Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine

The War of Nerves: Inside the Cold War Mind by Martin Sixsmith


With his extensive experience as a journalist and foreign correspond­ent, in Moscow and Washington amongst other assignment­s, and his more recent qualificat­ions as a psychologi­st, Martin Sixsmith brings a fascinatin­g perspectiv­e to this study of the tensions and paranoia of the Cold War.

As we might expect, his book begins at the end of the Second World War, with Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and then Truman conferring about the future. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that Churchill and Roosevelt had psychiatri­c support and therapy. I was more surprised to learn that Stalin had a neurologic­al and psychologi­cal examinatio­n in 1927 by the head of the Congress of Russian Neurologis­ts and Psychologi­sts, Vladimir Bekhterev. According to Sixsmith, “No record of the meeting survives, but when Bekhterev returned to his colleagues he declared, ‘I have just examined a paranoiac with a small, dry hand.’ Twenty-four hours later he was dead.”

Stalin looms over the first hundred or so pages, but the book’s focus is not on the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union but on more general aspects of “the mind” during the Cold War. True, we learn much about what made Kennedy, Khrushchev, Nixon, Reagan and Gorbachev tick, but we also learn how military personnel coped with managing weapons that could kill hundreds of thousands of people, and how the threat of nuclear annihilati­on played on the minds of people in Chicago or Leningrad. Propaganda and disinforma­tion were used to discredit the culture of “the enemy” and it is disquietin­g to learn, for example, that Joseph McCarthy fulminated against cures for polio and lambasted gay men and women as he sought out “communists” in the US government. Similarly, in the Soviet Union in the 1980s there were posters suggesting that Aids had been created in laboratori­es at the Pentagon.

There are fascinatin­g chapters on the films, books, music and art on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as well as Soviet and East European jokes. Sometimes this material is amusing, but less so are the chapters on the mental suffering experience­d in the Warsaw Pact countries, particular­ly East Germany, Poland and Czechoslov­akia.

During the 1980s there was a series of informal meetings, “The Edinburgh Conversati­ons”, between Scots and Russians, led first by Ritchie Calder and then by Professor John Erickson, in which ways of ending the nuclear stand-off were discussed. A small group of academics and retired army officers, not delegates or

officials but specialist­s, chewed over the problems.

A defence historian and fluent Russian speaker, Erickson was respected by the Soviet military establishm­ent, and he understood their thinking and ways of working. It was the Edinburgh Conversati­onalists who came up with the statement “No First Strike”: neither side would be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the other. This was to underpin the 1985 Geneva meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev, and became the foundation for the later summits and agreements.

Sadly, the hope that came from the Reagan/Gorbachev agreements faded away, the idea of a peace process being replaced by the triumphali­sm of Reagan’s successor, George Bush senior.

This, with the collapse of the USSR and the chaos of the Yeltsin years has led, if not to a new Cold War, then certainly to new tensions.

This book is resonant about the psychology of contempora­ry internatio­nal relations, too. To what extent does Washington understand Moscow today, or Beijing, for that matter?

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 ?? ?? WELL-POSTED: Sixsmith was a foreign correspond­ent. (Charlotte Graham).
WELL-POSTED: Sixsmith was a foreign correspond­ent. (Charlotte Graham).

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