The less you know about the old Cold War, the more you’ll be tempted to feel nostalgia—or shivers down your spine. One narrative glorifies the decadeslong conflict as a time of crystalline moral clarity—a Manichean struggle between good and evil, pursued with exemplary collective purpose and discipline. It ended in triumph with the collapse of communism: the disintegration first of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and then of the Soviet Union itself. Never mind that the East-West struggle played out very differently for many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where it was an era of proxy wars fueled by ruthless superpower competition.
Another all-too-simple narrative sees the Cold War as a barely avoided apocalypse. The terrifying era of nuclear brinkmanship was marked by near-disasters including the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1983 Able Archer incident, where the Kremlin misinterpreted a NATO exercise of that name as preparations for a surprise attack. If the Cold War ended peacefully, this narrative goes, it was only by the skin of our teeth. Had we been just a tad less lucky, I wouldn’t be here to write this article, nor would you be here to read it.