The Cold War Oxymoron

Why did the Cold War (1947-1991) unfold? Wars are declared by states for one reason or another; self-protection, resources, or territorial expansion are a few of the reasons.  To fight

Cold War Exhibit Entry. The Ford Library

Cold War Exhibit Entry. The Ford Library

a war, however, a nation’s people must be inflamed and rallied around a noble cause, else the people required to fight the war might have to be chained in place.  WWII was declared in the West when Germany and Russia invaded Poland in 1939 and, in the Pacific, when the Empire of Japan invaded the Republic of China in 1937.  Democracy and the Western way-of-life was the noble idea in the U.S., but in Western Europe and Great Britain, the noble cause was protecting the physical shores or recapturing one’s country. WWI was declared following the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia by the ‘Black Hand’, a Serbian secret society. The noble idea was national pride.

The preceding is gross oversimplification.  To be sure, the learned have written volumes on each war throughout known history. And each tome was penned through the author’s particular analytical lens.  Every scholarly argument as to why and how a particular war began is stated, properly supported, and documented. However, if the observer is far enough away, the date of the war and the mechanism by which governments mobilize the citizenry to fight and die in it, are fairly discrete and unpretentious. On the receiving side mobilizing the citizenry is very simple; they fight to defend themselves or their culture from a perceived threat, or to help a friend do it. The Cold War, however, does not reduce to a reason and a noble idea. It is vexing.

The Cold War more closely resembles an economic construct; some weird and wonderful 6a00e551f080038834017d40ff1fa7970cKeynesian cycle whose bubble finally burst in 1991, when President Clinton declared the Cold War over. A British economist, civil servant, director of the British Eugenics Society, director of the Bank of England, part of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals, et cetera, John Maynard Keynes, is one of the founders of modern macroeconomics, and he greatly influenced the economic policies of western governments. Developed during the 1930s, Keynesian economics is a theory promoting government intervention in the marketplace and monetary policy as the best way to warrant economic growth and stability as well as level out the ‘boom and bust’ cycles[1].  In the U.S. in 2007, the intervention first by the Bush administration and continuing through the Obama administration to save the ‘too-big-to-fail’ companies through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP, and the Federal Reserve’s $80 billion a month bond buying program are direct applications of Keynes’ theory.

Keynes theories were 180 degrees juxtaposed from the classical (or neo-classical) liberal economists who argued for a free market with the role of government being very small andHayek confined. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, two such economists, argued that government should be as small as possible in order to allow the exercise of individual freedom. They maintained that free markets would, in the short to medium term, automatically provide full employment, as long as workers were flexible in their wage demands. Not surprisingly, almost all governments adopting or adapting Keynesian policy recommendations versus the classical liberal approach have resulted in the crony capitalism that is destroying personal freedom and the marketplace in today’s world.  For the record, my bias is to the classical liberal. 

Murray Rothbard, another classical liberal economist and philosopher, argued for

Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard

intellectuals as the ‘opinion-molders’ in society in his book, Anatomy of the State.  Rothbard stated, “And since it is precisely a molding of opinion that the State most desperately needs, the basis for age-old alliance between the State and the intellectuals becomes clear.” If Rothbard’s definition of the role of the intellectual as ‘opinion-molders’ in society is accurate, it brings the origins of the Cold War into sharp relief. During the 1930s and the 1940s, the U.S. government had grown accustomed to and enthusiastically embraced its role as the economic orchestra conductor that Keynes argued was their responsibility. The intellectuals molded the opinions of society as the New Deal was inked and, before Roosevelt’s death in 1945, most of the members of that society were celebrating their salvation.

The New Deal eliminated the gold standard and promised Americans FCIC (crop insurance), the FDIC (insurance for small bank depositors), a Social security act to help with retirement, the SEC (to make the stock market transparent), a Civil aeronautics board (to provide federal regulation to the airline industry), the Wagener Act (establishing the rights of union a court (NLRB) to hammer out their grievances), and Fannie Mae (primary mortgage system so more people could own homes). Wow, good stuff and free lunches for everyone; gifts from the government; many rejoiced. Not everyone was on board, though. In fact, many citizens felt they had lost their country because the federal government became ‘the king’.

Truman was known to have been uncomfortable with many aspects of the New Deal. When he assumed the presidency in 1945, he had been the Vice President 82 days and had only

Harry S Truman 33rd President of the United States In office  April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953

Harry S Truman
33rd President of the United States
In office
April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953

met with Roosevelt twice. Truman was a compromise candidate and was not in with the in-crowd on major geopolitical issues or politics at home. He was also completely in the dark, except for rumors, on war initiatives or the Manhattan Project, which was about to test the world’s first atomic bomb. Truman asked FDR’s cabinet members to remain. He informed them that he was open to their advice, but stated clearly that he would be the one making decisions, and they were to support him.

Making decisions himself and having the ‘buck stop’ at the Oval office may have been a hallmark of the Truman administration but he was not immune to the opinions that had already been molded by the intellectuals who had performed their magic in the decade and a half before Truman.  These intellectuals were the magicians who turned the country on its ear with a huge increase in the role of the central government. The die was cast and the pattern established by the time Truman took the Oath of Office.

