Mankind is lucky to have survived the Cold War, during which the Soviet and American blocs armed themselves with tens of thousands of nukes – more than enough to wipe out our species many times over. It was a scary era, in which the main rivals challenged each other via proxy wars, but fortunately, never engaged each other directly in a flown blown armed confrontation. Still, there were plenty of close calls, and no shortage of fascinating vignettes. Following are twenty significant historical events from the Cold War.
20. Reagan and Gorbachev Agreed to End the Cold War if Aliens Attacked
Ronald Reagan was the Happy Cold Warrior. A staunch conservative and anticommunist, he went about with a sunny disposition and demeanor that did little to mask his implacable detestation of communism and opposition of the Soviet Union. His single minded focus on challenging what he termed “The Evil Empire”, and dragging the USSR into an arms buildup competition that its rickety economy could not sustain, contributed greatly to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, there was one field where he was more than happy to cooperate with the Soviets. As Mikhail Gorbachev recounted, he was strolling around a garden with Reagan during the 1985 Geneva Summit, when the POTUS blurted out of the blue: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Gorbachev replied that the Soviets would help us out against ET, which greatly pleased the American president – apparently, the threat of alien attack had been gnawing at Reagan, a lifelong sci-fi nerd, for years.
The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world came to a radioactive holocaust, as the American and Soviet governments stared each other down, with fingers on nuclear hair triggers. It was bad, but most folk who lived through the crisis did not know at the time just how bad. As was revealed years later, billions around the world might have perished, because an American spy plane had accidentally blundered deep into Soviet airspace at the height of the crisis.
At 1:45PM on October 27th, 1962, president Kennedy was informed that a U-2 spy plane, operating out of Alaska, had gone missing inside Soviet airspace. The plane was supposed to fly to just outside the Soviet border, where it was to test clouds drifting from the USSR for radioactive particles. Its hapless pilot, however, ended up blundering deep into the USSR, and the Soviets scrambled fighters to shoot him down. It was the worst possible moment for such a screwup, as the Soviets might have viewed the incursion as a deliberate provocation. Luckily, the U-2 made it back to base, but Kennedy, who called its pilot a “son of a bitch”, made sure he never flew a U-2 again.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that invading Cuba was the only solution. They presented president Kennedy with two options: Oplan 316 for a full invasion, and Oplan 312 for aerial strikes to take out Soviet missiles in Cuba, followed by an invasion if necessary. The hawks, led by Air Force general Curtis LeMay, had a clear preference for the full invasion. Planners expected 18,500 US casualties in the first ten days of the invasion, assuming no nuclear explosions.
Unbeknownst to planners, Soviet forces in Cuba had tactical nukes, and their commander had been preauthorized to use them at his discretion. As the crisis intensified, that discretion was withdrawn, but whether that would have kept Soviet forces on the ground from using them, is debatable. If the Soviets used nukes in Cuba, the US intended an overwhelming nuclear response. Things could easily have escalated from there to a full blown nuclear exchange. Fortunately, Kennedy resisted the pressure from his military, and relying on diplomacy, back channels, and blockade, successfully diffused the crisis without triggering WWIII.
17. Operation Ivory Coast: The Raid to Free American POWs
Operation Ivory Coast, November 20th, 1970, was a rescue mission to free American POWs held at Son Tay prison camp, about 20 miles west of Hanoi. With roughly 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers stationed within 5 miles of the camp, it was vital that the raiders complete their mission quickly, and be gone before the enemy had time to react. The raid was a brilliant tactical success, and wholly accomplished its objective of seizing control of the camp within minutes of the raiders touching down.
About 100 guards were killed, while the attackers suffered only two minor injuries. Unfortunately, planners had relied on outdated intelligence: the POWs had been moved months earlier from Son Tay, making the mission an intelligence failure. In the aftermath, criticism of the faulty intelligence that led to a risky operation to rescue prisoners from a prison camp that held no prisoners, led to an extensive overhaul and restructuring of the intelligence apparatus.
