This is a review of the third part of Dominic Sandbrook’s Strange Days: Cold War Britain – Two Tribes (BBC2, 2013). It is rough copy in that I have not backed up every assertion with, or checked the facts against, a reliable source. Some of the arguments will certainly need to be developed and adjusted as I delve a little further into the secondaries. So feel free to point out failings and errors (which is, of course, only fair).
It is a standard bit of advice (that we all ignore) to write the attention grabbing beginning and the memorable powerful ending first. It is obvious that Dominic missed the memo, here he ends not on a bang but with a whimper. No amount of hyperbolic language (which I have chosen to ignore, even though it is often highly politicised and biased, not least since it is so ubiquitous) can cover up the fundamental problem of the weakness of the narrative.
1. The hypothesis continues: the Cold War was won with soft power.
This hypothesis is made clear in this last instalment. The West’s main weapons in the Cold War were those of popular culture and mass consumerism. The more common explanation, that the USSR was financially crippled by attempting to keep up with the arms race, is part of the explanation presented here as to why the USSR collapsed. But this is reinvented as the people of the Eastern bloc being frustrated by the denial of the consumer goodies that were available in the West.
In order to support this hypothesis, that the late 1970s re-escalation of the Cold War was waged by the consumer, Dominic presents the opening of the Brent Cross shopping centre in 1976 as something revolutionary. In reality it was part of a linear development. To describe Brent Cross as the biggest and the best shopping centre of its time is true, but it was not the ‘first American-style shopping mall’ in Britain. Even if the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly (1819) might be considered something a little different, it is usually considered that the Bull Ring in Birmingham, opened 12 years before Brent Cross in 1964, wins this prize. This combined traditional market stalls with indoor shopping. With its brutalist architecture, combination of traditional market stalls and indoor shopping, and image problem, this does not fit with Dominic’s narrative. Perhaps the Elephant and Castle Centre (1965) might now be considered a little down market, but it was considered the leader in Europe in its day. The Arndale Centre in Wandsworth (1971) and the Stratford Centre (1974) and others followed But you cannot miss something out simply because it does not fit the narrative. (It is true that that Brent Cross was a stage on from these examples, being the first designed to be accessed mainly by car).
2. Military competition had caused the USSR to fall behind on consumer manufacture.
Dominic tells us that the USSR spent ‘proportionally’ three times as much as the USA. This is seen as indicating that the Soviet had ‘different priorities’, the implication being that spending was skewed away from individual consumption towards military expansionism.
This is a simplistic picture. The USSR spent less in absolute terms on its military than the USA for much of the Cold War. In 1960 the USA spent US$ 168 billion (at 1986 prices) compared to the USSR’s US$ 95 billion. In 1970 the figures were US$ 209 billion for the USA, and US$ 170 billion for the USSR. Only in 1980 did the balance tilt with the USA spending of US$196 billion being overshadowed by the USSR’s US$ 247 billion. The difference is that the USA’s GNP was twice that of the USSR’s. If the figures are considered as a proportion of GNP, then in the 1960/1970/1980 figures for the USA were 8.8%, 7.6% and 5.4%; the USSR proportions were 11.1%, 12.0% and 12.7%. So the picture is actually one of slowly increasing USSR expenditure, but falling US expenditure.
The different priorities that Dominic is implying it that the USSR were fixated on building up its military, but the USA was not. The only evidence that Dominic selects is that which supports that view, the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. The USA, however, was not shy of military power. It is notable that virtually no mention is made of the Vietnam war in this series, even though this was a very hot area in the Cold War. After their defeat in Vietnam, the USA were less willing (until after the end of the Cold War) to directly engage in any military conflicts, although in 1983 American force was used against Grenada in the Caribbean, which had recently had a Marxist government. More commonly the USA preferred to work through proxies, such as from 1975 supporting the FNLA and UNITA in Angola’s long civil war against the pro-Soviet MPLA government. The list of USA backing for ‘our bastards’ is an extremely long one, be that tacit support for the Apartheid government in South Africa through the 1970s against the alleged Marxists of the ANC, for the Contras against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua from the early 1980s and so on. None of this is mentioned, suggesting in a way that can only be considered the most dishonest and politicised selection of the facts.