As the blush of the successes of WWII faded, Truman and others were fearful of Stalin and

Khrushchev and Stalin

Khrushchev and Stalin

the Communists and the former bedfellows were on the outs.  It didn’t matter whether or not Stalin’s takeover in Poland was to increase Russia’s buffer zone. It didn’t matter whether or not East Germany was losing is technical capability every night when workers went west to go home so Stalin built a wall. It didn’t matter whether or not Stalin really wanted compensation for the 28 million people Russia lost or just respect for Russia’s contribution. Certainly, Stalin was untrustworthy, cruel, deceitful, and a tyrant. Others before him in different places and at different times had also been all of those things and yet the U.S. had lived and let live without interference. This time was different.

The Cold War started because the intellectual ‘opinion-molders’ reforming culture in the shape of the King through Keynesian Economic theory had created a society that expected the government to take care of them. ‘King’ is a part all governments, irrespective of ideology, like to play, and those magic Keynesian intellectual playwrights reformed the U.S. government’s script to give the ‘king’ a voice. Out of this ilk rose George F. Kennan, the man credited with writing the Cold War foreign policy play book.

Kennan, a career foreign service wonk, viewed the Soviet Union as a political threat and prescribed a combination of economic assistance and psychological warfare; containment.

George F. Kennan. 1904 -2005.

George F. Kennan. 1904 -2005.

General George C. Marshall, who had met Kennan in 1944, respected his knowledge and approach.  When Marshall implemented the Policy Planning Staff ‘think tank’ in 1947, George F. Kennan was tapped to head the operation.[2] From the PPS ivory tower the Truman Doctrine was formulated.

Although George F. Kennan was the driver of the Truman Doctrine, not all was well behind the beltway in Washington, D.C.  Kennan and John Foster Dulles clashed over how the ‘Communist’ threat should be managed.  The State Department’s Office of the Historian illustrates the differences between Kennan and Dulles, the echoes of which drove the foreign policy experiments that the world lives with today.

Kennan’s ideas, which became the basis of the Truman administration’s foreign policy, first came to public attention in 1947 in the form of an anonymous contribution to the journal Foreign Affairs, the so-called “X-Article.” “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union,” Kennan wrote, “must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” To that end, he called for countering “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” through the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” Such a policy, Kennan predicted, would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

Kennan’s policy was controversial from the very beginning. Columnist Walter Lippmann attacked the X-Article for failing to differentiate between vital and peripheral interests. The United States, Kennan’s article implied, should face down the Soviet Union and its Communist allies whenever and wherever they posed a risk of gaining influence. In fact, Kennan advocated defending above all else the world’s major centers of industrial power against Soviet expansion: Western Europe, Japan, and the United States. Others criticized Kennan’s policy for being too defensive. Most notably, John Foster Dulles declared during the 1952 election campaign that the United States’ policy should not be containment, but the “rollback” of Soviet power and the eventual “liberation” of Eastern Europe. Even within the Truman administration there was a rift over containment between Kennan and Paul Nitze, Kennan’s successor as director of the Policy Planning Staff. Nitze, who saw the Soviet threat primarily in military terms, interpreted Kennan’s call for “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force” to mean the use of military power. In contrast, Kennan, who considered the Soviet threat to be primarily political, advocated above all else economic assistance (e.g., the Marshall Plan) and “psychological warfare” (overt propaganda and covert operations) to counter the spread of Soviet influence. In 1950, Nitze’s conception of containment won out over Kennan’s. NSC 68, a policy document prepared by the National Security Council and signed by Truman, called for a drastic expansion of the U.S. military budget. The paper also expanded containment’s scope beyond the defense of major centers of industrial power to encompass the entire world. “In the context of the present polarization of power,” it read, “a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.”[3]

Map showing the geographic expanse of the Iron Curtain. Iron Curtain On March 5, 1946

Map showing the geographic expanse of the Iron Curtain. Iron Curtain On March 5, 1946

It was a quickening; the U.S. would not live and let live as far as Russia was concerned. In March 1946, Winston Churchill delivered the “Iron Curtain” Speech and by March, 1947, Truman declared an active role in Greek Civil War to ‘stop the spread of Communism’. The Cold War game was on, the government could use the military as a political tool and it did. Of course, the Soviets played along when they took over Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Bosnia, two gulf wars, and military representation in 78 percent of the world’s countries are a few examples of military men and women fighting, being maimed, and dying for political purposes. Right now, the citizens of this country accept blindly that the military may be used anywhere, for any reason. In most cases, the military has been called to fight to solve political embarrassment at home or to refill the pockets of military contractors; but that is another story.

Mar. 19, 2011: Crew members look out from the USS Connecticut, a Sea Wolf-class nuclear submarine, after it surfaced.

Mar. 19, 2011: Crew members look out from the U.S.Connecticut, a Sea Wolf-class nuclear submarine, after it surfaced.

