Quotations: Evaluating the Cold War

This page contains a collection of Cold War quotations, made by political leaders, notable figures and historians, reflecting on and evaluating the Cold War (1945-1991). These quotations have been researched and compiled by Alpha History authors. We welcome contributions and suggestions for these pages. If you would like to submit a quote, please contact Alpha History.

“The Cold War was dangerous and complex. It brought devastation to tens of millions of people and, on several occasions, it threatened to decimate nations or the world entire. Policymakers on both sides were frequently baffled or scared by what was happening, and irrational decisions were at least as common as reasonable ones.”
Nicholas Guyatt, historian

“The Cold War could have been avoided only if the Soviet Union had not been possessed by convictions both of the infallibility of the Communist world and of the inevitability of a Communist world.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jnr, historian

“The Cold War has dominated American life since 1945. It has cost Americans $4 trillion in defence expenditures, taken the lives of nearly 100,000 of their young men, ruined the careers of many others during the McCarthyite witch hunts… It has not been the most satisfying chapter in American diplomatic history.”
Walter LaFeber, historian

“[The Cold War] was not so much the actions of the Kremlin as it was fears about socioeconomic dislocation, revolutionary nationalism… and Eurasian vacuums of power that triggered US initiatives to mould an international system to comport with its concept of security.”
Melvyn P. Leffler, historian

“The Cold War was the brave and essential response of free men to communist aggression.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jnr, historian

“The Establishment vision of the United States as the world’s saviour has turned to ashes. Revisionist explanations, without the support of facts, are no more credible. Historians squabble. None convince.”
Gaddis Smith, American historian, 1971

“I heard those speakers at the [Democratic Party] convention saying ‘We won the Cold War’. And I couldn’t help wondering just who exactly did they mean by ‘we'”.
Ronald Reagan, former US president, 1992

“I’m fighting for a Cold War medal for everyone who served our country during the Cold War because you were on the front lines of battling communism. Now we are on the front lines of battling terrorism, extremism, and we have to win. Our commitment to freedom, to tolerance, to economic opportunity, has inspired people around the world… American values are not just about America, but they speak to the human dignity, the God-given spark that resides in each and every person across the world.”
Hillary Clinton, US presidential candidate, August 2007

“The Cold War could have produced a hot war that might have ended human life on the planet. But because the fear of such a war turned out to be greater than all of the differences that separated the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, there was now reason for hope that it would never take place.”
John Lewis Gaddis, historian

“This is where the capitalists got it right: they were better than the communists at learning from history because they never bought into any single, sacrosanct and therefore unchallengeable theory of history.”
John Lewis Gaddis, historian

“I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”
Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defence, 2003

“For 40 years we were led to think of the Russians as godless, materialistic and an evil empire. When the Cold War ended, we suddenly discovered that Russia was a poor Third World country. They had not been equipped to take over the world. In fact, they were just trying to improve a miserable standard of oppressive living, and couldn’t. They had to spend too much on arms build-up. We didn’t win the Cold War; we bankrupted the Russians. In effect, it was a big bank exhausting the reserves of a smaller one.”
Norman Mailer, American writer, 1995

“It was man who ended the Cold War in case you didn’t notice. It wasn’t weaponry, or technology, or armies or campaigns. It was just man. Not even Western man either, as it happened, but our sworn enemy in the East, who went into the streets, faced the bullets and the batons and said: we’ve had enough. It was their emperor, not ours, who had the nerve to mount the rostrum and declare he had no clothes. And the ideologies trailed after these impossible events like condemned prisoners, as ideologies do when they’ve had their day.”
John le Carre, British novelist, 1990

“There is an increasing consensus that shapes Cold War historiography. While scholars may have been blinded by loyalty and guilt in examining the evidence regarding the origins of the Cold War, increasingly, scholars with greater access to archival evidence on all sides have come to the conclusion that conflicting and unyielding ideological ambitions were the source of the complicated and historic tale that was the Cold War.”
Timothy White, American historian, 2000