While there was something of a shift of military power towards the USSR through the 1970s, it was not necessarily the USSR that ended the period of détente that had prevailed for most of the 1970s. (Dominic calls this an “illusion”, but does not explain why. I can only guess that it was because those godless commies were pulling the wool over the peaceful West’s eyes.) It was the US Congress that refused to ratify SALT II in 1979, and from which Reagan withdrew the USA in 1986.
Dominic presents the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan as the trigger that reignited the Cold War, but this is again simplistic. There is no understanding here as to why previous invasions by the USSR within its sphere of influence (East Germany, 1953; Hungary, 1956, Czechoslovakia, 1968) did not bring similar responses, or indeed why the USSR’s long interference in Afghan affairs had been tacitly accepted by the West. There is, particularly, no understanding of why President Carter’s administration boycotted the Moscow Olympics and why the Cold War escalated in the 1980s.
3. Coe and Overt do not boycott the Moscow Olympics.
The focus on Coe and Overt is, in terms of the historical narrative, bizarre. The relative virtue of the two runners has nothing to do with the Cold War. This is just one example of the appeal to nostalgia being the raison d’être of the programme, and rather submerges the discussion of the Cold War.
Despite the reassuring presence of Seb and Steve, there are two notable absentees from this walk down memory lane. First, there is no explanation given as to why the Thatcher government’s attempts at a boycott failed. Second, there is no mention of other ways in which the Conservative administration reacted to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan.
On the first of these, it has been suggested that this was an example of the early Thatcher government’s uncertainty on how to grab the news agenda and turn it to its advantage, and certainly that Thatcher had not learnt how to use the office of Prime Minister or the limits of that power. However, the only explanation that Dominic offers is that the athletes were unwilling to accept Thatcher’s leadership. Indeed, Dominic whips out a 1980 memo from Douglas Hurd (then a junior minister in the FCO) about his failure to put pressure on Seb Coe through his father and coach, Peter Coe, as if it was his find in the archives. In fact the story was broken by The Guardian in 2006 after a Freedom of Information request.
Further, there is no discussion about what else the West did in response to the Afghan invasion particularly the funding of the Islamist resistance to Soviet occupation, the Mujahedeen. This created the crucible in which modern Jihadist politics was forged. Government papers show that this was being discussed already in the early months of 1980s at the same time the boycott was being discussed.
There is much else that could be mentioned, not least the emergence of Solidarność in Poland in 1980. Throughout the 1980s the West funded such civil society organisations, while working to depress oil prices so as to starve the USSR of oil revenues. But all of this wider context is ignored, one can only assume to leave room for more pictures of Mrs. T.
4. The Kensington Town Hall speech of 1976 changed Mrs. T’s image for ever.
Although Dominic admits that the speech made little impact in Britain, he suggests that it was vital since it led to the Soviet media labelling her ‘the iron lady’ . Dominic argues this enabled Mrs. T to ‘find her mission’. Thus, when she visited the Army of the Rhine in 1976 ‘this was Thatcherism at full strength leading the crusade against world communism.’ It is doubtful that there was any coherent doctrine of Thatcherism at the time, nor can speeches aimed at whipping at the Conservative Party faithful (as with the Kensington Town Hall speech) be seen as developed policy. It is altogether unclear that there was in 1976 a crusade against Communism for her to lead. This is history read backwards.
5. Mrs. T needed a partner to stand beside on the front line.
Which would be Reagan, not inaugurated as US President until five years later, in 1981. Reagan is introduced into this narrative in June 1982. It is a six year jump cut. (Nor was Reagan particularly a hero of ‘Hollywood’s old West’ as he is styled here. His career as a lead man consisted of The Kings Row (1942), drama; Voice of the Turtle (1947), comedy; John Loves Mary (1949), World War II; A Hasty Heart (1949), WWII again; Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), a comedy; Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), a Western; Tennessee’s Partner (1955), a Western; Hellcats of the Navy (1957), WWII again; and The Killers (1964), a crime thriller. On TV he did present the western anthology Death Valley Days from 1964 to 1965, although this was a talking head role to top and tail free-standing episodes. All the talk of ‘trusty sidekicks’ (he is Thatcher’s, the Queen is his) is somewhat misplaced.
On his 1982 visit, Reagan gave a speech about the USSR’s inevitable demise and was (Dominic tells us) Reagan’s ‘manifesto for winning the cold war’. It is doubtful that any such detailed plan existed at this stage, and if it did then it was not contained in the generalised rhetoric of this speech. That rhetoric, consigning the USSR to the ‘ash-bin’ of history was singularly ill-chosen, but luckily was not a manifesto.
