Monday, November 9, 2015

A review of CNN's “Cold War” series

Soviets' first atomic bomb test, 1949

It was a war that lasted forty years, which had many periods without any shooting at all. It was fought between two nuclear states, whose nuclear weapons were never fired against the other even once. And it was called the "Cold War" because of its periods without shooting, but had many "hot wars" within its complicated history, where shots were actually exchanged between the two sides.

Battle of Seoul, 1950 (during Korean War)

There are many alive today who remember the Cold War, but there are also many who don't; and even many of those who lived through it fail to comprehend its true nature. Many in the communist countries only saw their government's version of things, and were forbidden to hear anything else; and many in the capitalist countries were deceived by their own side's pacifists and communist sympathizers, who could never see the deterrence capabilities of nuclear weapons (or military power generally), and had their heads in the sand about both the failures of communism, and its threat to the free world's way of life.

Many fail to learn the lessons of these times; but the lessons are there, for those who care to hear them; and they can be obtained even from liberal stations like CNN. From the makers of "The World at War" came the classic series about the Cold War, which spent 18 hours explaining both the complicated politics and geography of the Cold War, and showing interviews with the top personnel in the governments and military of both sides. (From the regular soldiers, airmen, civilians, and diplomatic personnel to the generals, admirals, presidents, prime ministers, and communist dictators; you hear from virtually every major player alive when the series was made, and see the real footage of the events; with a narration to help make sense out of the complicated events of this time.

Allied troops intervene in Russian Civil War - Vladivostok, Russia 1918

Aftermath of atomic bomb, Hiroshima 1945

The series opens by showing the wreckage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shortly after their being devastated by atomic bombs in 1945; and after a brief introduction to their topic, they mention how the shadow of the bombs dropped here would hang over every conflict, every negotiation, and every interaction between the two superpowers during the Cold War period. After this introduction, they backtrack to discuss the communist revolution in Russia in 1917 (with the resultant formation of the Soviet Union), and the failed American attempts to intervene in their civil war (which ended in 1922). There is also coverage of the between-the-wars period, followed by depicting the uneasy alliance between the two nations during World War II, against their mutual enemy of Nazi Germany. Special attention is paid to the negotiations between the two sides, with footage of an interview with the American ambassador to Russia during World War II (filmed later during the 1970's), and several other eyewitnesses to tell the story of how the battle lines of the Cold War were drawn. The first episode concludes by revisiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and reviewing how its shadow hung over the entire forty years of the Cold War. With the groundwork laid, their series' introduction to the topic is thus complete.

Harry Truman and Winston Churchill meet with Joseph Stalin, Potsdam Conference 1945

Berlin Airlift, 1948

Other episodes cover the breakdown in relations between the two sides after the war; with the Soviets refusing to leave the conquered countries of Eastern Europe after the war was over (as they had earlier promised in treaties), and imposing their communist system of government and economics on the countries they had earlier claimed to liberate. An episode is spent on the first major crisis of the Cold War, which was the Berlin Blockade - an attempt by the Soviets to cut off West Berlin from the rest of West Germany, so that it would not tempt the Soviets' East German subjects with the "dangerous" ideas of democracy and free markets. The conflict began over economics, was fought with economics, and was decided by economics - with a counter-blockade by the Allies, and a daring airlift to bring in supplies to the isolated West Berliners, despite the risk of all-out war with the Soviets. There was some risk the Soviets would fire on the British and American planes bringing supplies to the isolated West Berliners; but the Soviets dared not do so, even though it meant the West Berliners would have supplies after all. (More to the point, they could not withstand the severe economic damage from the Allies' counter-blockade on all trade between them and the West, as they were dependent upon supplies from the West; and could not stand having those supplies denied to them.) Thus, the Soviets lifted the blockade and backed down, and the first crisis of the Cold War was averted.

US blockade (or "quarantine") of Cuba, 1961 (during Cuban Missile Crisis)

Fall of Saigon, 1975 (end of the Vietnam War)

Other episodes include an episode on the Marshall Plan (the plan to rebuild Western Europe, so feared by the Soviets), one on the Korean War (an underrated success for the free world), one on Sputnik (with the general arms race between the two sides), and an episode on the Cuban Missile Crisis (the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war). There is an episode on the Vietnam War through 1968 (with the rest of the war covered in later episodes), as well as an episode on the Soviet war in Afghanistan (sometimes called the "Soviets' Vietnam" - which from the point of view of military strategy is certainly true, but in terms of moral equivalence is not true). The most biased and factually inaccurate episode is the one called "Backyard," in which those resisting the communists in Latin America are painted as being worse than the communists (which was not necessarily true); although there are some fine episodes about the building of the Berlin Wall (which showed the Soviet system was inferior), the heightened arms race during Reagan's "Star Wars" program (one of the real drivers of American victory in the Cold War), and the final fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which was a propaganda victory for the West if ever there was one. (This is one of those series where some episodes are more interesting than others.)

Soviet troops interrogate captured mujahideen, Afghanistan 1986

Checkpoint Charlie - Berlin Wall, 1989 (the day after it fell)

And in the later episodes, the people interviewed include three American presidents, which are Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush - every surviving Cold War president at that time but Ronald Reagan, who was unable to be interviewed at that time due to his Alzheimer's disease. They also interview British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who is an interesting commentator for the later episodes; and on the communist side, they even interview Mikhail Gorbachev (the only Soviet leader still alive at that time), and Fidel Castro (whose opinions are especially interesting during the Cuban Missile Crisis episode). This is not to say that I recommend everything that these people say (I don't), as even on the American side, people like Jimmy Carter are not the most trustworthy sources. Nonetheless, it is good to get people like Carter, Castro, and Gorbachev on the record just the same, as future generations will be unable to do so themselves.

Body of Peter Fechter, an East German who tried to escape to the West,
only to be shot by the Soviets at the Berlin Wall (1962)

 A soldier who successfully escaped to the West
by leaping over barbed wire - Berlin Wall, 1961

In an ironic twist of fate, the Marxist philosophy that had caused the Soviets to lose in the Cold War (and which had failed so miserably to do anything good) began to be embraced by many Americans and other Westerners, none of whom seemed to have learned anything from communism's dismal record, the dramatic difference in prosperity between West and East Germany (or between North and South Korea), or even from the need to stay strong as a deterrent to future communist (and other) aggression. The election of Barack Obama was a symptom of this historical ignorance ... and amnesia. Marxism has (fortunately) declined in the countries who lost the war, but has spread like a plague through the countries that won it; causing them to make many of the same mistakes that had caused their enemies to lose the Cold War to begin with. As George Santayana once said, "He who ignores the lessons of history is doomed to repeat it," and the Democratic Party of today makes historical amnesia its bread and butter, and its political platform.

President Ronald Reagan meets with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, London 1989

And it does not need to be this way - we can learn from the lessons of the Cold War, and allow the free market to defend and prosper us, and protect us from aggression. We can adopt the philosophies that worked, and discard the ones that didn't; allowing communism to be put on "the ash-heap of history" and relegated to a museum (as Ronald Reagan once said). The free markets of democracy work much better than the communist systems ever have, and have prospered this country for over 200 years. There is no need to discard them now, after all they've done for us. They are as relevant as ever, and they can both fight our wars, and stop many a war before it starts.

All this free markets have done, and all this free markets will do; if we learn from the lessons of history, and allow the memory of the Cold War to inform us about prosperity, and about peace.

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

World War II miniseries (also by these filmmakers)

Why we allied with Soviet Russia during World War II, and then fought against it later on

Korean War miniseries (focuses on United States)

Cuban Missile Crisis movies (made by Hollywood)

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