Cold War Memories Still Chill

Posted December 14, 2009 at 3:12pm

It’s been 20 years since the once-mighty Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to an end. For decades, Soviet power kept millions of people oppressed, and the United States remained poised for war with its one-time ally. There seems to be no end of stories and accounts that come from that era, many of those contradictory. Alan Axelrod lived through that period and has his own take on what it was like to grow up under the threat of nuclear war. When he decided to write about the period, however, he decided to tell the story not simply as he remembers it, but as it actually happened.

Axelrod has written about World War II, the American Revolution and even the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. In many cases, he said, there is a fairly consistent account of what happened during a particular conflict. With the Cold War, however, there are often very different stories, depending on who is doing the telling.

Axelrod attempts to set the record straight in “The Real History of the Cold War: A New Look at the Past.— The 50-year span of the Cold War is “a very little-understood period of history,— he said.

The book is laid out almost like a textbook, with sidebars breaking out commonly overlooked material to supplement the text. But it is anything but dull.

Axelrod opens with a brief introduction to the rise of communism in the Soviet Union and the economic circumstances that aided the political rise of people such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Subsequent chapters demonstrate the increasing power of communism and how the Cold War ultimately escalated.

One particularly chilling section focuses on the development of nuclear weapons, and the civil defense (or lack thereof) put in place by the United States government. Photos of bombs such as “Ivy Mike,— the thermonuclear bomb that had a blast equaling 10.4 megatons of TNT, inspire some rather terrifying thoughts on the direction in which the war could have gone. In supplementary items, Axelrod discusses the Plowshare Project, a failed government initiative to develop nuclear energy that was safe to use for large-scale excavations, and the Tsar Bomba, a horrifying 50-megaton bomb detonated by the Soviets in 1961.

With the threat of nuclear war seeming more and more likely, the government invested $86 million in developing a bunker where officials could hide out and continue running the country. Not quite so much money was put toward keeping civilians safe, but many of them built fallout shelters in their own backyards. Instructions were given on what survivors should do after a nuclear blast, but as Axelrod writes, “Nothing the government published convincingly argued that the survivors were more fortunate than the dead.—

Axelrod also covers the staples of Cold War history lessons — the Red Scare in the United States and the rise of Red China.

He follows the Cold War through the collapse of the Soviet Union, including uprisings in Poland and Hungary, and the development of democratic media, including Radio Free Europe, which was considered crucial to the anti-communist effort.

For Axelrod, writing the book brought up some personal feelings about being a child during such an intense time.

“This was really the background of my growing up,— he said. “I have very vivid recollections and feelings about the space race and the prospect of imminent annihilation.—

Axelrod likened the apparent state of “permanent war— when he was growing up to the attitude toward the war on terror now.

“It’s very different to live with the prospect either of annihilation or the destruction of the government from within,— he said.

For all his personal recollections, however, Axelrod said he was surprised by some of the things he learned while researching and writing the book.

“When you stand back and look at it and get the big picture, there was a cohesive American response to the Cold War; it emerges as an actual strategy,— he said.

“The Real History of the Cold War— is “an attempt to bring up years of received wisdom and myths and suggest that it may be time to revise these,— he said.