Cold War trivia

This page contains a collection of unusual facts and trivia about the Cold War (1945-1991). The information on this page has been researched and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to contribute something to our Cold War trivia page, please contact us.

A monument at the site of Karl Marx’s grave in Highgrove Cemetery, London

Karl Marx would become one of the most prominent political philosophers in modern history – but for much of his adult life, he was broke. Marx spent most of his last 30 years in London, where he and wife Jenny relied on charity – especially from associate Friedrich Engels – to avoid starving. He also suffered from painful boils on his genitals. Marx died in 1883 and was buried in Highgate cemetery in London. There were less than a dozen mourners at his funeral.

In 1920, A. Mitchell Palmer, the US attorney-general, along with a 25-year-old lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover, claimed to have uncovered a plot to overthrow the national government. According to Palmer and Hoover, the revolution was to unfold on May 1st 1920. Palmer mustered thousands of police and militia to thwart this uprising – but it never eventuated. He was left red-faced, while paranoia about the ‘Red Menace’ quickly began to fade.

Joseph Stalin was a warped personality who enjoyed manipulating his underlings and potential political opponents. In the late 1940s, Stalin invited several high-ranking Soviet officials – men who he believed posed a threat to his own power – to dinner. After they had finished the first course, Stalin told them all that the soup had been poisoned. Following several minutes of watching their panic, Stalin admitted he had been lying.

During the Yalta conference, Stalin had US president Franklin Roosevelt‘s rooms fitted with ‘bugs’ (listening devices) – so that he could learn more about US strategy as well as Roosevelt’s private opinions.

Yugoslavia was a communist state after World War II – but it soon broke away from the Soviet bloc and adopted a neutral foreign policy. The Yugoslav leader, Marshal Josef Tito, had been a foundation member of Cominform – but he began to split from Moscow, leading to Yugoslavia being expelled in June 1948.

US president Harry Truman once declared that he had two options in life – to become a politician or play the piano in a brothel, quipping that with hindsight, there wasn’t much difference between the two.

Marshall Plan aid was also offered to the USSR and its satellite nations. For a time, Stalin considered accepting the US offer – but he quickly declined after seeing the conditions attached to the funding.

Despite the success of the Berlin airlift, civilians in west Berlin endured very difficult conditions in 1948-49. There were frequent shortages of coal and around 10,000 Berliners froze to death during the winter.

Elvis Presley in military uniform

The US stationed more than 270,000 troops in West Germany through the entire 1950s. The most famous of these was a young pop singer named Elvis Presley, who had been drafted by the US Army. It was in Germany that Elvis began dating Priscilla Beaulieu, the 14-year-old daughter of an air force officer. She later became his wife.

The phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie through to Tango) was first adopted by NATO forces as a consistent way of communicating by radio. Because of this, it is sometimes called the NATO alphabet.

America also attempted to win the ‘war of ideas’ by broadcasting US content into areas under the wing of the Soviets. The US installed powerful new transmitters in Europe that enabled its radio and TV signals to be received by about half of the Soviet bloc.

Joseph McCarthy‘s nickname in the Washington press corps was the ‘Pepsi-Cola Kid’. This stemmed from rumours that McCarthy’s opposition to sugar rationing was due to a $10,000 bribe received from soft-drink manufacturers.

Richard Nixon‘s performance in the so-called ‘kitchen debate‘ helped boost his popularity in America. The following year he won the Republican Party nomination for the 1960 presidential election. He would narrowly lose the election to John F. Kennedy – ironically, after Nixon’s poor showing in another American technological invention: the televised political debate.

The Internet is very much a child of the Cold War. In 1958 the US Department of Defense formed an elite scientific and technical research facility called ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency). Its role was to develop new technologies for military use. In October 1969 it unveiled ARPAnet, a system of connecting multiple computers using packet-switching. By the early 1970s ARPAnet had evolved into an early form of Internet, which was then used mainly for exchanging e-mail and transferring small files.

Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh‘s Chinese wife lost contact with him around 1930 and for many years believed he was dead. In 1950 she spotted Ho’s picture in a newspaper and attempted to make contact. Communist officials in both China and Vietnam prevented a reunion, however, believing Ho’s political appeal would be stronger if he was to remain single.

The ‘little red book’ containing quotations from Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong is one of the most printed books in history. At least 5 billion copies were published in over 100 languages. It has become an enduring symbol of Mao and the totalitarian nature of the communist regime in China.

The television comedy M*A*S*H was set in Korea during the war. The acronym stands for ‘Mobile Army Surgical Hospital’, an emergency medical facility close to the front line that could be packed and moved at short notice. This mobility was particularly important during the Korean War, where frontlines frequently shifted and occupied territory often changed hands.

