History of the World According to the Movies: Part 76 – The Cold War

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove: or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of the great Cold War satires that perfectly captures the historical mood of the time. Peter Sellers’ titular character shown here is based off of guys like Henry Kissinger, Edward Teller, and Werner Von Braun. Sellers also plays the President of the United States and a British Lieutenant stuck with General Ripper. Yet, one of the most surprising things in this movie is the presence of James Earl Jones as an Air Force pilot (yes, that James Earl Jones).

The problem with doing a movie history of the Cold War is that for many years there are so many movies that use it as a contemporary setting, particularly spy films. Thus, it makes the idea particularly hard to separate the history from the fantasy, well, maybe not that hard but close enough. Still, Hollywood had plenty of material to go by with the Cold War and it shows, even today with every James Bond movie or Tom Clancy or John LeCarre film adaptation. Nevertheless, from 1945 to 1991, the Western societies and Communist countries were locked in a war of influence with The United States and the Soviet Union being the two major superpowers involved. It was a time of arms races with building doomsday weapons and scrambling to get to outer space (which I’ll get to later). It was time in which indirect conflicts would be backed by one or the other. And it was a time of paranoia and scares in which people were afraid of nuclear annihilation and suspicious of opposing spies. You also had the Berlin Wall. Yet, it would all come down in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which made many bummed out of their minds. Nevertheless, there were plenty of movies made pertaining to this era which have their share of inaccuracies I shall list.

Red Scare:

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was an upstart member of the US Senate who just went a little too crazy over the Red Scare of the 1950s as well as well-liked figure in the Republican Party. (Actually, by 1948, McCarthy was in a career crisis mode by that time after allegations of bribery arose in 1948 which might have brought him impeachment or at the very least censure. Either way, his political career was on the way out and by this point, even the Republicans felt that he was an embarrassment so they sent him to do a speech in Wheeling where McCarthy made his famous anti-Communist stump speech that led to seven years of witch-hunts as well as made him politically bulletproof until 1954. Though Hollywood may make it seem otherwise, the Republican Party at the time didn’t intend to make Senator McCarthy a major political sensation. Rather, they were just trying to make him quietly go away.)

Senator Joseph McCarthy’s influence was at its height by 1953. (It was already on the wane by the time Edward R. Murrow’s show about him aired due to years of investigative reporting by other journalists by Drew Pearson. As Murrow said in Newsweek, “It’s a sad state of affairs when people think I was courageous” in presenting his show. Still, having Joseph McCarthy on See It Now certainly helped Americans everywhere to see how batshit insane this guy really was. Oh, and the Joe McCarthy footage in Good Night and Good Luck, well, it’s actually him despite some people complaining that the actor playing him hammed too much.)

The McCarthy era was one of the worst Red Scare eras in American history. (The notorious Palmer Raids of 1919-1920 would make the McCarthy hearings look like a picnic.)

McCarthyism made the job of finding Soviet spies easier. (It made the job harder. Not only that but accusing people of being Communist Party members actually allowed many bonafide Soviet spies to escape prosecution like Mary Jane Keeney who worked for the GRU and she was the only one of McCarthy’s accusations who was anything close to guilty. You could say that McCarthy was kind of a godsend to Soviet spies operating in the US.)

J. Edgar Hoover had little involvement in McCarthyism. (If it wasn’t for J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, then the McCarthy witch-hunt would’ve been written off akin to the bullshit you’d typically hear on Fox News that nobody should take seriously. J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI were the muscle behind the McCarthy witch-hunts and the reason why the Red Scare of the 1950s ruined so many lives.)

American Communists were cynical opportunists as well as racists only interested in seizing power in the US on behalf of the Soviets and not improving social and labor conditions in the country. (The movie I Was a Communist for the FBI portrays American Communists as this. However, the reality was {mostly} the opposite in regards to people like Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, or a lot of other folk singers as well as others. One critic was especially critical of the 1951 film writing, “In many respects, this heated item bears comparison to the hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee—which, incidentally, it extols. … For instance, in glibly detailing how the Communists foment racial hate and labor unrest in this country … [it] hint[s] that most Negroes and most laborers are ‘pinks’. It raises suspicion of school teachers … [and] that people who embrace liberal causes, such as the Scottsboro trial defense, are Communist dupes … and the film itself glows with patriotism. But it plays a bit recklessly with fire.”)

