In July of this year, Britain will enter a prolonged period of historical remembrance. Not only will the centennials of the events of the First World War arrive in a steady flow until late 2018, but the Second World War will supply its own, 75-year, anniversaries. There will be a vast array of commemoration and commentary, ranging from tasteful evocation and tribute to politically-tinged posturing and jingoistic appropriation. But we must not pretend that the World Wars ended in 1945.
The last time I received any formal education about the Cold War, it was through the history textbook which propelled me through my GCSE exams. One sentence stuck in my mind. On the final page, it stated: “The Cold War did achieve one thing – in contrast with the first half of the 20th century, there had been no World War.” This statement exemplifies the kind of clever-clever, offbeat analysis that goes a long way in secondary-school history. But as an argument, it’s not remotely true, and the assumptions it embodies are profoundly problematic.
There are many reasons why historians might not count the Cold War as a war in its own right. There was no official state of conflict; the most deadly weapons available, on both sides, stayed safely stashed away in their silos. But these are not the criteria by which societies, as a whole, remember past conflicts. Most people think of other things: the scale of the destruction, the human suffering, the damage sustained by economies and nations. By all of these measures, the US-Soviet conflict which tore swathes of the world apart from the 1940s to the 1990s should be a titanic presence in our collective memory.
Perhaps the reason that we do not remember the Cold War alongside other conflicts of comparable consequence is that it was an outsourced war, one that fell hardest on far-off peoples, in far-off countries. It is widely acknowledged that the wars-by-proxy which ravaged South-East Asia, Central Africa, Latin America were the product of the ongoing global duel between US and Soviet governments, but the two nations which bore primary responsibility escaped the vast majority of the carnage.
Though the overall casualties, with all of the conflict’s direct and ongoing consequences considered, probably did rival the First World War’s death toll of 37 million, far fewer of the victims were European or North American. It may feel intrusive to claim the Cold War for our own historical memory when its life-and-death significance was most directly felt outside our own borders.
But remembrance is about the lives taken, directly and indirectly, as well as the lives lost. It is also about acknowledging past failures, and offering redress to the dead of all nations through the fact of that acknowledgement.
Geography is not the whole answer: there is politics too. Remembering the Cold War is difficult, complex and contentious in a way which remembering the World Wars is not. For World Wars One and Two, we have narratives which simplistically sanitise the moral ambiguities and irregularities of an enormous conflict – divorced from real history, but they have the virtue of absolving almost everybody: the only true villains in either case, we believe, were a clique of deceased leaders with whom few living humans feel directly connected.
The Cold War, in contrast, cannot be easily sanitised or simplified from a Western point of view. The mainstream Left recalls a battle against a specific, dictatorial power bloc, whilst the Right recalls a fight against socialism in all its forms.
Uncomfortable moral compromises, or outright blunders, add a tinge of moral doubt to any pride that might be felt over the West’s final victory: what, for example, should we think about the decades-long alliance between modern capitalism and racist colonialism in Africa?
What of Pinochet, Mobotu, and the many other corrupt and maniacal dictators around the world who proved useful to the West in the fight against communist insurrection? Today, the killing initially set in motion by US-Soviet rivalry continues on a grand scale in many countries – take the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its millions of dead in the last two-and-a-half decades. In the context of this ongoing controversy and moral ambiguity, we cannot summon up the generalised goodwill and harmony with which we remember other conflicts.
We should remember World War One and World War Two. But we should not fool ourselves that they constituted the last two occasions on which developed-world rivalries spilled over into global violence. Commemoration is done best when it is done thoughtfully, engaging with past blunders and aspiring to improvement. The blunders of the Cold War claimed millions of lives, and should not be forgotten.