The Cold War

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Damocles swinging his sword like a MADman

"After the end of World War II, the world was split into two -- East and West. This marked the beginning of the era called the Cold War"

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

At the dawn of the 20th century, the Russian Empire was a huge but largely backwards state. Its ruling class were fiercely conservative in an age of reform, and the monarchy was absolutist to the extreme. While Russia did sport some pretty nifty universities and an advanced elite (Lenin, for instance, was a well-educated man), most of its population lived as illiterate peasants (with minorities being exempt from conscription and some taxes, therefore having some advantages compared to Russians - unless you were a Judaist, in which case - welcome to authentic medieval experience). Industrialization was minimal with a large part of the existing industry being owned by transnational or foreign companies. Most peasants and urban workers were hard-pressed to feed themselves while the ruling nobles either had stuff made for them on their estates or imported manufactured goods from England, Germany, America, etc. What industry the government had created for the military (the Tsar built steel mills, railworks and textile factories to make cannons and guns for the army, trains to move the army around and uniforms for soldiers) proved woefully inadequate in the coming age of Materialschlacht. The Russo-Japanese War, meant to be a "short victorious one", resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Russians and led to the First Russian Revolution of 1905.

The Tsar's government attempted reforms in the decade between that loss and the First World War, but they were either half-assed or not as effective as expected. Add to that, the Russians went into the Great War with a massive ten million man army, but said army ran out of shells after six months. This, and a whole lot of other reasons snowballing from the Emancipation Edict of 1861 to the humiliation in WWI proved to be a fertile ground for revolution. In February 1917, the top brass made Nicholas II resign, establishing the Provisional Government, which wasn't very successful in overcoming many problems that plagued Russian Empire at the time. Therefore, in October Bolsheviks revolted and created the SovNarKom (executive government) in his stead. Add a few years of bitter civil war between people differing on how to implement communism, wanting to establish a democratic republic, restore monarchy or simply pillage to theirs hearts content (further complicated by a certain amount of external intervention in said civil war by capitalist militaries formerly allied with the Tsar, including those of Britain and the USA), during which such charming concepts as "red terror" and "white terror" were introduced (and Tsar was executed along with all his family), and the USSR as we know it was finally founded in 1922.

In 1926, a man called Iosif Vissarionovitch dze Jugashvili, much better known by his nom de guerre Stalin (Man of Steel) managed to come to power. Stalin was true to his name, and implemented his (in)famous "Five Year Plans", a set of crash economic programs that turned the backward Russian economy into a centralized command economy. Russia underwent agricultural collectivization and industrialization at breakneck speed; which allowed it to very quickly become a serious player on the global market... at the cost of some nasty things like the famine of 1932–33 or the Great Purge; that came with massive human costs (especially with the purges spiraling out of control due to his rampant paranoia).

In spite of facing the worst devastation of World War Two, the USSR did managed to emerge victorious against Nazi Germany and had by that point grown into the second most powerful state on Earth (a distant second, mind it, US had 50% of world's GDP at the time). The European Theater of World War Two ended with a race by the Western Allies (mostly the United States because the others were bankrupt after the war) and the Soviet Union to reach central Germany and take over. As a result, the Soviets took the capital and most of Germany to the east while the West actually held the western half of Germany. During this time, the United States developed nuclear weapons. While too late to drop any on Germany (as originally planned) they wound up using two of them to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Poor security on nuclear development led to the Soviet Union learning of these before the vice president did. Using their spy network, they promptly stole knowledge of how to make these weapons themselves.

