Tag Archives: Cold War

Unexpected Consequences: Revolution

Prior to the twentieth century, war was most often the product of the elite rather than the common man. Assuredly, war had an impact, both direct and indirect, on the laborer. Whether from conscription, taxation, or proximity to the combat and the combatants, war could wreak havoc. War could also quickly change boundaries and cause forced changes in allegiance. Entire regions could become disputed territory as powerful states weakened and weaker states grew strong. The chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars led the rulers of Europe to seek a balance of power that would prevent the outbreak of wide spread war. For approximately a century they succeeded in quelling the rising nationalistic zeal that threatened to reignite the flames of world war. However, revolutionary ideologies were not contained even as rulers tried to contain revolt. While notions of self-determination, democracy, and equality were discussed by liberal minded thinkers, the ruling class held fast to the notion that not all men were ready or capable of self-rule. In some cases, outright racism was the justification for the continuation of imperial dominance and all the ills that imperialism wrought on subjugated peoples. In other cases, benign paternalism justified policies that increased inequality and protected the status quo. Regardless of the grand rhetoric of the time that promoted equality and brotherhood, paternalistic elitism, the belief that some were better suited to govern than others, remained the consensus of the day.

As the twentieth century dawned, changes in society due to industrialization were creating unrest. The outbreak of World War I ratcheted up the change. Women went to work in greater numbers, particularly women who belonged to the middle class.  Men, who had once been viewed as expendable laborers, became a valuable commodity. Total warfare left no civilian untouched and caused soldiers to question the futility of war. As fighting dragged on and depravation increased, patriotic citizens on the battlefield and home front struggled to find justification for the continued support of a war that seemed less and less justifiable.

In Russia, the seeds of revolution found fertile ground as the citizens lost faith in an old system that seemed to bring endless suffering. Elsewhere the notions of liberty, self-determination, and equality caused subjugated peoples to question why they should remain the possessions of rulers in distant lands rather than be allowed to govern themselves. While Allied nations fought to prevent the invasion, subjugation, and annexation of small nations like Belgium and prevent territorial losses in France, the same nations clung fast to their territorial holdings in other regions of the world. The brutality and futility of total war also caused many within Europe to question whether the empires that governed them did so with any consideration for their needs and their security. Ethnic unrest, nationalistic zeal, and distrust for those with different cultural habits increased as the war continued. The seeds of revolution were cast wide, some to find fertile ground immediately and others to remain dormant for decades, but all to produce the fruit of conflict and bloodshed. Revolution was not the goal of those who declared war in 1914 but revolution was the unexpected consequence.

Cuba and the United States

I have long found the US/Cuba situation fascinating particularly in light of the fact that many nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S. politicians and businessmen had the wish of annexing Cuba, or at least keeping Cuba a friendly U.S. playground. Cuba, so close to the United States, was often a hoped for prize. Many power brokers in the United States felt sure Cuba would eventually choose to join its neighbor to the north. The fact that it never did but instead rejected the United States during the Cold War makes it all the more interesting and begs the question of why it choose such a different path from the one hoped for by men like Theodore Roosevelt, President McKinley, and many others.

In 2002, historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. wrote an article for the Journal of Latin American Studies titled “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba.” The following is a short paper I wrote after reading this and other articles discussing theories as to why the United States persisted with Cold War policies towards Cuba even after the end of the Cold War.

Loathsome Rejection: Cuba and the United States

Masked behind a cloud of Cold War fear, Cuba’s rejection of the United States was the loathsome reality of a failed U.S. attempt at imperial influence and a direct blow at the very heart of the Monroe Doctrine. Fidel Castro was “inalterably held responsible” and according to Louis A. Pérez Jr. in “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba,” Castro became a problem that would blind policy makers for over forty years, even after the end of the Cold War.[1]

“Castro was transformed simultaneously in to an anathema and phantasm, unscrupulous and perhaps unbalanced, possessed by demon and given to evil doings a wicked man with whom honourable men could not treat.”[2]

