14. Accidents plagued the Soviets during the Cold War as well
The United States lost two nuclear submarines to accidents during the Cold War, both sinking with all hands. The Soviet Union lost five, though one of them was deliberately scuttled by the Soviet Navy after years of problems. In 1982, the Soviets sealed the reactor compartment of K-27, after spending years attempting to gain some sort of reliability from its problematic reactor. They deliberately sank the vessel in the Kara Sea, in shallow water, despite the warnings against doing so from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Subsequent plans to raise the submarine and recover its reactor have yet to be realized, as of this writing. In 2020, plans were announced to raise K-27, along with other Soviet and Russian submarines disposed of in a similar manner.
During the Cold War years, three Soviet submarines suffered serious damage from onboard fires, causing deaths among the crews, and eventually leading to the submarine’s loss. K-8, in April 1970 was especially tragic. Fires aboard the submarine lead to the 52 survivors of the crew evacuating safely to a nearby surface ship. Eight members of the crew perished in the fire. Plans to tow the submarine to port and safety led the crew to re-man their vessel, rig it for towing, and ride it through rough seas. The submarine began flooding rapidly through open hatches. The tow line broke and the crew had no way to gain control over the listing vessel in the heavy seas. K-8 sank from the surface with all hands, on April 11, 1970 in the Bay of Biscay near the coast of Spain.
15. The Space Race between the US and USSR had casualties of its own
The Space Race began with the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, but it really didn’t appear in the minds of the American public until John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The goal of reaching the moon first presented significant benefits to the winner; international prestige, technical superiority, advances in technology, and others. Kennedy acknowledged the daunting nature of the task, and the significant dangers it presented. And he was right, both sides suffered casualties during the race to the moon, and in the continuing space programs which followed. American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts perished, though prior to the first moon landing in 1969 no American had succumbed during an actual space flight. America had lost three astronauts in a spacecraft, the Apollo 1 fire, but it was during a training exercise on the launch pad.
Soyuz 1 plummeted to Earth following its reentry, its parachutes failing to open. The Soviets brought their spacecraft back to land, rather than water like the Americans. The ensuing fire effectively cremated the sole cosmonaut aboard, though he was most certainly taken out by the impact. When Soyuz 11 landed, the recovery team opened the hatch to find the three cosmonauts aboard still in their seats, completely lifeless. Subsequent investigations determined the spacecraft suffered explosive depressurization, asphyxiating the three as they reentered the atmosphere. And the world watched as the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch in January, 1986, ending seven American astronauts. The launch had been intended to be a display of American technical superiority. Instead, it demonstrated the dominance of political aspirations over scientific considerations.
Korean Airlines Flight 902 (KAL 902) was a regularly scheduled flight from Paris’s Orly Airport to Seoul, South Korea, with a stop in Anchorage, Alaska. As the aircraft flew over the Arctic Circle, deviations in its magnetic compass caused it to alter course. The deviations were later explained as being caused by the Magnetic North Pole, over which the airplane, a 707, Boeing flew as part of its flight path. At any rate, the aircraft deviated almost 180 degrees from its planned flight, and approached Soviet airspace over the Atlantic, north and east of the Scandinavian countries. Soviet early warning systems tracked the airplane and tried to contact it from the ground. Soviet fighters were dispatched to intercept KAL 902, and using standard international communication techniques, instruct its pilot to follow them to a landing. The Korean pilot ignored the instructions and changed course toward Finland.
The Soviets fired two missiles at the airliner, which caused the death of two of the passengers aboard. KAL 902 executed a forced landing on a frozen lake in Karelia. Soviet troops rescued the remaining 107 passengers and crew. The Soviets lodged the passengers in military officers’ quarters, for which the Soviet government billed South Korea, as well as for their eventual transport home. South Korea never paid the bill. The Soviets claimed espionage on the part of the South Koreans, who claimed navigational error due to faulty equipment. Soviet authorities refused to allow international inspection of the aircraft and its “black box” was never released. The aircraft’s pilot and navigator were released in late April, after signing a confessional statement they had deliberately violated Soviet airspace. Families of the two deceased passengers were never compensated by the Soviets for the incident.
KAL 007 was a scheduled flight from New York’s JFK International Airport to Gimpo International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, with a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. On September 1, 1983, the aircraft performing the flight, a Boeing 747, crashed into the sea off the Sakhalin Peninsula, ending all 269 passengers and crew aboard, including Lawrence McDonald, a US Representative from Georgia. The crash took place at a time when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at a height not seen since the early 1960s. US Naval fleet exercises had recently conducted operations in which US naval aircraft overflew Soviet military installations in the region, including in the Kuril Islands. At the time of the crash, the US Air Force was operating airborne reconnaissance aircraft to monitor a planned Soviet missile exercise, revealed to the Americans by a Soviet defector.