And make no mistake, obliterating the Nazis made the Soviet Union and communism quite popular with the masses, especially with the colonial system crashing down after WW2. While in most newly-freed colonies (like India) communism never came to power, in old European countries like France and Italy the communist parties were so successful they had to be excluded from government under US threats of stopping post-war financial help. San-Marino even became the world's first democratically elected communist government. The USSR, a second-rate country at the start of WW2, came out of it as a superpower and with much of Eastern Europe turned into satellite states, many feared they just wouldn't stop there. Similarly, China, united by communists after a lengthy and bloody civil war (the one that, for all intents and purposes, hasn't ended yet, with both the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the PRC considering each other a non-legitimate state), stood up to UN forces spearheaded by Americans and fought them to a bloody stalemate during the Korean War with only minimal support from its northern neighbor. The death toll was horrific, but nonetheless it was obvious another major player had just emerged, quite different from the pushover Imperial China had been only 50 years before during the Boxer Rebellion. Now communists controlled a large chunk of the globe, so Americans and Europeans were really scared of Reds infiltrating the rest and taking over.

In hindsight, it was ridiculous: Russian communists didn't care all that much for immediate revolutions in USA or Western Europe since the death of Lenin and the deposing of Trotsky, and they lacked the resources both for both a major war and support for communist governments anywhere on the globe on a scale Americans could provide to their allies at the time. The thing was, nobody really knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain at the time; and scaremongering is a tried and true tactic to unite people around a perceived common threat.

♫ I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys? Well, after all, it was you and me. ♫ -The Rolling Stones

To counter said threat, the nations of the North Atlantic signed a Treaty to create the Organization known as NATO in 1949. This military alliance held that any attack against one of them would be an attack against all of them and lead to STANdardization AGreements to ensure compatibility standards all members would meet. These included various steps to ensure compatibility of items like ammo and gas mask filters, but also communications and general conduct like how prisoners are treated. In practice this was mostly a threat of "you attack us, the US nukes you". Due to the whole "North Atlantic" thing Australia, New Zealand and Japan weren't included, though they followed many of the STANAGs and were on the list of places the US would respond with nukes if attacked. The United Kingdom and France would develop nukes of their own within a few years, but most of the threat was still from the American nuclear stockpile.

The two quickly sides realized that any attack would result in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) due to how many nukes they both had and thus avoided doing that directly. Conflict was conducted through spies and proxy conflicts instead where, using their newfound power, the communists would prop up other communist revolts across the globe. In response the United States would prop up their opposition, regardless of how blatantly evil, or corrupt they were. At least twice this went as far as outright military action by both sides during the Korean War and Vietnam War. In the case of Chile under Salvador Allende, the CIA went so far as to undermine and topple a completely legitimate, democratically elected socialist regime and had it replaced with a military junta that became infamous for its brutality and corruption. In response to these proxy wars and people simply leaving their shithole by the millions, the Soviets built a large wall across their western border known as the Berlin Wall. They also had a falling out with the Chinese over doctrinal matters, which caused China to act as a wild card of sorts throughout the rest of the Cold War.

MAD would take a new level with the development of InterContinental Ballistic Missiles. Developed from Nazi Germany's V-2 rockets (in no small part by actual former Nazi scientists who quietly became US citizens after the war), their nuclear armed warheads could strike almost anywhere in the globe and ensured even perfect anti-air defense wouldn't stop MAD. Development was facilitated by a "space race" between the Soviet Union and United States. Allegedly a peaceful contest to reach space and put man on the moon first, it was an open secret this was mostly an excuse to develop better rocketry and rocketry guidance while the main point of getting to space was to put spy satellites and weapons there. This interest in space and the demonstration of the awesome power of technology by nuclear bombs would fuel the creation of modern science-fiction. Similarly, the huge push to develop and deploy nuclear power stations during this era, ostensibly to provide cheap and abundant electricity, was in reality to ensure a ready supply of plutonium and tritium for thermonuclear warheads. The vast amounts of heat produced by reactors was regarded practically as a waste by-product in the early days of plutonium production; as public opinion began to turn against nuclear weapons, using this "waste" heat to generate electricity became a useful way to make the nuclear weapons program more palatable to citizens.

The founding of Israel

Hoo boy. To say that this is controversial is a bit of an understatement. Let's start with a neutral quote to quickly show the perspectives before anything else.

