Race by landing on the moon. Allegedly… I’m kidding. We totally landed on the moon. Shut up conspiracy theorists.
But really, why is the moon landing such a popular conspiracy theory? Think about the historical context. 1969. Woodstock, the Vietnam War, Nixon. There was a generation of young people, especially, who were already predisposed to distrust the government and also on a hefty amount of drugs. The idea that the government was lying about the moon landing to intimidate the Soviets wasn’t so crazy to people who had seen the government actually lie about events like the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, the My Lai massacre in 1968, bombing Cambodia, and eventually Watergate. Fake news.
aliens in area 51?!
But if I can, for a moment, talk about a conspiracy theory that I do like… Area 51. Area 51 is an remote, well, area, 75 miles north of Las Vegas where the government did secret nuclear testing. They detonated atomic bombs to the extent that the land is still uninhabitable. Scientists built a spy plane called the Oxcart that could travel three times faster than the speed of sound at 90,000 feet. This plane was used in the Vietnam War
But what about the aliens? OK. So this is all according to a book called Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen. I haven’t done independent research so this could be untrue, but I really want it to be real. And it also totally makes sense in the context of the Cold War.
So a flying disc did crash in the desert in New Mexico in 1947. There are declassified documents that talk about the US government tracking down two Nazi aerospace engineers who claimed to have built a flying disc, which seems to confirm that the government wanted to find out more about the craft. The document says that they found the brothers, who said they had had contact with the Russians but the rest of the document is still classified. The disc was transported to the base we now know of as Area 51 in 1951 – that’s where the name comes from. And according to an engineer who worked at the base and received the equipment, there were child-sized pilots inside. What?!
The pilots were dead, but according to this witness, their bodies were clearly the result of a Soviet human experimentation program. But wait! Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor who committed brutal human experiments, had gone missing in the years after World War II. There were a lot of rumors that he fled to Russia and was working for Stalin…
And, here’s the kicker. According to this witness, the pilots had been made up to look like aliens like the ones described in Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. What?! The author of this book asserts that the Soviets sent a UFO and intentionally crashed it in the U.S. The goal was to create a panic and overload the early-warning defense system, making us vulnerable to attack. But the U.S. hid away the aircraft instead of revealing it to the public.
Whoa. I have no idea if that’s really true but oh man do I want it to be. But it really makes way more sense than any of the other stories I’ve heard. It’s definitely not aliens. But Soviets trying to trick us into thinking there are aliens? That’s a Wednesday during the Cold War.
global politics during the cold war
For the 50 years of the Cold War, global politics was surprisingly simple because we had what is referred to as a bipolar world. Not that kind of bipolar. There were two poles, or centers of powers, in the world and everyone else on the planet had to operate in relation to those two poles.
Basically the world was divided into the First World (the U.S. and its allies), the Second World (the Soviets and their allies) and the Third World (everyone else.) This Third World – Latin America, Africa, and Asia – is going to get stuck trying to navigate their new independence under the shadow of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. We’re going to spend the next few episodes looking at how they did that.
There were also countries who tried to stay out of it. Yugoslavia, India, Indonesia, Egypt, and Ghana formed the Non-Aligned Movement in an attempt to support each other’s efforts to stay out of the Cold War. They were like, “Oh my gosh! We’ve been dealing with Europe’s BS for centuries now. Leave us alone!”
I sometimes like to imagine the leaders of these countries giving that speech from The Goonies. “They got to do what’s right for them. Because it’s their time. Their time! Up there! Down here, it’s our time. It’s our time down here.”
Anyway, so from 1945 until 1992, the Soviets are trying to spread communism and the U.S. is trying to stop it. And one of the first countries to turn red, confirming Americans’ fears of a domino effect across Asia, was China.