Pérez stated that the “initial instrumental rationale” for U.S. policy with Cuba, particularly the policy of sanctions, may have become “lost” over time, but that it was initially created under the precepts of containment.[3] However, in the case of Cuba, the practice of utilizing economic pressure through embargoes was undermined by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 which allowed political asylum to any Cubans who made it to U.S. shores. This act became a release valve for the pressures created by the embargoes. While poor Cubans remained poor, the middle-class Cubans, who were most affected by U.S. sanctions, could attempt to seek refuge elsewhere. “The Logic of the policy required containing Cuban discontent inside Cuba,” but this logic was lost amid the emotional reaction the United States had towards Fidel Castro and his rejection of the United States. This rejection was compounded by the challenge to “the plausibility of the Monroe Doctrine,” and the United States “primacy in the western hemisphere.”[4] If rejection was not enough to engender such resentment, inviting the Soviet Union to become a military as well as an economic ally was more than U.S. policy makers could stand without seeking retribution.

Cold War fear and rhetoric does not sufficiently account for the continued and virulent animosity between the United States and Cuba, and Pérez was not the only scholar to take note. As the Soviet system crumbled and the Cold War came to an end, “the antagonism displayed by the U.S. government toward Cuba and Castro …intensified.”[5] The continued containment of Cuba in the post-Cold War era negated decades of U.S. assertions that the Cuban policy was the direct result of its status as a Soviet satellite. While others would write about the illogical continuation of Cold War policy, Pérez argued that U.S. policy toward Cuba had less to do with Cold War fear and containment, and more to do with loathing and retaliation for the rejection of the United States and the embarrassment such a rejection caused.

Certainly there was a real national threat in having Soviet missiles located so close to U.S. shores, but that threat does not account for U.S. policy before and after the missiles. Wayne S. Smith, who was stationed in Cuba as a vice-consul during the Cuban Revolution, claimed that Castro and his revolutionaries were not communist threats in 1956.

“We found no credible evidence to indicate Castro had links to the Communist party or even had much sympathy for it. Even so, he gave cause for concern, for he seemed to have gargantuan ambitions, authoritarian tendencies, and not much in the way of an ideology of his own. He was also fiercely nationalistic. Given the history of U.S. military occupations, the Platt amendment, and the outsized U.S. economic presence in Cuba, he did not hold the U.S. in high regard.”[6]

Without a doubt, the United States needed to address the threat posed by Castro, but to bypass speaking softly and instead proceeding to the wielding of a big stick was a move that would ensure crisis rather than avoiding crisis, especially when the Soviet Union was more than happy to lend Cuba a hand. The Soviet’s willing assistance, especially after the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs, was all the justification needed for President Kennedy to pick the moment of crisis rather than giving Nikita Khrushchev the opportunity.[7]

Pérez does not argue against the notion that there was a real threat posed by Cuba, but instead he points out that the United States was handed a “trauma” when the U.S. playground turned into a war zone, and then into a dangerous Cold War threat.[8] This trauma affected the U.S. ability to rationally create and implement a policy that would stabilize relationships and reduce threat. “Dispassionate policy discourse on Cuba … was impossible” [9] as long as Castro remained Cuba’s leader, because he was “a breathing, living reminder of the limits of U.S. power.”[10]


[1] Louis A. Pérez, Jr. “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 2 (May 1, 2002): 227, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3875788 (accessed February 20, 2013).

[2] Ibid. 250.

[3] Ibid., 228.

[4] Ibid., 233.

[5] David Bernell, “The Curious Case of Cuba in American Foreign Policy,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36, no. 2 (July 1, 1994): 66, http://www.jstor.org/stable/166174 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[6] Wayne S. Smith, The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of U.S.-Cuban Relations Since 1957 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1987), 15-16.

[7] Philip Zelikow, “American Policy and Cuba, 1961-1963.” Diplomatic History 24, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 325. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ehost/detail?sid=39889c50-22ab-48a2-b2e4-cd8946fd73a9%40sessionmgr15&vid=1&hid=18&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=2954415 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[8] Pérez, 231.

[9] Ibid., 250.

[10] Ibid., 251.

Other Readings

Dominguez, Jorge I. “U.S.-Cuban relations: From the Cold War to the colder war.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 39, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 49–75. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/200219310/13BF83A38607C999D8F/7?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Paterson, Thomas G. “U.S. intervention in Cuba, 1898: Interpreting the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino war.” Magazine of History 12, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 5. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/213739998/13BF824CD53256D7D45/11?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 1972 New Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.

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),  http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsp&fileName=004/llsp004.db&Page=183.

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.