5 Ridiculous Cold War Myths You Learned in History Class
The second half of the 20th century was dominated by the world's two remaining superpowers facing each other down. The rest of the world rallied behind one or the other as Soviet and American forces started in on spying and covert warring. There were good guys and bad guys, and it was all bullshit. For instance ...
"Ich bin ein Berliner"
It was the culmination of Kennedy's remarks in West Germany at one of the most volatile points in the Cold War. The speech was a hugely important, brilliantly scripted rallying cry for democracy, but there's a reason people still repeat to this day.
See, while Kennedy confidently delivered his kicker, "Ich bin ein Berliner" and prepared to drop the mic and walk offstage, the Germans were laughing their asses off. Because the phrase that Kennedy thought meant "I am a Berliner" actually translated to "I am a jelly-filled doughnut!"
"This comedian is terrible. Bring on David Hasselhoff!"
Why It's Bullshit:
According to German professor Reinhold Aman in his epic volume Maledicta, "No intelligent native speaker of German tittered in Berlin when JFK spoke." Despite the BBC, The Guardian, MSNBC, CNN, Time magazine and The New York Times reporting otherwise, Aman says, "'Ich bin (ein) Berliner' means 'I am a Berliner' ... and absolutely nothing else!"
"I am neither delicious nor fattening" has a special word in 36 languages.
The pedantic jack offs who still repeat this anecdote claim the use of the word "ein" is what screwed Kennedy. They point out that "Ich bin Berliner" means "I am from Berlin," and that adding the "ein" changes the meaning. Both facts are true. A rough English equivalent of what Kennedy said was "I am a New Yorker," whereas the phrase the pedantic jack offs claim he should have said translates to "I am from New York." The jelly doughnut myth is like claiming that an audience in Manhattan heard a politician say "I am a New Yorker" and took him to mean "I am a New Yorker magazine." Saying "I am a New Yorker" makes more sense as a symbolic statement of solidarity, and it's the same in German. Which is why people who speak German generally compliment Kennedy's choice as being the more nuanced, conversational phrasing.
Because Germans are absolutely not known for being brazen and awkward.
There's also the fact that people who are actually from Berlin don't call that particular pastry a Berliner, since that would turn every day of their lives into an Abbott and Costello routine.
So why have smug people been making this claim for the past 20 years? The earliest reference anyone's been able to come up with is the 1983 spy novel Berlin Game. A fictional character claims that Kennedy said he was a doughnut. In reviewing the novel, The New York Times treated it as a reference to an amusing fact, rather than a reference to a completely made-up fact, and to this day, you can't say "Ich bin ein Berliner" in a room full of educated people without having them shout something about a jelly doughnut at you.
Get better friends, dude.
The Euphoria of the Space Race and Moon Landing
In 1961, Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the moon before the clock struck the '70s. Sure, it was mostly about national ego-stoking, but that was important. The two most armed nations in the history of the world were in a Mexican standoff, and the Space Race gave them a less deadly way to measure dicks without pulling the trigger.
In the sort of uncynical display of national unity you just don't see anymore, Americans responded to their president's call to action with a decade-long, nationwide pep rally for their finest nerds as they fired the best shit they could build into the sky. The Space Race was so serious that when Russia realized they couldn't keep up, they just started firing cosmonauts in the direction of the moon and watched them burn up like they were kindling.
Russia had run out of adorable dogs by the late '50s.
And when America finally pulled it off? The moon landing? The freaking moon landing!? How awesome would it have been to be on the planet for that!? It must have been like every hometown team in America had won the Super Bowl and World Series on the same freaking night.
Why It's Bullshit:
Remember when George W. Bush vowed to return to the moon by 2020 and send a man to Mars? The nation responded by glancing around and pointing out, "We sort of got problems right here, dude." The Bush administration soon abandoned the idea in the face of tepid public support. Well, if you want to know what life was like during the Space Race, we've just jogged your memory.
"Screw adventure, we've got expensive wars to do."
Despite the rosy picture the media has painted in hindsight, the race to the moon was surprisingly and consistently unpopular with the American media and public throughout the '60s. Three years before the moon landing, Newsweek announced that "The U.S. space program is in decline" and seemed like "an embarrassing self-indulgence" next to Vietnam and national poverty. According to Gallup, most Americans polled during the 1960s thought the Space Race wasn't worth the money being invested. And they didn't just want a little belt-tightening, either.
Unless that belt was around the throat and everything was about 60 percent more erotic.
In case you don't read graphs so well, that's a majority of Americans opposing the U.S. government spending any money at all on a trip to the moon in 1961, 1965 and 1967 -- two freaking years before the moon landing. The only difference between the national sentiment during the Space Race and America's feelings about Bush's Mars quest is that back then, the government ignored insignificant things like "how people felt."
