I lived through the Cold War, in the Paris of my youth. For us, America was a friend, the good empire, our protector. It was the United States that had gotten rid of the Nazis, it was the United States that would protect us against the Soviets. They were a sympathetic country, democratic; they desired liberty for all. I became indignant when I saw “US GO HOME” scrawled in graffiti on the walls of Paris, a fine creation of the communist partisans. For, not far away, at a distance of few hundred miles, stood the dreadful, bloody Soviet Empire. Nothing would halt its imperialism. Any day, without warning, thousands of tanks would cross the border and flood into West Germany, then descend upon France, then take the rest of Europe. It wasn’t the weakened European troops who would confront them, but rather the American forces.
This menace, we saw it, we lived it. At times I was seized by a distressing question. Should the Soviets invade, what would happen if the United States, for one reason or another, didn’t come to our defense? They had always been rather isolationist. Perhaps they had grown war-weary, and would be in no rush to fight another war in Europe. What would happen then?
In all probability, we would have been occupied by the Soviets, facing the same horrors as Eastern Europe. The time of Stalin, the time of executions and the massacre of millions had passed. The Soviet Empire was now a grey empire of coercion and oppression. You couldn’t act, or think, or feel without approval from the State. Famine wasn’t a problem, but shortages were a part of life.
I travelled to the Soviet Union shortly before its collapse. I saw long lines of housewives, warmly wrapped at the doors of the large grocery store, which carried the rather ironic name of “Gastronom.” I saw display after display of empty white boxes. However, there was cabbage, there always seemed to be cabbage, only ever cabbage. The misery was suffocating, stifling any sign of intelligence, will, character, or free spirit; it was a robotic misery.
I was in Austria, on the frontier of the Soviet world, and saw nothing but barbed wire, watchtowers, and machine guns. The Soviet Empire was nothing more than a vast concentration camp. Even more sinister, were the rumors of the gulags, where, among other things, those who dared to think for themselves were imprisoned. There were savage interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the two countries that dared to revolt against Soviet occupation. Soon the tanks arrived, then the all too familiar massacres and executions, the streets turned to rivers of blood. Voilà, the reality facing those who dared to act against the empire; voilà, what awaits us should the Soviets invade and occupy. Our safety was squarely in the hands of the Americans, the guardians of our liberty.
Photographs by Justin Creedy Smith