The Second Cold War
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A state of cold war makes the need for accountable leadership in Washington urgent. Union ForwardRead More
In March 2022, one week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resurrected fears of a nuclear conflict between the United States and our erstwhile rival, Comedy Central’s long-running animated hit South Park parodied a certain nostalgia for the high-stakes, history-making experience of the first cold war.
The competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union represents an era when our country had the drive and the enthusiasm to send astronauts to humanity’s frontier. Rampant fear of Soviet power served as the political impetus for the U.S. to land a man on the Moon and develop the breathtaking technology which consumes our modern lives.
At the same time, the nightmare of the Vietnam War is seared into our national identity. An estimated 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed and 58,000 Americans were sent to die for a cause bitterly and infamously opposed back home. The first cold war catalyzed both the inspiring success of the Apollo program and the frightening atrocity of the Vietnam War.
Despite elevated tensions and a number of close calls, American and Soviet leaders avoided the worst-case scenario: a nuclear exchange.
The second cold war—and space race—began to take clear shape during Donald Trump’s presidency with the 2017 launch of NASA’s Artemis program and the eruption of a trade war between the U.S. and China in early 2018. Five years later, the idea of a Chinese threat to U.S. sovereignty became apparent as a spy balloon floated effortlessly through our airspace.
The detection of an unidentified object over Alaska in recent days led the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to shoot down an aerial object for the first time in its history, which was followed in quick succession by a second downing in Canada, and a third over Lake Huron.
The Pentagon stressed during a Sunday night press conference that they do not yet know the shape of the three objects, nor can they confirm their origin. Spokespeople would not rule out aliens, emphasizing that theories around the objects currently rely on incomplete information. The department’s incertitude contradicted a previous claim by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that all three objects were believed to be balloons.
Regardless of the truth of these objects’ origins, the event serves as an ominous indication that the U.S. and China find themselves in a fierce and increasingly hostile competition. Chinese defense officials ignored U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s initial calls with regard to the spy balloon out of apparent anger with the U.S. for firing on it. In response, the Biden administration blacklisted six Chinese entities for their alleged support of military initiatives by the People’s Liberation Army of China.
America’s culture wars look more futile than ever in the face of a second cold war. Sincere national concerns—from the growth of the military-industrial complex into the beast that President Dwight Eisenhower warned of in 1961 to the two-party system’s drift into favor of oligarchy and out of favor with representative democracy—must take precedence in a time of heightened global stakes.
President Eisenhower’s warning against the attainment of “unwarranted influence” by the military-industrial complex is perhaps more relevant today than it was in 1961. The threat that is posed to liberty and democracy by America’s $858 billion war machine cannot be underestimated or discounted.
The first cold war did not avoid a nuclear exchange by accident. On a fall morning in 1983, the potential for nuclear war may have come down to the decision of one Soviet officer whose computer system told him that a U.S. nuclear strike had been launched.
Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov stared at the alert in shock, frozen in time as a world-altering decision landed suddenly in his lap. He held the phone that would have alerted his superiors of the attack for five minutes as he weighed his options. Petrov ultimately made a gut decision against reporting the alert, concluding it likely to be a false alarm.
Although his story ended with disaster averted, it serves as an eerie reminder that a state of cold war brings accidental nuclear exchanges into the realm of immediate possibility.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is widely regarded as the closest that the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to a nuclear exchange during the first cold war. In the early 1960s, the U.S. deployed nuclear missiles to Turkey in an effort to deter Soviet missiles from threatening U.S. allies in Europe. The Soviet Union viewed the U.S. deployment in Turkey to be a direct threat to its national security, and America’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 fueled a desire among Soviet leaders to defend their interests abroad.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made the decision to deploy missiles of his own in Cuba to counteract perceived U.S. aggression.
President John F. Kennedy is often praised for his emphasis on diplomacy over inflammatory actions. In order to end the crisis, both U.S. and Soviet leaders had to make concessions: the Soviet Union would remove its missiles from Cuba, the U.S. would remove its missiles from Turkey, and the U.S. would respect Cuba’s sovereignty.
The skills of modern U.S. leaders in compromise and concession are arguably not as honed as they were in the 1960s, simply because today’s lawmakers are out of practice. Leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties prefer to keep the nation consumed by a bitter culture war—and fundraise off of the outrage—than work on solutions to challenges that will fall in the lap of the next generation.
