The Cold War was an ideological showdown between the East and the West. Communism vs. capitalism. Pepsi vs. Coke. (That last one is a bit more literal than you might think.) It lasted for decades and kept generations of people on edge as the fear of all-out nuclear war was always top of mind. It's also one of the most misunderstood chapters of the 20th century, with years of top-secret campaigns and propaganda muddying the waters of history. To shed light on this global conflict, we're dispelling some of the most well-known Cold War myths below, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.
1. Misconception: The Cuban Missile Crisis was the only time the world came close to nuclear war.
The Cuban Missile Crisis is often remembered as the cautionary tale of how close we could come to World War III in the blink of an eye. The long and short of it is that, following the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba made a deal with the Soviet Union for nuclear weapons. The U.S. learned of the deal and set up a “quarantine” around Cuba, which is sort of the non-combat version of a blockade, to stop shipments of weapons. There was a standoff, a few tense phone calls were exchanged, and we could have all been annihilated at the push of a button. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to discuss their issues rather than bomb us all back to the Stone Age.
Though this event gets most of the historical press, you might not be aware that it wasn’t the only time the Cold War almost boiled over because of a petty squabble or misunderstanding. Another close call was the Able Archer incident from November 1983.
Able Archer was the name of a military training exercise carried out by NATO that was meant to simulate what would have to happen should a nuclear war break out. According to Slate, these war games involved the movement of 19,000 troops and an arsenal of aircraft. Fake bombs were loaded into real planes; radio silence maintained the illusion throughout. Everyone simulated DEFCON 5 through DEFCON 1 exactly as they would if there had been real nukes going off across the globe.
While the U.S. and NATO continued to gear up for what looked like an attack, the Soviets followed suit, escalating their alert status as their foes did. One tiny problem: The nuclear weapons they loaded onto aircraft were live. Non-reconnaissance flights were grounded across the Warsaw Pact airspace, and according to The Nation, Soviet nuclear subs headed for cover near the Arctic.
So why is the Earth still spinning? Well, for starters, you can thank Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots. He was the deputy chief of staff for intelligence for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. He watched how the Soviets were responding and realized that this was a bit more than grandstanding in the face of a military exercise—the Soviets were actually ready to go on the offensive.
Sensing that a real war could break out over some fake maneuvering, Perroots advised his superiors not to escalate the exercise any further, defusing the situation before it turned into a world-ending affair. Along with his warnings, a KGB double-agent working for the UK got the word out to their government, which then contacted Washington about the situation.
Author Nate Jones, who wrote a book on the incident, would say, “Had Perroots mirrored the Soviets and escalated the situation, the War Scare could conceivably have become a war.”
If you’re just learning about all this now, there’s a good reason for that. While the public knew some of what was going on as it happened, we didn’t really know a whole lot about Able Archer until a report of its events was declassified in 2015.
If that isn’t unsettling enough, this incident came just two months after a computer glitch in a Soviet satellite erroneously reported that the U.S. had launched five ballistic missiles into Soviet territory. Again, lucky for us, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov had a “funny feeling” in his gut that the computers were wrong and decided not to act on it.
2. Misconception: Cold War spies were all secretly placed behind enemy lines.
Spies have been used for political and military gain for as long as people have been seeking political and military gain. Sun Tzu wrote on the benefits of espionage in The Art of War, Roman emperors employed spies, and George Washington’s ring of spies proved invaluable during the Revolutionary War.
But none of those conjure up the same vivid images as the Cold War-era spy, thanks to the fictionalized accounts of their death-defying jobs from authors like John Le Carré and Ian Fleming. Fleming, of course, created James Bond as the epitome of the debonair spy with sex appeal to spare.
In the real world, not all spies were pulling off covert and illegal operations unbeknownst to their adversaries—some were actually welcomed on each side with open arms.
This is all thanks to something called the Military Liaisons Missions. This was an agreement between the Soviets and the West that allowed for a certain number of opposing intelligence officers to be let in on both sides in Germany to keep tabs on things and keep communication flowing. It was meant to actually relieve tensions among the superpowers, as there would be less paranoia and tension if you were allowed to peep on the other guy in plain sight. In effect, it basically turned into legal spying on both sides, according to Atlas Obscura.
From this rather strange agreement came one of the most successful operations of the entire Cold War. And it just so happened to revolve around used toilet paper.
It was called Operation Tamarisk, and it all started because Soviet troops working in the field in East Berlin weren’t issued actual toilet paper when going about their business—instead, they had to improvise by using any sort of paperwork they found. Sometimes it would be blank sheets, other times it would be letters and other harmless bits of stationery. But sometimes, they were forced to use top-secret documents to do the dirty work. And since you can’t flush paper like this without wreaking havoc on your plumbing, these sheets were put into the garbage after use and moved to a dumpster.
When the U.S., UK, and France learned of this, they had their perfectly legal officers infiltrate these spots to fish through the Soviet garbage and pull out the stained documents, which were given a good cleaning and pieced back together. This info could contain information on Soviet supply dropoffs, tank schematics, delivery schedules, and other highly sensitive intel. Historian Richard J. Aldrich called the poopy papers “gold dust to the growing army of analysts in London and Washington.”
On the subject of number two, the West was kind of obsessed with it during the Cold War. In 1959, while Nikita Khrushchev was on a visit to the U.S., a poor soul at the CIA was tasked with salvaging some of the Soviet Premier’s leavings after he used the bathroom. It was studied, analyzed, and admired, only to find that—and we’re quoting The Washington Post here—Kruschev “was in excellent health for a man of his age and rotundity.” How’s that for U.S. hospitality?
3. Misconception: Most Americans supported the Space Race.
The Space Race is often portrayed as one of the most agreeable causes of the 20th century. When President John F. Kennedy promised that the U.S. would land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, it was a rallying cry for the nation and something that would inspire a new generation to quite literally reach for the stars. Plus, it would really stick it to the Soviets.
The U.S. finally made one giant leap for mankind in July 1969, but it wasn’t cheap. All told, the final cost of the Apollo program was $25 billion in 1960s money. That’s more like $152 billion today. And, as it turns out, the effort and expense to land on the moon didn't enjoy particularly widespread approval in the States.
According to polls throughout the ‘60s, most people believed getting to the moon wasn’t worth the ever-increasing cost. In 1965, only 39 percent of people thought the U.S. should get to the moon first, regardless of expense. Did that change once people finally witnessed man slip the surly bonds of Earth and play golf among the stars? Nope—in 1979, 53 percent of people said the space program wasn’t worth what we were spending.
By 1994, the number of yays and nays was basically even at 47 percent. It wouldn’t be until 1999 that the majority of people finally believed the cost was justified—and even then, only 55 percent agreed.
4. Misconception: The Cold War was always tense.
When we think of the Cold War, it’s easy to view it as a never-ending tension that stretched from the 1940s to the late ‘80s and encompassed pretty much the entire planet. And yes, the ‘50s and ‘60s had their fair share of scary moments; and yes, we were almost all killed because of a misunderstanding in 1983—but there was a period in the ‘70s when everything calmed down to a mild simmer. And for that, among other things, you can thank President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, two men who worked hard for peace and not so hard at maintaining their eyebrows.
This time of relative serenity really kicked off in May 1972, when Nixon became the first U.S. President to visit Moscow. During this time, the two men talked about how lowering tensions could benefit both nations, and then they signed a number of agreements on arms control while promising future cooperation in areas like space research.
That was actually a promise they fulfilled: Within three years of this meeting, the two powers collaborated on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which saw their respective space programs come together to develop a compatible rendezvous and docking system that could be used by U.S. and Soviet ships in case of an emergency.
Space scientist Roald Sagdeev and his then-wife, Susan Eisenhower—Ike’s granddaughter—later wrote an essay explaining that the impetus behind this rare group project was a movie called Marooned, starring Gene Hackman and Gregory Peck, which focuses on a group of American astronauts who get stranded in space and have to be rescued by their Soviet counterparts.
For historians, this period of relative calm is known as detente, and for all its good intentions, it began to fray after Nixon resigned in 1974 due to the Watergate scandal. The easing of tensions is often said to have ended with the fallout from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan took a hard line and explicitly said that “Detente has been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its aims.”