"A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man’s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds." —Isaac Deutscher

The processes that lead to the founding of Israel preceded the start of the Cold War by a good twenty years, when Jewish veterans returning home from World War One quickly found their hopes of equal treatment and freedom from harassment squashed by the cultures of their home countries. The idea of Zionism formed around the conclusions of several Jewish intellectuals that Jews would never be free from harassment until they took their fates into their own hands instead of hoping to be at the mercy of the predominantly Christian and Muslim majorities of their home countries.

The aftermath of World War One in particular saw a massive increase in antisemitic sentiment across all industrialized nations for a variety of reasons, be it from the Jews being blamed for the rise of Communism in Soviet Russia, them being a welcome scapegoat for the erosion of support for the war as it dragged on, or simply already existing antisemitic stances by high and middle-class capitalists being spread through the evolving mass media by businessmen wishing to put their competition out of business through fueling bigotry. This eventually found its tragic culmination in the rule of the Nazis, who stripped the rights of the substantial Jewish population in Germany, justified via the frankly ludicrous conspiracy around what they called "Judeo-Bolshevism".

Prominent Jewish intellectuals like Theodor Herzl and later David Ben-Gorion (who also became Israel's first Prime Minister down the line) founded Zionist organizations to give Jewish refugees a home in their ancestral homeland, the then British protectorate of Palestine by buying tracts of land from Arabic and Ottoman landlords. The start of World War 2 saw an immense flood of Jewish refugees from all over the world coming to the protectorate that weren't taken in by one of the other powers of the world (the US in particular, which had their own problems with Antisemitism frequently denied them entry). The impressions of the Holocaust, which saw 6 million Jews, as well as even more Romani, sexual minorities, Slavs, disabled persons and political dissidents, dead in the largest organized crime against humanity ever committed, made the Jews that already were in Israel see no other choice but to declare independence in 1948, ten minutes after the British Mandate for Palestine ended.

Israel saw itself immediately besieged on all fronts from the Arabic nations surrounding it, with 6 countries declaring war on it to protest the proposals of the Allies for the separation of the Palestinian protectorate into a Jewish and an Arabic state. In spite of all odds being stacked against them, the Israelis won their war of independence and even increased their slice of the cake by a considerable amount. Though the rest of it... that's the part where it gets too controversial to address here. In interest of avoiding major flame wars, we will leave this Wikipedia link on the Arab-Israeli Conflict in general and leave it at that.

End of the Cold War

Eventually this era ended from the Soviet Union imploding than anything else. Already a command economy that was more concerned with building military hardware than economy boosting utilities and consumer goods, its fortunes were often dependent on natural gas and oil exports seeing no one takes its currency seriously. Things first began to fall apart when Russia decided they wanted to have their own Vietnam and invaded Afghanistan, leading the US to support local tribes who eventually became the Taliban, which bit the US in the ass very hard as soon as the Soviets were out of the picture. The Soviet Union also failed to modernize its bureaucracy into digital systems, both due to higher echelons of Communist Party of the Soviet Union lacking the balls to actually implement projects proposed by the scientists and the subsequent lack of the industrial base to do so on scale required when advantages became clear; right up until its collapse in 1991, despite multiple efforts by the more far-sighted, the USSR's top-down planned economy was never computerised. Then a nuclear reactor in the Ukraine exploded so hard you could get your tan on walking fully clothed at night, and that took about a thousand regiments of the Death Korps of Krieg to clean up. This was followed by a series of revolutions in Soviet states would lead to East Germany (led by hardline Stalinists to the end) giving up, opening the border and reunifying with West Germany within a year. This caused further turmoil in Russia by a failed coup that lead to the end of the Communist Party and fall of the Soviet Union. With generations that expected the Cold War to end in some world sundering conflict, many westerners found "your enemy implodes politically without much direct provocation by you" to be an extremely underwhelming ending, with a CIA official complaining that "instead of a dragon, now we have a jungle of snakes to keep track of". Those on the east of the wall are often a bit annoyed that decades of communism has left their economies severely stunted compared to the west (to this day, decades latter, eastern Germany is still far behind the west economically), and within Russia proper there is nostalgia for the Soviet Union (communism itself less so) that has been exacerbated even further by enormous amounts of profiteering and corruption within the post-Soviet governments, and the West's response of "it's not our problem, leave them to rot" has ultimately led to the old US-Russia tensions flaring right back up again.

