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Fear, biases and brinkmanship

Evan Thomas

The War of Nerves:
Inside the Cold War Mind,
By Martin Sixsmith

THE WASHINGTON POST – In June 1987, while eating dinner at a hotel on Red Square in Moscow, I was approached by head of the Institute for United States (US) and Canadian Studies Georgy Arbatov, widely regarded by reporters at the time as the chief explainer of the West to the leaders in the Kremlin. He said he had read The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, a book I had recently written with Walter Isaacson about the East Coast foreign policy establishment at the beginning of the Cold War. “It is as we have always thought,” Arbatov exclaimed, “Groton school and Skull and Bones!”

Arbatov was joshing, sort of. Taken literally, however, his reaction might be described as evidence of the psychological phenomenon, common to Cold Warriors on both sides, known as confirmation bias. It was conventional wisdom among the Soviet Union’s Marxist-Leninists that the US was not really a free democracy but rather an oligarchy controlled by industrialists and patrician grandees like Secretary of State Dean Acheson and ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman (graduates of Groton, the New England prep school, and members of Yale secret societies). The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was run by a tight cabal; ergo, America must have been as well.

This very human tendency to project one’s own views and experience onto the mind-set of others – and to engage in both fear mongering and wishful thinking – is at the heart of Martin Sixsmith’s fascinating psychological history of the Cold War, The War of Nerves:

Inside the Cold War Mind. A former BBC reporter who spent many years in Russia, Sixsmith traces a series of misunderstandings that fuelled an arms race and might have doomed us all (and still might). His book is jam-packed with examples of wrongheadedness, some amusing, some hair-raising, and it serves as a useful cautionary tale as America once again faces off with secretive and suspicious great-power rivals.


Because neither side wanted to use nuclear weapons or start a conventional war that might spiral out of control, each resorted to psychological warfare. Fake news is nothing new; in the Cold War, it was called disinformation. The Russians were especially devious. “On 31 October 1986, Pravda carried a cartoon of a shifty-looking scientist and a grinning American military officer exchanging a test tube for a fistful of dollars. The vial is labelled ‘AIDS virus’ and is full of Swastika-shaped bacteria,” wrote Sixsmith. The disinformation was part of the KGB’s “Operation Infektion”, and it would be spread in 30 languages in the newspapers of 80 countries. The false rumour of a Pentagon plot to poison African Americans, Arabs, Asians and other minorities in the US with AIDS still has currency in conspiratorial corners of the web.

The CIA was usually more high-minded, funding Western European operas and magazines (including the Paris Review) in an effort to show that “West is Best.” But Americans nurtured their own conspiracy theories and hyped the Soviet threat, warning of a fictional “bomber gap” and “missile gap” and even a “muscle gap” – Soviet youth were supposedly more fit. Both sides bluffed with nuclear weapons. Brinkmanship – trying to manoeuvre the other side onto a slippery slope – was a dangerous game. During the Cuban missile crisis, a Soviet submarine captain came close to launching a nuclear-tipped torpedo at an American warship, and on several occasions, false warnings of incoming missiles nearly pushed the superpowers into nuclear conflict.

To persuade Americans to pay for their own defence, it was sometimes necessary to make assertions that were “clearer than truth”, Acheson said. Upon his election in 1980, seeking to corner the Russians by outspending them, President Ronald Reagan ramped up defence spending. He wanted to scare the American people about the Soviet threat, but he ended up scaring the Russians as well.

The Kremlin was “haunted” by the fear of a preemptive nuclear strike by the Americans.

The KGB launched Operation RYaN, an acronym for the Russian words for “nuclear missile attack”.

“Soviet agents were instructed to gather intelligence that might give Moscow a moment of warning,” Sixsmith wrote. “Some were told to befriend western bankers, hoping they might have inside information on the build-up to war.

Others monitored US blood banks to see if they were boosting their supplies.”

The paranoia was bureaucratically self-reinforcing. “Because the political leadership was expecting to hear that the West was becoming more aggressive, more threatening and better armed, the KGB was obedient and reported: Yes, the West was arming… The Centre was duly alarmed by what they reported – and wanted more,” said KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky, who later defected to the West.

A series of US psyop manoeuvres, probes by American warplanes, ships and submarines, “set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin”, Sixsmith wrote.

At one harrowing moment in 1983, the Soviets came close to responding to a false warning of an American missile launch with a retaliatory strike. The report of an apocalypse near miss came as a wake-up call to Reagan. “He later admitted that only in 1984 did he realise ‘something surprising about the Russians. Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were generally afraid of America and the Americans. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did’.”

In 1985, Reagan wisely began to reach out to the new – and fortunately far less paranoid – Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev. By meeting face-to-face, the American president and the Kremlin leader were able to cut through institutional and cultural misunderstandings and move the world away from hair-trigger mutually assured destruction.

Of course, history did not end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, President George H W Bush did tell his lieutenants not to gloat, but Sixsmith, somewhat begrudgingly, gives him no credit. He accuses American leaders, including Bush, of relapsing into harmful magical thinking about Russia: that Russians could be made into “good capitalists ‘like us’,” Sixsmith wrote.

“But the Russian psyche, forged through centuries of abuse by the country’s rulers and enemies alike, is not ‘like us’.” It did not help, he goes on to say, that “in the years following 1991, the West trod on every one of Russia’s exposed nerves.” And Russia, Sixsmith does not need to remind us, still has thousands of nuclear weapons.

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