8.5: Just When You Thought It Couldn’t Get Any Worse…

WWII left much of Japan and Europe in ruins, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union emerged as the two post-war superpowers, occupying (at least temporarily) former Axis territory in Europe and Asia. The standoff between these two superpowers, called the Cold War, would last 46 years. (It would finally be resolved in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.)

The Cold War remained “cold” because there was no direct armed conflict between Americans and Soviets, due in large part to the fact that (with help from former Nazi scientists captured on both sides) both countries developed massive nuclear arsenals. The concept called mutually-assured destruction guaranteed that neither side would risk shooting at the other: if that happened, the entire country (and, later, the entire world) would be destroyed completely due to a full-on nuclear strike. By the end of the Cold War—and continuing into the present—there are enough nuclear weapons existent to destroy the world several, several times over and prevent any life—human or otherwise—from existing for tens of thousands of years, at least.

The closest the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. came to a nuclear standoff was in 1962, when the U.S. placed nuclear missiles in installations inside its ally Turkey, very close to the Soviet border. The Soviet Union responded by moving to install missiles in its Communist ally Cuba, 90 miles from Florida. After a tense period during which many suspected the world would end, both sides eased off and the Cuban Missile Crisis was over.

More than 50 years after that scare, the brutal legacy of the most violent century continues. What do we do with these “nukes” now that the Cold War is over? Do “nukes” endanger the survival of Planet Earth, or ensure its survival by scaring everyone away from war?

To bring it full circle: Will the 21st century be considered another Renaissance, or another Dark Age?

[Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD)—the prevention of war due to the threat of nuclear annihilation from the would-be enemy country

Cuban Missile Crisis—the tense period in 1962 when a “nuclear stand-off” emerged between the U.S. (which stationed nuclear missiles in Turkey) and the U.S.S.R. (which would station missiles in Cuba)]