The K-19 Submarine Accident:

K-19 was the Soviet Union’s first nuclear submarine. (It was actually the Russians’ first nuclear missile submarine. The first nuclear Russian submarine was K-3 {an attack sub} which wasn’t as prone to serious nuclear accidents as K-19 was though similarly “reliable.” Also, contrary to the titular film K-19: The Widowmaker, the sub was actually much roomier than it’s depicted since it’s being played by a diesel sub. Of course, Kathryn Bigelow and the other filmmakers did try to secure the boat as a production set but the Russian Navy declined {for obvious reasons since it had a service life marred by a large number of accidents. The Russian Navy probably was worried about the film crew’s safety or thought filming there would be nuts}. As of 2014, the submarine is said to be preserved in a submarine graveyard after it was bought by one of the members of the original crew. Still, it’s worth mentioning that its first submarine commander did look a lot like Harrison Ford though {though his character’s name was changed out respect for the real life counterpart’s family}, which partly explains why his performance was praised by the remaining survivors.)

Seven men died as a result of radiation exposure during the K-19 nuclear accident. (Contrary to the 2002 film, 8 did that included all 7 members of the engineering team along with their divisional officer, within the next month from July 4, 1961. However, 15 would die from the after-effects of radiation exposure within the next two years.)

The K-19 was nicknamed: “The Widowmaker.” (It was never nicknamed “The Widowmaker” though it would’ve been an appropriate one since it did create a lot of widows and quite a few widowers during its construction and service. Rather its nickname was “Hiroshima” but after the accident. It would have a lot more accidents in its subsequent years of service with some resulting in fatalities {yes, it was put back into service after the meltdown}. Incidents include a 1972 fire that would kill 30 people and an electrical short circuit in 1982 that would kill one. Still, “The Widowmaker” is a lot more badass name than “Hiroshima.”)

There was an actual mutiny on the K-19 during the 1961 accident. (Contrary to the movie, the Captain was savvy enough to throw almost all the submarine’s small arms overboard out of concern of the possibility of mutiny.)

The Bay of Pigs Invasion:

The New York Times didn’t publish a story on the Bay of Pigs Invasion and regretted it. (This is a widely believed myth that’s depicted in Thirteen Days. The paper published a front-page story on the Bay of Pigs Invasion preparations two weeks before the event occurred, but it didn’t address any CIA involvement and that invasion was imminent.)

The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the political fallout that followed may have been the first strike that eventually became a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy. (Contrary to JFK, there’s no proof of this.)

Cuban Missile Crisis:

Kenneth O’ Donnell was the chief agent in preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating. (It was really, Ted Sorensen. As former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara said, “For God’s sakes, Kenny O’Donnell didn’t have any role whatsoever in the missile crisis; he was a political appointment secretary to the President; that’s absurd.” I wonder why they put Kenny O’Donnell in Thirteen Days because he’s played by Kevin Costner {who looks nothing like the real guy at all} and Ted Sorensen’s not. Yet, almost everyone in the Kennedy Executive Committee of National Security was more important than Kenneth O’Donnell. Shame Thirteen Days didn’t have the guts or funding to keep Kevin Costner out of the film.)

John F. Kennedy was worried about the prospect of millions of people dying in a nuclear holocaust around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Yes, he certainly was and so was almost everyone in the Kennedy White House during that time. Yet, contrary to Thirteen Days, it wasn’t the only thing on his mind since his first comment to the real Kenneth O’Donnell when the crisis broke out was about how two militant Anti-Castro Republicans would do in the polls: “We’ve just elected [Homer] Capehart in Indiana, and Ken Keating will probably be the next president of the United States.” Yet, let’s just say that a president worrying about his electoral prospects in such a crisis may be understandable. Still, while Thirteen Days was criticized for not devoting much time to Cuba and Russia, this is understandable since it’s based on memoirs from various Kennedy officials. Khrushchev had to get to Kennedy through Radio Moscow to talk to him during this time. Then again, perhaps Khrushchev should’ve been more worried about his job because he’d lose it after the Cuban Missile Crisis {which he kind of started}, though he got off pretty easy compared to other Soviet leaders.)

Kenneth O’Donnell made phone calls to Commander Ecker and Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (O’Donnell played almost no part at all in the Cuban Missile Crisis despite his Kevin Costner portrayal in Thirteen Days. Thus, these phone calls never occurred.)

