Keeping the contemporary threat environment in perspective

Andrew O’Neil, Flinders University

Jussi Hanhimaki and Odd Arne Westad (eds) The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003 (694 pp). ISBN 0-19-820-862-6 (hard cover).

Rarely a day passes without us being told that terrorism has evolved from a tactical nuisance to a strategic threat. The attacks carried out by Al Qaeda on 11 September 2001 and throughout the previous decade represented a decisive escalation in the scale and intensity of violence used against civilian targets. One of the most striking features of mainstream commentary since the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been the frequent assertion that the present international climate is ‘the most dangerous period in living memory’. Mass casualty terrorism of the Al Qaeda variety, many claim, represents an unprecedented threat to Western civilisation, directly challenging global peace and stability, and imperilling our democratic way of life. Some go so far as to argue that the new wave of terrorism challenges the legitimacy of the state as the dominant organising unit of international relations: if governments are unable to safeguard the physical welfare of their own citizens, then citizens can have little faith in the protective function of the state. This logic is central to the public case for the War on Terrorism put forward by the Bush administration and America’s loyal allies such as Australia.

Are the assumptions about the extreme nature of the threat justified? The short answer is no. The idea that extreme, but diffuse, Islamist groups operating loosely under the Al Qaeda banner pose a clear and direct threat to the foundations of Western civilisation and to states that embody Western values (that is, liberal democracy, capitalism) would be laughable if it were not taken with such apparent deadly seriousness by policy makers and non-official observers in the media and academia.

For a start, Western values and the political and economic structures that express them are far more robust than many supporters of the War on Terrorism would have us believe. It is perhaps all too easy to overlook the fact that the West, in the space of less than fifty years, essentially defeated the twin totalitarian challenges of the 20th century, fascism and communism. While aggregate military superiority was a crucial ingredient in both of these victories, in the end the superiority of Western values proved decisive. Quite simply, ordinary people did not want to live under the jackboot of totalitarianism. Individuals around the globe who witnessed life under totalitarian rule repudiated the crushing of individual spirit, the gross inefficiencies of centrally planned economies, and the perennial empty promises of a ‘glorious future’. In retrospect, when one contrasts the political and economic vibrancy of Western values on the one hand, and the shrill dogmatism and ideological rigidity of fascism and communism on the other, totalitarianism was always destined to come off second best.

Further, despite the multitude of alarmist assessments, mass casualty terrorism does not represent a strategic level threat to countries. However horrific and genuinely tragic the events of 9/11 were, at no stage did they undermine America’s national security. The most audacious and single largest terrorist attack in history did not compromise the essential workings of government. It did not destroy the morale of the US public (if anything it had the reverse effect). And it has not had an enduring impact on the world’s most powerful economy (despite predictions that the attacks would trigger recession). Granted, the unpredictable and deadly nature of modern terrorism is a major challenge for most governments. However, the popular notion that it threatens the very basis of power and legitimacy underpinning individual Western states is a classic case of threat inflation.

The nuclear sword of Damocles was the pervasive threat of the Cold War.

The extent to which the current threat environment has been exaggerated can best be appreciated by examining what is the most dangerous international period in living memory: the Cold War. Just as quickly as policy makers and non-official observers have seized on the supposed strategic challenge of mass casualty terrorism to justify military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, so too have they forgotten the degree to which the Cold War represented a genuine strategic level challenge to individual states. As a measure of strategic level threats, the Cold War will remain the benchmark for some time to come.

The nuclear sword of Damocles was the pervasive threat of the Cold War: it was something that governments and their citizens had to confront day in, day out. Nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers was profoundly frightening, not just for those who would have borne the full brunt of any nuclear exchange (that is, most of Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union), but for the international community as a whole. Quite literally, the prospect of nuclear war constituted a threat of truly global dimensions.

In a full-scale exchange of nuclear weapons, it was estimated that the United States and Soviet Union would suffer anywhere from between 50–100 million dead instantly, massive economic and social dislocation if not complete collapse, the physical destruction of critical national infrastructure, and the likely disintegration of central government control. This is to say nothing of the millions who would die as a result of the horrendous environmental after-effects of nuclear war and those poisoned by long-term radiation sickness the effects of which, if they were ‘lucky’ enough to survive, would be passed on to the next generation in the form of debilitating birth defects.

Geographically remote countries like Australia would not have been immune from the massive costs of a nuclear war. As a major US ally in the Pacific, we now know that Australian cities were on the Soviet nuclear targeting list and that key American intelligence facilities at Pine Gap, Nurrungar, and North-West Cape were prime targets for a Soviet nuclear strike. Even if national territory was spared a nuclear strike, the collapse of crucial trading partners like the United States, Japan, and Western Europe would have represented an economic calamity for Australia.

This book is a step up from most, if not all, documentary collections on the Cold War.

Over the last decade and a half, scholarly analysis of the Cold War has continued to focus on the long-standing question of the origins of the conflict and whether the release of fresh documentary material, particularly from the former Soviet archives, sheds any new light on the issue of culpability. One of the most interesting trends in Cold War historiography during the 1990s was that a consensus began to form among academic observers ‘that conflict over ideology [rather than classic balance-of-power considerations] was the fundamental cause of the Cold War’ (White 2000). Several works have taken advantage of new documentary evidence in areas as diverse as Cold War culture (Shaw 2001), the Cuban missile crisis (Chang & Kornbluh 1998), and the role of intelligence and espionage (Garthoff 2004).

