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Learning from the Cold War

NEW YORK – Every war is fought three times. First comes the political discussion over whether to start or enter it. Then comes the question of how to fight it. And, finally, there is consideration of what lessons should be learned from it.

The Cold War, the third major conflict of the twentieth century, is no exception to this rule. All three phases can be identified, and all three triggered intense debate.

There were, for example, those who questioned whether the Cold War was in fact necessary and whether the Soviet Union and Communism constituted a threat. Such “revisionists” were a distinct minority, which is a good thing, as there is no reason to believe that the Soviets and Communism were a benign force. As a result, the Cold War, a four-decade-long global struggle, became a reality.

There was also an ongoing debate about how best to wage the Cold War throughout its history. The two principal schools of thought were “roll back” and “containment.”  The former argued that nothing less than overthrowing communism – “regime-change” in today’s parlance – would do. The latter approach held that efforts to roll back Communism in the short run were too risky, given the Soviet nuclear arsenal, and that the United States and the West should content themselves with limiting the spread of Soviet power and influence.