Legacy of the Cold War

"When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people. That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it."

– Boris Yeltsin, after visiting a Randall's grocery store in Texas

Techwise, the main advances of this era for civilians were plastics, aluminium, computers, air flight, satellite (which played a huge role in navigation and communications), and eventually the cellphone. Most of these spawned off military development from the Cold War and/or proceeding World War II. Short version: The Cold War made sure state-funded research took off on both sides and brought us this very computer and the website, once state research trickled down to the private sector.

Plastics existed since the Industrial Revolution, and by The World Wars had uses in clothing (Nylon) and small, non-moving, components had serious use, but now they had matured enough they were considered a major construction material. Being lightweight, cheap, relatively sturdy for its weight, non-conductive, immune to rust (as well as most other forms of corrosion), able to be made into a wide variety of shapes, and having minimal waste of material during construction with easy recycling of the little that was wasted made plastics a wonder material.

Similarly aluminium had continued its falling prices due to increased demand for military applications in and after World War II (it's great for making aircraft out of), and the falling cost of electricity. While aluminium is really common on Earth, without the Hall–Héroult process (and the high amounts of electricity required) and Bayer process for refining it, it's near impossible to get pure and previously more precious than gold (hence why the Washington Monument is topped with it), and still energy intense enough it's often cheaper to ship ore to a different country to refine with cheaper electricity and ship it back. By the 1960s, people were making disposable cans out of it. In 1956 Eugune Stoner of Armalite invented the AR10, which used plastics and aluminium for large portions of its components and allowed it to be a full pound lighter than other contemporary rifles. Despite early success, military hardware that made extensive use of plastics was derided as "toys" (with persistent and baseless rumors the components really were made by the toy company Mattel) and plastics would not see widespread acceptance for serious applications till after the 1960s. This was not helped by a series of bureaucrats screwing the M16 (a scaled down AR10) over repeatedly, giving it ammo that was deliberately made wrong, a substandard barrel, telling people it didn't need to be cleaned and to reuse the disposable magazines, resulting in a faulty, unreliable weapon cursed by an entire generation.

Titanium similarly fell in price, but its use was limited by requiring magnesium (which actually is rare) until the 2000s (and that was under patent protection till the late 2010s) and by the largest deposits being on the eastern side of the iron curtain.

The advancements of computers is obvious: you're reading this on one (or were a smart ass and printed it out with one). While early computers were used in World War II to break encryption, their use would become standard during this era. Computers made large scale data computation simple and fast while allowing vast amounts of information to be stored with tiny physical space. Linking together computers in a network for data sharing led to the internet you obtained this text from. By the end of the Cold War and beyond, computers had become so important to life that the late Cold War and beyond are often dubbed the "Information Age" where, like stone and bronze before it, information was the big deal of the day.

Computer development got a big boost from SPACEEEEE!!!! Space travel had been a feature of science fiction for close to a century, but it took the Cold War to actually make it happen. Ex-Nazi rocket engineers were snapped up by both sides to make rockets for weapons, and once that problem was solved, the USA and USSR needed something for them to work on next. Space travel became a prestige achievement for the superpowers, each trying to top the other's achievements with cost-no-object super projects that provided huge technology boosts (such as the development of compact, insensitive computers). The USSR ultimately put the first man in space, in orbit, and launched the first space station, while the USA put flags on the moon and got all of the firsts for sending probes beyond Mars.

