5 Ridiculous Cold War Myths You Probably Believe
The Cold War was a 40-year pissing contest in which the entire world's population kept a constant eye on the news, with a never-ending fear that one side or the other would whap their big, red Armageddon button first. But as we've mentioned before, much of what we think we know about this period in history comes served beneath a heaping helping of horse-shit gravy. For example ...
Myth: The USSR Got A Head Start In The Space Race When They Launched Sputnik
The Space Race was history's ultimate dick-measuring contest -- a competition between the U.S. and the Soviets to see whose dick could reach the friggin' moon. And in October 1957, America collectively gasped when the USSR launched their Sputnik program, thereby accomplishing a true technological marvel: placing the first artificial satellite in orbit.
To quell the growing American inferiority complex and prevent space from becoming downright filthy with commies, America put on its space boy pants and established NASA within a year of Sputnik's launch.
The first week was just seeing how many Gs the scientists could reach spinning on the lone office chair.
Why It's Bullshit:
As you can probably imagine, when news of Sputnik 1 circling the cosmos reached President Eisenhower, he completely shit his pants ... if, by "shit his pants," you mean "breathed a contented sigh of relief." Oh, sure, the public freaked out about the commies taking over space, but as far as the U.S. government went, well, the Soviets were doing exactly what they wanted them to do.
See, prior to the launch of the Soviets' Sputnik program, Eisenhower's inner circle was more concerned with the legalities of space than with the technicalities of how to get there. Thanks to America's crack team of rocketry geniuses (aka former Nazis), the U.S. could have beaten Sputnik by a good year if it hadn't been for our legal worries -- namely, borders that, at the time, were considered to extend upward to infinity and beyond. So, by launching an object into orbit, other nations could potentially protest the U.S.'s illegal violation of their airspace every time it buzzed by overhead. But, by lobbing one tiny, metal beach ball into space, the USSR had just sent those concerns up in rocket smoke by setting a precedent. They paved the road for everyone else, thanks to the Russians' innate talent for not giving a shit.
"We are over the White House. Release the communism."
Otherwise, Sputnik wasn't exactly a groundbreaking technological marvel. Sputnik 1 didn't really do anything other than emit a beep every few seconds until its batteries crapped out. Its sole purpose was to be in space first -- much like that peckerhead who posts "First!" in comments sections -- and equally as useless as that same peckerhead. Sputnik 2 and 3 were more practical, but not much more successful: The canine test subject in Sputnik 2, Laika, turned into a doggy roast damn nigh immediately (well, short of the week Soviet scientists first claimed), and any scientific data Sputnik 3 gathered regarding the Van Allen Belt was unverifiable after the satellite's recording equipment shit the bed.
Explorer-I, the American satellite launched just a few months after the original Sputnik, was arguably more technologically important and advanced, as was the 1962 Telstar, the precursor to all modern communications satellites. But, in history, as in car racing, second place is just the first loser.
Myth: Nixon And Kennedy Were Like Night And Day
As far as pop culture remembers it, the election was the kind of black-and-white choice you only see in a movie. Richard Nixon was the conservative West Coast sleazemaster with a commie-hunting background. John Kennedy was the progressive New England shining star who would lead the world through its pending atomic fog -- when he wasn't too busy banging history's hottest women. They were the very definition of polar opposites, both personally and politically, and never were the two candidates' differences more apparent than in the 1960 presidential debate -- the very first to be televised on this newfangled picture-radio dojigger. That's when the world fell in love with Kennedy and uttered a collective "ew" at a literally sleazy Nixon.
For the first of many times.
Why It's Bullshit:
Both sides played up the rivalry, but, in reality, Kennedy and Nixon were on the same team throughout much of their careers. On the issue of communism, they had basically the same voting record in the House of Representatives, earning each a prime spot on Lee Harvey Oswald's hit list. Kennedy wasn't completely sold on commie witch hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy, but voted in support of Nixon's co-sponsored security legislation. He voted with Nixon to continue the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee. JFK personally backed Nixon in his 1950 Congressional bid against a fellow Democrat, and Kennedy's millionaire father likely made it rain on at least one of Nixon's congressional runs.
