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George Orwell and the origin of the term ‘cold war’

On 19 October 1945, George Orwell used the term cold war in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb,” speculating on the repercussions of the atomic age which had begun two months before when the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. In this article, Orwell considered the social and political implications of “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.”

This wasn’t the first time the phrase cold war was used in English (it had been used to describe certain policies of Hitler in 1938), but it seems to have been the first time it was applied to the conditions that arose in the aftermath of World War II. Orwell’s essay speculates on the geopolitical impact of the advent of a powerful weapon so expensive and difficult to produce that it was attainable by only a handful of nations, anticipating “the prospect of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them,” and concluding that such a situation is likely “to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’.”

Within years, some of the developments anticipated by Orwell had emerged. The Cold War (often with capital initials) came to refer specifically to the prolonged state of hostility, short of direct armed conflict, which existed between the Soviet bloc and Western powers after the Second World War. The term was popularized by the American journalist Walter Lippman, who made it the title of a series of essays he published in 1947 in response to U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s ‘Mr. X’ article, which had advocated the policy of “containment.” To judge by debate in the House of Commons the following year (as cited by the Oxford English Dictionary), this use of the term Cold War was initially regarded as an Americanism: ‘The British Government … should recognize that the ‘cold war’, as the Americans call it, is on in earnest, that the third world war has, in fact, begun.” Soon, though, the term was in general use.

The end of the Cold War was prematurely declared from time to time in the following decades—after the death of Stalin, and then again during the détente of the 1970s—but by the time the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Cold War era was clearly over. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously posited that “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such,” with the global ascendancy of Western liberal democracy become an inevitability.

A quarter of a century later, tensions between Russia and NATO have now ratcheted up again, particularly in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis of 2014; commentators have begun to speak of a “New Cold War.” The ideological context has changed, but once again a few great powers with overwhelming military might jockey for global influence while avoiding direct confrontation. Seventy years after the publication of his essay, the dynamics George Orwell discussed in it are still recognizable in international relations today.

A version of this article first appeared on the OxfordWords blog. 

Image Credit: “General Douglas MacArthur, UN Command CiC (seated), observes the naval shelling of Incheon from the USS Mt. McKinley, September 15, 1950.” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Julio Caro

    Orwell always surprises us. He was and still is a genius.

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