"Which is why you're all going home and having peace gateau for dinner."
All the doubters must have felt pretty stupid after Neil Armstrong did a slow motion touch down dance on the surface of the moon, right? Actually, "Even after Neil Armstrong's 'giant leap for mankind,' only a lukewarm 53 percent of the public believed that the historic event had been worth the cost," which, according to Rotten Tomatoes, puts the moon landing closer to Deep Impact and Mars Attacks! than The Right Stuff and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Arms Race Was an Actual Race
For America, it all started with the missile gap, when intelligence estimates revealed that Russia was kicking our ass. From then through the Reagan administration, it was on like nuclear Donkey Kong. The U.S. and Russian governments kept tabs on one another, and with each weapon the other side built, they built another to even the scoreboard.
The arms race was illogical, with both sides eventually building enough weapons to level one another, then building 100 times more than that. But it was understandable. Neither side was going to admit that they didn't have the most weapons. Hell, some have even argued that it was an unavoidable byproduct of the way international relations work.
Why It's Bullshit:
Pretending the arms race was anything less than a decades-long confidence scheme is like blaming the laws of economics for Bernie Madoff. One thing your history teachers have right is that it did all start with that "missile gap." When the Soviet Union reportedly developed a significant military superiority, the United States responded with a massive splurge on nuclear weapons and bombers to "close the gap." So how much of a gap was there, actually?
Note that every number on that left side is enough bombs to kill fucking everything.
You'll notice that America was the first to push their crazy, out-of-control war machine into maximum overdrive. According to the CIA, from 1955 to 1961, U.S. Air Force Intelligence exaggerated Soviet missile and aircraft strength to the point that they were adding more than one zero to their numbers. This led to the production of thousands of heavy bombers, nuclear missiles, a nuclear-powered bomber and even a goddamn flying saucer (the Avro Canada VZ-9 Avrocar) to try to keep up with an imaginary threat.
This came from either Wikipedia or a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
Russia got spooked by the fact that the U.S. was building flying goddamn saucers and appeared to be tooling up for nuclear Armageddon and responded by overcompensating. But the arms race only happened in the first place because of a very simple three-step process. The military-industrial complex would 1) make up some crazy expensive weapons 2) claim that Russia had those weapons 3) get permission from the U.S. government to build them.
This all happened on Eisenhower's watch, and by the time he left office he realized what the U.S. Air Force and the CIA were up to and told Congress that the missile gap showed "every sign" of being what The New York Times described as "a fiction." And in one of the ballsiest speeches ever given, he retired with a grim warning to the nation about the "military-industrial complex" taking over U.S. interests.
Shut up, you pot-smoking hippie.
So how were we so woefully, utterly ill-informed? Check out this extract from a 1962 conversation between President Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor, commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
McNamara: I think that there was created a myth in this country that did great harm to the nation. And it was created by, I would say, emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon. There are still people of that kind at the Pentagon. I wouldn't give them any foundation for creating another myth.
Kennedy: You mean like the missile gap?
McNamara: The missile -- that's right.
"There was only one, pulled out for children's birthdays and Christmas."
Kennedy: That missile gap -- as one of those who put that myth around, a patriotic and misguided man -- [laughter] -- that came right out of ... You were one of them and, it's because we assumed ...
Taylor: Well, it was an honest mistake ...
"Bread lines? We thought these were war lines."
Yeah. That's Kennedy being told that the arms race was founded on a myth as ridiculous as Paul Bunyan, and being able to do nothing about it, because the guys in the room are the ones who made up the lie in the first place. But, before you go casting Kennedy as the peace loving hero in the Cold War, you should probably know ...
Kennedy Was the Peaceful Cold War President
When JFK's name is dragged through the mud these days, it's usually for all the places he put his dick that weren't on his wife's body. When it comes to his on-the-job record, he's usually held up as the ideological antidote to the warlike maniacs who followed him. He defused the Cuban Missile Crisis, focused technological resources on a race to the moon instead of nuclear annihilation and created peaceful-sounding initiatives like the Peace Corps.
His followers have even suggested that, had he not been assassinated, America never would have gotten into the Vietnam War. Oliver Stone's JFK suggested that Lyndon Johnson signed the document NSAM 273 just days after Kennedy's assassination, and according to Donald Sutherland, "In that document [DRAMATIC PAUSE] lay the Vietnam War."
Soon after this photo, Johnson jumped away from the document, which exploded.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has gone on record saying that Kennedy would not have escalated the Vietnam War the way Johnson did. Sounds like a pretty solid case that 'Nam as we know it would have never happened had Kennedy not been assassinated, right? Think about what that would mean for so many young men, and your favorite movie characters ...
