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The Cold War is relatively recent history, but there are till plenty of myths about it to debunk. Justin wages war against Cold War misconceptions, from the romantic image of the Cold War-era spy to the comedic oeuvre of Yakov Smirnoff (sort of).

If you think the only Cold War close call was the Cuban Missile Crisis, you'll want to watch. You'll learn about why the end of the Cold War is a bit harder to pin down than you might think, and how toilet paper (or lack thereof) led to a breakthrough for military intelligence.

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In November 1983, U.S. and NATO troops suddenly  went on high alert. A small fleet of cargo planes were moving thousands of American troops to  Europe in complete radio silence.

B-52s were being armed with bombs as the Strategic  Air Command raised its nuclear-threat alerts to the highest level they could go. As the chaos unfolded, the Soviets observed the whole thing—if the West was going to launch  a surprise nuclear attack, the Soviets knew their best bet was to beat them to the  punch by launching one of their own first. For a moment, it looked like the nuclear war  everybody had been worrying about for decades was finally at our doorstep.

And the American public  was completely unaware of it for years to come. If you’re only familiar with the Cliff Notes  version of the Cold War, you might assume that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the only time the  United States and the Soviet Union came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war. But it turns  out there’s a lot we get wrong about America’s decades-long standoff with the Soviets.

Hi, I’m Justin Dodd, and today we’re talking myths and misconceptions about the Cold War. East vs. West.

Communism vs. capitalism. Pepsi vs. Coke.

That last one is a bit more  literal than you might think. The Cuban Missile Crisis is often remembered as  the cautionary tale of how close we could come to World War III in the blink of an eye. The long  and short of it is that, following the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba made a deal with the Soviet Union  for nuclear weapons.

The U. S. learned of the deal and set up a “quarantine” around Cuba, which is  sort of the non-combat version of a blockade, to stop shipments of weapons. There was a  standoff, a few tense phone calls were exchanged, and we could have all been annihilated at the push  of a button.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita  Khrushchev agreed to discuss their issues rather than bomb us all back to the Stone Age. Though this event gets most of the historical press, you might not be aware that it wasn’t  the only time the Cold War almost boiled over because of a petty squabble or misunderstanding. Another close call was the Able Archer incident from November 1983.

Able Archer was the name of a military training exercise carried out by  NATO that was meant to simulate what would have to happen should a nuclear war break out. According to Slate, these war games involved the movement of 19,000 troops and an arsenal of  aircraft. Fake bombs were loaded into real planes; radio silence maintained the illusion throughout.

Everyone simulated DEFCON 5 through DEFCON 1 exactly as they would if there had been  real nukes going off across the globe. While the U. S. and NATO continued to  gear up for what looked like an attack, the Soviets followed suit, escalating  their alert status as their foes did.

One tiny problem: the nuclear weapons  they loaded onto aircraft were live. Non-reconnaissance flights were grounded  across the Warsaw Pact airspace, and according to The Nation, Soviet nuclear  subs headed for cover near the Arctic. So why is the Earth still spinning?

Well, for  starters, you can thank Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots.

He was the deputy chief of staff for intelligence  for U. S. Air Forces in Europe.

He watched how the Soviets were responding and realized that  this was a bit more than grandstanding in the face of a military exercise—the Soviets  were actually ready to go on the offensive. Sensing that a real war could break out over  some fake maneuvering, Perroots advised his superiors not to escalate the exercise any  further, defusing the situation before it turned into a world-ending affair. Along with his  warnings, a KGB double-agent working for the UK got the word out to their government, which  then contacted Washington about the situation.

Author Nate Jones, who wrote a book on the  incident, would say, “Had Perroots mirrored the Soviets and escalated the situation, the  War Scare could conceivably have become a war.” If you’re just learning about all this now,  there’s a good reason for that. While the public knew some of what was going on in Cuba  as it happened, we didn’t really know a whole lot about Able Archer until a report of  its events was declassified in 2015. It was such a secret that the year before the  details came to light, Perroots barely got three lines on his Wikipedia page, without a single  peep about the incident.

After the whole thing was revealed, the Wiki was generously bumped to  five lines. Though having your biography end with   “he is credited with helping to avert a  nuclear war” is as good a capper as any. If that isn’t unsettling enough, this incident  came just two months after a computer glitch in a Soviet satellite erroneously reported that  the U.

S. had launched five ballistic missiles into Soviet territory. Again, lucky for us,  Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov had a quote   “funny feeling” in his gut that the computers  were wrong and decided not to act on it. Cold War spies Were All Secretly  Placed Behind Enemy Lines Spies have been used for political and military  gain for as long as people have been seeking political and military gain.

Sun Tzu wrote on  the benefits of espionage in The Art of War, Roman emperors employed spies, and  George Washington’s ring of spies proved invaluable during the Revolutionary War. But none of those moments in history quite conjure up the same vivid images as the Cold War-era  spy, thanks to the fictionalized accounts of their death-defying jobs from authors like John Le  Carré and Ian Fleming. Fleming, of course, created James Bond as the epitome of the debonair spy  with sex appeal to spare—and for the last time, I am not interested in taking over the role  from Daniel Craig, I have my sights set higher.

In the real world, where, frustratingly,  no one has asked me to play James Bond, not all spies were pulling off  covert and illegal operations unbeknownst to their adversaries—some spies were  actually welcomed on each side with open arms. This is all thanks to something called the  Military Liaisons Missions. This was an agreement between the Soviets and the West that allowed for  a certain number of opposing intelligence officers to be let in on both sides in Germany to keep  tabs on things and keep communication flowing.

It was meant to actually relieve tensions  among the superpowers, as there would be less paranoia and tension if you were allowed to  peep on the other guy in plain sight. In effect, it basically turned into legal spying on  both sides, according to Atlas Obscura. From this rather strange agreement came one of the  most successful operations of the entire Cold War.

And it just so happened to revolve  around used toilet paper. It was called Operation Tamarisk, and it all  started because Soviet troops working in the field in East Berlin weren’t issued actual  toilet paper when going about their business. Instead, they had to improvise by using any sort  of paperwork they found to wipe their supple Commie behinds.

Sometimes these would be blank  sheets, other times they would use letters and other harmless bits of stationery. But sometimes,  they were forced to use top-secret documents to do the dirty work. And since you can’t flush paper  like this without wreaking havoc on your plumbing, these sheets were put into the garbage  after use and moved to a dumpster.

When the U. S., UK, and France learned of this,  they had their perfectly legal officers infiltrate these spots to fish through the Soviet garbage and  pull out the stained documents. They’d be given a good cleaning and pieced back together.

The  documents, not the spies. Or, both, hopefully… The point is, there was a time in the history  of military intelligence where, if you drew the short straw, it could mean dumpster-diving  for poopy papers that could contain information on Soviet supply drop-offs, tank schematics,  delivery schedules, and other highly sensitive information. Historian Richard J.

Aldrich called  the smeared intel “gold dust to the growing army of analysts in London and Washington.” On the subject of number two, the West was kind of obsessed with it during the Cold War. In 1959, while Nikita Khrushchev was on a visit to the U. S., some poor soul at the CIA was tasked  with salvaging some of the Soviet Premier’s, um, leavings, after he used the bathroom.

It was studied, analyzed, and admired, only to find that—and we’re quoting  The Washington Post here-—Kruschev   “was in excellent health for a man of his age  and rotundity.” How’s that for U. S. hospitality? Most Americans Supported the Space Race.

The Space Race is often portrayed as one of the most agreeable causes of the 20th century. When President John F. Kennedy promised that the U.

S. would land a man on the moon by  the end of the 1960s, it was a rallying cry for the nation and something that would  inspire a new generation to quite literally reach for the stars. Plus, it would  really stick it to the Soviets. The U.

S. finally made one giant  leap for mankind in July 1969, but it wasn’t cheap. All told, the final cost of  the Apollo program that got us to the moon was $25 billion in 1960’s money. That’s more like $152  billion today.

And, as it turns out, the effort and expense to land on the moon didn't enjoy  particularly widespread approval in the States According to polls throughout the ‘60s, most  people believed getting to the moon wasn’t worth the ever-increasing cost. In 1965,  only 39 percent of people thought the U. S. should get to the moon first, regardless  of expense.

Did that change once people finally witnessed man slip the surly bonds  of Earth and play golf among the stars? Nope—in 1979, 53 percent of people said the space  program wasn’t worth what we were spending. By 1994, the number of yays and nays was  finally even at 47 percent.

It wouldn’t be until 1999 that the majority of people finally  believed the cost was justified—and even then, only 55 percent agreed. The Cold War was always tense. When we think of the Cold War, it’s easy to view  it as a never-ending tension from the 1940s to the late ‘80s that encompassed pretty much the entire  planet.

And yes, the ‘50s and ‘60s had their fair share of scary moments; and yes, we were  almost all killed because of a misunderstanding in 1983—but there was a period in the ‘70s when  everything calmed down to a mild simmer. And for that, among other things, you can thank President  Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, two men who worked hard for peace and not so  hard at maintaining their eyebrows. GOT EM.

This time of relative serenity  really kicked off in May 1972, when Nixon became the first U. S. President  to visit Moscow.

During this time, the two men talked about how lowering  tensions could benefit both nations, and then they signed a number of agreements  on arms control while promising future cooperation for areas like space research. That was actually a promise they fulfilled: Within three years of this meeting, the two powers  collaborated on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which saw their respective space programs  come together to develop a compatible rendezvous and docking system that could be used  by U. S. and Soviet ships in case of an emergency.

