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The Cold War: Effect on Political Discourse

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Published: Fri, 17 Aug 2018

‘With the end of the ‘Cold war’ in 1989, has there been more openness in the discourse of ‘deterrence’ or in ‘warring words’?

Introduction

The Cold War has been described as ‘a nearly fifty-year war of words and wills’, (Maus, 2003: 13). It was a period during which most individuals lived in constant fear that ‘the bomb’ would be dropped, effectively obliterating life as we know it. Direct combat itself was a very small part of this war: ‘The Cold War, fought with national ideologies, economic posturing and infinite defense budgets, festered without any combat or mass casualties (at least among the superpowers) throughout the latter half of the 20th century before finally coming to a head in the mid-’80s’ (Hooten n.d.). When the Cold War finally came to its ultimate end, the words of war shifted in meaning. ‘Warring words’ continued to be part of the popular vocabulary, but their connotations had changed, and their definitions shifted. The discourse of ‘deterrence’ faded away, as there was no longer a need for it. This paper will discuss the ways in which the Cold War has affected not only the history of the world, but also the history of the words that changed along with it.

The Words of War

The language we use to describe the things we do is a significant reflection of who we are at a given time in the culture. Communication is an essential tool for human beings, as we are highly social creatures by nature. The need to communicate is an integral part of our composition. However, in the course of transferring information to one another, there is always a margin of error. This means that miscommunication is bound to occur. According to Coupland, Wiemann, and Giles, ‘language use and communication are in fact pervasively and even intrinsically flawed, partial and problematic” (1991: 3).

Because communication is so important to humans as a species, it is only natural that miscommunication brings with it some sort of consequence. This is a universal concept, and it affects all of us on a very basic level. As Banks, Ge, and Baker assert, one’s theoretical orientation is of no importance in this respect: ‘A key sense of miscommunication, however, regardless of one’s theoretical orientation, is something gone awry communicatively that has social consequences for the interactants; without social consequences, the phenomenon would be of trivial interest’ (1991: 105).

As a result, conflict is inevitable in society, and a worst-case scenario of conflict is, of course war. War is more than a militaristic action that is played out with bullets and bombs as tools. Words, too, are very much a part of any war effort, and they can be very powerful as weapons. The Cold War has been described as ‘a nearly fifty-year war of words and wills’, as both sides aggressively tried to promote and protect their respective ideologies at home and abroad while always remaining aware of the repercussions of pushing the limits too far’ (Maus, 2003: 13). How did this war of words manage to continue for so long without reaching the stage of physical combat?

One perspective on this is offered by Grimshaw, who asserts that ‘so long as conflict talk is sustained (i.e., if participants do not withdraw) it does not seem to be the case that hostility (‘ugliness’) will increase without some concomitant increase in intensity’ (1990: 295). During the nearly fifty years’ duration of the Cold War, neither opponent was willing to back down, yet neither one was willing to plunge into what might turn into a major war with dire, irreversible consequences. It was primarily a war fought with words and bravado, a dramatic opus played on an international stage. In fact, the Cold War was ‘fought with national ideologies, economic posturing and infinite defense budgets, festered without any combat or mass casualties’ (Hooten, n.d.).

This is in keeping with Grimshaw’s assertion that, although disagreements can reach high levels of emotional upheaval, they do not necessarily have to result in physical interaction. ‘Friendly disputes can get quite ‘hot’; at least to some point they can apparently increase in intensity without the occurrence of hostility’ (Grimshaw, 1990: 295). The ever-present fear of nuclear obliteration may have had a great deal to do with this abeyance of action. Much of the world was still numbed by the disastrous tragedy that this power had wrought in the past, and there was great consternation at the thought of reaching a level of conflict that would require use of it again. Therefore, the Cold War remained a war of words.

Words, of course, are more than mere utterances. We communicate a great about ourselves when we use them—more than the actual message we are seeking to convey at any given time. As Halliday explains, ‘in all languages, words, sounds and structures tend to become charged with social value’ (1978: 166). In states of conflict, Halliday asserts that individuals tend to develop a code of words that not only reflects that conflict, but also helps the individual to come to terms with it on some level. He refers to this code of words as an ‘antilanguage’, and he asserts that ‘it is to be expected that, in the antilanguage, the social values will be more clearly foregrounded’ (Halliday, 1978: 166).

Since the purpose of an ‘antilanguage’ is to give individuals an alternative reality that is acceptable to them, the theory may be applied to the language of the Cold War. Living with the constant threat of nuclear war is an unbearable state of mind for most individuals; therefore, they must create a world that is more livable to them. This concept is echoed in the writings of Lemert and Branaman, who assert that:

‘Whatever his position in society, the person insulates himself by blindnesses, half-truths, illusions, and rationalizations. He makes an “adjustment” by convincing himself, with the tactful support of his intimate circle, that he is what he wants to be and that he would not do to gain his ends what the others have done to gain theirs’ (1997: 109).