On a societal level, things changed massively during the cold war. The increasing globalization of the Western economies lead to the gradual decline of their traditional industrial sectors, especially in heavy industry and mining. From the seventies onewards, it became far less common for any given person to work the same job from when they entered the workforce until they retired. Undesirable and lower-qualified jobs that require a lot of labour got outsourced to the emerging economies of the third world. People became as a result much more mobile and much more willing to change their place of living than in previous decades. The service sector replaced blue-collar jobs as the most common form of employment (especially in the US and UK).

Politics wise, though it is never a smart subject to bring forward in a site dedicated to tabletop gaming, it made both sides adopt(or attempt to do so) policies and methods of their adversaries. The Western Bloc adopted functions and policies which were regarded communist back then: solid, tax-funded compulsory state education from childhood instead of child miners as recent as 1910, founding government funded institutions of research rather than letting rich assholes hire idealist inventors, bilk them of everything and killing the golden goose early, and establishing a strong social net and racial equality attempts lest its working/poor class/minorities/blacks/others would feel affection for the other team. The Soviets tried the consumer economy, but we all know how it ended. Realpolitik also became a far deeper and multidimensional issue than earlier moments in history: we all love to bash the good ol' US&A for propping up dictators, yet the Soviets were no slouches in discarding scruples: North Korea and Rhodesia(Now Zimbabwe) are one of the few dictatorships ran by murderous fucksticks who wouldn't know Communism if it bit them in the nuts yet looked "red" for one reason or other, Somalia under the boot heel of same up-jumped thug that even changed sides mid-Cold War, and Ethiopia's murderous "Derg" regime strangling its only enlightened King and running the country to the ground. This wasn't even limited to the two big players; the British tolerated the Apartheid regime in South Africa because the debt accumulated from two world wars gave them very little leeway in fiscal politics and South Africa proved to be a very cheap source for resources the UK desperately needed and couldn't afford otherwise (same goes for the mostly diplomatically isolated Israelis, who did the same, if you ever wondered where the "Apartheid-State"-slogan took its inspiration from). West Germany defied the USA by reconciling with their Eastern Brethren and the Soviet Union during the tenure of Willy Brandt (to the point that crook Nixon seriously considered backing right-wing parties in Germany with CIA funds at several points), as did the French by having an On-Off-Relationship with NATO.


  • This time saw the beginning of a major societal push-back against racism. There were numerous factors behind this, from the response to Nazi atrocities during WWII to the collapse of Colonial Empires to the success of the Civil Rights movement to concerns that a large disenfranchised section of the populace in the US could be receptive to the communist message. There were of course precursors to this before the war, issues were not resolved over night, push-back (see the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission for an egregious example) and some still persist to this day, but for sake of brevity from the 1940s onward overt racism became increasingly unpalatable.
  • Television! The basics of TV were developed in the 1920s and there was a bit of broadcasting in the 1930s which was disrupted by WWII. Even so, it really caught on after the War as broadcasts resumed and by the 1950s spread to basically everywhere on earth. TV was a sign of modernity, economic and technological success and a way to get one's message around the world with nations developing the capacity as fast as they could. The one exception was South Africa, which only began broadcasting in 1976 because the Apartheid government was afraid of it's "corrupting influences" and raise anti-segregationist sentiment.
  • Modernism! Modernism got started before the war with Le Corbusier, Constructivism and the Bauhaus but by the 1950s it really caught on. Love it or hate it, it's austere artificial functionalist minimalism was gold standard for design.
  • While they existed before, the Cold War saw a rise of Youth Culture, Counterculture and Subcultures. From beatniks, greasers and rock & roll in the 50s, Mods and Hippies in the 60s, Punks and the Disco Scene in the 1970s and Metalheads in the 1980s. This was the first time in which it was fairly common for young people to have a bit of disposable income and the ability to mobilize and find cliques that shared common interests and ideas. Speaking of which...
  • Science Fiction really came into it's own during this period. This period had a lot of active writers who were writing new and experimental forms of science fiction and synthesizing the raw ideas of the pulp era. Sci-Fi also steadily made it's mark on visual media with TV series such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek and films such as Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Apes and eventually Star Wars. Over the course of the Cold War it became more and more mainstream and more refined. In the 1940s there were cheesy Flash-Gordon movie serials and by the 1980s there was Blade Runner.
  • The Fantasy genre as we know it now began to emerge during the Cold War. The Lord of the Rings was released in 1954-5, Dungeons and Dragons was released in 1978 and our all-time favorite company released the beginnings of Warhammer Fantasy in 83. It was still niche by the 1980s and people were in general more likely to look down on a fantasy nerd than a sci-fi nerd, but the elements were there.

