The anniversary of the end of an era is upon us. The Cold War ended on November 19, 1990, when leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact signed the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. I missed the excitement, as I was sitting in Saudi Arabia speculating on an upcoming and very sandy Thanksgiving away from home. Nonetheless, this day marked a momentous shift in the world. The threat of a war between Eastern and Western Europe was dramatically reduced with this agreement.
The Cold War was not always cold, of course. Skim any history book or visit a museum like our own National Infantry Museum and you can quickly see that soldiers had ample opportunity to be shot during this “cold” time. The Korean War and the Vietnam War jump right off the history pages to squelch any thought that nations did not fight each other. Many other “small” wars around the world characterized this era, while the threat of a nuclear holocaust always hung overhead. I still remember carrying out “duck and cover” drills at Johnson Elementary School.
My early adult life also was greatly affected by the Cold War. When stationed in Europe in the early 1980s, our focus was on defeating the Soviet forces and their Warsaw Pact allies that could attack into West Germany. The immediate border with Eastern Europe was mined and fenced. Few people were allowed near it without a military escort. My wife kept the gas tank in our car over half full (a challenge for my bride, who was not raised that way) and a case of C rations in the trunk. I knew the exact spots my soldiers and I would begin the fight. Just before we left Germany, I afforded my children the opportunity to eat those C rations. That was good childhood professional development for them. Right? The photos remain priceless.
It’s hard to remember that time now. Some of our former enemies are now allies and have even deployed forces into Iraq and Afghanistan to fight alongside us. The peace dividend never really materialized, and we now have new enemies. Life goes on, and we still need military forces. This time of peace that we were supposed to have was shattered by the terror attacks in September 2001.
Many young men and women served during this time of Cold War and most never heard a shot fired in anger. When speaking to a couple of elementary schools during the Veterans Day week of activities, I emphasized to the children that a veteran was anyone who served in the military, not only combat veterans. Many of those veterans today served during the Cold War. They may not have pulled a trigger to shoot at someone, but they still defended this country by manning some unit someplace in the world. Seeing Germany was great fun, but knowing that trying to evacuate Germany was going to be a real challenge could not help but add a nagging worry in the back of any sane person’s mind.
The Cold War was a tense time, and thankfully mature leadership prevented tensions from ever exploding into war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Diplomacy backed up by military strength worked with an enemy that would negotiate. Much of our difficulty today trying to end the wars we are in is that we cannot really negotiate with the Islamic fanatics who are determined to kill us.
Nonetheless, I hope our history teachers make sure our children remember the Cold War. Otherwise my childhood and much of my adult life will be but a memory of mine.