Douglas MacArthur’s successful Inchon landings led to the collapse of the North Korean invasion during the Korean War, and he vigorously pursued the routed enemy northward up the Korean Peninsula. He dismissed warnings that China would intervene if his forces approached the Sino-Korean border, insisting that the Chinese would do nothing. He was wrong: soon after MacArthur’s men reached the Yalu River, marking the border with China, hundreds of thousands of Chinese entered Korea. They struck in November, 1950, and within weeks, had defeated and pushed MacArthur’s demoralized forces out of North Korea.
His judgment proven catastrophically wrong, a humiliated MacArthur reacted with histrionics, and insisted that China be nuked. He wanted to drop up to 50 atomic bombs on Chinese targets, and to seal off the Korean Peninsula from China by creating a radioactive belt, stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea. President Truman, whom MacArthur had assured only weeks earlier that China would do nothing, declined to trust MacArthur’s new assurances that the Soviets would do nothing if America nuked its Chinese ally. When MacArthur disobeyed orders by publicly challenging Truman’s call, the president fired him.
During the First Indochina War, the French had superior firepower and technology, but were unable to bring the lightly armed Viet Minh to offer a pitched battle in which such superiority could prove decisive. So the French reasoned that if they could not take their superior firepower to the Viet Minh, then they would bring the Viet Minh to superior French firepower. A plan was concocted to entice the Vietnamese into massing for a pitched battle by offering them an irresistible lure: French paratroopers airdropped into an isolated base, Dien Bien Phu.
Unfortunately for the French, so many aircraft were shot down while attempting to resupply the paratroopers, that their situation became critical. The French had also assumed the Vietnamese would have no artillery. The Viet Minh commander, general Giap, organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line that hauled disassembled guns over rough terrain to the hills overlooking the French. Within two months, the Dien Bien Phu garrison had lost 4000 dead and missing, and nearly 7000 wounded. The survivors, numbering nearly 12,000, were forced to surrender.
14. Israeli Government’s Penny Pinching Costs It Dearly
In 1973, it was well known that Egypt planned to attack Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel relied on a small standing military, that would get fleshed at wartime with a rapid mobilization of civilian reservists. However, such mobilizations were disruptive and expensive, and the civilians taken from their daily occupations could not be kept in uniform for long. The Egyptians used that, and months before their planned attack, tricked the Israelis into believing that an attack was imminent, causing Israel to declare an expensive emergency mobilization. However, no attack came.
When the Egyptians began preparing for the real attack a few months later, the Israeli government, burned once by a false alarm, was reluctant to call another mobilization. So when the Egyptians attacked on October 6th, 1973, Israel was caught off guard. The Israeli Defense Forces sustained high casualties, as the Egyptians secured a beachhead in the Sinai. The IDF eventually clawed its way back up, encircled an Egyptian army weeks later, and prevailed. However, their early setbacks and high casualties were a direct result of their government’s attempt to save some money.
13. A Heroin Addiction Epidemic Swept American Military Personnel in Vietnam
Until 1969, the only drug widely available to American troops in Vietnam was marijuana. But starting in 1969, heroin became widely available. It was cheap, and so pure that servicemen could get high smoking heroin mixed with tobacco. That made it more appealing to those who would have been reluctant to inject the drug. By 1971, almost half of US Army enlistees in Vietnam had tried heroin, and of those, about half were exhibiting signs of addiction. The addiction epidemic spread from Vietnam to other US military installations around the world, with the American garrison in West Germany being particularly hard hit.
In response, president Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. He also ordered further research on military personnel addiction, which revealed that 20% of American servicemen in Vietnam self-identified as heroin addicts. At the time, the US was drawing down its presence in Vietnam, and about 1000 troops were sent back home each day, where most were discharged soon thereafter. It meant that hundreds of active heroin addicts were being released into the US each week, which created huge social problems that rocked 1970s America.
In 1963, South Vietnam was seething with discontent, fueled by widespread governmental corruption and a steadily intensifying insurgency. Moreover, the country’s Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was pursuing discriminatory policies that favored Catholics at the expense of Buddhists, who were 90% of the population. Protests erupted in May, when Diem’s government banned the flying of Buddhist flags – only days after it had encouraged Catholics to fly Vatican flags at an event. Government troops opened fire on protesters flying Buddhist flags, killing and wounding dozens.
