March 3, 2022

Watch Your Step

By Glenn

Escalators are a modern marvel.  The English word is derived from the word, escalade, meaning to climb.  An escalator actually takes the effort out of climbing. They are a welcome sight in a mall or a subway station.

Unfortunately, there are times in life when an escalator is not welcome.  Sometimes we make decisions with unforeseen consequences.  We step on a path, and we lose control.

During the Cold War (1947-1991), American and Soviet leaders were very careful not to step on an escalator.  Most of these men lived through World War One and World War Two.  They saw conflicts escalate quickly.

Cold War leaders understood that escalation meant MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction.  Both sides had nuclear weapons and threatened to use them if attacked. 

Hiroshima 6 August 1945

MAD encouraged the Americans and the Soviets to avoid direct conflict.  Each Superpower had a free hand in their own sphere of influence.  For the United States, this meant shepherding a democratic, free market system in Western Europe.  For the Soviet Union, this meant imposing a totalitarian, command economy in Eastern Europe.

In other areas of the world, both sides used proxies to undermine their opponents.  The Soviets famously supported the North Vietnamese against the Americans.  The Americans funded the Mujahedeen to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. 

Soviets, however, invaded Eastern European countries twice to maintain control.  In 1956 they invaded Hungary, and then in 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia.  Both invasions prevented democratic reforms and kept the countries firmly in the Soviet Bloc.

Neither President Dwight Eisenhower nor Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the crisis.  The United States had already created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to contain the spread of communism.  Its mission did not include attacking the Soviet Union.  A direct fight would have been MAD.

The world changed in 1989.  The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan and refused to intervene when Eastern European nationalists asserted their independence. 

Gorbachev’s decisions were so unpopular among the Soviet generals and party elite; they orchestrated a coup and deposed him.  By this time, the coup was too late.  The Soviet regime crumbled under mounting nationalist pressures inside the Soviet Union.

American and Western European leaders collectively stood up to the Soviets during the Cold War.  They contained the spread of communism and avoided Armageddon.   Our generation can do the same, but we need to avoid stepping on the escalator.  Reaching the top would be MAD.

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