The War of Nerves by Martin Sixsmith review – inside the cold war mind | History books

TThe world as we know it may have ended in September 1983. It didn’t happen, thanks to the instinct of Lieutenant Stanislav Petrov, who was the base commander of the Serpukhov-15 Missile Warning Center outside Moscow. When alerts flashed on their computer screens warning them that five nuclear-armed US Minuteman missiles had been fired at the Soviet Union, protocols dictated that Petrov should have notified the Kremlin immediately, so General Secretary Yuri Andropov could authorize a massive retaliatory strike.

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Instead, Petrov went through 30 levels of additional checks on the data. They confirmed that one base had already launched its missiles. However, he still hesitated before calling the Kremlin hotline: “For two or three minutes, I did not analyze anything. I was left with my intuition. I had two arguments. First of all, why is the United States launching a single-base missile attack? They were firing Fire is everywhere. Second, the computer is an idiot. There is no telling us it is shooting.”

Petrov’s suspicions were correct: the regime had misinterpreted the sun’s glare to launch rockets. He avoided the nuclear apocalypse. According to Martin Sixsmith, “In the decisive moments of a possible conflagration, it was more than once unexpected human reactions motivated by emotion that saved the world.”

Sixsmith’s ambitious study of the Cold War explores the psychology of an era of mutually assured destruction, when military leaders and statesmen were preparing for a global nuclear war in which tens of millions of people would die. Beginning at the end of World War II, he investigated the personalities of world leaders and diplomats, as well as the impact of propaganda warfare—from disinformation to “psychology”—on ordinary people: “Lies and fake news have become as powerful as the truth.”

When Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon argued the merits of their systems at the American Exposition in Moscow in 1959 (“one of the most unusual interactions of the Cold War”), the Soviet leader exclaimed angrily: “You know absolutely nothing about communism except from fear!” That neither side really understood the other. The war of nerves – “the constant testing of the other side’s resolve by nonviolent means” – has created a chasm of incomprehension. And in the age of nuclear brinkmanship, misunderstanding may mean the difference between life and death: “The inherent flaw in brinkmanship is the assumption that each side agrees on where the brink is located.”

Sixsmith first visited the Soviet Union on a trip organized by his school in 1969. He remembers how he and his colleagues stayed in a Moscow hotel: “To our great pleasure, we were awakened at night by phone calls from candid ladies-salesmen suggesting more interesting things than a lesson Date “. He studied Russian at the university and regularly visited the country: “Russia has become a part of my life.”

After a failed attempt by MI6, Sixsmith joined the BBC. From 1980 to 1997 he worked both in Washington and Moscow as a reporter: “In the United States, I found fear, distrust and hatred of the Soviet enemy … In the Soviet Union I saw the same things in the opposite direction, but with an additional dimension of envy and creeping admiration.”

Ostensibly the Cold War was a struggle between ideologies and political systems, but in reality the battlefield was the human mind: “The goal was not only control over land, resources, and power, but over loyalties, faith, and the nature of reality.” Psychology was a weapon in the Cold War just as much as nuclear bombs, which both sides used against their own citizens and those of the opponent. As Sixsmith explains, literature, art, music, and cinema became pawns in this psychological battle waged by the secret services. After watching the Soviet version of the James Bond movie, The Shield and the Sword, 16-year-old Vladimir Putin went straight from the cinema to volunteer for the KGB.

At over 500 pages, this is a heavy book, and one in which Sixsmith’s voice sometimes gets lost under research (to which he is credited with his son Daniel). However, this is a study that pays off from a detailed reading. In addition to many enlightening tales from his time as a journalist in Russia, a country in which he clearly cares deeply, his book is filled with fascinating insights into the psychology of one of the most dangerous periods in world history.

Most importantly, Sixsmith reminds us that we are still living with the emotional trauma of the Cold War, and today’s decision makers are no better at examining their psychological assumptions than the leaders of yesteryear. Nuclear-armed missiles are still aimed at our cities, and our lives are still, frighteningly, dependent on “the quirks, madness, and anxieties of the men and women who lead us.”

The War of Nerves: Inside the Cold War Mind Posted by Profile (£25). To support the Guardian and The Observer buy a copy at

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