8. The emergence of nuclear submarines led to casualties on both sides
In 1954 the United States Navy commissioned the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus. The Soviets weren’t far behind, bringing to sea a nuclear-powered submarine in 1958. By then the United States had identified several roles for its growing submarine fleet. They included the deployment of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles as a strategic deterrent (part of MAD), anti-submarine warfare, and espionage. The United States Navy made nuclear submarines a priority, and during the 1950s and ensuing decades American shipyards at Groton, Connecticut, Newport News, Virginia, Portsmouth, New Hampshire and other sites built the new and powerful ships. The Soviets matched them in pace. British and French shipyards joined in the submarine race, less well-known than the Space Race, but just as critical to the Cold War. The submarine race led to the loss of men and materiel in several incidents, affecting both sides before the Cold War ended.
Accidents during construction and at sea plagued the submarine forces of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the French Republic during the Cold War. In the case of the Soviet Union, a conventionally powered (diesel-electric) submarine which nonetheless carried nuclear missiles was lost at sea with all hands taken out. The Soviets suffered at least three accidents aboard nuclear submarines which led to loss of life and significant further casualties caused by release of radiation prior to 1962. One such submarine, designated K-19 by the Soviets, earned the nickname “Hiroshima” by the men who crewed it. In the west, it became known as the Widowmaker. The submarine was hastily constructed by the Soviets, driven by the need to keep up with the American shipyards’ rate of production of new and more powerful submarines. The haste was fatal to many.
9. The Soviet submarine K-19 led to many forgotten casualties of the Cold War
The Cold War created a decades-long arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the 1950s, as the US moved nuclear weapons into its Naval arsenal, the Soviets hastened to keep up. The Soviet submarine K-19 began construction in 1958. At least eight, and probably more, Soviet workers perished while building the ship. Toxic fumes from rubber adhesive took out six women while they completed a rubber-lined cistern. A fire during construction, probably caused by welding sparks triggering oily rags into flames, taking two workers, and injured several more. At the ship’s commissioning ceremony, the champagne bottle smashed across the vessel’s bow failed to break, a sure sign among superstitious sailors that they were joining an unlucky ship. Superstition or not, the omen proved to be true during the submarine’s subsequent career.
On July 4, 1961, the submarine suffered a reactor accident while at sea on training exercises. Radioactive steam was ventilated throughout the vessel. At least eight crewmen passed from radiation exposure within the next few weeks. Nearly two dozen succumbed to the immediate effects of the radiation, how many others developed radiation-linked cancers and other diseases remain unknown. The submarine generated low-frequency distress signals which were picked up by several US ships in the vicinity, which offered assistance. Not wanting to risk exposing Cold War secrets to the Americans, the Soviet commander declined, continuing to expose his crew to dangerous radiation hazards. K-19 eventually underwent repairs and returned to service. Throughout its Cold War career, it continued to suffer accidents and casualties, both fatal and non-fatal, including a 1972 fire which took out 30 Soviet sailors.
10. The Berlin Wall led to casualties beginning in 1961
In the summer of 1961, tensions escalated between the Soviet Union and the United States over the occupation of Berlin by those countries, along with France and Great Britain. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded the western Allies remove their troops from the divided city. Despite protestations from the East Germans and Soviets, there was no intention of walling in their zone of the city, western intelligence was aware of a large build-up of construction materials and barbed wire in the communist-held areas around Berlin. On August 13, East German and Soviet troops closed off East Berlin, blockaded streets, barricaded open areas, and stretched barbed wire across what remained. Troops were positioned with orders to shoot anyone attempting to cross anywhere besides the checkpoints they established. The Berlin Wall, later greatly expanded and fortified, became the symbol of Cold War communist oppression to the western world.
The wall was erected to curb the exodus of East Germans into West Berlin. It did manage to stem the tide, but over the remainder of its existence, more than 5,000 managed to escape, either over or under the wall. Eventually, it became a concrete barrier which ran around an open area, known as the death strip. Armed guards covered the area from towers along the wall, and patrolled the open area in vehicles and on foot, supplemented with dogs. Some areas were mined, with over 50,000 anti-personnel mines deployed. The guards shot to take life. Somewhere between 136 and just over 200 people perished attempting to escape across the open area and the wall itself. Many others were arrested and imprisoned by the East German secret police, known in the west as the Stasi. They too were casualties of the Cold War.
