11 Strange Battlefields Where the Cold War Was Fought


While tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the extended staring contest known as the Cold War (c. 1947 to 1991) were sometimes heated enough to invite concern over nuclear war, the stakes weren’t always so high. Check out 11 of the lesser-known—and less serious—situations where U.S. and Soviet forces tried to get the upper hand, even if only metaphorically.


When the U.S.S.R. launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit in 1957, it set off a panic alarm. If Soviet scientists could grab bragging rights to space exploration, what would future generations accomplish? To combat this perceived educational edge, the U.S. passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, sinking a billion dollars into an enhanced science and math curriculum for schools across the country. Classrooms got better equipment—and perhaps a better chance at out-thinking their counterparts in the Soviet Union.


Propaganda filmmaking was not a novel concept, and both sides of the Cold War tried to rally their citizens with movies promoting their respective agendas. But they also tried to assert their messages by excluding certain films. In the U.S., the government was paranoid that communist subversives were leaking ideology into mainstream films, leading the MPAA to blacklist filmmakers who refused to give testimony about being communist to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In  the Soviet Union, films deemed too pacifistic embarrassed officials who felt the world would begin to perceive their culture as weak. As a result, these films were sometimes labeled children’s entertainment and relegated to morning screenings.


The Cold War athletic battles culminated with America’s win over a potent Soviet ice hockey squad in the 1980 Olympics, but it wasn’t the first time the Games had been host to political tensions between the two nations. In 1972, the Munich Olympics were the site of a basketball showdown between the countries that was expected to be an American victory: the U.S. was 63-0 in Olympic competition. But in the closing moments of a close contest, officials kept re-starting the clock to address time outs and technical considerations the Soviets brought up. After more time was added, the U.S.S.R. squad defeated the U.S. The team appealed, but lost. They refused to accept the silver medals.


The CIA isn’t well-known for its support of the arts, but when the U.S.S.R. criticized Americans for being culturally destitute, the agency began to secretly support the modern art movement. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were among those the organization covertly promoted, setting up touring exhibits and magazines. For a 1958 Paris gallery display, the CIA paid to have artwork sent over—all part of their plan to advertise America as a culturally vibrant, artistically daring destination.


In 1960, with Soviet ballet performers widely considered the best in the world, the U.S. dispatched the American Ballet Theatre dance troupe to the Soviet Union. While a hostile greeting would have been understandable, the dancers’ talent seemed to impress Soviet dancers and government officials. ABT returned to the Soviet Union in 1965, in a trip once again sponsored by the U.S. State Department.


While Cold War levity was usually relegated to political cartooning, some advertisers used it to conjoin national pride and consumption. One popular fast food commercial from the 1980s depicted a “Soviet fashion show” with a model wearing the same frumpy outfit no matter the occasion. 


The “Space Race” of the 1960s involved a series of moves and countermoves between Soviet and U.S. space programs. When the Soviet Union was able to retrieve a crew of tortoises that orbited the moon in a September 1968 shuttle mission, NASA changed plans and prepared Apollo 8 for the first manned lunar mission. The crew was able to take photos of both the surface and of their own view of Earth from inside the shuttle. The images were captivating—and also proof the Soviets were falling behind.


Eager to compete with the gleaming appliances and vibrant colors of 1950s American kitchens, Soviet manufacturers began offering space-age washing machines and other gadgets to citizens. The national remodeling came after a heated exchange between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev during an exhibition in Moscow where, among other things, Nixon argued that America was ahead of the Soviets in consumer goods. Soviet military factories began making refrigerators and vacuums, all designed to be aesthetically pleasing to counter criticisms of drab surroundings.


A perennial metaphor for combat, chess competition was a frequent battleground for Cold War tension. But it wasn’t just between humans: In the early 1970s, Soviet programmers developed Kaissa, a computer that considered two hundred positions every second. The program was sophisticated enough to beat U.S. software in the 1974 world computer chess championships in Stockholm. But by 1977, a new American program, Chess 4.6, was trampling over the competition.

10. JAZZ 

A uniquely American art form, jazz was another weapon in the national arsenal of artistic superiority. The U.S. dispatched famed trumpeter “Dizzy” Gillespie on a tour to broker good will in foreign locations. A kind of jazz diplomacy, it succeeded in countering Soviet claims they were musically bankrupt.

11. CATS 

The CIA’s files—at least, those that have been declassified—are long on bizarre ideas. In the 1960s, they experimented with implanting radio transmitters and microphones into cats so the animals could effectively spy on Soviet intelligence under the guise of fluffy, apolitical pets. Surgeons even implanted an antenna into a cat’s tail. “Acoustic Kitty,” however, could not be trained to approach specific targets. On a dry run, she was hit by a taxi, effectively ending the feline front of the Cold War.

One of the tensest showdowns of the Cold War happened between chess prodigy Bobby Fischer and Soviet Grandmaster Boris Spassky. Watch their match play out on the big screen in Pawn Sacrifice, in theaters September 16.

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