The secret deal with the Soviets over the Turkish missiles was shared with the members of the Executive Committee of National Security in the Kennedy Administration. (Contrary to Thirteen Days, it was only known to very few people such as JFK, RFK, Dean Rusk, Ted Sorensen, and perhaps McNamara. Robert F. Kennedy vaguely hinted at this deal in his 1968 memoir Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The secret deal wasn’t known to the public until 1989 when it was officially confirmed by Ted Sorensen.)

President John F. Kennedy didn’t wear a hat when he left Chicago during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Contrary to Thirteen Days, he did, supposedly with a cold, since the White House Press Corps certainly would’ve noticed it for JFK almost never wore one.)

Nikita Khrushchev’s acceptance of peace contained the lines, “you and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter the knot will become…”(Contrary to Thirteen Days, this quote appeared in Khrushchev’s first letter from October 26, 1962, not October 27.)

The Cuban Missile Crisis took place in November 1962. (It took place in October.)

Soviet-Afghan War:

Representative Charlie Wilson greeted Pakistani president General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in Islamabad in a smart suit. (Unlike in Charlie Wilson’s War, he was in a Stetson hat and heeled cowboy boots almost making him look 7ft tall. Also, the conversation was about India, not fighting the Soviets. Not to mention, Pakistan was developing a nuclear bomb at this time, but you wouldn’t know it from the film. Then again, Wilson denied in front of congressional subcommittees. At the same time it’s said he told Zia at a state dinner, “Mr. President, as far as I’m concerned you can make all the bombs you want because you are our friends and they, the Indians, are our enemies.” {Actually the bit about the Indians isn’t exactly true for they weren’t US enemies}.)

Representative Charlie Wilson was a womanizing booze hound. (His exploits weren’t just limited to women and booze. He was also said to be a drug user.)

Charlie Wilson and General Zia were willing to help the Afghans so they could improve the lives of refugees. (Sure the refugee bit as a main motivation was more to make Wilson and Zia sympathetic characters in the Aaron Sorkin film though the refugee bit wasn’t even the half of it as far as motivations were concerned. It had more to do with Cold War politics and an enemy infidel invasion next door as far as the US and Pakistan were concerned. Yet, the story is far too complex for 1 ½ hour film.)

Charlie Wilson was willing to build a few schools in Afghanistan after the Soviets were defeated. (I’m not sure about this. Still, Charlie Wilson’s War leaves out actions by the ISI, MI6, CIA, and Saudi Arabia as well as the various factions in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also, he had no remorse or regret over arming the Afghan rebels despite the consequences.)

Charlie Wilson was the only American politician involved with the Soviet War in Afghanistan. (Contrary to Charlie Wilson’s War, Ronald Reagan actually gave the order to provide the Mujahadeen with Stinger missiles that denied the Soviets air supremacy and turn the momentum of battle after 1986. And remember that many of the Mujahadeen would later become Islamic warriors and form the Taliban so, yeah, he did negotiate with terrorists. Still, Charlie Wilson didn’t carry out his operation without the government’s knowledge but with the government’s approval.)

All of Charlie Wilson’s aides were gorgeous women. (His chief aide was a man named Charlie Schnabel.)

Robert Hanssen:

Robert Hanssen’s wife Bonnie didn’t know that he was a spy for the Russians. (Contrary to Breach, she knew since 1969 when she found $10,000 in cash at their home. Yet, by Hanssen’s capture in 2001, she was living in denial. Still, despite all the shit he had her put up with, Bonnie still wouldn’t want to divorce him. Yet, judging by the fact that Hanssen was a member of Opus Dei who videotaped himself having sex with his wife he’d watch with a high school buddy, he probably did it for the money.)

Miscellaneous:

Everything in the USSR was terrible, or technically backward, and that life was worse for them in every way, compared to the “democratic West.” (While the citizens of the Soviet Union certainly lacked civil rights compared to us, there were many aspects of their country that was advanced. For example, they were landing their cosmonauts on land, while ours had to fall into the sea. Their literacy rate was higher than the US, and their public education system superior. There was very little crime and doctors were making house calls right up to the bitter end – of communism, that is.)

The Soviets had the ability to nuke the US to oblivion. (Contrary to most movies that gives us the impression that the Soviets had thousands of nukes ready to unleash a fiery death on American cities, they only had 200 strategic bombers in all, tops. Their missiles weren’t much better. Yet, let’s just say, in the nuclear capabilities department, the Soviet Union was behind at least in the 1950s. If the Soviet Union had a chance to nuke the US into oblivion, it would’ve been in the 1980s.)