The Hungarian Revolution impacted on the 1956 Olympic Games, held in Melbourne, Australia. Three nations (Spain, Switzerland and Holland) boycotted the games in protest against Soviet intervention in Hungary. The men’s water polo semi-final between the USSR and Hungary was a bitter affair that ended with punches being thrown in the pool – and even among spectators. Hungary won the match 4-0 and later claimed the gold medal. Four members of the Hungarian team defected to Australia at the end of the Games.

The British developed a secret plan, codenamed ‘Blue Peacock’, which involved burying several nuclear mines under border territories in north Germany. These mines would be detonated during a Soviet invasion. Ten of these mines were ordered in 1957 but they were never put into place.

Like his fellow CIA U-2 pilots, Gary Powers carried a specially-designed suicide device: a fake dollar coin containing a retractable needle. If injected, the needle would deliver a small but fatal dose of poison extracted from the natural toxins of puffer fish.

In the early 1960s, the CIA launched ‘Acoustic Kitty’, an ambitious attempt to gather information by planting listening devices into cats, which were released into the Soviet embassy compound. Millions of dollars were spent on this project before it was abandoned in 1967.

In 1962, US president John F. Kennedy signed an executive order requiring the installation of Permissive Action Link (PAL) security mechanisms and access codes on all nuclear weapons. The PAL code for Minuteman intercontinental missiles was ‘00000000’. It was not updated until 1977.

Soviet naval officer Vasili Arkhipov may have averted war during the Cuban missile crisis. Arkhipov was aboard submarine B59, which was escorting Soviet ships approaching the US naval blockade. When an American warship peppered B59 with practice depth charges to bring it to the surface, the submarine captain and another officer decided to respond by firing nuclear-tipped torpedos at the Americans. Arkhipov opposed this, however, and in doing so may have prevented World War III. The plotline of the 1995 American film Crimson Tide was based on Arkhipov’s actions.

Cold War foes Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy eventually formed an amicable relationship, exchanging more than 120 letters before Kennedy was gunned down in 1963. After Kennedy’s death, his widow sent a touching ‘thank you’ letter to the Soviet leader. Jacqui Kennedy told Khrushchev that her husband’s main concern was that nuclear war would be started not by major leaders, but by minor figures unaccountable to history.

The are many conspiracy theories about the American moon landing of 1969, alleging that it was ‘faked’ and actually filmed in a movie studio. Most of these theories suggest this was done because the US to that point had been ‘losing’ the space race.

Several prominent Soviet citizens defected to the US or other Western countries during the Cold War. Arguably the highest profile defection was that of Rudolf Nureyev, then considered the world’s leading male ballet dancer, who defected to France in 1967. A string of other dancers also defected for political or professional reasons, including Natalia Makarova (US, 1970) Mikhail Baryshnikov (Canada, 1974) and Alexander Gudonov (US, 1979). Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the United States in 1967. The highest ranked defector was Soviet diplomat Arkady Shevchenko, who sought asylum in the US in 1979.

In 1976 a Soviet pilot, Viktor Belenko, flew his MiG25 jet to Japan, where he declared his wish to defect to the US. The plane was pulled apart by American military analysts, while Belenko was put on the payroll, working for several years as an advisor to the US Air Force.

In 1978, Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov was assassinated in London – by an umbrella. Markov, who had been highly critical of the communist government in his country, was jabbed in the thigh by an umbrella tip while walking to work. Though he thought little of it, Markov later became unwell and died three days later from ricin poisoning. His killer, probably a Bulgarian agent or KGB assassin, was never found or brought to justice.

According to Fabian Escalante, chief of Fidel Castro‘s personal security, the CIA formulated 638 different assassination plots against the Cuban leader. Though this figure is exaggerated, there is certainly evidence of multiple CIA attempts to murder Castro. They ranged from routine operations like blowing up Castro’s car to poisoning his favourite drink (milkshakes). One fanciful scheme involved tainting Castro’s food with a chemical that would make his trademark beard fall out.

By the 1980s, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung had developed a benign tumour, growing at the back of his neck. It grew so large, several inches across, that in the final years of his life Kim was only ever photographed ‘front-on’.

In August 1984, Ronald Reagan – while warming up for a radio address – joked that he had “signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” The audio of this was later leaked and caused some controversy, especially in the Soviet Union.

The Cold War was predicted by Adolf Hitler. Speaking in early 1945, Hitler prophesied that if Germany was defeated, the US and USSR would engage in a “trial of strength, either militarily or in economics and ideology”.

Various historians and economists have attempted to calculate the total cost of waging the Cold War. Walter LaFeber puts the figure at around $US8 trillion. At the peak of the arms race, both the US and USSR were spending around $US50 million on armaments alone.