11. The Cuban Missile Crisis included the death of one US Serviceman
The Cuban Missile Crisis led to a direct confrontation between the United States Navy and Air Force with units of the Soviet Navy, Merchant Marine, and anti-aircraft systems. The Soviets were supported by their Cuban allies. The crisis involved the Soviet installation of medium and long-range nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, which allowed them to strike most of the United States faster than the early warning systems could respond. America learned of the existence of the missiles from U-2 overflights, conducted by the CIA and USAF. As the Americans and Soviets faced each other down in the United Nations, in negotiations between the Kennedy Administration and the Soviet leadership, and at sea on the quarantine line, USAF U-2 flights over Cuba continued. The crisis was averted when the Soviets agreed to withdraw the missiles.
The United States flew numerous U-2 missions over Cuba during the crisis. USAF Major Rudolf Anderson flew six of them. The Cuban Missile Crisis is widely remembered as a confrontation between the superpowers resolved by diplomacy and strength, without the loss of life. It was resolved and took the Soviets and the United States back from the brink of nuclear war. But it was not casualty free. Major Anderson flew his sixth mission of the crisis on Saturday, October 27. He was shot down by a Soviet-made SAM while over Banes, Cuba. His fate was unknown until October 31, when UN Secretary U Thant announced he had been informed of Anderson’s death by Cuban authorities while visiting Fidel Castro. His body was returned by Cuba in early November. The only American casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis is yet another largely forgotten casualty of the Cold War.
12. The loss of USS Thresher in 1963 caused military and civilian casualties
In April 1963, USS Thresher went to sea following an extended shipyard overhaul. On April 9 Thresher was put to sea to conduct trials, including deep diving trials. It submerged that evening, remained submerged overnight, and on April 10 commenced its first of several planned deep dives. The submarine was accompanied by USS Skylark, with which it was in communication as it dove to its test depth in a series of steps. It never resurfaced. The morning’s exercises started normally, but around 9.00 AM Thresher reported a problem and an attempt to surface using emergency procedures. Another transmission, heavily garbled and nearly indecipherable, followed. Thresher, out of control, descended beyond its design limits and imploded due to the pressures of the deep. 129 men, members of the ship’s crew, observers, and civilian workers from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard passed in the accident.
Following the accident and subsequent investigations by the Navy, more advanced safety procedures and systems were developed and implemented on American submarines. Cold War pressures on shipyards and Naval facilities meant not all submarines could be rendered SUBSAFE, as the Navy called it, immediately. Budget pressures were another factor preventing all vessels’ conversion. In May, 1968, USS Scorpion was returning from an extended cruise in the Mediterranean and East Atlantic. Families and friends of crew members gathered at the pier in Norfolk where the submarine was due to arrive on May 27. The ship never arrived. After an investigation by the Navy and an extensive search, USS Scorpion was declared sunk in early June. The vessel had not yet been converted to SUBSAFE. It was later determined the submarine sank on May 22, five days before the crew’s loved ones gathered to welcome them home from the Cold War.
13. USS Hobson represented the greatest loss of life aboard an American warship since World War II
Accidents during training exercises were a frequent cause of casualties during the Cold War. The expansion of submarine fleets by the Soviets and Americans mandated new developments in the area of anti-submarine warfare. The United States developed a type of task force which first appeared during World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic. Anti-submarine destroyers and other smaller ships accompanied an aircraft carrier to detect and ultimately destroy enemy submarines and to conduct mine-laying operations. Training such units required operations in close formation, often at night or during inclement weather, when visibility was limited. In April, 1952, USS Hobson, a converted World War II destroyer, was operating with the aircraft carrier USS Wasp and two other destroyers in the Atlantic, five hundred miles from the coast of Newfoundland. The carrier was preparing to conduct night flight operations to recover aircraft.
A communication mishap caused by the destroyers’ warning lights led Hobson to turn across the bows of the much larger carrier. The latter rammed Hobson, rolling it onto its port side, and cutting the smaller ship into two pieces. Both sank relatively quickly, and 61 of the crew managed to scramble to floating debris or rafts, from which they were rescued. 176 members of Hobson’s crew, including its captain, passed in the accident. It was the US Navy’s highest loss of life in a non-combat related incident since the unexplained loss of a collier during the First World War. An investigation by the Navy found the commanding officer of Hobson made “…a grave error in judgment”. Wasp was found not to have been responsible in any way for the grim accident and loss of life. It was simply a training accident, a common event during the Cold War.
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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