Lessons Taken from the Cold War

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The Cold War differed from the normal combat that had existed in almost every prior war in that the two countries involved never engaged in direct physical fighting with each other. The term represented a standoff with words, however, it was a war much larger than words. It was a war of ideologies, a war of preparation for wars, and a war of covert activities. The Cold War led to many changes. People were fearing for their lives every day, precautionary drills were in effect, proxy wars became the latest battle technique, and politics became a larger theoretical discussion at the dinner table. My mother’s boss and family friend, James Michael Williams (Mike), was born during 1953, a time during which the Cold War prevailed. Having grown up in a small, isolated town in eastern New Mexico called Lovington, his Cold War experiences were slightly different than those who lived in larger metropolitan cities. Mike looked at every event that occurred with an open mind and attempted to base his opinions off logical reasoning and historical evidence. Despite the popular views and fears upheld by most Americans during the Cold War, Mike developed opposing perspectives and acquired knowledge that allowed him to stifle his fears during this time.

Adopted at a young age, Mike was raised in a family that had previously gone through the horrors and experiences of World War II. At the time, his 17-year-old mother lived to tell the story of the Battle of Dunkirk. Many of his perspectives on the Cold War and the different ideologies came from the background and lessons through which his mother endured. Mike’s awareness of the conflict between the East and the West began to occur in early grade school. Mike recalled having been taught when and how to properly hide under the desks and get low to the floor, or as the media called it- duck and cover. He remembered his third-grade teacher explaining the importance of getting yourself to the lowest point possible, such as a cellar if there was one nearby. During his school years, there was discussion of the nuclear weapons used in WWII, but there was no teaching of it. However, Mike still took an interest in physics, particularly studying the nuclear energy and the difference between what was in the atomic bomb, such as those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the thermonuclear bomb. He was going over to the library to study these things by himself, something that not many of his fellow classmates did. His science and math-based curiosity as a child encouraged him to earn a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics with two minors in math and physics. His current job is to calibrate weighing and laboratory instruments, dealing with the same type of uncertainties in calculations for local acceleration of gravity and corrections that were a part of the creation behind nuclear weapons. The Arms Race during the Cold War had a major impact on what he chose to pursue as a career. While many Americans feared the science behind the nuclear weapons, Mike embraced it.

The Arms Race instilled a fear in many people’s minds that a potential hot war or third World War could break out at any moment. Having seen the destruction of the weapons in Japan at the end of the war, these adults and children didn’t know what to expect of the future. As mentioned by Jacobs, “The fear and anxiety intensified in the late 1940s, as the Soviet Union acquired its own nuclear weapons and the Cold War began in earnest. Massive government efforts to design, construct, and deploy nuclear weapons helped to fuel the emergence of what Dwight Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex” (Jacobs, 25). With nuclear weapons in the possession of the Soviets, Mike stated that the chaos and aftermath caused by the media warning of possible nuclear detonations was like something out of a science fiction horror movie. But despite the popular take on these weapons, Mike chose to study the blast effects of them and studied what is known as the MAD doctrine- mutually assured destruction. Mike’s growing knowledge helped him cope with the fears surrounding the Cold War.

When asked if he ever feared the U.S. might not win the war, Mike understood the situation that there would not be a winner at all. According to George Orwell’s 1945 essay, the bomb would “put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’” (as cited in Heilbrunn, 5). It would be nearly impossible to disarm every country of their nuclear weapons, so the tensions would remain. This is a statement very similar to one of Mike’s. Referring back to the MAD doctrine, Mike stated that regarding the bomb, “both sides would be completely wiped out. So, my perspective was this can’t happen. There’s got to be a way. We have to ramp down. In other words, put our guns down or at least point them to the ground and quit playing with each other’s heads and that gradually begins to take place as I saw the decades went by”. Even though both sides were going to be diametrically opposed in many ways, we had to survive and live in this world together. Therefore, Mike didn’t dwell on this consistent fear of a nuclear war breaking out. In addition, Mike knew that he had a very slim chance of being directly affected by a nuclear detonation since he lived in a small, isolated area. Mike lived on an area called the Permian basin and knew that the concern of rising fuel prices wouldn’t even impact him due to the area being surrounded by oil fields. Through studying the MAD doctrine and analyzing his physical place in the Cold War, Mike was able to alleviate much of the fears upheld by most Americans surrounding nuclear weapons.

