The United States and the Soviet Union fought together during World War II, but quickly turned against one another in the years that followed. The Cold War was a period marked with tension — this is well-known, but the complexities of the relationship between capitalism and communism are less so.
“To put it bluntly, America feared that the commies… would take over the world.”
That fear not only brought the world to a nuclear stand-off, it led to some of the most vicious war-fighting in history.
So, what did it look like as we shifted from friends to enemies to frenemies?
Let’s look at some surprising Cold War facts:
1. There’s a reason Nixon acted crazily
In what has become known as The Madman Theory, it’s said that Americans deliberately portrayed President Richard Nixon as crazy — and a crazy person is capable of anything, even launching a nuclear attack. The intent here was to intimidate the enemy into backing down from a fight.
2. One man saved the world from nuclear war
In 1983, Stanislav Petrov was the commanding officer on duty at a nuclear early warning facility when his system reported that the United States had launched missiles towards Moscow. His training and protocol demanded an immediate retaliatory strike, but Petrov just couldn’t believe it was true. He chose to disregard the warnings as a false alarm.
Petrov’s instincts were correct. Had he launched “retaliatory” missiles at the U.S., he would have actually fired a salvo to begin a war. The U.S. would have then returned fire and only alternate universes know how that could have escalated…
3. In the 60s, U.S. planes carried nuclear bombs “just in case” — and sometimes they lost them
We weren’t only in danger from Soviet weapons — in the dawning of the nuclear age, we were barely able to contain our own devices.
The Defense Department recently disclosed 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980. In one such incident, two nuclear bombs crashed in North Carolina. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated that it was “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.”
Had those bombs detonated, it could have caused more damage than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
4. The CIA took codes and super-secret squirrelly spy sh** seriously
A training manual instructed agents on the use of many deceptions — one includes tying shoelaces to communicate in code. There were shoelace patterns for “I have information” and “follow me.”
This is yet another example of how seriously they took the threat of KGB spies (which did give us The Americans, so that’s at least something to be grateful for).
There are 50 crazy facts about the Cold War in the video below. (Number 19 is about how the U.S. paid million for a cat that could spy on the Soviets. That actually happened.)
Check out the video to get facts you never knew you needed about a pivotal moment in history that is still shaking the U.S. today: