Fighting Words: Cold War Terms | HistoryNet

Fighting Words: Cold War Terms

By Christine Ammer
8/7/2018 • MHQ Magazine

The Cold War incident described in Ed Offley’s “Buried at Sea” is but one of many in- stances of deception during that period. The particular cat-and-mouse game played by submarines acquired the name on the “cowboys and Indians” of Western films cowboys and Cossacks, a play (cited by linguist Paul Dickson). Mark Joseph’s book To Kill the Potemkin called the game “practice for World War III.”

Popular films such as The Third Man (1949) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) perpetuated an era of intrigue. The CIA became known as the department of dirty tricks, an allusion to its numerous covert operations. When the term was first so used, in the 1960s, it was not seen as being particularly disapproving. Indeed, it had the ring of swashbuckling derring-do, since it was believed that the “free world” had to fight the fire of the Cold War with their own fire. Much later, however, during the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, it was applied to politics and illegal campaign practices.

Affairs relating to Cuba in the early 1960s gave rise to a number of terms that have remained with us. The abortive attempt to invade the island and overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro became known as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the bay having been the site of the attempted invasion. Ever since, Bay of Pigs has signified a major failure, much as the name Waterloo came to signify a final crushing defeat.

Another expression from that place and time was missile crisis, referring to the Russian offensive missiles that were landed in Cuba in the early 1960s. On October 22, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy revealed that a Soviet missile buildup had taken place in Cuba, and he ordered an air and naval quarantine on shipment of military equipment to the island. The crisis ended on October 28, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles, and on November 2 Kennedy announced that the missile bases in Cuba were being dismantled.

To some extent this term echoed the earlier missile gap, Kennedy’s charge in the 1960 presidential campaign that U.S. missile production lagged behind Soviet production. Indeed, two years earlier General James Gavin had resigned from the army with a blast at the missile gap. The phrase, and the allegation, was later abandoned when Kennedy’s advisers said the danger had been overstated. It surfaced again in 1966 when Pentagon leaks pointed to an authentic missile gap, but it was not taken seriously. Since then, the term has come to symbolize misleading and exaggerated claims.

Similarly, managed news, dating from the same period, signifies misinformation disseminated by the government to further its own interests. Soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, the media attacked news management as fibbing in high places. Reporters were subsequently barred from ships blockading Cuba, and the White House, Pentagon, and State Department all worked assiduously to prevent the free flow of information. Although neither the term nor the practice was new, it reached a peak in the Kennedy administration. A virtual synonym from the Cold War era is the verb “to sanitize.” A 1978 citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from the journal The Listener says, “The language of the Pentagon is designed to sanitize…disagreeable realities and disreputable motives.”

Of course, much of the policy on both sides of the Cold War was aimed at sustaining a deterrent, an old term that took on new meaning with the threat of nuclear warfare. “The major deterrent in the future is going to be not only what we have but what we do, what we are willing to do, what they think we will do,” wrote Admiral Arleigh Burke in 1960. Nuclear weapons were and are thought to be the most powerful deterrent against a major war. The term continues to be used in a military sense to the present day.

Then we have overkill, meaning more nuclear capability than is needed to decimate an enemy’s entire population. It was usually put as the number of times that the United States and the Soviet Union would have been able to destroy each other. Coined by Hudson Institute analyst Herman Kahn in 1960, the word was to replace such terms as “catastrophic” and “annihilating retaliation.” Despite its chilling original meaning, it was transferred to civilian use in politics, economics, and other areas. For example, “Raising taxes now might avert inflation, but it’s too extreme a measure— it’s overkill.”

Many of the policies promoted during the Cold War were promulgated by think tanks. This term began to be used in the mid-1960s for a group of advisers or a research organization whose principal job was to develop plans and projects for government and for defense industries. Among the think tanks of this period were the RAND (an acronym for research and development) Corporation and the Hudson Institute. RAND was set up in 1946 by air force General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold and continues to operate. Although the term may have originated earlier, it was during the Cold War that its importance was recognized and it became well known to the public.


Christine Ammer is the author of several dozen wordbooks, including The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (2006).

Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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