Even after losing the aforementioned 1960 presidential race, Nixon's nitpicking of Kennedy's policies never amounted to more than splitting hairs. He was silent when it came to Kennedy's infamous defense budget overruns and escalation in Vietnam, which basically amounts to approval. A Nixon presidency in 1960 would likely have played out very similarly on the international stage: Nixon's covert role in overthrowing Chile's government in the '70s is eerily reminiscent of Kennedy's strategy in South Vietnam and Cuba in the '60s -- only, by that time, he had learned how to successfully pop a coup in a motherfucker.
Wait a minute, HAVE THEY EVER BEEN IN THE SAME ROO- oh, nevermind.
On the most critical domestic issue of the era, civil rights, their sincere but hands-off approaches were so uncannily similar that Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn't tell the difference, presumably deciding to back Nixon by flipping a coin. JFK, sensing the importance of the black vote, managed to pull some strings to get King out of jail when he got arrested, and King's last-second endorsement of Kennedy helped secure his narrow victory.
One major sticking point for Nixon was JFK's wiretapping of political rivals, a technique that he would nevertheless famously borrow to disastrous results. It seems one should never discount the political importance of being immensely fuckable.
Myth: Ho Chi Minh Hated America And Everything It Stood For
The Vietnam War was the point in the communist versus capitalist contest where shit got real. North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was the face of Communism in the conflict -- an enigmatic commie fanatic playing a chess match against a nation he despised and could never hope to understand. Known for his association with the torture of U.S. POWs, such as the now legendary John McCain and John Rambo, he was everything America was sort-of-but-not-literally fighting against in this whole Cold War thing.
According to official CIA reports, he also stole foul balls from children at MLB games and rubbed his own foul balls on apple pies.
Why It's Bullshit:
Ho was more spurned lover than mad villain. He gained intimate knowledge of the American military during World War II and even used his American connections after the war to score a one-on-one meeting and a cherished autographed photo with his hero, General Claire Chennault of Flying Tigers fame. We're guessing the two bonded over their unfortunate names.
Pictured: a face that has more than once disappointed a room full of army privates.
And Ho's fascination with America started long before that. As a student in Paris in 1919, Ho attempted to petition President Woodrow Wilson into pressuring France to release their colonialist grip on Vietnam's balls. Wilson treated the young Ho much like you would a Jehovah's Witness knocking on your door while you're trying to watch Game Of Thrones -- a circumstance that may very well have played a substantial role in Ho's turn to communism. "It was patriotism, not communism, that inspired me," he said.
"Also, Wilson was being a total dick. That was definitely part of it."
Still, Ho never fully lost his lust for American-style freedom. In a speech (prematurely) announcing Vietnam's independence in late 1945, the Vietnamese guerrilla leader/George Washington wannabe quoted from the Declaration of Independence. He had an appreciation for the founding values of America and had even ironically proposed that Vietnam be absorbed (not unlike Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands) as a U.S. protectorate to ensure no more foreign meddling from France or Japan.
During his (ultimately failed) attempts to woo over his American contacts in the period between WWII and the Vietnam Shitstorm, he bent over backward to ingratiate himself to his American friends like a sniveling intern, even personally overseeing the preparation of American-style roast chicken and hunting down bottles of champagne to serve up at banquets. Just think, the Vietnam War might have been averted altogether had the U.S. taken Ho Chi Minh up on his offer, or at least complimented the chicken.
America: improving foreign relations with food since 1621.
Myth: The U.S. And The USSR Couldn't See Eye To Eye On Anything
If the United States and Russia could have cooperated with each other, there wouldn't have been any such thing as a Cold War to begin with. For nearly a half-century, the two nations were locked in a bitter contest of strong wills and political supremacy, using everything from nuclear warheads to Olympic medals as points of contention. Yeah, from deciding which tiny third-world countries were ripe for some steppin' on to declaring who had the better goddamn toaster, the two superpowers couldn't agree on anything. Hell, they weren't even talking to each other.