The appeal of the Cold War

The appeal of the Cold War in fiction comes mostly from the spy game - literally a /tg/ game, mainly with Top Secret from early TSR, and also in other RPGs with infiltration scenarii (a specialty of Carl Lynwood Sargent) such as City of Skulls. Since the end of the Cold War, the role of espionage has greatly fallen. If you want to do a work of fiction about spies and don't have a specific setting, it will generally involve the Cold War or at least former Cold War spies and/or expies.

More generally there's a bit of nostalgia for the west having a clear enemy to stand against and one that, if you weren't a spy, you'd generally see coming. The CIA director after the end of the Cold War told Congress "We have slain a large dragon. But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of." Now the main enemy is one half of politicians and most entertainment production try to prevent being demonized (regardless of what it does) or being fought seriously. This enemy can kill thousands of civilians in a night and, not being a state, you can't send an army after them in response. You might not even know who did it, even after lengthy and costly investigations, if they don't take credit for it.

There's also appeal in the general military conflict of the era, but this is mostly appeal of the Vietnam War as a setting and appeal of "what if all those cool toys NATO and the Soviets made actually saw use?".

Another important thing about the Cold War is the looming specter of nuclear annihilation. A world with two superpowers and their various allies and satellites, each of which had thousands of nuclear weapons, each one able to turn a city into a radioactive wasteland, the means to deploy them to any point on earth, ideologies which were at odds with each other and their own set of hawks and firebrands who always pushed their nation to be on the offensive against the other that any shift in the balance of power as a rallying cry to either press on if it was in their favor or not to be so craven next time if it shifted against them. The main thing holding them back from burning their enemies to cinders was the effective inevitability of retaliation and even then, there were those willing to gamble on edge-cases and a few maniacs which saw a cleansing fire as a good thing. The world sat in precarious balance and could easily fall over into atomic war. However a consequence of this is that the Right Person in the Right Time could save the world by stopping the Death Spiral before it happens, which actually happened (see Stanislav Petrov and Vasily Arkhipov). Being the guys and gals who stops the cold war going hot is prime stakes.

Cold War inspired Games, Factions and Settings

And quite a bit of contemporary "fantasy" roleplaying could not resist dipping into the 1970s-80s Zeitgeist.

The Known World soon Mystara posited the conflict between Thyatis and Alphatia, which adventures themselves ground into the ugly stalemates of Masters series modules M1-3. As the Cold War looked to be winding into some sort of denouement, in the middle 1980s, we got M5: Talons of Night, where the two sides work to an agreement.

Cold War Gone Hot

"Critics might quibble with this depiction of the climatic battle of the Cold War because, while awesome, in real life there was no climatic battle, there was no battle with or without Velociraptors. The Cold War was won without firing a shot."

Senator Mike Lee

In high fantasy, Greyhawk had the Rain of Colorless Fire coupled with the Invoked Devastation, Twin Cataclysms as backstory to why the horrific deserts keeping the PCs from wandering too far off-map. A teachable moment about Mutual Assured Destruction... These deserts also worked to demonstrate just how powerful magic could get around here, setting the stakes for Sean Reynolds' The Star Cairns.

Historical Time Periods
Deep Time: Prehistory
Premodern: Stone Age - Bronze Age - Classical Period - Dark Age - High Middle Ages - Renaissance
Modern: Age of Enlightenment - Industrial Revolution - The World Wars - The Cold War - Post-Cold War