The three UFOs spotted in North American airspace were shot down in rapid succession despite a lack of certainty regarding their shape, characteristics, or origin. During the Pentagon’s Sunday press conference, officials reinforced that they were “calling them objects for a reason,” and that they were still unable to discern whether they had shot down balloons or something else. The objects flew at an altitude which posed a hazard to civilian aviation—unlike the initial Chinese spy balloon—and were shot down without identification.
Reports on the objects remain contradictory, though some descriptions align with those of the astounding videos of anomalous UFOs provided by U.S. pilots in recent decades and acknowledged by the Pentagon in 2021. Some of the pilots who tracked the objects in recent days reported that their sensors had been interfered with and that they saw no visible propulsion systems on the objects—two key characteristics of the extraordinary UFOs that have captivated Congress in recent years. Not all of the pilots experienced interference with their sensors, however.
It is not yet clear whether the decision was justified or a jittery overreaction. The decision to shoot down these three objects could have been affected by lingering anxiety from the fallout of the first balloon. China’s claim that ten U.S. spy balloons entered its airspace in 2022 would change the nature of the debate if it proves to be true, but few trust the word of the Chinese Communist Party. The party also maintains their claim that the first balloon was merely conducting meteorological research.
Americans should acknowledge the reality that our country has re-entered a state of cold war, and that our political system will face further stress because of it. The threat is not necessarily one to the colossal U.S. military, whose 2023 budget totaled $858 billion. The threat is rather one to the endurance of our system of representative democracy.
The Democratic and Republican parties are the only avenues to political power in 2023, and their legitimacy is thoroughly poisoned by a flood of special interests and dark money—including from the defense industry. Average representatives in Congress find it difficult to focus on the concerns of anyone but a select few devoted liberals or conservatives, since these are the voters they must answer to in primary elections.
Our founding principles held up against substantial political strain in recent years, yet the acknowledgement that they are still alive must be paired with an acknowledgement that robust reforms were necessary yesterday.
As the first American president of the post-World War II era, Dwight Eisenhower oversaw the transition of the U.S. military might built up during the war into what he described as a “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”
During his 1961 farewell address, the president and famed military officer warned in stark terms of the danger posed by a powerful military-industrial complex:
“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all U.S. corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government.
We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications … In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Eisenhower understood the need for a security infrastructure capable of defending U.S. interests in its newfound status as the world’s only superpower. Yet he warned that extreme vigilance with regard to the military was vital, specifically cautioning “that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Today, the U.S. war on international terrorism has spanned two decades and four administrations. President Joe Biden’s 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan was followed by an increase in defense spending, not a reduction.
A handful of private defense contractors profited to the tune of trillions of dollars while sending millions of dollars in campaign contributions to Democratic and Republican politicians alike. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and millions were displaced, not to mention the thousands of American soldiers who lost their lives and veterans who were left suffering and alienated. After bringing an end to the war in Afghanistan, President Biden’s commitment to the defense of Ukraine turned out to be highly lucrative for the same defense contractors who profited from of our involvement in the Middle East for two decades.
Long before Joe Biden or Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House, the Founders of our Union advised a strict policy of austerity with regard to the military. President George Washington left office in 1796 with two distinct warnings for future generations.
His first admonition concerned the need, in his view, for the U.S. to avoid foreign entanglements which could tie its fate to that of others:
“Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”
Second, he cautioned against allowing the power of political parties to supersede that of the people’s government:
“[Political parties] are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Today, the American public understands the flaws in our political system as easily as contemporary politicians exploit these flaws.
A 2023 poll conducted by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy asked voters to name one law they would enact if they had the power. Responses were divided into categories, and voters overwhelmingly indicated that political and electoral reforms—term limits, in particular—were their top priority. 28 percent of answers fell into this category, while no other category was prioritized by more than 10 percent of respondents.
Electoral reforms including ranked-choice voting and non-partisan primaries are enjoying a wave of national momentum as Americans seek out ways to break the stranglehold of the two-party system over our politics. In summer 2022, the Forward Party launched an unorthodox approach to third party politics in the spirit of remaking our electoral incentive structures. The new party’s central goal is to support state-level ballot initiatives for electoral reforms that promise to unlock elections for independent and third party competitors.
Americans are coming to view the two-party system as a key obstacle to a stable and prosperous future in and of itself. A record-high number of voters today support a hypothetical third party, and a plurality of voters have been independent—not Democratic or Republican—since 2010.
There are a number of different avenues for political reforms. Regardless of which avenue we choose, the partisan volatility that is now baked into America’s ruling parties does not bode well for their ability to preserve liberty and democracy in the face of a long-term military, economic, and technological competition.
Americans should embrace the inherent need for reforms, keeping in mind the blunt warnings of our ancestors and the stress that will be applied to our political system by a second cold war in the coming years.