On an aside, it is not anachronistic to use the ‘Gone with the Wind’ poster, produced by the British SWP around the time of Reagan’s visit. although the Spitting Image “president’s brain is missing” sketch is later, from February 1984. However, this is building up to something which is more questionable.
6. There was an anxious edge to the satirists mockery of Reagan, the deployment of cruise Missiles in the UK.
There are two issues here. Firstly, Dominic subtly pushes nuclear rearmament into the Thatcher-Reagan era. Secondly, he implies that opposition to nuclear weapons was opposition to American nuclear weapons and thus a form of anti-Americanism.
The agreement to base cruise (and Pershing II) missiles in Britain dates from Carter’s Presidency in June 1980, but had been agreed in principle under the previous Labour government. At the same time Britain announced the renewal of its own nuclear deterrent with the Trident system, again in 1980 but with its roots in the previous Labour government. This led to the revival of CND as a mass organisation in 1980, in response to both the stationing of US missiles in Britain, and the renewal of Britain’s own submarine based bombs. This was before Reagan was elected in November 1980 and inaugurated in January 1981.
Not for the first time, Dominic invokes George Orwell, here suggesting that he ‘imagined’ Britain as ‘Airstrip One’ in 1984 and this was realised by the deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles in 1983. It is always useful to remember that Orwell had intended to call the book 1948. This was a book about his present. In the years of WW2, seeing Britain as a US airbase did not have to be imagined. In the build up to the Cold War USAF Strategic Airborne Command resources were based at RAF bases as early as 1946, and further built up in the early 1950s.
Furthermore, for Dominic to say ‘Britain had become Ronald Reagan’s nuclear launch pad’ hides more than it uncovers. The agreements were President Carter’s, not Reagan’s; there had been US bases in Britain for four decades; there were also US nuclear forces based in Europe in Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy and West Germany.
There is of course a very real anti-Americanism mixed up with the anti-nuclear campaign, but Dominic (again by failing to mention Trident at all) emphasises this in a one-sided way. Also, his use of BBC-TV drama with Edge of Darkness (1985) and Defence of the Realm (1985) as examples of an ‘anti-American’ stance is trite, rather both question the Britain’s alliance with the USA in nuclear power/weapons. Both are more concerned (as with the current trend identified by Dominic in the 1960s) with the machinations of the secret state in Britain.
7. Frankie Goes to Hollywood Two Tribes is important (for some unstated reason).
Released in 1984, written at least as early as 1982 (and not just by Holly Johnson, as Dominic claims, but co-written by FGTH drummer Peter Gill and bassist Mark O’Toole) when it was included in a John Peel session by the band. Certainly it was a record that was important for the early months of 1984 in popular culture.
However, Dominic concludes from this that the irony of free speech in the West was that it was used to ‘rail against their own side rather than the Communist East’. The whole point of Two Tribes was, surely, that it was against both sides. This is not uncommon for pop songs about the Cold War. Sting’s Russians (1985) (‘ There is no monopoly in common sense/On either side of the political fence’), or the Clash’s When Ivan Met G.I. Joe (has both ‘The Vostok Bomb – the Stalin strike’ and ‘G.I. Joe’s turn to blow’) show an evenhandness that some professional historians might be able to learn from.
8. There was widespread fear of a nuclear war in the 1980s.
The government’s civil defence strategy, as contained in Protect and Survive only convinced people that there was nothing they could do. Dominic points out that the pamphlet was published after public pressure, but does not point out that this was not a CND campaign, following reports in The Times continued in it letters column in 1979. Protect and Survive was published in early 1980.
Although the evidence all points to increased anxiety over nuclear weapons, the narrative here is highly disjointed. Following Protect and Survive we are offered an, extract of the 1986 film of When the Wind Blows taken from Raymond Briggs 1982 graphic novel; ‘Bomb’, an episode of The Young Ones from 1982; and ‘The Russians are Coming’, an episode of Only Fools and Horses from 1981. Dominic is probably right that nothing else had the impact of Threads in 1984. What he does not go into is the causes of that tension, particularly that Reagan was willing to talk about the use of nuclear weapons in a limited theatre (by which most understood Europe), and Reagan and Thatcher both ramping up the Cold War rhetoric. It was not the USSR that scared most people, it was their own ‘side’.