On June 10th, 1963, American correspondents were tipped that “something important” would happen the following day near the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. Photographer Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press showed up on the 11th, and as his camera clicked, two monks doused a serene elderly colleague with gasoline, as he sat lotus style. The monk, Thich Quang Duc, then struck a match, dropped it on himself, and maintained his serenity while flames engulfed him. At the time, few Americans knew about Vietnam. After the photo of the Burning Buddhist appeared on newspapers across the country, there was no forgetting that war torn country. As president Kennedy commented: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one“.
By 1970, millions of Americans were protesting the Vietnam War. Protest was particularly fierce on campuses, where the ending of college deferments, which had previously exempted most college students from the draft and service in Vietnam, added fuel to the fire. The backlash reached a fever pitch after president Nixon announced a widening of the conflict on April 30th, with American military operations in Cambodia. The following day, protests and demonstrations swept campuses, including that of Kent State, in Ohio.
On May 4th, about a thousand National Guardsmen were on Kent State’s campus. When students held an antiwar rally, they were met with tear gas. Some students threw back the canisters, as well as rocks. Things escalated, soldiers advanced on the students, and 29 Guardsmen opened fire. Within seconds, four students were killed, and nine were wounded. A student and part time photographer, John Filo, captured a shot of 14 year old Mary Ann Vecchio, crying over a fatally wounded 20 year old Jeffrey Miller. It was printed on the front page of the New York Times, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and became a symbol for the lost innocence of a nation’s youth.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an Argentinean Marxist who rose to prominence during the Cuban Revolution, and gained international fame as a guerrilla, author, and diplomat. His image became a romantic icon of anti imperialism, and after his death, he was regarded as a martyr by leftists worldwide. As a youth, he had spent his holidays motorcycling through South America in the early 1950s, where he encountered conditions of dire poverty, inequality, and injustice, that radicalized and set him on the path to Marxism.
Che’s iconic photo was taken on March 5th, 1960, by photographer Alberto Korda, who was covering a funeral for victims of an explosion in Havana’s harbor. Korda focused on Fidel Castro, and only shot two frames of Guevara as an afterthought. Only Castro’s shots were published, and Guevara’s were returned to Korda. The photo languished in obscurity for seven years, until a rich Italian got a hold of it and helped make it famous. When Guevara was killed soon thereafter by the Bolivian army with CIA help, Cuba embraced him as a martyr and revolutionary symbol, and Korda’s photo was the perfect romantic image. The photo rocketed to global fame as Guerrillero Heroico (“Heroic Guerrilla Fighter”), becoming a shorthand symbol for rebellion and one of the most recognizable images of all time.
South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem was staunch Catholic, who pursued discriminatory policies that favored Catholics for public service and military positions, land distribution, tax concessions, and business arrangements. Some Catholic priests even ran private armed militias, which they put to use demolishing Buddhist pagodas and forcing people to convert – activities to which the government turned a blind eye. Since Catholics were a distinct minority, and most South Vietnamese were Buddhists, Diem’s pro-Catholic tilt did not sit well with most of his countrymen.
Nonetheless, Diem was a staunch anticommunist, which earned him years of staunch American support. However, with South Vietnam on the verge of collapse, Diem became more of a liability than an asset. People questioned America’s support for Diem’s government, and Kennedy did not oppose a coup that overthrew it a few months later. On the night of November 1-2, South Vietnamese soldiers attacked the presidential palace, and captured it after a bloody siege. Diem and his advisor and younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, surrendered after they were promised a safe exile, and were placed in the back of an armored personnel carrier that was to take them to a military airbase. Instead, they were assassinated by South Vietnamese officers en route.
