SUDDENLY the specter of the Cold War is back. Prompted by the political crisis in Ukraine, some conservatives have called for President Obama to stand up to Vladimir V. Putin in the grand tradition of previous American presidents who stared eyeball to eyeball with Soviet leaders from Joseph Stalin to Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Mr. Obama came close on Friday. Responding to reports of Russian mobilization, he said, “There will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
His critics acknowledge that times have changed. “No one wants a new Cold War,” a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, before going on to imply the opposite, that Mr. Obama could prevent a civil war in Eastern Europe “if he finally admits Vladimir Putin’s hostility to a free and democratic Europe and clearly tells protesting Ukrainians that we’re on their side.”
Such a sentiment inevitably conjures John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech before a crowd in West Berlin in 1963, or Ronald Reagan, on a visit there in 1987, urging the Soviets to “tear down this wall.”
More echoes of the Cold War surfaced in recent reports that Russia has been violating nuclear arms accords dating back to the Reagan years and alarmed reactions to the news of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposal to reduce the United States Army to a level not seen since before World War II.
Even Mr. Obama seemed to be drawing on the collective memory of old-time superpower struggles when he insisted recently that his administration’s approach to Ukraine was “not to see this as some Cold War chessboard in which we are in competition with Russia.”
That image of a chessboard — an epic contest between two giant players, carefully nudging their pieces around the globe as part of a grand strategy — has indeed become a familiar metaphor for the Cold War. But it is misleading. Many decisions remembered today for their farsighted, tactical brilliance were denounced in their day as weak-willed. And
big, public gestures often made less difference than the small, hidden ones.
Born in tandem with the nuclear age, the Cold War was defined from the outset less by outright confrontation than by caution. And with caution came adjustment, compromise, improvisation and at times retreat. As often as not, both sides blinked.
The term surfaced in 1947, in Walter Lippmann’s book “The Cold War,” whose title was derived from a phrase “used in Europe during the late 1930s to characterize Hitler’s war of nerves against the French, sometimes described as la guerre blanche or la guerre froide,” as Ronald Steel wrote in his book “Walter Lippmann and the American Century.”
Lippmann, a dean of foreign policy realism, argued that policy should be made in the spirit of pragmatism, rather than as a global crusade against Communism that would require the headache, or worse, of “recruiting, subsidizing and supporting a heterogeneous array of satellites, clients, dependents and puppets.”
In fact the costliest maneuvers — chess-piece gambits in Korea and Vietnam — backfired, increasing tensions abroad even as they shook public confidence at home.
Overheated rhetoric often contributed to trouble. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected on a Republican platform that promised to replace the Communist containment strategy of President Harry S. Truman with a more aggressive “liberation” policy that would seize the initiative from the Soviet Union.
Yet throughout his two terms, Eisenhower consistently opted for stability over conflict. Arriving in Geneva for a summit with Nikita S. Khrushchev in July 1955, Eisenhower said he came bearing “the goodwill of America” and “the aspirations of America for peace.”
A year later, when Moscow sent two Red Army tank divisions to quell anti-Communist protesters in Budapest, killing as many as 30,000 people, the cry went up for action. “What are the West and the United Nations going to do?” one despairing protester asked an American reporter.
The answer: nothing. Counteraction would only provoke Moscow to tighten its noose and perhaps “go back on de-Stalinization,” Eisenhower explained.
To some this sounded like retreat. John W. McCormack, a Massachusetts Democrat, accused the Eisenhower administration of appeasement and said it was living in “a dream world” that was emboldening the Soviets.
A similar tone was struck recently when Senator John McCain said Mr. Obama was “the most naïve president in American history,” blind to the reality that Mr. Putin “wants to restore the Russian empire.” That second charge was also made (by Lippmann, among others) of Stalin and his successors.
Still, it did not stop Eisenhower from inviting Khrushchev to the United States in 1959, again angering conservatives, who mounted protests during the visit.
Later presidents followed Eisenhower’s example. Even the most celebrated war of nerves, the Cuban missile crisis, was resolved by a secret bargain: The Soviets agreed not to place missiles in Cuba, and the Kennedy administration agreed to remove missiles it had placed in Turkey.
Another cold warrior, Richard M. Nixon, got the country out of the Vietnam War and also cut deals with the Soviets, including an accord that reduced both nations’ stockpile of nuclear missiles.
Or consider the most hallowed of Republican Cold War presidents, Ronald Reagan. Early in his first term, he too faced a Ukraine-like emergency when the Solidarity movement was crushed in Poland. Many expected a powerful response. Instead he showed restraint. He voiced sympathy for the movement, but the assistance he provided came quietly — and covertly, in part — through money and communications equipment funneled to anti-Communists. Eventually, Poland and other Soviet satellites were freed, but the change was partly made possible after Reagan realized he could negotiate with Mr. Gorbachev.
Calculations like these are the true prologue to the approach that Mr. Obama seems to have adopted in trouble spots from Syria to Ukraine. Like Nixon, he wound down a war he inherited, this time in Iraq, just as his reliance on drones and cyberwarfare parallels Eisenhower’s avoidance of military operations. And his ambition to eliminate nuclear arsenals builds on the efforts of both Nixon and Reagan.
Perhaps it’s time the chessboard metaphor was retired. The truth is that the Cold War was less a carefully structured game between masters than a frightening high-wire act, with leaders on both sides aware that a single misstep could plunge them into the abyss.
Correction: March 1, 2014
An earlier version of this news analysis misstated John W. McCormack’s role at the time that he accused the Eisenhower administration of appeasement. He was a member of the House of Representatives; he was not yet the speaker of the House.