One also has to take with a pinch of salt Dominic’s assertion that there was a ‘dark irony’ that this threat of destruction was at a time when people felt ‘better off than ever’. The height of this period of the Cold War, 1980-1985 was at a time when Britain’s economy struggled (GDP fell throughout 1980, and only regained its 1979 peak in 1983, unemployment hit 3 million in 1982 and remained above 10% of the working population until 1987, for millions of people the 1980s had no happy economic ending). Thus for many, the anxiety of war was compounded by the anxiety of poverty and economic insecurity.
9. The 1984-1985 miners’ strike was part of the Cold War too.
Stretching the point of what might be considered a Cold War conflict, Dominic shoe-horns in the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. Here Dominic is careful with his words, that the leader of the NUM was a Marxist, not a Communist. This is wise, since from 1962 Arthur Scargill had left the Communist Party and joined the Labour Party where he remained until 1996 when he formed the Socialist Labour Party. Arguably, Scargill’s politics remained informed by the Stalinist militancy (but not revolutionary) politics of the CPGB.
The story that Dominic chooses to tell here is of Scargill, on behalf of the NUM, attempting to gain support from the USSR (or from the official miners’ unions there, which was much the same thing). There is no evidence, however, that even in this context Thatcher saw this as a wider war against communism as Dominic suggests. Again, Dominic sits around with the papers about the Conservative govt’s successful attempts to block the Soviet donations, not mentioning (again) that we only know about this because of (another) successful Freedom of Information battle by The Guardian. In the end the NUM received no money from the USSR. Indeed, and Dominic fails to mention this, imports of coal from Eastern bloc states increased in the strike despite pleas from the NUM and their supporters to cut them off.
10. Thatcher and Gorbachev had “chemistry”.
I will not give this a great deal of attention, it is not my area of expertise. But there is much that is wrong in the material around this. Dominic suggests that the Cold War had kept the capitalist West ‘responsible’ by demanding a welfare state and some form of social equality, but with Gorbachev reforming the Soviet Union in a market direction and the Cold War winding down, , the brakes were off. Greed was now good.
There may well be some truth in this, but the details do not lend support to such a straight-forward cause and effect narrative. The brakes came off (at least in Britain) in the early Thatcher years. Thus, exchange controls were lifted in 1979, and there was further deregulation of the financial sector through to the ‘big bang’ of 1986. The transformation of the City from a gentleman’s club into a hugely wealthy trading hub was well underway by the time Gorbachev became the USSR premier in 1985. And anyway, the initial period of Perestroika (1985-1987) was about reforming planning, only in 1987 did free market reform become more important
Thus Mrs. T did not arrive in Moscow in 1987 as a ‘conqueror’. It is highly questionable that this represented a Russian surrender. The impression given here is that Thatcher won the Cold War with this visit, not least by looking rich and showing what the West could deliver. The role of the USA is entirely under-estimated here to privilege the role of Thatcher.
11. British rock music won the Cold War.
Dominic tells us that the June 1987 West Berlin concert represented choice and freedom, and was the ‘best of British’, but his account here is a little unclear. The concert was over three nights 6-8th June. Bowie played on Saturday 6th, on Sunday the Eurythmics headlined, and this led to scuffles between people trying to hear the music and the police on the East side of the Brandenburg gate. When Genesis performed on Monday, it appears that the largest scale clashes occurred. The crowds chanted both ‘Gorbachev! Gorbachev!’ and ‘die Mauer muss weg!’ (the wall must go). The street protests that it led to were the first on any scale in East Germany since October 1977. The concert clearly did have a serious impact. There may well be a link between these events and Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg gate a few days later where he called Gorbachev to bring the Wall down.
However, to draw a direct line between the concerts of June 1987 and the coming down of the Wall 29 months later is not credible. That path was a longer one, and the internal dynamics of East German society is something that I will not deal with here.
The concerts are the beginning of a longer story that is not told here. A similar series of concerts were organised the following year, with Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd, and although these had less immediate effect they do appear to have been a factor in encouraging the East German authorities to allow western rock acts to perform in East Berlin, particularly Bruce Springsteen in June 1988, which probably had a far greater impact on East German society than the 1987 concerts.
Nor does Dominic mention the funding of civil society groups in the Eastern bloc. Indeed, the origins of the 1987 concert itself was not neutral. It was sponsored by the West Berlin broadcaster, RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor [Broadcasting in the American Sector]), in large part funded by the US government and was aimed at East Germans, its ultimate management being under a board of (American) directors appointed by the US State Department. More generally, the West funded, where it could, civil society movements in the Eastern bloc.
