You’ve heard the phrase before. It’s end up being a de rigeur bit of language reporters apply in just around any piece of journalism about the Cold War. It’s expected to denote that over there was particularly tense geopolitical setting for the referral time period.

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But many thanks to the overuse, it’s an efficiently meaningless phrase that mangles history and renowned understanding of vital historical phenomenon.

The result is that now, according to journalism, virtually every year the the Cold war was “the elevation of the Cold War.”


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Sure, this is a extensively pedantic complaint. And the reporter that hasn’t offered a cliche is just a reporter that hasn’t written very much.

But the abuse of “the height of the Cold War” isn’t just about making Clio, the muse of history, burned a tear every time you write something mildly historically inaccurate. It highlights how we misunderstand and also misapply that period in other contexts today.

Lest you doubt the extent of journalistic abuse of the “height the the Cold War” war Is Boring compiled an completely unscientific sampling of significant news outlets’ usage of the phrase.

With the exemption of four years spread across the the very beginning and also end that the conflict, there’s at least one article in a significant news outlet proclaiming yearly of the duration to it is in “the elevation of the Cold War.”

So what might credibly be called the “height” that the supermacht standoff in between the united States and the Soviet Union?

To determine the most ideal use of the phrase, us polled three historians of the Cold War—and all were fairly consistent in your judgment.

The chroniclers are: Dr. William Burr, manager of the nuclear background documentation project at the nationwide Security archive of George Washington University; Dr. Note Kramer, regime director of the job on Cold War research studies at harvard’s Davis Center; and Dr. James Hershberg, professor of history in international affairs and former manager of the Cold battle International background Project in ~ the Woodrow Wilson Center

All three men pointed to years leading up to and including the Cuban Missile Crisis and also the late 1940s and early ’50s, as soon as the U.S. Confronted off versus the Soviets and also the Chinese over Berlin and the oriental War.


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At top —the lock Bravo explosion. Above — a U-2 spy plane’s photo of Cuban missile sites. Picture via Wikipedia

The Cuban Missile dilemm is a reasonably obvious choice for the period of greatest tension throughout the Cold War. U.S. President john F. Kennedy and also Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev squared turn off over the Soviet Union’s stationing of atom intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba, v both political parties tiptoeing up to the sheet of nuclear confrontation.

“As the most tense ‘height that Cold War’ episode,” Burr says, “the Cuban Missile situation remains the unavoidable candidate in terms of the seriousness the the situation, whereby both political parties realized they confronted a attention crisis and were nuclear forces were top top high alert.”

The period of the ’40s and also ’50s, once Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin played a tense game of brinksmanship over regulate of Berlin through a blockade that the city and the oriental war briefly brought the U.S. To war with China, are additionally a reasonable candidate for the Cold War’s rightful “height.”

In the latter fifty percent of the Cold War, the superpowers mainly duked it out through proxy conflicts in the 3rd world. When those disputes exacted a bloody real-life toy fee on the participants, they prevented the U.S. And also Soviet Union from facing.

The late ’40s and also early ’50s to be different. “You had actually repeated military proximity in between the western and also communist side and also real fears the this might have resulted in a bigger war,” Hershberg says.

Both Burr and also Hershberg additionally mention the events surround NATO’s may be Archer practice in 1983 as a reasonable—if less widely understood—candidate because that the Cold War’s peak.

The choice of Pres. Ronald Reagan and the subsequent boosts in U.S. Defense spending and anti-Soviet “evil empire” rhetoric make the Soviets nervous sufficient as that was.

The Soviets’ failure downing of oriental Air Lines flight 007 and also the U.S. Deployment that Pershing II atom missiles in Europe, i m sorry the Soviets feared could enable for a swift NATO nuclear an initial strike, make the Cold War also tenser.

The Soviets were so concerned that the Reagan administration might it is in preparing for a nuclear sneak assault that it embarked on procedure RYAN, an attempt by Soviet intelligence services come detect preparations for nuclear battle in the West.

The knowledge tripwire, detailed to west allies through the KGB’s Rezident and British spy Oleg Gordievsky, tasked Soviet spies to monitor a seemingly bizarre collection of metrics that would show preparations because that nuclear war.

In one instance, KGB spies in London were told to examine for indicators that blood banks were hoarding plasma as Communist Party bosses believed that the West would start hoarding clinical supplies on the night of war.

In this context, the Soviets worried that the 1983 NATO practice Able Archer, meant to simulate a atom war through the Soviet Union, to be a pretext for the West to lug out a surprise attack.

A lack of major sources contempt obscure the battle game’s status in the pecking order of Cold war close calls, follow to Hershberg.

While KGB knowledge requirements at the time certainly indicate grave problem on the part of the Soviets, in the absence of in-depth accounts that the Politburo’s reasoning at the time, it’s harder for chroniclers to say specifically how near the 2 superpowers came to war in ~ the time.

Annoying despite it might be, the misapplication of the “height of the Cold War” cliche is solid the many serious abuse of history in popular discussion. The does, however, fit right into a larger famous misunderstanding of just exactly how dangerous the Cold battle really was.

As Russian president Vladimir Putin’s pushes come recapture the previous territories of the Soviet Union, sinking U.S.-Russian relationships to a low, countless are rapid to label it a “new Cold War.”

Russia’s actions space dangerous and also deplorable. And they absolutely put the U.S. On an alert that Moscow is willing to use military pressure to shot and restore its previous empire.

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But a review of the darkest moment of the Cold battle — when the West came perilously near to nuclear exchange with Russia — mirrors that, bad as things could be now, the temperature still has a method to go prior to it plunges to the icy depth of the Cold War’s darkest days.