Still, it’s important not to think of the Cold War as one continuous geopolitical crisis that went on for decades without end. It ebbed and flowed, with periods of heightened tension and times when most average citizens probably didn’t give it a second thought.
5. Misconception: The Soviet Union was completely cut off from Western influences.
If the propaganda of the time (and the comedic oeuvre of Yakov Smirnoff) is to be believed, you’d imagine the Soviet Union as something of a hermit kingdom, completely cut off from the creature comforts of the West in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Turns out, that’s not exactly the case.
In addition to their own film industry, the Soviet government would often purchase a handful of American movies at a time for theatrical distribution. Their choices might not be what you’d expect: The Soviets had a soft spot for lavish comedies like Tootsie and Some Like It Hot (although in the USSR the latter film was shown under a title that could be translated into something like Girls Only in Jazz). If you were a kid who wanted to see Star Wars, you’d just have to hope that your local black-market VHS van had an illegal copy to sell you for a few rubles.
One familiar American brand that came to the Soviets in a big way was Pepsi. This was the first U.S. consumer good to exist in the Soviet Union, and it came onto the scene in 1974. But since the company couldn’t receive payment for their product with the ruble being restricted, the Soviets simply traded their own Stolichnaya vodka to Pepsi to distribute in the U.S., while the soft-drink giant provided the syrup concentrate to the Soviets to make the soda on their own.
It’s estimated that the Soviet Union consumed more than a billion servings of Pepsi every year by the late ‘80s. And although you could get Fanta earlier, Coca-Cola was largely locked out by the Soviets until 1985.
As the Soviet Union really began falling apart in the early ‘90s, the floodgates opened, and you could soon find McDonald’s and Pizza Huts springing up around Moscow, providing perhaps the clearest sign that the times were changing.
And on the subject of Pizza Hut, in 1997, none other than Mikhail Gorbachev himself, former Soviet Leader, starred in a commercial for the fast-food chain. As for why he took the gig, we're sure the reported payday of nearly $1 million didn’t hurt.
6. Misconception: The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War
On Christmas night 1991, the familiar red flag of the Soviet Union was lowered at the Kremlin in Moscow for the final time, and in its place rose the red, white, and blue tricolor flag of the newly independent Russian state. The moment was a romantic historian’s dream, a symbol of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the decades-long Cold War with the West.
Realistically, the Cold War was pretty much over years before the Soviet Union officially dissolved. By the end of the '80s, Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev had been slowly communicating more openly with the West on issues like arms control and human rights. In May 1988, when a reporter asked if the president still thought of the Soviet Union as the quote-unquote Evil Empire like in his infamous 1983 speech, Reagan responded, “I was talking about another time, another era.” That type of cheeriness from the Gipper would have been unthinkable even a few months earlier.
By the next year, the Berlin Wall came down. When President George H.W. Bush met with Gorbachev at the Malta Summit in December ‘89, there was a lot of talk about working together and cooperating for a better tomorrow—it certainly didn’t sound like war-time bravado anymore.
But you’ll still routinely see historians and media outlets saying the Cold War dragged on until 1991. So what gives? Well, one possibility is that it’s all about storytelling.
In a 2010 lecture at the Carnegie Council, former ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock recalled a time when a producer invited him to watch the closing moments of a Cold War documentary that was in the works. It proudly stated that the fall of the Soviet Union on that December night in 1991 was the end of the war. When Matlock told the producer that he had gotten it wrong and that the war ended in 1989, the producer just looked at him and said, “Yes, but that’s not dramatic.”
And while it’s fair to say the Cold War was over, in a meaningful way, before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, It wasn’t necessarily smooth geopolitical sailing from 1989 onwards. In January 1991, months after Lithuania declared independence, the Soviets cracked down on the Baltic states, killing over a dozen people and sparking a Western backlash that Gorbachev said was reminiscent of “the worst moments of the Cold War.”
Since there was no declaration of war to officially kick off the Cold War, and no treaty at the end to give us a satisfying finale, it kind of makes sense that so many textbooks and documentaries latch onto the symbolism of that Christmas night in 1991 as the final day of the conflict. But, really, by this point, America was already thinking about its next war.