American Cruise Missiles Divide Europe

Two rounds of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the Soviet Union and the United States had managed to reduce tensions in the Cold War. But the talks did not cover tactical nuclear weapons delivered by midrange ballistic missiles, a loophole the Soviets exploited to deploy SS-20 mobile launch platforms in Central Europe.

When, in December 1979, the Soviet Union also invaded Afghanistan, the West felt it had to respond.

Continue reading “American Cruise Missiles Divide Europe”

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

Cold War Germany is often reduced to the playground of the colossi of the postwar order jostling above the abyss that was nuclear annihilation. As the old joke goes, “a tactical nuke is one that goes off in Germany.” In many ways, the two German states were the foremost pawns in a great geopolitical game, but just as much they were their own countries, contemporary incarnations of a culture that can be traced back to the Germanic tribes of Roman times. They had their own business during the Cold War, and some of it was violent.

West Germany in the 1960s and 70s was subjected to much of the same social unrest that happened in other Western countries during those years. This was over Vietnam in the United States and Algeria in France. The period was a violent one. There were bombings by left-wing radicals in both countries.

In West Germany, that violence took the form of the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Group), named for their leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. They caused great chaos in the West Germany of the Cold War. Their actions are dramatized in the 2008 film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.

Continue reading “Der Baader Meinhof Komplex”

Resurrection Day

Resurrection Day

In my stead as the administrator of the Alternate History Online group on Facebook, whenever I see a question involving the Cold War going nuclear in any way, I post a black-and-white GIF of flowers blooming with the caption “everybody dies.” I concluded when I was on an episode of the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns and Colin Salt that it is hard to make a story where the Cold War goes hot that is dramatically compelling as the devastation would be swift and total.

Enter Brendan Dubois’ Resurrection Day, one of the books that I read as research for that podcast episode. Dubois has the great nightmare of the sixties come to life: the confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba (and American missiles in Turkey) ends with the missiles flying, the doomsday machines in both superpowers activating, bathing the world in nuclear hellfire.

Continue reading “Resurrection Day”

The Problem of Détente

The late 1960s were a time of upheaval in the transatlantic relationship. Charles de Gaulle had withdrawn from NATO’s integrated military structure and was seeking equidistance for France between the Soviet Union and the United States. Willy Brandt, West Germany’s first center-left chancellor, was pursuing Ostpolitik. Britain had finally been admitted to the European Economic Community, which — in Washington — raised fears of a united Europe challenging American primacy in the West.

Mired and later defeated in Vietnam, America’s prestige was at a postwar low. The oil-producing countries of the Middle East were starting to use their economic power for political gain. Japan was emerging as a global powerhouse in the East. The Atlantic alliance looked divided and exhausted.

Continue reading “The Problem of Détente”

The Devil’s Alternative

The Devil's Alternative

Frederick Forsyth wrote the outstanding Cold War thrillers The Day of the Jackal (1971), which was made into one of the best spy movies of all time (our review here); The Odessa File (1972, our review of the film adaption here) featuring an underground organization of former Nazis; and The Fourth Protocol (1984, our review here), about a Soviet plot to kick Britain out of NATO.

He demonstrates his mastery of the genre again in The Devil’s Alternative.

The story begins in Turkey, where an Ukrainian nationalist recovering in hospital is recruited by Andrew Drake, an Anglo-Ukrainian determined to strike a blow against the Soviet empire. Drake’s machination will set in motion events that bring the superpowers to the brink of war.

He is aided by hardliners in the Politburo, who are pushing for war to avoid making concessions in negotiations to buy wheat from the United States. A fungicide has inadvertently poisoned the Soviet wheat crop. Without imports, millions will starve.

Continue reading “The Devil’s Alternative”

Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday

Northern Ireland can feel far away from the rest of the United Kingdom. Its political party system is different from Great Britain’s. Its politics are intensely sectarian in a way that seems out of place in modern Europe. The level of violence it sustained in the twentieth century makes it an outlier in post-1945 Western Europe.

We tend to think of the United Kingdom as a peaceful Western democracy committed to the values of justice and peace. Those of us who have studied its history know that the truth is more muddled. That postwar period saw the birth of the National Health Service and other aspects of the welfare state, but it was also the time Britain left Palestine in civil war, employed a brutal system of concentration camps in Kenya and did much the same in Malaya.

But none of that violence was as old as the one that plagued Ireland.

Continue reading “Bloody Sunday”

De Gaulle’s Cold War

European countries generally welcomed American involvement after the Second World War. From the Marshall Plan to NATO, the United States was seen as a benevolent influence.

But American help came with a price. European governments were expected to keep the far left out of power, accept the rehabilitation of West Germany and curtail trade and other relations with the Soviet Union.

France took exception to being treated as an instrument of American foreign policy. Charles de Gaulle famously blocked Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, believing it would be a Trojan horse for America. He refused to give up France’s independent nuclear deterrent and even pulled out of NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966.

Continue reading “De Gaulle’s Cold War”

Warhol: The American Dream Factory

Andy Warhol, the King of Pop Art, is one of the best-known artists of the twentieth century: an advertisement mogul, creator extraordinaire and mentor to equally famed and fabled artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Even if you’re not familiar with Warhol’s art, you will likely have heard of him and recognize his fabled soup can illustration.

The La Boverie museum in Liège, Belgium has delved deeper than soup cans and portraits of Marilyn Monroe and set up a marvelous expo covering all decades of Warhol’s life and the work he produced in those times. Making Warhol: The American Dream Factory a must-visit (in as far as possible) for fans of modern and midcentury art.

Continue reading “Warhol: The American Dream Factory”

Red Storm Rising

Red Storm Rising

Red Storm Rising (1986) is a classic of the World War III genre. Tom Clancy’s second book, coming on the heels of the enormously successful The Hunt for Red October (1984), depicts a NATO-Warsaw Pact war in the mid-1980s fought entirely with conventional weapons. (Although the risk of nuclear escalation is present.)

The book opens with Azerbaijani terrorists destroying the main Soviet oil refinery at Nizhnevartovsk. The Politburo, split between a war-wary general secretary and a warmongering defense chief, decides to seize the oil fields of the Persian Gulf to avoid economic collapse. Fearing that the West would intervene in such an attack, the Soviet leaders determine to eliminate NATO first.

Continue reading “Red Storm Rising”