The mere mention of the Cold War triggers memories for a lot of us of a certain generation, even in relatively safe southwestern Ontario – news of another person shot dead trying to cross the Berlin Wall, the neighbour who built a bomb shelter in his yard and stocked it with enough canned beans to last for years, a spy scandal or two, and always the worries the latest conflict might trigger the start of a nuclear war.
The Cold War could be described as the war that never officially started but had a name, never fully erupted but had an oppressive presence for generations, and never quite ended but dwindled to nothingness – or so we thought.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the uneasy alliance between Russia and the West against the Nazis crumbled. Over the next few decades, there were a number of violent conflicts and even localized wars – Korea and Vietnam to name two. Any of them could have drawn in the major powers and resulted in another world war. It would not have lasted long.
The two great world powers, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, each possessed more than enough missiles with nuclear warheads to destroy each other and the entire world in a nuclear holocaust.
We came close to the edge many times, but after a bit of sabre-rattling and brinksmanship, someone always blinked before the button got pushed.
As the 20th century drew to a close, tensions between the West and East had eased somewhat. The Berlin Wall – the monstrosity that cut Germany in half and in many ways symbolized the Cold War – had fallen. The USSR had separated into its various components, with Russia the largest and most powerful. Many former communist countries were embracing capitalism with enthusiasm.
Relations between the United States and Russia warmed almost to tepid from time to time, with agreements to destroy some of the arsenal of nuclear weapons. Perhaps it was the emergence of other dangers in the world that threatened both sides. And perhaps it was the realization the game of nuclear chicken was not sustainable on any sane level.
The Berlin Wall and everything it stood for took a toll on those of us who grew up in its shadow. We may have never really known the horrors of war, but we never knew peace, either. There were many times we wondered if this would be the day the world ended.
What is happening in the Ukraine has an eerie familiarity. There is a Russian leader who seems to look fondly back to the days of Soviet might, when leaders were strong and the country was feared. There is the heavy-handed intervention in another country. Mostly, there is the unvoiced dare: How far will you go? How far do you think I will go?
Both East and West have done it many times over the years – the Cuban Missile Crisis immediately comes to mind.
As was the case then, we find ourselves wondering who will blink first, and praying someone does. The truth is, there are still enough nuclear, biological and conventional weapons stockpiled in the United States and Russia, as well as several other countries, to destroy this beautiful world.
Our hearts ache for the people of the Ukraine. They want what all of us want – good government, a prosperous economy, their rights respected, and their children to have a future. They fear their country will be torn apart by this resurgence in the worst kind of Cold War brinksmanship.
It would be insanity for Vladimir Putin to continue on his present path, and equally so for the West to intervene militarily. Who will blink first?
- Special to the Listowel Banner