Hence, the development of this different worldview is basically a survival mechanism during a time of great uncertainty and turmoil. The widely respected historian Hobsbawm has explained that ‘generations grew up under the shadow of global nuclear battles which, it was widely believed, could break out any moment, and devastate humanity’ (1996: 194). The fear that this knowledge brought to individuals naturally affected them on a very deep level. Through the use of an antilanguage, they were able to go on with the activities of daily life by designing a safe cocoon of illusory safety in which they could feel—or pretend to feel—safe. As Halliday puts it, ‘a social dialect is the embodiment of a mildly but distinctly different worldview—one which is therefore potentially threatening, if it does not coincide with one’s own’ (1978: 179).

Post-Cold War Language

When the five decades of decades of this war came to an end in 1989, the attitudes in place in society necessarily underwent a change, and that change was reflected in the language used as well. The fall of communism in Europe, combined with the end of the Cold War, were enough to bring new hope to the people of the United States. According to Mason, ‘the vicious circle of threats and distrust was replaced by a new spiral of trust and reassurance’ (1992: 187). In this mostly positive atmosphere, the constant threat of nuclear attack abated, and people were able to breathe more easily. The words of war lost the impact they once had.

As Hooten has explained, the words of war were tinged with fear, helplessness, and frustration throughout the years of the Cold War. After it ended, the words did not disappear from the language, but began to take on new connotations ‘The words of war were once the moral and emotional defense of the nation, corresponding with the real memories and motivations of an embattled citizenry’, asserts Hooten. After 1989, as images of war receded from the American psyche, ‘the language of war invaded the common lexicon of America’ (Hooten, n.d.). Examples of this are ubiquitous, and have become so common that we are often barely conscious of it.

For example, words such as ‘defend’ and ‘bomb’, which were once tainted by the association with war, have taken on new and less menacing uses. During the second half of the twentieth century, people may have felt a constant need to be ready to defend themselves in case of nuclear attack. Post-Cold War use of this word became something different: a politician may ‘defend’ his platform. The constant concern and ever-present worry about dropping the ‘bomb’ during the Cold War era has resulted in a transformation of this word as well:

‘Consider again the numerous, non-militant ways in which the word “bomb” is used: “Frat brothers get bombed on a Saturday night.” “Your new car is ‘da bomb.” “Did you see that comedian bomb on Letterman last night?” “The quarterback threw a long bomb to win the game”‘ (Hooten, n.d.).

Conclusion

Language has changed since the nearly fifty years of the Cold War era. Notice, for example, the language of Reagan’s “Star Wars” Speech, which was delivered on March 23, 1983: ‘”Deterrence” means simply this: making sure any adversary who thinks about attacking the United States, or our allies, or our vital interests, concludes that the risks to him outweigh any potential gains’ (1983: 250). In contemporary times, ‘deterrence’ can mean many things, most of which do not pertain to war at all. In a similar vein, many of the violent definitions associated with ‘warring’ words have fallen out of use. These words have become part of the common lexicon, used to describe the quotidian events of daily life without any sense of impending doom. Words such as ‘battle’, ‘bomb’, ‘defend’, and ‘massacre’, have lost the potency they held during the years of the Cold War. They have taken on new, less menacing definitions and uses.

Language is an integral part of the human experience. The language we use to describe the things we do is a significant reflection of who we are at a given time in the culture. Because we are highly social by nature, communication is vitally important as a tool for human beings. The need to communicate is an integral part of our composition. However, as noted earlier, in the course of transferring information to one another, there is always a margin of error. This means that miscommunication is bound to occur.

‘Consequently, for miscommunication to have impact, it is not likely to be a perturbation of smooth performance that is repaired in the current interaction’ (Banks, Ge and Baker 1991: 105).

References

Coupland, N., Giles, H., and Wiemann, J.M. (Eds.). 1991. Miscommunication and Problematic Talk London: Sage.

Banks, Stephen P., Ge, Gao, & Baker, Joyce. 1991. ‘Intercultural Encounters and Miscommunication’. In: Coupland, N., Giles, H., and Wiemann, J.M. (Eds.) “Miscommunication” and Problematic Talk. London: Sage, 103–120.

Grimshaw, Allen. 1990. ‘Research on conflict talk: antecedents, resources, findings, directions’. A. Grimshaw (ed.), Conflict talk: Sociolinguistic investigations of arguments in conversations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 280–324.

Gumperz, John and Jenny Cook-Gumperz. 1982. ‘Introduction: language and the communication of social identity. Pp. 1–21 in Gumperz, John, ed. 1982. Language and social identity. London: Cambridge University Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold Publishers.

Hobsbawm, Eric. 1996. ‘The Cold War Was a Relatively Stable Peace’. Pp. 193–198 in 191 in Maus, Derek, ed. 2003, The Cold War. London: Greenhaven Press.

Hooten, Jon. n.d. ‘Fighting Words: The War Over Language’. Retrieved January 13, 2006, from http://www.poppolitics.com/articles/printerfriendly/2002-09-10-warlanguage.shtml

Lemert, Charles and Branaman, Ann, eds. 1997. The Goffman Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mason, David. 1992. ‘The Last Years of the Soviet Union’. Pp. 179–191 in Maus, Derek, ed. 2003, The Cold War. London: Greenhaven Press.

Maus, Derek, ed. 2003. The Cold War. London: Greenhaven Press.

Reagan, Ronald, 1983. ‘The Star Wars Speech’. Document 22 in Maus, Derek, ed. 2003, The Cold War. London: Greenhaven Press.


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