20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes

Khalid Elhassan - January 17, 2019

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Aftermath of Kent State shooting. American Civil Liberties Union

11. The Kent State Shooting

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Guerrillero Heroico. Time Magazine

10. The Story Behind the Che Guevara Photo

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
South Vietnamese soldiers posing with the corpse of the overthrown president Diem. Pintrest

9. The Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas Police HQ. The Independent

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Islamic Jihad extremists during the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Rare Historical Photos

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Yisrael Bar. Mida

6. The Mysterious Yisrael Bar

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Mao Zedong in his youth. Pintrest

5. Chairman Mao Was Also a Classical Poet

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Pol Pot. Medium

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Destroyed Egyptian airplanes in the aftermath of the surprise Israeli attack that began the Six Day War. Khaleej Times

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos visiting Ronald Reagan in 1982. The Culture Trip

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.

20 Fascinating Cold War Events and Vignettes
Original M16 rifle, top, without the forward assist which first appeared in the upgraded M16A1, bottom. Gun Digest

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

Air Force Special Operations Command – Historian Recounts Son Tay Raid Nearly Four Decades Later

Association For Diplomatic Studies and Training – The Assassination of Anwar Sadat

CNN, November 18th, 2013 – One JFK Conspiracy Theory That Could be True

Cracked – 4 Stories From the Cold War That’ll Keep You Up at Night

Encyclopedia Britannica – Pol Pot

Halberstam, David – The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (2008)

NPR, January 2nd, 2012 – What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits

Ohio History Central – Kent State Shootings

Shabak – Yisrael Bar (1961)

Smithsonian Magazine, November 25th, 2015 – Reagan and Gorbachev Agreed to Pause the Cold War in Case of Alien Invasion

ThoughtCo – Ferdinand Marcos, Dictator of the Philippines

Vanity Fair, June 1st, 2008 – Lost in Enemy Airspace

Wikipedia – Guerrillero Heroico

Wikipedia – Operation Focus