Millions died to make The West Wing possible.
Why It's Bullshit:
"JFK presidential assassination conspiracy" had a whole new meaning back when he was still in office. Kennedy and his administration loved devising and launching shady plots to assassinate the presidents of other countries. The Cuban Project -- the CIA's many attempts to kill Castro in the most Wile. E. Coyote manner possible -- was launched by Kennedy. Of course, the Kennedy administration only resorted to outright murder after their secret invasion of Cuba failed miserably. So while he deserves a lot of credit for keeping Americans alive through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fact that Kennedy was openly and regularly trying to straight up murder their president probably helped cause the problem in the first place.
Later, Castro shaved off his beard and changed his name to Liam Neeson.
As for Vietnam, on September 2, 1963, John F. Kennedy told Walter Cronkite:
These people who say we ought to withdraw from Vietnam are wholly wrong, because if we withdrew from Vietnam, the communists would control Vietnam, pretty soon ... all of Southeast Asia would be under control of the communists and ... then India, Burma would be the next target.
"It's like Risk, which is why I've diverted the entire Marine Corps to the Kamchatka peninsula."
Politicians would spend the next decade reciting that exact justification for the war. Kennedy wasn't just pro-Vietnam War -- his administration basically wrote the pro-Vietnam War playbook.
Behind the scenes, he was already using tactics in Vietnam just as shady as Nixon's most questionable supervillainy. For instance, Kennedy authorized the overthrow and eventual assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. The evil document Oliver Stone waived in our faces in JFK was the second step in that shady CIA conspiracy, and it was all masterminded by the Kennedy administration.
"With all due respect, Mr. President, enough with the assassination conspiracies."
It's not that Kennedy was a villain or anything. Like any other president, he had to make some difficult decisions. But the widely held belief that he was less of a kill-happy warmonger than any of the presidents who followed him just doesn't hold up.
It Was All About Communists vs. Capitalists
The Cold War is easy enough to explain: communism vs. capitalism. The USSR, China and their communist allies were united as one glorious super-pact prepared for communist war with the capitalist West. Like a U.S. election, you had the red and blue districts competing for dominance. Everything else was beside the point. This belief was so pervasive in the media that they invented the phrase "third-world country" to refer to any country that wasn't firmly in either the commie or capitalism camp.
This was the belief that underlined all U.S. foreign policy -- as demonstrated by Kennedy's domino theory. While we might not believe that theory to be true anymore, as far as our history books are concerned, this is how Soviet and American leaders viewed the world ...
Anything red was fair game.
Why It's Bullshit:
That might have been how America viewed the world. Like with the missile gap, they had to make their enemy look like a big, strong, unified force to justify all that bomb-building. From the "second world" perspective, things were far less clear-cut.
For instance, sharing a 3,000-mile border did not make the Chinese and the Soviets all that friendly with each other, especially after that whole Genghis Khan thing. Throughout nearly the entire Cold War, the Soviets and the Chinese were actually engaged in a second Cold War with each other.
Wait, this is Genghis Khan? The guy who carried out the Mongol invasions looks like an overdone pastry.
While things started off pretty well between Stalin and Mao as far as odd couples go, things soured following the Sino-Soviet split of the late 1950s, which went so bad that it wasn't uncommon to see the Chinese burn Stalin in effigy. The situation eventually escalated into a seven-month-long Sino-Soviet border conflict, which doesn't get brought up in Western history books since it sort of screws with history teachers' ability to use Star Wars as a teaching tool.
"And then the two of them found out they were brother and sister and everyone felt horribly uncomfortable."
Even more confusing to the version of history learned in Western classrooms, the decade after the Vietnam War we're all familiar with brought the Sino-Vietnamese War, which cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides over the course of just 28 days.
America never had to openly fight their capitalist allies in Europe, but the allies were mostly motivated by trying to keep the U.S. and USSR from going crazy and shooting hydrogen bombs at each other. This is part of the reason why the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament started in the U.K. and not the United States. English philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested that Europeans should all convert to communism at once if it ever looked like World War III was imminent.
That seems like a reasonable idea, badass pipe guy.
So basically, the Cold War boils down to a bunch of military and industrial people pulling off one of the most profitable cons ever, and the rest of the world being terrified of the deadly results for 40 years.
Jacopo is a history nerd who was recently interviewed by Ripley's Believe It or Not! about the great Andrew Jackson Cheese Party of 1837. He also has a new book coming out called The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy and he is on Twitter.
For more bullshit, check out 6 Bullshit Facts About Psychology That Everyone Believes and 6 Subtle Ways The News Media Disguises Bullshit As Fact.
And stop by LinkSTORM to discover why Ronald Reagan was a very, very pretty man.
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