We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin
Cold War

fig. 1-3 Cold War military alignments.

The Cold War, which lasted at full terrifying strength at least until the early 1970s, and remained a major factor in Euro-American foreign policy and internal politics until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was a period of intense political and ideological rivalry between the United States and its European allies, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and its “satellites,” on the other. After the Soviets successfully tested an atom bomb of their own in 1949, the Cold War constantly threatened to erupt into an actual military engagement with the potential to destroy civilization. In a widely used phrase of the time, the world was permanently poised on “the brink of World War III.” It was widely assumed in “the West” that the Soviets had been aided toward their scientific achievement by espionage, some of it carried on not by the Soviets themselves but by Westerners under Communist discipline. (Some, indeed, were detected: in the United States Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and executed for passing “atomic secrets”; in Great Britain, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby were exposed but escaped to the USSR.) Political suspicion, directed not only at the potential enemy, but at fellow citizens, now became a fact of life in East and West alike.

The same year that the Soviets exploded their atomic bomb, “the West” collectively adopted and implemented the policy of “containment”8 (so named after a famous memo by the American diplomat George F. Kennan). To check any further Soviet expansionist efforts in Europe the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established, the members of which were pledged to consider an armed attack on any one of them an attack against them all. Despite its name, the North Atlantic Treaty's guarantee of mutual defense extended far beyond the North Atlantic. Its signatories included Italy and Denmark, countries without an Atlantic seacoast, and (after 1952) Greece and Turkey as well (where Communist coups had nearly succeeded in the Cold War's early days).

Needless to say, the Soviet Union regarded the formation of NATO as an act of aggression and countered with the Warsaw Pact, a mutual defense treaty signed in 1955 by the USSR and the countries that by then formed the “Soviet bloc” of buffer states: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the German Democratic Republic or “East Germany,” namely the part of Germany that had been assigned to the Soviet Army of occupation at Yalta, and that Stalin refused to give up when the rest of Germany was united under a demilitarized government called the Federal Republic of Germany.

Naturally, “West Germany” was admitted, in retaliation, to NATO, thus putting the border between East and West right in the middle of the old common foe. A decade after the war, all of Europe and North America was a virtual armed camp—or rather, two hostile armed camps, each with the power of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) against the other. Local conflicts—over the political status of Berlin, over a border clash in divided Korea that was interpreted by NATO as a Soviet-inspired invasion, over the political status of newly independent states in Africa—were all magnified into superpower confrontations that threatened world destruction.

The mutual threat of annihilation, it was widely agreed, was the only effective deterrent against deployment of thermonuclear weapons, and so the United States and the Soviet Union became embroiled in an economically draining and psychologically intolerable arms race, stockpiling weapons of mass destruction that now included hydrogen bombs with many times the annihilative power of the bombs dropped on Japan. When a 1959 revolution in Cuba put that island neighbor of the United States in the Soviet camp, tensions reached their peak. The “Cuban missile crisis” of October 1962, brought on when a Soviet missile base was detected in Cuba (installed as a countermeasure to NATO installations in Turkey), was the closest the “nuclear superpowers” actually came to the well-named MAD-point.


(8) George F. Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, July 1947 (originally signed “X,” this memo is now widely known as “The ‘X’ Article”).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 13 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001003.xml