Category Archives: Cold War

No Man’s Land

A term older than World War I but popularized during that war, no man’s land refers to a stretch of land under dispute by warring parties, but it can also refer to lawless areas with little or no governing control. A buffer zone, on the other hand, is an area which provides a sense of protection from the enemy. When physical fortifications offer little protection, buffer zones can provide a perception of security. Nations great and small seek the perception of security when security is elusive. Treaties and alliances are traditional means of creating a sense of security, as is the creation of buffer zones. During the Cold War, the competing nations sought to expand their spheres of influence, thereby creating buffer zones between themselves and their enemies as their spheres grew. When the Cold War ended and the buffer zones were no longer needed, many of the buffer nations found themselves with fewer friends and with fewer resources to prevent lawlessness. These nations found it difficult to avoid the development of no man’s land within their borders.

The United States reasoned, even in the earliest days, that oceans made excellent buffer zones against the conflicts of Europe. Unsettled territories were adequate as buffers but only to a point. While unsettled territories didn’t pose a direct European threat, they were still loosely under the influence of powerful countries. Additionally they often attracted outlaws fleeing justice and smugglers seeking a base of operation near their markets. In 1818, Andrew Jackson decided to pursue a group of raiders into Florida. The problem was that Florida was owned by Spain and Spain had little ability to prevent lawlessness in the territory. When Jackson’s army crossed into Florida, he invaded a foreign nation. Without the consent of Spain, such an action created an international incident. Fortunately Secretary of State John Q. Adams was able to capitalize on Jackson’s actions, and convinced Spain that a treaty was better than a war. His reasoning for defending Jackson’s violation of Spanish sovereignty was that “it is better to err on the side of vigor.”[1] Certainly not the first time a nation chose a declaration of strength as its response to an international crisis of its own making, but possibly the first time such a response became national policy. As Secretary of State, Adams greatly influenced the foreign policy decisions of the president and authored much of what President Monroe presented to Congress. In March 1818, President Monroe declared to Congress that when a nation no longer governed in such a way as to prevent their lawlessness from spilling onto their neighbors, then the neighbors had the right to protect themselves and to seek justice even if it meant violating the sovereignty of another nation.[2] In other words, when an area became no man’s land, it was to the benefit of all nations for the lawlessness to be eliminated by whoever had the strength and will to do so.

Eliminating no man’s land in North America was a task that occupied the United States for more than a century. Eventually, the United States would reach from ocean to ocean and would gain the military might of a great nation. However even as the twentieth century dawned, the United States struggled to bring law to all of its territory. During the century of expansion, some in the United States saw potential in the acquisition of territory in the south, particularly in Central America. Others recognized the difficulty of governing such a vast nation. Faced with lawlessness due to revolt in Mexico during World War I, Wilson authorized the U.S. Army’s invasion of Mexico. However, Wilson recognized the value of having a buffer zone south of the border and eventually withdrew the army. In order to ensure that the southern nations created a friendly buffer zone, the United States supported governments that kept the peace, even though keeping the peace came at the expense of basic human rights. Like many leaders before and since, President Wilson put aside ideology and accepted peace-by-force as being better than lawlessness.

Reflecting on history, some leaders have sought security by building huge empires, some by establishing buffer zones, and others by the targeted elimination of no man’s land. Regardless of the method men and nations have chosen, it is clear that international law, notions of liberty and self-determination, and hope for world peace are always secondary to the goal of eliminating the threat posed by no man’s land.


[1] Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 315-316.

[2] James Monroe, “Spain and the Seminole Indians,” American Memory, Library of Congress, (March 25, 1818),

At the End: the Cold War

Twenty-five years ago the Berlin Wall was opened. Unplanned and unauthorized by the powers who controlled the border between east and west, the opening of the Wall signified an end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era. While the momentous nature of act of opening a gate and letting people pass from east to west gained much attention at the time, other factors had been at play that would pave the way to peace and solidify the end of the Cold War in ways which went relatively unnoticed by the general public. Much has been written on the subject but not by authors with huge public followings. In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary, we should look back. The following is a short essay* on one aspect of the end of the Cold War – just enough to pique your interest.

Historian John Lewis Gaddis has written that “the Cold War itself was a kind of theater in which distinctions between illusions and reality were not always obvious.”[1] It was fitting then that thespians took the stage for the final act. While is it common knowledge that President Ronald Reagan graced the silver screen in his younger days, it is less well known that other important actors of the final act had theatrical experience prior to their Cold War roles. Mikhail Gorbachev had been an “aspiring actor,” [2] in his youth, and the influential Pope John Paul II “had been an actor before he became a priest.”[3]The success of such actors on the Cold War stage was not due simply to their arrival upon the stage, but due in great part to the stage setting in which they inherited.

