You’ve heard the phrase before. It’s become a de rigeur little of language reporters apply in just about any item of journalism around the Cold War. It’s meant to signify that over there was particularly tense geopolitical environment for the reference time period.

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But thanks to the overuse, the an effectively meaningless phrase that mangles history and popular understanding of crucial historical phenomenon.

The an outcome is the now, according to journalism, almost every year that the Cold battle was “the elevation of the Cold War.”


Sure, this is a completely pedantic complaint. And the reporter who hasn’t provided a cliche is just a reporter who hasn’t written really much.

But the abuse of “the elevation of the Cold War” isn’t just about making Clio, the muse the history, shed a tear every time you create something mildly in history inaccurate. That highlights how we misunderstand and misapply that period in various other contexts today.

Lest friend doubt the level of journalistic abuse the the “height the the Cold War” battle Is Boring compiled an utterly unscientific sampling of major news outlets’ use of the phrase.

With the exemption of 4 years spread across the the an extremely beginning and also end of the conflict, yes at the very least one write-up in a major news outlet proclaiming annually of the period to be “the elevation of the Cold War.”

So what might credibly be referred to as the “height” the the supermacht standoff between the unified States and the Soviet Union?

To recognize the most appropriate use that the phrase, we polled three chroniclers of the Cold War—and every were relatively consistent in your judgment.

The chroniclers are: Dr. William Burr, manager of the nuclear background documentation job at the national Security archive of George Washington University; Dr. Mark Kramer, program director that the project on Cold War research studies at harvard Davis Center; and Dr. James Hershberg, professor of background in international affairs and also former manager of the Cold war International background Project in ~ the Woodrow Wilson Center

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

At height —the castle Bravo explosion. Above — a U-2 spy plane’s picture of Cuban missile sites. Photos via Wikipedia

The Cuban Missile dilemm is a relatively obvious choice for the period of biggest tension during the Cold War. U.S. President man F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev squared off over the Soviet Union’s stationing of atom intermediate variety ballistic missiles in Cuba, v both sides tiptoeing as much as the sheet of atom confrontation.

“As the most tense ‘height of Cold War’ episode,” Burr says, “the Cuban Missile situation remains the inescapable candidate in regards to the seriousness the the situation, whereby both sides realized they faced a danger crisis and were nuclear forces were top top high alert.”

The duration of the ’40s and also ’50s, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin play a tense video game of brinksmanship over control of Berlin with a blockade of the city and the korean war briefly carried the U.S. Come war with China, are additionally a logical candidate because that the Cold War’s rightful “height.”

In the latter fifty percent of the Cold War, the superpowers mostly duked it out with proxy disputes in the third world. If those conflicts exacted a bloody real-life toll fee on the participants, castle prevented the U.S. And also Soviet Union native facing.

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

Both Burr and Hershberg also mention the events surround NATO’s able Archer practice in 1983 together a reasonable—if much less widely understood—candidate for the Cold War’s peak.

The choice of Pres. Ronald Reagan and the subsequent increases in U.S. Defense spending and anti-Soviet “evil empire” rhetoric do the Soviets nervous enough as it was.

The Soviets’ failure downing of korean Air Lines trip 007 and the U.S. Deployment the Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, which the Soviets feared could allow for a swift NATO nuclear an initial strike, do the Cold War even tenser.

The Soviets were so pertained to that the Reagan management might it is in preparing because that a nuclear sneak strike that that embarked on operation RYAN, an attempt by Soviet knowledge services to detect preparations for nuclear war in the West.

The intelligence tripwire, thorough to west allies through the KGB’s Rezident and British spy Oleg Gordievsky, tasked Soviet spies to screen a watch bizarre collection of metrics the would suggest preparations because that nuclear war.

In one instance, KGB spies in London to be told to inspect for indications that blood banks were hoarding plasma as Communist Party bosses thought that the West would start hoarding medical supplies ~ above the night of war.

In this context, the Soviets worried that the 1983 NATO practice Able Archer, meant to simulate a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, to be a pretext because that the West to bring out a surprise attack.

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

While KGB knowledge requirements in ~ the time absolutely indicate grave concern on the part of the Soviets, in the absence of comprehensive accounts of the Politburo’s reasoning at the time, it’s harder for historians to say exactly how close the two superpowers pertained to war in ~ the time.

Annoying though it may be, the misapplication of the “height that the Cold War” cliche is hardly the many serious abuse of history in famous discussion. That does, however, fit into a larger famous misunderstanding the just how dangerous the Cold battle really was.

As Russian chairman Vladimir Putin’s pushes to recapture the previous territories the 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 deplorable. And also they definitely put the U.S. On notice that Moscow is ready to use military force to try and reclaim its former empire.

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But a testimonial of the darkest moments of the Cold war — once the West came perilously nearby to atom exchange v Russia — shows that, bad as things can be now, the temperature still has actually a way to go before it plunges to the icy depth of the Cold War’s darkest days.