8. The Lingering Questions of the JFK Assassination
In March of 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald bought a rifle with a scope. He promptly tried to assassinate a retired ultra right general. That October, he got a job in the Texas School Book Depository. A month later, newspapers announced that JFK would visit Dallas on November 22nd, and published his motorcade’s route. It would pass by the Oswald’s workplace, so he set up a sniper nest by a 6th floor window of the Book Depository. When the open limousine drove by, Oswald fired three shots, killing JFK and seriously wounding Texas governor John Connally. 45 minutes later, he shot and killed a Dallas cop, and was arrested soon thereafter.
Oswald was later charged with killing Kennedy, but he denied it, claiming that he was a “patsy”. Two days later, he was shot and killed on live TV in the Dallas Police HQ by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner. Oswald’s murder before he could tell his story lent plausibility to the theory that the aim had been to silence him. Then Ruby died in jail of cancer a few years later. That supercharged the theory that those behind the assassination had neatly silenced Oswald, using a dying man who had nothing to lose, who did the deed in exchange for some unknown favor or to pay off a past debt.
7. The Peace Treaty That Killed an Egyptian President
The Cold War’s cycle of Arab-Israeli wars was broken in 1979, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel. It won Sadat a Nobel Prize, but many of his countrymen and fellow Arabs saw it as a sellout. Their numbers included Omar Abdel Rahman, the “Blind Sheik” later convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who issued a fatwa against Sadat. On October 6th, 1981, Sadat, surrounded by high ranking officials and dignitaries, took his place at a reviewing stand to watch a military parade, that was broadcast on live TV.
Jets zoomed overhead, while army trucks towing artillery paraded by. One of them contained a lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, who had arrived that morning with some substitute soldiers for ones whom he claimed had fallen ill. Islambouli was a secret member of Islamic Jihad – radicals whose ranks included Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s future second in command. When Islambouli’s truck passed by Sadat, he disembarked and approached the review stand. Sadat thought it was part of the parade, and saluted Islambouli, who responded by lobbing three grenades. Only one grenade exploded, but as it went off, Islambouli’s accomplices rushed the review stand and opened fire, killing Sadat and several others on live TV.
Yisrael Bar (1912 – 1966) was an Israeli officer, who was tasked by the Israeli Ministry of Defense with writing a book on the Israeli War of Independence. He was also a trusted confidant of Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion. Bar arrived in Palestine in the late 1930s with an impressive CV, having graduated from the Austrian military academy and served as an officer in the Austrian army, then fought in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigade. Between his martial exploits, he got a PhD in literature from the University of Vienna.
The CV was fake. Bar was a Soviet spy, and not even a Jew. Urbane and handsome, he became famous in Tel Aviv’s nightlife as a ladies’ man, but it took a long time before the fact that he was uncircumcised raised suspicions. Bar took advantage of his access to Israel’s prime minister, whose diary he raided to not only photocopy, but to tear out entire pages and pass them on to his handlers. He was finally caught in 1961, delivering a briefcase stuffed with sensitive materials to the KGB. He never revealed his true identity during interrogations. He was tried and convicted of espionage, and sentenced to jail, where he died in 1966, taking the secret of his identity to his grave.
Mao Zedong led the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death in 1976, and ruled China from 1949 until his demise. During his years in power, he was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions Chinese, killed outright by his followers, or starved to death because of his disastrous economic policies. However, in addition to being a prolific mass murder, Mao was also a prolific writer and poet. Incongruously, for somebody so politically radical and revolutionary, Mao liked to compose verses in classical Chinese forms.
His education, like most intellectuals of his era, was heavy on classical Chinese literature. However, while most of Mao’s contemporaries moved on to modern styles and themes, he stuck with the old. From his youth, he composed poetry in the classical style, and his image as a poet played a significant role in shaping his public persona. He was actually considered a good poet, and not just by critics in China, who would have been foolhardy to pan his poetry, but also by critics outside China and thus beyond his clutches. His poetry tended to be on romantic end of things, rather than the more modern realist genre, and hearkened back to the style of the Tang Dynasty, of the 7th to 9th centuries.