As with the origins of the Cold War, the end of the Cold War is not precise. Unlike hot wars which tend to end with the signing of peace treaties and have a clear chain of events preceding peace settlements, the end of the Cold War is ambiguous.  As historian George C. Herring pointed out, there is a myth that Reagan’s strong posturing and rhetoric are the direct cause of Soviet defeat.[4] Yet, to ascribe to such a myth negates the important role of the other actors and for those who set the stage on which the thespian preformed. Gaddis wrote, “it took visionaries – saboteurs of the status quo – to widen the range of historical possibility.”[5] More importantly, it took actors well versed in the art of improvisation, actors who could recognize the changing dynamics of the Cold War and grasp the opportunities of change. While there are numerous scenes to the last act of the Cold War, three key roles were played by each actor.

First, after the Able Archer exercises, President Reagan “drew the obvious – but for Cold War adversaries often elusive – conclusion that the Soviets feared the United States as much as American feared them.”[6] This shift led Reagan to adjust his strategy. While on one hand he ratcheted up the rhetoric, on the other he became more amiable to negotiations because he knew the United States had the upper hand.

Second, Mikhail Gorbachev recognized that public language was not really the same as diplomatic language, and that politicians like Reagan were acting to an audience. While Reagan certainly had an image to keep and a role to play, Gorbachev had an equally, if not more crucial part to play. He had to convince his people that glasnost and perestroika were positive changes, and that negotiations with the West were not signs of weakness.

The third actor, Pope John Paul II, helped “expose disparities between what people believed and the systems under which the Cold War had obliged them to live.”[7]

The Pope’s visit to Poland revealed that the USSR’s satellite enjoyed no popular legitimacy: They were Puppet regimes hated by their subject population. But Pope John Paul went further. He demystified the power of those regimes. With his words, his presence, and his injunction not to feel afraid, the Pope was for a while the real government of Poland.[8]

It would be wrong to assert that the Cold War, even in its final decade, lacked any real cause for fear, but Pope John Paul II diffused the overwhelming and consuming fear that had dominated the public since the days of Stalin.

The three actors took the world stage and improvised rather than continued the Cold War script where the bipolar status quo was viewed as “more stable than multipolar systems.”[9] The final act of the Cold War commenced once these three actors realized that President Roosevelt had been correct that the fear itself was the only thing causing the fear, and that the political divide could be cracked and then normalized once the people stopped feeling the oppression of the fear. While Cold War theatrics occasionally resurfaced, particularly when Reagan gave his famous “tear down this wall” speech in 1987, they did not deter the movement towards normalization between the United States and the Soviet Union.[10] The real success of the final act in the Cold War play is that while tough talk and grand speeches still placated the public perception of strength, changes were occurring specifically within the Soviet Union.  The stage had been set by the policies of containment, “collapse of détente,” the inherent weaknesses of the Soviet system, and mutual overspending on deadly war machines, but the final act was the result of leader desiring a change in the status quo.

* Due to unexpected issues this week, I am recycling an old essay rather than creating something new to commemorate the anniversary of The Fall of the Berlin Wall.


[1] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005), 195.

[2] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 894.

[3] Gaddis, 195.

[4] Herring, 894.

[5] Gaddis, 196.

[6] Herring, 896.

[7] Gaddis, 196.

[8] John O’Sullivan, “Warm Cold Warrior,” National Review 57, no. 7 (April 25, 2005): 38.

[9] Gaddis, 196.

[10] Herring, 898.

Man or Machine: War in the 20th Century

World War I changed many facets of warfare, particularly where technology was concerned. The automobile, chemical weapons, and tanks stand out, but also do the airplanes, submarines, and machine guns. Some of these weapons were developed during the war and some were simply advanced beyond their pre-war status. The prevalence of the machine in World War I marked a dramatic shift in how the wars of the twentieth century would differ from the wars in previous centuries. These new machines created mass casualty beyond anything that Europe had ever experienced.

By the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, nations would wonder if machines could be used to replace the soldier, or at least reduce the cost of human life. President Truman considered nuclear technology as a means to reduce ally casualties. After two devastating world wars, the notion of technology carrying the brunt of the work was appealing. The second half of the twentieth century provided opportunities for the theory to be tested. Air power became a key component in strategic planning. Bombardments from the air, whether from aircraft or from missiles located many miles from the conflict zone, devastated communities. All indications seemed to point to a day when machines would replace boots on the ground. However machines did not rout the enemy regardless of the devastation they created. As the twenty-first century dawned, warfare seemed to depart from the oceans and grand battlefields where the machine dominated and instead entered the villages and city streets where man could maneuver more adeptly. Despite all the technological development to the machines of war, man with natural adaptability time-and-time-again remained supreme.