"Oh, you would say that."
Why It's Bullshit:
Back in the early '70s, the two sides absolutely did cooperate -- most notably in the "War Against Cancer" (yes, everything was a "war" back then), a collaborative effort to isolate the virus that caused cancer. Of course, we now know that the idea of a single, viral cause of cancer is best described as "completely wackadoodle," but making crazy-ass guesses and then proving them true is just how science works sometimes. So, millions of dollars and whatever the hell the equivalent of that is in rubles were tossed at the best and brightest minds on both sides. And in 1972, the Russians discovered the malignant Holy Grail: They had isolated the cancer virus in human cells. The Soviets freely shared their samples with American scientists (who in turn freely shared samples of viruses that they had found to cause cancer in animals).
"There seems to have been a mistranslation. What do you guys think 'cancer' is?"
That project didn't result in a cancer cure (as you probably guessed -- the virus "discovery" was based on some bad data), but that's just an example of the kind of cooperation that went on behind the scenes. The cancer project was a result of the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement and the Bilateral Health Agreement, which itself was inspired by a joint U.S./USSR vaccination initiative that kicked polio's ass in developed countries on either side of the Iron Curtain. Going back even further, such cooperative ventures were possible thanks to the Soviet Union's return to the World Health Organization in 1956, after an extended hiatus, facilitating the free access to scientists and data across borders to solve global problems.
Even the Space Race, the very poster child of American/Soviet rivalry, managed its fair share of productive working relationships that, in true American fashion (see "former Nazis," #5), resulted in some of the very brightest Soviet space nerds finding their way into Uncle Sam's welcoming embrace. Presumably that made "bring your pet to work day" a thing of the past in the American aerospace industry (see "doggy roast," #5).
Myth: The Oval Office Had A "Red Phone" For Apocalyptic Emergency Calls
Made famous by classic Cold War movies such as Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb and Fail Safe, the image of the Oval Office is simply not complete without the big, red emergency phone -- a private line that, at any given point in time, connected the U.S. president to Russia to make secret dealings or diffuse (literal) flash points in the world with the Soviet Premier in Moscow. As tensions rose, the need for this communication tool was invaluable for ensuring that planet Earth did not suddenly come to resemble Swiss cheese.
Why It's Bullshit:
The red phone connecting the White House to Moscow never existed. The idea of a dedicated 24-hour phone service between the two nations was suggested once, but ignored and promptly forgotten amid larger talking points.
"Have you seen what AT&T charges for long-distance calls?"
Oh, it probably should have existed -- because the actual Washington-Moscow link was barely a step above two tin cans connected by thousands of miles of string. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, both parties relied on a patchwork of communication methods, ranging from a slow and not always accurate courier system to Russian radio channels over which messages sometimes took as long as a half-day to reach their destination and be translated. The most crucial moment of the conflict -- and possibly world history -- hinged on bike messengers to deliver coded telegrams between Khrushchev and Kennedy in order to avert nuclear annihilation. A single pothole could have wiped Cuba off the globe.
That communications clusterfuck finally motivated the superpowers to get their shit together; however, they were hampered by the limitations of technology at the time. Their "upgrade" consisted of a modest but reliable teletype system that came to be known as the "hotline." This hotline wasn't even in the White House (it was at the Pentagon), and, rather than a stylish phone, the device looked like some kind of steampunk fax machine.
Making it history's one and only cool fax machine.
Eventually, the two semi-belligerents would move into the email era ... in 2008. It's a case of reality being so utterly ridiculous that popular culture came along to incorporate a more feasible notion into our perception of history. And when rewriting history, where better to pull your inspiration from than freaking Batman?
For more bullshit about history that you probably believe, check out 5 Lies About the Vietnam War You Probably Believe and 5 Myths About the Revolutionary War Everyone Believes.
Are you on reddit? Check it: We are too! Click on over to our best of Cracked subreddit.