The unfolding of the Cold War was as wrong-headed as embracing Keynesian economics.  In spite of Clinton’s declaration, the Cold War is not over and it was and is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  The Cold War was not cold; millions died in battle and its fallout.  A new generation of liberty-loving intellectuals is fighting back with their minds, their words, and their reason. I am pulling for these ‘opinion-molders’ to open the eyes of cultures around the globe. If the fire for liberty ignites, the best and brightest can and will produce the wealth that benefits us all rather than die on battle fields to save some politician’s career.

[2] George C. Marshall Foundation; George F. Kennan on the Strategic Background;

[3] U.S. Department of State; Office of the Historian; Milestones: 1945–1952; Kennan and Containment, 1947;

5 thoughts on “The Cold War Oxymoron

  1. I researched origins of the term “Cold War”. So many, especially younger veterans do not have a clue about its origin.


    November 1956, Fort Dix, NJ. In an orientation before my deployment to West Germany, we heard a lecture on the beginning of the Cold War, our instructor cited incidents occurring in July–August 1945 when Stalin repeated previous promises to Churchill that he would refrain from “sovietization” of Central Europe. However, after Soviet forces remained in Eastern and Central European countries, with the beginnings of communist puppet regimes installed in those countries, by falsified elections, Churchill referred to the region as being behind an “Iron Curtain” of control from Moscow.
    [The instructor add his own spin in saying, that this was the beginning of the Cold War.]

    George Orwell, coined the term “Cold War” in his 1945 essay “You and the Atom Bomb.”

    John Foster Dulles may have uttered the term “Cold War” prior to 1947, however most historians credit Bernard Baruch for coining the phrase.

    Origin of the term “Cold War”

    Who: Bernard Baruch coined the term “Cold War”
    Baruch warned. “Let us not be deceived-we are today in the midst of a cold war. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this: Our unrest is the heart of their success. The peace of the world is the hope and the goal of our political system; it is the despair and defeat of those who stand against us. We can depend only on ourselves.”

    What: “Cold War” became a term to describe relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The phrase stuck, and for over 44 years it was a mainstay in the language of American diplomacy and United States and allied commands.

    When: 16 April 1947

    Where: In the South Carolina House of Representatives

    Why: The Cold War was the geopolitical, ideological, and economic struggle between two world superpowers, the USA and the U.S., that started in 1947 nearly two years at end of the Second World War and lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991.

    I am currently researching the roots of the Cold War and made an amazing discovery.

    My initial knowledge of the term ‘Cold War’ was heard on the evening radio news broadcast or seen in our daily newspaper in the late 1940’s. I asked my father, what was a cold war. His answer was simple: “Words are used instead of bullets between Russia and our country and has been going on for many years.” Well, his answer went way over my immature brain and I never gave it much attention.

    Until recently when I saw this publication and I finally learned what my father meant almost seventy years ago.

    The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations

    U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1940s swung from amity to hostility—from wartime alliance to intense confrontation after World War II. The Soviet presence in Eastern Europe coupled with the rapid evolution of the international system made it difficult for historians to find precedents in the past. However, there was a period of a similarly
    dramatic volte-face—the period that began with the U.S.-Russian alliance in World War I and ended with U.S. military intervention in Russia to dislodge the new Bolshevik regime.
    U.S. policy toward the Bolshevik government immediately after the seizure of power was largely devoid of substance.
    Of three possible alternatives—
    “watching and waiting”
    “do-nothing policy”
    Or, offering “an olive branch to the Bolsheviks”

    President Wilson was “intrigued” by his friend Colonel Edward House’s suggestion to wage a propaganda campaign in Russia appealing to ideals and speaking directly to the Russian people “while bypassing the Bolsheviks.”


    P.S. When I discuss the cold war with family and friends, I often use your term, “an oxymoron”.


    Roots of the Cold War
    Cold War espionage

    List of conflicts related to the Cold War

    List Of Cold War Battles

    Cold War Timeline
    Timeline of events in the Cold War

    The dates and events leading to the Cold War

    Timeline of the Cold War

    Cold War

    Origins of the Cold War

    Historiography of the Cold War

    • Thank you! for taking the time to add much needed meat to the historical bones of the Cold War. I despair that so many folks have lost track of or never knew the complex history of the Cold War. The reason for my despair, of course, is that the way of life in the U.S. is much less free than before the Cold War. The government was smaller and folks assumed more responsibility for their lives. Given the current trajectory, the tragedy is that after the passage of a generation all will assume the police and surveillance state are needed and normal.

      • I concur with the author, “……the Cold War is not over”. Today, we are dealing with a highly sophisticated Russia and global-gobbling red China. Both countries are supporting our enemies such as North Korea and States who embrace terrorists.
        “False flag on terrorism” continues to be ignored by our politicians and media.

        • The End of the Cold War: A Russian View

          In this sense, ideologically the Cold War began as early as 1917.

          Read more…

          Vladimir Batyuk describes how the Gorbachev reforms, and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union, changed Moscow’s view of the world.

          • You are correct. Additionally, the case can be made that Russia won WWII. Now we are in the middle of round 3 with Russia and so far they are winning again-weak or absent US leadership.

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