Space scientist ??Roald Sagdeev and  his then-wife, Susan Eisenhower—Ike’s granddaughter—later wrote an essay explaining  that the impetus behind this rare group project was a movie called Marooned, starring Gene Hackman  and Gregory Peck, which focuses on a group of American astronauts who get stranded in space and  have to be rescued by their Soviet counterparts. For historians, this period of relative  calm is known as detente (day-taunt), and for all its good intentions, it began to  fray after Nixon resigned in 1974. The easing of tensions is often said to have ended with the  fallout from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan  took a hard line and explicitly said that   “Detente has been a one-way street that the  Soviet Union has used to pursue its aims.” Still, it’s important not to think of the Cold  War as one continuous geopolitical crisis that went on for decades without end. It ebbed and  flowed, with periods of heightened tension and times when most average citizens  probably didn’t give it a second thought. The Soviet Union Was Completely  Cut Off From Western Influences If the propaganda of the time, and the comedic  oeuvre of Yakov Smirnoff, is to be believed, you’d imagine the Soviet Union as something of  a hermit kingdom, completely cut off from the creature comforts of the West in the ‘70s and  ‘80s.

Turns out, that’s not exactly the case. In addition to their own film industry, the  Soviet government would often purchase a handful of American movies at a time for theatrical  distribution. Their choices might not be what you’d expect: the Soviets had a soft spot  for lavish comedies like Tootsie and Some Like It Hot (although in the USSR the latter film was  shown under a title that could be translated into something like Girls Only in Jazz, not as catchy).

If you were a kid who wanted to see Star Wars, you’d just have to hope that your  local black-market VHS van had an illegal copy to sell you for a few rubles. One familiar American brand that came to the Soviets in a big way was Pepsi. This was the first  U.

S. consumer good to exist in the Soviet Union, and it came onto the scene in 1974. But since  the company couldn’t receive payment for their product with the ruble being restricted, the  Soviets simply traded their own Stolichnaya vodka to Pepsi to distribute in the U. S., while the  soft-drink giant provided the syrup concentrate to the Soviets to make the soda on their own.

It’s estimated that the Soviet Union consumed more than a billion servings of Pepsi every  year by the late ‘80s. And although you could get Fanta earlier, Coca-Cola was largely  locked out by the Soviets until 1985. As the Soviet Union really began  falling apart in the early ‘90s, the floodgates opened, and you could  soon find McDonald’s and Pizza Huts springing up around Moscow, providing perhaps the  clearest sign that the times were a-changing.

And on the subject of Pizza Hut, in 1997,  none other than Mikhail Gorbachev himself, former Soviet Leader, starred in a commercial for  the fast-food chain. As for why he took the gig, I’m sure the reported payday of nearly $1  million didn’t hurt. Which, by the way, if the James Bond gig doesn’t take off, I’d be  happy to portray Ronald Mcdonald, just call me.

The Collapse of the Soviet  Union Ended the Cold War On Christmas night, 1991, the familiar red flag  of the Soviet Union was lowered at the Kremlin in Moscow for the final time, and in its place  rose the red, white, and blue tricolor flag of the newly independent Russian state. The  moment was a romantic historian’s dream, a symbol of the fall of the Soviet Union and the  end of the decades-long Cold War with the West. Realistically, the Cold War was pretty much  over years before the Soviet Union officially dissolved.

By the end of the '80s, Soviet Leader  Mikhail Gorbachev had been slowly communicating more openly with the West on issues like arms  control and human rights. In May 1988, when a reporter asked if the president still thought of  the Soviet Union as the quote-unquote Evil Empire like in his infamous 1983 speech, Reagan responded  “I was talking about another time, another era.” That type of cheeriness from the Gipper would  have been unthinkable even a few months earlier. By the next year, the Berlin Wall came down.

When  President George H. W. Bush met with Gorbachev at the Malta Summit in December ‘89, there  was a lot of talk about working together and cooperating for a better tomorrow—it certainly  didn’t sound like war-time bravado anymore.

But you’ll still routinely see historians  and media outlets saying the Cold War dragged on until 1991. So what gives? Well, one  possibility is that it’s all about storytelling.

In a 2010 lecture at the Carnegie Council, former  ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock recalled a time when a producer invited him  to watch the closing moments of a Cold War documentary that was in the works. It proudly  stated that the fall of the Soviet Union on that December night in 1991 was the end of the  war. When Matlock told the producer that he had gotten it wrong and that the war ended in 1989,  the producer just looked at him and said “Yes, but that’s not dramatic.” Never let the truth  get in the way of a good story, as it were.

And while I think it’s fair to say the  Cold War was over, in a meaningful way, before the official dissolution of the Soviet  Union, It wasn’t necessarily smooth geopolitical sailing from 1989 onwards. In January 1991,  months after Lithuania declared independence, the Soviets cracked down on the Baltic states,  killing over a dozen people and sparking a Western backlash that Gorbachev said was reminiscent  of “the worst moments of the Cold War.” Since there was no declaration of war to  officially kick off the Cold War, and no treaty at the end to give us a satisfying finale,  it kind of makes sense that so many textbooks and documentaries latch onto the symbolism of  that Christmas night in 1991 as the final day of the conflict. But, really, by this point,  America was already thinking about its next war.

Thanks for watching Misconceptions! We have an  upcoming episode debunking myths about robots, and we’d like to know, what frustrating  misconception do YOU want tackled? Let us know in the comments for a chance to be featured in  that episode.

Until then, stay vigilant, comrades.