All Russians were Caucasian. (Russians came from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities as well as cultures.)

All Communist countries were Soviet puppets. (Maybe Poland and East Germany though their relations with the USSR weren’t entirely smooth. As for the rest of the Iron Curtain, they tried to gain more autonomy from the Soviet Union even though they were Communist. As for the Asian Communist states, China was at odds with Russian and tried to invade Vietnam, the Korean War was Kim Il-Sung’s idea, and Vietnam actually thwarted the Chinese invasion. Oh, and Vietnam wouldn’t put up with China invading them either.)

Communist banned religion in their countries. (Officially atheist, sure, but many religious traditions in those countries did survive to this day. Not to mention, many Chinese religions actually don’t require belief in a god and tend to have characteristics that resemble philosophy. Also, explain to me how John Paul II was able to become Pope? I mean John Paul II spent most of his life before pope as a Catholic priest/bishop in a Communist country. Not to mention, though the Soviet Union did persecute clergymen and tried to dismantle religious institutions, the laity was mostly tolerated {same goes for other Eastern Bloc nations} since persecuting a group that made up the majority of Russia’s population was a bad idea. Not to mention, Josef Stalin would actually revive the Russian Orthodox Church to drum up support for Russia’s entry into WWII and never bothered to persecute the Georgian Orthodox Church because he was afraid of angering his mother. There would be a time when the anti-religious policies would be revived under Khrushchev , they’d be considerably relaxed under Brezhnev onward.)

Some East German Stasi agents would betray their agency and help those they had under surveillance. (The plot to The Lives of Others revolves around this but unfortunately, no Stasi agent has publically regretted their actions, let alone help their victims. Also, the Stasi agents watching were also under surveillance so they wouldn’t get away with what Wiesler did. Ironically, they guy who played Wiesler was also under surveillance and later found out that his then wife was a registered informant on him.)

Russia was a US ally in 1947. (A more accurate term would be frenemy since they still kept ambassadors {enemy nations don’t send ambassadors to each other} but Russia and the US weren’t exactly friends.)

At least one woman was awarded the “Hero of the Soviet Union” twice. (This is the Soviet equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor. 92 Soviet women were awarded this once {50 posthumously} yet there’s no record of any woman being awarded it twice.)

The Soviets had the power to launch nuclear missiles with a push of a button. (Contrary to Dr. Strangelove {which is a great satire by the way}, unless the Russians were planning an offensive on the US in which use of nukes was imminent, the Soviet premier couldn’t just press a button to start off a nuke. The Soviets used a particularly toxic and rather corrosive blend of rocket fuel for their missiles and since they didn’t have the kind of metallurgy the US did; Russian missiles could only be fueled for a limited time before they’d have to be unfueled, maintained, and refueled. As a result unless an offensive posture was needed in the event of a nuclear war, the Soviet missiles were kept empty of rocket fuel until they were set to be launched. And the fueling process of Soviet nuke missiles usually took up to four hours, which would’ve made launching preparations very problematic. Oh, and the Soviets had a mostly train-based missile launch system under an impression that it would be more difficult to destroy a mobile target than one at a stationary reinforced location. Yet, such train-based missile launch system made US intelligence agencies very good at finding things with the increasingly ubiquitous spy satellites that were more or less developed to spy on the Soviet Union. Let’s just say if Nikita Khrushchev was able to cause a nuclear holocaust with a push of a red button, there probably would’ve been no Cuban Missile Crisis since he was only willing to deploy Soviet missiles at Cuba after the US has had deployed their missiles in Turkey which could hit Moscow within 16 minutes to launch. Yet, problems arose when it became uncertain of whether Cuba had any authority to launch them or whether Cuba would launch them anyway as well as the United States finding out. Maybe the Russians should’ve stuck to making assault weapons since the AK-47 is the most widely used and popular assault rifle on earth and has killed far more people than nukes.)

Soviet officers wore beards. (Facial hair was prohibited in the Soviet Union’s armed forces.)

Russian soldiers were equipped with Swedish Gustav M45 submachine gun. (Look, unless this is a WWII movie of the Eastern Front or any time before 1946, it would be best if Russian soldiers during the Cold War would be equipped with AK-47s since it’s the most recognized Soviet Union weapon on earth and is made all over the world. Not to mention, everyone practically knows what they look like and can be found anywhere.)

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One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 76 – The Cold War

  1. So these were the good ol’ days- I don’t think so! The Red Scare must have been awful. We still like to play the fear card, I guess.

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