12. But an ungrateful Britain turned their back on Mrs. T.
Well, that is a matter of opinion. On a small matter of fact, Dominic seems to suggest that Thatcher was in Paris singing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, but this was in 1991. She was actually at a Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe at the time of the first ballot on her leadership in November 1990. The document she is shown singing was the Paris Treaty, which was largely ceremonial but can be considered to have marked the end of the Cold War and paved the way for the more substantial disarmament treaties that followed. Notably, she also took the opportunity to discuss the forthcoming operation against Iraq with George H. Bush.
So where does this lead us? What is given is a picture of multi-faceted one-sidedness. Thatcher’s role in the last stages of the Cold War is emphasised to the near exclusion of all others, the American role in particular is diminished to near vanishing point. The acceptable face of the West’s Cold War (Olympic boycotts) is emphasised and no mention is made of the unacceptable (the funding of pro-Western forces who might otherwise be considered murderous terrorists). The role of some forms of soft power (music) are considered to the exclusion of others (covert funding of dissidents). Even the role of British music (Genesis) is considered to the exclusion of American (Bruce Springsteen).
Jonathan Dimbleby wrote at the height of this period of the re-awakened Cold War:
‘if the principles which sustain democracy are to be nurtured rather that violated, the media … must no longer be content to echo the response of the defence establishment to the anxieties – and arguments – of what is now known as the Peace Movement. Of course, the media must report the speeches and decisions of those who have their fingers on or near the button. However, it is an elementary but fundamental proposition that the role of the media in a free society is to question and analyse prevailing assumptions and attitudes and not merely to regurgitate the conclusions that flow from them for the edification of an uniformed populace. Journalists, that is, should not be town criers or toast masters.’
If this is true of journalists, it is even more true of historians who have a critical distance from their subject. But what Dominic offers us is the hand-rubbing glee of the victor, or rather the victor’s apologist.
Popular history is a fine discipline. At its best it makes historical debates accessible to a wide audience, but in so doing has to have a strong grip on the academic debates in order to strip them to the essentials for a mass audience. What popular history should not be is merely a representation of popular opinion, to remain on the surface of commonly held memories and reflecting them uncritically back to the audience. It should not be the kind of infotainment comfort blanket that is woven here.
Even leaving aside the gushing reverence for Thatcher, the dog-whistle calls to nostalgia and the histrionic bias of the language and tone, this cannot be considered to be history. It is gloating, shallow, propaganda.
 All figures in US$ at 1986 values. Material adapted from Woolf, Charles et al, Long Term Economic and Military Trends 1950-2010 (Rand Note) (Santa Monica CA: RAND, 1989).
 Nicholas Sarantakes, Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War (2011)
 Paul Corthorn, ‘The Cold War and British debates over the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics’, Cold War History 13, 1 (2013), 43-66
 Rob Evans and Paul Kelso, ‘How Thatcher tried to stop Olympic hero Coe from winning gold in Moscow’, The Guardian, Friday 24 February 2006. The Guardian’s website also has the govt papers.http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/feb/24/past.Olympics2012
 Owen Bowcott, ‘UK discussed plans to help mujahedeen weeks after Soviet invasion of Afghanistan’, The Guardian, Thursday 30 December 2010
 Kristin Stoddart, ‘The Special Nuclear Relationship and the 1980 Trident Decision’ in Jenifer Mackby and Paul Cornish (eds), U.S.-UK Nuclear Cooperation After 50 Years (Washington D.C.: Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 2008). p91-93.
 Rob Evans and David Hencke, ‘Margaret Thatcher blocked Soviet aid for striking miners, files reveal’, The Guardian, Sunday 29 August 2010 21.00 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/aug/29/margaret-thatcher-soviet-aid-miners.
 ‘Rock Music at Berlin Wall Sparks Riot by E. Germans’, Los Angeles Times, June 08, 1987
 Erik Kirschbaum, Rocking The Wall: Bruce Springsteen: The Untold Story of a Concert in East Berlin That Changed the World (New York: Berlinica, 2010) pp48-55.
 John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: Volume 2: The Iron Lady (London: Vintage, 2008), pp725-726, 730-731.
 Quoted in Glasgow University Media Group, War and Peace News (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985) [unnumbered, introduction p2]