Originally published in American Historical Association.
With tensions at an all-time high between the United States and North Korea, the New York Times headlined a recent digital newsletter with Lies Your High School History Teacher Told You About Nukes. The basic point was to debunk the theory of “mutually assured destruction” that is often used to explain why the Cold War remained cold and did not result in a nuclear holocaust.
The article argues that despite possessing a nuclear arsenal that guaranteed “mutually assured destruction,” both the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a costly arms race that attempted to outmaneuver the other with more numerous and powerful warheads, delivered with more precise and faster missiles.
This happened not because they wanted to engage in actual nuclear warfare, but because of the threat that the other could “escape” mutually assured destruction, fight back, and win. This justified pursuing weaponry that could, in theory, take out the other side before it could retaliate. The Soviet Union was so terrified of this prospect that it spent enormous resources to retain at least the power to deliver a second strike, ultimately at the cost to its own ailing economy.
This is precisely what North Korea is doing now, but from a much weaker position, which only increases the risk of war. In a military confrontation with the United States, North Korea faces a terrible choice between using its weapons first or losing them in a conventional war against a far superior power.
Although the so-called end of the Cold War was expected to make a nuclear-weapons-free world achievable, the latest conflict with North Korea has only heightened the risk of nuclear war. Today, the danger isn’t history repeating itself with another Cold War; rather it is American complacency at having “won” the Cold War. The Soviet Union is long gone, but increasing conflicts with Russia and China prompted Barack Obama — the first American president to pledge nuclear disarmament — to renege on his promise and commit a projected $1 trillion over three decades toward revitalizing America’s nuclear weapons.
This isn’t simply a return to a Cold War-era arms race. The Cold War never ended, nor did it maintain peace. The Cold War was never “cold” for those who experienced the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the many other conflicts around the world, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the Third World, the Cold War was fought in actual combat with millions of lost lives, the vast majority civilian.
And the Cold War has yet to end in Korea. August 15 marked the anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial occupation, but also its simultaneous division. The Korean peninsula has remained divided since the Americans and the Soviets partitioned it in 1945, with almost 30,000 American troops still stationed in South Korea.
While pundits harp about a lack of good options, it wasn’t so long ago that citizens across the Cold War divide called for peace and disarmament in unison. British social historian E.P. Thompson pointedly asked whose needs the Cold War served and whether it was necessary. In a lecture delivered in 1981, Thompson asked us to think “beyond the Cold War” to a world where peace and freedom made common cause.
Peace activists during the Cold War were lumped together with the Soviet “peace offensive” and branded naïve at best or dupes at worst, replicated today against those who seek engagement and peace with North Korea. Blaming appeasement and failure of diplomacy to stop Hitler and World War II while forgetting that World War I was the result of increased militarization and lack of diplomacy, the goal of peace was equated with appeasement and forsaken in the name of protecting freedom and “our way of life.”
Thompson concluded that the Cold War was an “addiction,” “a habit supported by very powerful material interests in each bloc,” from the military-industrial complex to intelligence and national security agencies, and the politicians they serve. This is no less true here in the United States as it is in North Korea today, where the American threat has been used to justify draconian measures since the Korean War.
North Korea’s threat of turning the United States into a “sea of fire,” while rhetorically inflammatory and unproductive, is based on its historical experience of the Korean War, during which the United States engaged in a literal scorched earth campaign of incendiary bombing that exhausted all targets. Despite the American introduction of nuclear weapons into South Korea in 1958 in violation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement, North Korea began developing its own nuclear weapons in earnest only in the 1990s when it could no longer rely on the Soviet nuclear umbrella.
Aware of this history, peace activists, former ambassadors, and policy analysts have presented possible solutions to the current impasse toward a comprehensive peace settlement that includes a nuclear-free Korea in exchange for security guarantees and normalization of relations.
Globally, 123 nations voted last October at the UN Committee for Disarmament to start negotiations on banning nuclear weapons. What was most surprising was not that it took so long to take this step, but rather the outcome of the vote. Among the nine nuclear-weapon states, North Korea — the latest member — was the only one that voted in favor of negotiations for a ban. The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel, along with most NATO allies, voted against the resolution, while China for the first time broke from the other recognized nuclear powers to abstain with India and Pakistan.
Thompson noted how history is “the record of unintended consequences.” The current conflict is one of the many unintended consequences of the continuing Cold War and the arbitrary division of the Korean peninsula that has lasted to this day. Before the latest clash erupts into a real nuclear war, we must commit to truly ending the Cold War by demanding immediate and unconditional talks with North Korea, in which the United States also works toward a nuclear-weapons free world.
This may sound utopian, but the largest protest against nuclear weapons in American history gathered close to one million people in Manhattan’s Central Park in 1982. The recent anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a sobering reminder of what is at stake.