The Arms Race was only one small fraction of what consisted of the 45 year long Cold War. The Cold War presented itself as a contest between two rival states and their respective allies: the U.S. and the West vs. the U.S.S.R. and the East. The Cold War began with the ever-growing circumstance of the Soviet Union expanding its communist rule to surrounding states and countries. The majority of the U.S. felt it was their responsibility to contain communism and prevent its growth, fearing that is could destroy first world countries operating on market capitalism. Mike’s reasoning behind his distaste behind communism was a bit different. Through his mother’s experiences in WWII, Mike learned the gruesome consequences of a totalitarian, oppression government. In fact, he recalled a story about his grandmother during WWII and what she would do if the Nazis captured her and her daughter. Despite knowing what Nazis would do to a 17-year-old woman like his mother at the time, there was no doubt his grandmother would use her last two bullets to kill the Nazis rather than saving herself and her daughter from the possible tortures. While this totalitarian government was still a slightly different ideology than communism, the Soviet Union had demonstrated, through multiple expansions, that it was their mandate to destroy the West. At the time, he didn’t know how many people were dying under communist rule, but after the war he learned it was between 130 and 160 million people. His mother had instilled in his mind that “This has to be fought. There has to be a middle ground. Obviously there’s got to be government control of things or whatever, but that type of savage totalitarian government cannot be allowed.” So, while most Americans feared how communism could destroy their economy and other policies, Mike feared the destruction that could be executed on innocent lives.

The attack on communism resulted in a “red scare” in the U.S. This brought rise to the term McCarthyism, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy for falsely accusing people of being affiliated with communism as a defamation of character. McCarthy had accused more than 200 employees of being associated with the Communist Party, ranging from government officials to movie directors. While some espionage and covert activities were true, oftentimes they were false accusations. Personally, Mike didn’t know anyone accused of being a red spy, but he felt that if he lived in a larger city he might have. He also didn’t spend too much time worrying about red spies, arguing that “a part of the cold war was both sides spying on each other. I had somewhat a high level of confidence in our CIA and our spies, but like I said both sides were spying on each other”. Hence, while Mike refrained from the accusations and worry of spies within our own country and government because the activities were mutual, he did feel that it was a citizen’s duty to question the government. Since the government is made of people, and people tend to make mistakes or do things to benefit themselves, he decided that it was a healthy thing to do. Many Americans participated in this growing skepticism toward the government.

Since much of Mike’s thoughts were backed by reasoning and historical evidence, he developed perspectives and dwindling fears unlike most Americans during the Cold War. Mike became highly interested in the science competition of the Cold War despite most people fearing it. He pursued a career in the similar mathematics behind the nuclear weapons because of the Arms Race. Mike used historical evidence, like the MAD doctrine, to look at the bigger picture when it came to fear a nuclear war and decided it wasn’t worth worrying about. Instead, much of the population erupted in chaos by listening to the media’s stories of possible nuclear detonations. Mike still supported the U.S. with its policies of containment to stop the spread of communism, but his reasons were based on the damages and terrors caused by such a form of government, rather than fear of destroying capitalism. Even though Mike removed himself from the “red scare” and espionage activities because he knew the U.S. was doing the same, he did agree that it was healthy to sometimes question the government, as many people did with McCarthyism. With his unique mindset and ways of thinking, Mike was able to relieve himself of the many fears that Americans experienced during the Cold War. Despite not being completely terrified of the war, he did state that we can’t reach this apex again, where fingers are on the button ready to launch nuclear weapons. We can’t alter history, so we must learn from it. 

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Lessons Taken From The Cold War. (2022, Sep 11). Retrieved September 23, 2023 , from

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