All these studies are impressive and add to our understanding of how the Cold War was waged by both superpowers. However, they do not really address the serious costs of the Cold War. Writing in 1998, Ken Booth identified what he saw as the risk that in studies of the Cold War, such costs would be ‘overlooked, silenced or marginalised: these include the casualties in proxy wars, minds manipulated in hospitals, the secrecy that undermined democracy, the degradation of culture, the cult of force, and the missilemen ready at a moment’s notice to turn the keys that would unleash a nuclear hell on very faraway places about which they knew nothing’ (1998, p. 37).

In this sense, the publication of The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts is very timely indeed. This first rate book provides students of both the Cold War and the post-Cold War international system with a treasure trove of material condensed in a single, accessible volume. As the title implies, the text is composed of a series of documents drawn from national archives and published source collections. It is organised into nineteen discrete chapters that cover a wide-range of subjects, including the early origins of the Cold War between 1917–1945, the gradual post-war integration of Western Europe, decolonisation, the rise and fall of détente, and the legacies of the Cold War. Notwithstanding the length of the book, the authors note that it contains merely a ‘small selection’ of documents. For those who have little grounding in Cold War history, Hanhimaki and Westad provide for each chapter a useful 2,500 word summary of the topic and five recommended secondary readings for those who wish to explore the topic further.

It is a mockery to compare the Cold War with the comparatively peripheral threat of terrorism.

This book is a step up from most, if not all, documentary collections on the Cold War that I have come across. The depth and breadth of selected documents goes beyond the ‘official’ perspectives that frequently dominate such compendiums. Apart from the usual documentary suspects (Kennan’s Long Telegram, Kennedy’s post-Cuban missile crisis détente speech, the Nixon-Mao transcript, Gorbachev’s valedictory speech), Hanhimaki and Westad have selected a range of less conventional material. They include, for instance, a moving account by the historian Norman Naimark of the officially sanctioned systematic rape of German women by Soviet troops in occupied Berlin (pp. 79–82); women’s accounts of life in East Germany (pp. 253–57); fascinating recollections of US pilots who flew top secret spy missions into the Soviet Union during the 1950s (pp. 462–64); and a remarkably frank private exchange between the late French president Mitterand and former British prime minister Thatcher about their shared sense of dread regarding impending German reunification (pp. 609–612).

The collected documents convey a gritty and hard-edged atmosphere often lacking in other accounts of the Cold War. The chapter called ‘Spies and Covert Operations’ is especially impressive, with none of the misleading 007 caricatures and irritating romanticism often associated with Cold War espionage. The chapter includes, for example, the transcript of an interview CNN recorded in 1998 with Aldrich Ames (pp. 478–80). Ames was a former CIA officer whose decision to provide detailed information to the KGB from 1985 onwards led directly to the deaths of around a dozen US agents inside the Soviet Union. After his capture, Ames proved surprisingly open about his exclusive (and remarkably base) motive—money to bankroll an extravagant lifestyle for him and his co-conspiring wife.

The current woolly-headed longing of some observers for the ‘certainty’ and ‘stability’ of bipolar confrontation reveals their startling ignorance about what the Cold War was actually like. It also overlooks the palpable sense of relief when the conflict finally ended in the late 1980s. For anyone who doubts this, Hanhimaki and Westad demonstrate through their judicious selection of documents just how dangerous, nasty, and brutal the Cold War really was. The editors do not need to labour the point: they let the documents speak for themselves.

Are we really facing an international environment as dangerous as the Cold War? Does mass casualty terrorism pose a threat analogous to global nuclear conflagration? Contrary to the alarmist rhetoric underlying the War on Terror, the answer to both of these questions is a definitive no. The world came perilously close to nuclear war on several occasions during the Cold War—just how close we may never know. It seems almost a mockery to compare this appalling burden confronting an entire generation with the comparatively peripheral threat of terrorism. One of the salutary lessons of the Cold War was that ordinary men and women coped with the unprecedented threat of global nuclear annihilation by refusing to be overwhelmed and getting on with their day-to-day lives. Despite the best efforts of contemporary doomsayers, the generational successors of these men and women are likely to prove just as resilient in the face of the persistent, though relatively marginal, threat of mass casualty terrorism.


Booth, K. 1998, ‘Cold Wars of the mind’, in Statecraft and Security: The Cold War and Beyond, ed. K. Booth, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 29–55.

Chang, L, & Kornbluh, P. (eds) 1998, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader, 2nd edition, The New Press, New York.

Garthoff, R. 2004, ‘Foreign intelligence and the historiography of the Cold War’, Journal of Cold War Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 21–56.

Shaw, T. 2001, ‘The politics of Cold War culture’, Journal of Cold War Studies, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 59–76.

White, T. 2000, ‘Cold War historiography: new evidence behind traditional typographies’, International Social Science Review, Vol. 75 no. 3/4 [Online], Available: [2004, April 29].

Andrew O’Neil is Lecturer in the School of Political and International Studies at Flinders University. His research interests include global strategy, Asia-Pacific security, and international terrorism.