What did all this cost over the lifetime of the Cold War? The left-wing Center for Defense Information simply added up U.S. defense budgets for those years and arrived at a figure of $17.7 trillion in 2009 dollars. Much of that would have been spent anyway. Then again, other agencies also spent billions of other dollars on Cold War projects. And that is to say nothing of lives lost, effort expended, and other less tangible costs — costs we would not have borne had we not deemed them absolutely necessary.
Nor would we have maintained our nuclear arsenal on hair-trigger alert for more than 40 years. In hindsight it is tempting to look back and see the settled rut that came to be called Mutual Assured Destruction as a policy success. And it was, in that the assurance of destruction never exploded into the reality. But let’s not forget how close we sometimes came — whether from a real crisis such as Berlin or Cuba, or from a fluke like the 1983 glitch in the Soviet early-warning system that registered five (phantom) incoming ICBMs. No one who didn’t have to would choose for his country such a terrifying, razor’s-edge day-to-day existence.
Making matters worse, American officials felt obliged to offer nuclear-security guarantees to foreign countries, in part to keep them in the anti-Soviet alliance, in part to discourage them from developing nuclear arsenals of their own. What this meant in practice was that America had pledged to risk — and potentially lose — dozens of American cities and millions of American lives in order to protect Bonn or Ankara. Such a pledge would have been unthinkable before the Cold War, and, to the limited extent that the American people really understood it, it was deeply unpopular.
And while it is true that the Cold War never erupted into a global conflagration, that’s not to say that it never, ever went hot. Korea and Vietnam are only the most famous Cold War soils onto which American servicemen and civilian personnel shed their blood; their brothers and sisters died in similar or related causes all over the world. And that is to say nothing of the various brush-fire wars in which both sides strained to keep their own people off the front lines but in which U.S. officials nonetheless determined that opposing Soviet proxies through proxies of our own was a necessary pillar of containment. One unforeseen and unintended consequence: deep divisions in American society over the wisdom of such interventions, which rent the fabric of our domestic politics.
Then there were the myriad other ways in which, despite our policy of containment, the Soviets declined to be contained. It suffices to mention two: constant espionage — up to and including political violence — and relentless ideological warfare. The former almost got Pope John Paul II killed in St. Peter’s Square. The latter inspired wholesale slaughter in nations across the globe and undermined the West’s confidence in its beliefs and institutions in ways that reverberate to this day.
More prosaically, the very logistics of containment often got complicated. The aforementioned forward deployed military posture required basing arrangements in more than a dozen countries, each with its own unique interests and a willingness to use its leverage over America because of our desire for basing rights to further those interests. This problem was primarily technical, but it points to a larger diplomatic problem. Maintaining the alliances that sustained containment — not just NATO but also the various bilateral relationships and multilateral arrangements in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America — required a constant, cat-herding vigilance that dominated Washington’s time and drew its attention away from other issues. Our entire foreign policy had to be subsumed to the requirements of containment, with opportunity costs that are impossible to calculate. Many critics of the Bush administration have levied exactly this charge at its conduct of the War on Terror without realizing (or at least admitting) that it applied in spades to the Cold War and would to any other example of containment in action.