After KAL 007 departed Anchorage for its flight to Seoul, it began to deviate from its planned course, drifting closer to Soviet airspace with each mile it traveled. According to the Soviets, the airliner entered Soviet airspace near Kamchatka and four MiG fighters were sent to intercept it and investigate. KAL 007 crossed Kamchatka and left Soviet airspace without being intercepted. It then crossed the Sea of Okhotsk and again approached Soviet airspace near Sakhalin. Over Sakhalin, Soviet fighters visually sighted KAL 007 and fired warning shots, which the pilot either didn’t see or ignored. Instead, the airliner began to climb to a higher altitude, under the direction of air traffic controllers in Tokyo. The Soviets tracking the aircraft from the ground interpreted the climb as an evasive maneuver from an unidentified aircraft, and ordered it be shot down.
18. The Soviets claimed KAL 007 was on an intelligence gathering mission
By the time the Soviet pilots could maneuver onto position to shoot down KAL 007 it was once again in international airspace. The pilot recognized the aircraft as a Boeing 747 in civilian configuration but later pointed out such an airplane could be used for military purposes. He could not see the Korean Airlines markings due to the dark. After his missile struck KAL 007 the airplane continued to fly under control for about five minutes, descending gradually. Then it began a downward spiral, which increased in speed and rate of descent, before the airplane broke up and crashed to the west of Sakhalin. Japanese fishermen in the area reported large flashes of light and the smell of aviation fuel. The Soviet pilots reported the aircraft destroyed and returned to base. After denying knowledge, the Soviets later admitted destroying the aircraft, claiming it had been on an intelligence mission.
The Soviets claimed the aircraft had been used to test Soviet radar and responses of the defense installations in Sakhalin, Kamchatka, and the vicinity. The Americans claimed the Soviets had deliberately shot down a known civilian airliner. Both sides conducted extensive searches for human remains and aircraft wreckage. President Reagan called the Soviet action, “…an act of barbarism”. The Americans suspended Aeroflot’s service to the United States. The Soviet Union blamed the incident on the CIA, for using a civilian airliner for intelligence purposes. For the 269 people aboard KAL 007, it didn’t matter. Ever since the events surrounding KAL 007 have been the subject of conspiracy theories, disinformation campaigns, and historical debate. It has long been controversial in the Reagan legacy, with some considering the flight a deliberate provocation by the United States.
19. The Reagan Doctrine led to increased tensions in the 1980s
In the early stages of the Cold War, the United States operated under the tenets of the Truman Doctrine, which called for containment of Soviet-style communism to where it already existed. Under Nixon and Ford in the 1970s the policy of détente emerged, seeking areas where cooperation could lead to mutual advantages, including the growing power of Communist China. In 1985, Ronald Reagan announced a change in American policy in the first State of the Union Address of his second term. Reagan called for a rollback of Soviet-style communism. His new policy, which called for both open and covert aid to resistance to communism wherever it appeared, was directed at diminishing the global influence of the Soviet Union. At the same time, Reagan initiated massive American defense budgets, expanded the size and power of the armed forces, and increased military aid to American allies.
Reagan’s policies led to insurgencies and guerilla wars becoming more violent and as in any war, civilian casualties increased across the globe. Under the guise of subverting communism, the United States aided opponents of perceived unfriendly governments in the Middle East, Central America, and Afghanistan, in the latter giving birth to what became the Taliban. The last decade of the Cold War was its most disastrous for the civilian populations of many countries, as the United States armed favored groups, many of whom later turned against the Americans. Reagan also threatened the stabilizing influence of the MAD policy by announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a system by which the United States could detect and destroy Soviet ICBMs before they could reach their targets, rendering the Soviets’ nuclear weapons susceptible to American destruction. The Soviets viewed SDI, nicknamed Star Wars, as dangerously destabilizing.
20. It’s impossible to assess an accurate number of casualties caused by the Cold War
World War II remains the most devastating war in human history, though an accurate count of the number of civilian deaths in that conflict remains elusive. The same is true of the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War civilians perished at the hands of military police, of insurgents, and of governments and their agencies and weapons. People were displaced to die of exposure, or in resettlement camps, or reeducation camps. People perished trying to escape to freedom, or were executed by authorities for helping others to do the same. Aboard ships and aircraft, or in military units on the ground, men and women on both sides of the conflict passed away in accidents, during training, or while deployed on dangerous missions. The conflict between western democracy and communism may have been a Cold War, but it was a devastating war.
Its end left us with the world we live in today. Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and China remain communist states. Though China and Vietnam are major trading partners with the United States, Cuba remains mainly isolated, and North Korea entirely so. NATO, formed to confront the Soviet Union with the Truman Doctrine policy of containment, continues to stand as a barrier between the former “republics” of the USSR and Western Europe. Indeed, NATO has grown larger since the end of the Cold War, admitting former Eastern Bloc nations to its membership. And nuclear weapons continue to dominate military planning among the nations possessing them, causing fears among the remaining nations of the world. Today, the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, India, Pakistan, China, South Africa, and according to many experts Israel, all possess nuclear weapons. North Korea may as well. The policy of MAD preventing nuclear war continues.
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