4. One of the Cold War’s Most Horrible Figures Began as a Beloved Professor
Cambodian communist revolutionary Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge into seizing power in 1975. The country was then transformed into a nightmarish dystopia, as depicted in the 1984 movie, The Killing Fields. Pol Pot and his followers carried out a genocide that killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population. In an insane attempt at social engineering, cities were evacuated, and the urban masses were forcibly converted into peasants, to toil on poorly run collective farms. Roughly three million were murdered or starved to death before the nightmare ended when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979.
There was little in Pol Pot’s background to indicate the monster he would become. Born Saloth Sar into a prosperous family, he had received an elite education in Cambodia’s best schools, before moving to Paris, France, where he joined the French Communist Party. Upon returning to Cambodia, he became a college professor who frequently spoke about kindness and humanity. He was beloved by his students, who remembered him as “calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups“. Many of those students followed him into the Khmer Rouge, and became the most ruthless executioners of what came to be known as the Cambodian Genocide.
3. The Wiping Out of the Egyptian Air Force in 1967
The Six Day War began on June 5th, 1967, when the Egyptians were surprised by the sudden appearance of Israeli warplanes over 11 airfields at 7:45AM that morning. A first wave of attackers targeted the runways with special munitions: prototype penetration bombs that used accelerator rockets to drive warheads through the pavement before detonation. The result was a sinkhole that required the complete removal of the damaged pavement in order to get at and fill in the cavity beneath – a laborious and time consuming process. With the runways destroyed, Egyptian airplanes on the ground were stranded, sitting ducks for subsequent airstrikes.
197 Egyptian airplanes were destroyed in that first wave, with only 8 planes managing to take to the air. After striking an initial 11 airbases, the Israeli planes returned home, refueled and rearmed in under 8 minutes, then headed back to wreck an additional 14 Egyptian airbases. They returned to Israel for yet another speedy refueling and rearming, and flew out in a third wave, divided between attacking what was left of the Egyptian air force, and striking the Syrian and Jordanian air forces. By noon on June 5th, the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces were effectively wiped out. Israel’s enemies lost about 450 airplanes, and about 20 enemy airbases were wrecked.
2. America’s Favorite Asian Dictator Was As Corrupt As it Gets
Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos was a staunch anticommunist, which qualified him as a staunch US ally during the Cold War. In 1976, Filipino journalist Primitivo Mijares wrote a tell-all that spilled the beans about the dictator and his wife. The phrase “Conjugal Dictatorship” caught on and entered the Philippines’ political lexicon, to describe the power held by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. It was especially applied to Imelda, who held numerous government positions that transformed her into a political power in her own right.
Writing and publishing a book critical of the Philippines’ corrupt power couple was a courageous act. It did not turn out well for Primitivo Mijares: he disappeared soon after publishing his book, and his son Boyet Mijares was found dead later, after he was brutally tortured and dropped from a helicopter. It was swept under the rug by Filipino police, who claimed that the death was caused by college fraternity roughhousing and hazing gone wrong. However, Boyet Mijares was not in college when he died: he was still in high school, a year away from graduating.
1. The Introduction of the M16 Rifle Was Disastrous
When the first version of the M16 rifle was introduced to the US military, it was billed as a self cleaning rifle. No such weapon has ever existed. The military also issued cartridges with propellant that was dirtier than what the M16 had been designed to use. Making it worse, the troops were neither issued cleaning kits, nor taught how to clean their new rifles. On top of that, the firing chamber lacked chrome plating, leading to increased corrosion. When the inevitable jamming resulted, the original M16s lacked a forward assist – a device to manually push the bolt fully forward if it failed to do so on its own.
The consequences were disastrous. Troops in Vietnam reported that the new rifle was prone to jamming, and before long, dramatic stories were making the rounds, of entire patrols wiped out. As tales told it, their bodies were discovered next to their jammed rifles, their dead hands clutching cleaning rods, testimony to their last harrowing moments on earth, spent in feverish attempts at clearing stuck cartridges. It took the introduction of an upgraded M16A1, and the issuance of cleaning kits and teaching the troops how to care for their rifle, to remedy the situation.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading