Understanding the Cold War as an Imaginary War

27 October 2016

Operation Teapot, the Met Shot, a tower burst weapons effects test April 15, 1955 at the Nevada Test Site [Wikicommons].

The Cold War began as a metaphor. It was an analogy that used temperature to indicate a state of conflict just short of an actual ‘hot’ war. When George Orwell coined the term ‘Cold War’ in his article in Tribune on 19 October 1945, he situated the genealogy of this new type of conflict in the connections between democratisation, empire-building and weapons technology.

Military weapons, Orwell knew, are an instrument of power well beyond their actual use on the battlefield. And as only a limited number of countries might be able to harness the new technology of the atomic bomb – Orwell reckoned it might be only three or four, a fairly accurate prediction at least for the fifteen years from 1945 onwards – it might lead them to ‘a tacit agreement never to use the atomic bomb against one another’.

How would the new empires operate that were based on the possession of atomic bombs – a state that was ‘was at once UNCONQUERABLE and in a permanent state of “cold war” with its neighbours’, the socialist writer and critic asked. [George Orwell, ‘You and the atomic bomb’, Tribune, 19 October 1945, online (accessed 6 September 2016). All subsequent citations are from the same source unless otherwise stated.]

What was the ‘world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure’ that might be fostered by such an empire? At least one thing seemed to be certain to Orwell: the real danger of the atomic bomb might be that of ‘prolonging indefinitely a “peace that is no peace”‘.

Seventy years after its publication, Orwell’s short article is still a powerful outline of the conceptual questions raised by this new type of conflict. Orwell was the first to understand that the atomic bomb not only ushered in the new state of ideology, politics and society in the emerging conflict that he tried to conceptualise in his article. It also stood as a powerful symbol of that new state.

‘The bomb’ quickly became a shorthand term for the dangerousness of the ‘Cold War’ – of the horror that would await if it turned ‘hot’. Thus, the bomb itself became a signifier for a world in which the metaphorical play with the temperature of armed conflict was no longer confined to the realm of the military, but emanated from a single weapon’s technology and pervaded all aspects of culture, society and politics.

‘Cold War’ quickly moved from being a simple metaphor of military tension to becoming an indicator of an entire complex system of global ideologies, politics and societies. As such it came an entrenched, though disputed, concept. It went, as it were, from being the ‘cold war’ to the Cold War.

Yet it never lost its metaphorical nature. It stood simultaneously for ‘sustained international conflict short of “hot” war’, as its very opposite (‘a form of peace’), and for the techniques and actions needed to ‘fight’ it. In short, ‘Cold War’ could stand as a metaphor for both war and peace.

Nuclear weapons were crucial for these multiple meanings of the Cold War: and the ‘bomb’ itself became the central metaphor of the Cold War. It was the harbinger of destruction, the symbol of what became a vast arsenal of power that seemed to threaten the very existence of humanity. But it was also, by its very destructiveness, the guarantor of peace: the way both blocs could ‘deter’ aggression, providing peace through strength.

Living ‘under the shadow’ of the bomb signified anxiety and dread, and the image of the mushroom cloud became the central icon of the entire Cold War, evoking not only the threat of nuclear war but the entire time-frame of the Cold War. On a more mundane level, the bomb was also called into metaphorical action to stand for any event, new shocking, or powerful, such us when one physician in late 1945 called the new practice of Artificial Insemination by Donor a development as ‘startling’ as the atomic bomb. [Gena Corea, The Mother Machine (London, 1985), p. 34.]

More than ever, it is necessary to take the metaphorical character of the Cold War seriously and to place how the bomb was used as a symbol for nuclear war at the very heart of this conflict. Understanding the Cold War, and the bomb’s place in it, requires an analysis of the complex linguistic inversions and paradoxical rhetorical interventions that allowed it to be envisaged in such contrasting ways.

Thus, we need to consider the historical relevance of the political, cultural and artistic ramifications of nuclear weapons as signifiers for a new type of conflict in greater detail and in a more coherent fashion. One way of doing this is to to encapsulate this understanding of the metaphorical qualities of the Cold War in the notion of an imaginary war, or, more precisely, a war against the imagination.

As an attack against the imagination, the nuclear threat forced politicians and ordinary people to accept the notion that preparations for nuclear annihilation would contribute towards peace, and that the existence of these weapons, and the anticipation of large-scale destruction that came with them, were an inescapable corollary of security, freedom and future prosperity on both sides of the Cold War divide. These imaginations shaped societies on both sides of the Iron Curtain in multitude of forms, during the decades from 1945 to 1990, and beyond.

Benjamin Ziemann

Benjamin Ziemann is Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield. He has published widely on many aspects of modern German and European history. His latest monograph is Contested Commemorations: Republican War Veterans and Weimar Political Culture (Cambridge University Press 2013, paperback edn. 2016).

This blog post draws on his new collection of essays, co-edited with Matthew Grant: Understanding the Imaginary War: Culture, Thought and Nuclear Conflict, 1945-90 (Manchester University Press 2016).