The 1969 journey to the Moon was carried, in part, by public enthusiasm for the restoration of the country’s frontier culture.
Practically, it was carried by a recognition among U.S. political leaders that winning the race to the Moon was key to winning the broader cold war against the Soviet Union. In 1957, the launch of Sputnik 1—the first artificial satellite to reach Earth’s orbit—stirred fears in the U.S. that the Soviets’ technological capabilities would overtake our own, and that we would be left behind in the coming space age.
The element of cultural reinvigoration, however, cannot be discounted. President Kennedy’s soaring ambitions for a bright and peaceful era of space exploration will not be forgotten for as long as American culture exists to celebrate them. Thus far, this element is missing from the second space race.
This is not to say that it cannot materialize in a future leader, perhaps even one in the near future. President Eisenhower’s initial response to the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1 was to dismiss it as a non-issue. He opposed engaging in the space race and insisted that the only advantage the Soviets had gained with their launch was a psychological one.
U.S. national security officials recognized the strategic significance of the space race a number of years before politicians recognized its cultural significance. The same is true of the second space race today. Resuscitated in the 2010s by incredible innovations in reusable rocket technology achieved by SpaceX, America’s space program will soon enjoy the fuel of political will.
In 2017, decades-old ambitions to return to the Moon and reach for Mars were formalized into the Artemis program. President Trump promised to “establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars,” and in November 2022, Artemis I took the first step towards realizing that goal.
Subsequent missions aim to land astronauts on the Moon by 2025 who will establish the foundations for construction of a lunar base. Eventually, this lunar base will serve as a launchpad to Mars.
Meanwhile, China announced joint plans with Russia in 2021 to construct their own lunar base. The projected timeline remains uncertain, yet few doubt the ruling Communist Party’s resolve in the emerging space race. In fall 2022, China finished construction of the Tiangong Space Station, which became just the second station in operation.
There will be an urge among some U.S. lawmakers and defense officials to emulate China’s authoritarian style. As an autocrat, President Xi Jinping will have the ability to single-handedly launch ambitious projects. The outcome of the first space race and the innovation achieved by private enterprise, however, should reassure U.S. representatives of the wisdom of a free and open system.
President Biden’s decision to shoot down the Chinese balloon and three UFOs in rapid succession, whether out of legitimate fear of a threat or anxious jitters, marks a turning point in the relationship between the U.S. and China.
Political and electoral reform should be our country’s chief priority for the foreseeable future. These can include ranked-choice voting, term limits, campaign finance reform, non-partisan primaries, and much more. Our disagreements on policy specifics cannot be a barrier to achieving our shared goals.
Just six months removed from its launch, the Forward Party offers an intriguing blueprint for securing these goals. The party aims to pass electoral reform at the state level, modeled after the success of Maine, Alaska, and Nevada in approving ranked-choice voting—in addition to non-partisan primaries in Alaska and Nevada—via ballot referendums. In its current form, the Forward Party exists less as a political party and more as a vehicle to coalesce the support necessary to upend the two-party system in favor of one with four, five, or six parties.
Two other minor parties—the Libertarian Party and the People’s Party—worked together to organize an anti-war rally dubbed ‘Rage Against the War Machine’ in Washington, D.C. on February 19. However, the event is engulfed in a controversy that led to the resignation of the Vice Chair of the Libertarian Party. The initial slate of speakers included a convicted sex offender and several individuals who appeared to hold pro-war views, bringing into question whether the event would contribute to its stated goals.
Americans are not sure who they can trust in today’s political landscape. It seems appropriate, then, to turn to the wisdom and warnings of our ancestors. Washington and Eisenhower voiced their fears for the future in farewell addresses that were always meant to be heard by you and me.
The danger of our time is not necessarily that the People’s Liberation Army will overtake the U.S. military in its capabilities. After all, the advantage of claiming a larger military is severely dampened if nuclear war is on the table. The danger, as it was foreseen by Presidents Washington and Eisenhower, is rather that the U.S. military-industrial complex acquires such an unwieldy amount of political power that our constitutional republic is eroded into a militant empire.
As the U.S. enters an era which is sure to be marked by fear and escalatory rhetoric, we should seek to recapture the sense of cultural revival which took hold amid the brutal competition of the last cold war. The two-party system and the incendiary culture war it fuels appear to be the principal obstacles to such a revival.
Should we remain vigilant, hopeful, and ambitious, there is no reason to believe that our constitutional republic cannot rediscover the innovative spark that gave spirit to generation after generation of Americans before us.
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