Nikita Khrushchev, the coal miner's son who had emerged as First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party after Stalin's death in 1953, saw the Cuban Revolution as Christmas for world Communism. Repeatedly during the subsequent crisis, he insisted that his motivation was simply to defend Cuba and its experiment with Marxism. In reality, he had seized on the idea of using the island as a kind of missile launching-pad, which would, at a stroke, narrow the gap in nuclear capability between the United States and the Soviet Union. That gap was still wide. The ratio of American to Soviet deliverable nuclear warheads was between eight and seventeen to one in favour of the United States. The Americans had six times as many long-range missiles as the Soviets; few if any of the Soviet missiles were in bomb­proof silos. The United States also had three times as many long-range bombers. The Soviets knew that their intercontinental ballistic missiles were anything but reliable, but from Cuba - just ninety miles from the coast of Florida - even intermediate range missiles could strike at the United States. Khrushchev's military advisers recommended sending forty missiles: twenty-four R-12S (with a range of 1,050 miles) and sixteen R-14S, which had double that range. Both carried one-megaton warheads. At a stroke, Khrushchev would double the number of missiles capable of reaching the United States. Now Washington would be a potential target, to say nothing of the Americans' own long-range missile silos in the Mid-West and air bases in the South - the key objectives of any Soviet first strike. To justify this action, Khrushchev only had to look out from his Black Sea holiday house at Pitsunda towards Turkey. There the Americans had recently stationed fifteen Jupiter missiles. 'What do you see?' he would ask visitors, handing them binoculars. 'I see US missiles in Turkey, aimed at my dacha.' The Cuban missiles would give the Americans 'a little of their own medicine'. 'It's been a long time since you could spank us like a little boy,' he had gleefully told Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, who happened to be visiting the Soviet Union that September. 'Now we can swat your ass.'

To ship so many missiles and over 50,000 men some 7,000 miles at the height of the hurricane season was a bold gambit. Even more astonishing was how long it took the Americans to cotton on to 'Operation Anadyr'. Because US aerial surveillance of Soviet naval activities and of Cuba itself had been stepped down, Kennedy did not hear that a U-2 spy plane had spotted missiles near Havana until the morning of Tuesday, October 16. Even two days later, the Soviets were still denying it. On being quizzed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko acted, in Khrushchev's glee­ful words, 'like a gypsy who's been caught stealing a horse: It's not me, and it's not my horse'. According to the myth perpetuated by Kennedy's acolytes, what followed was a triumph of hardball diplo­macy. In the phrase of Dean Rusk which has adorned a thousand textbooks, Kennedy and Khrushchev were 'eyeball to eyeball' over Cuba and 'the other fellow ... blinked'. This was far from the truth. On the contrary, Kennedy and his key advisers (assembled on what became known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or 'ExComm') were thrown into confusion by the audacity of the Soviet move. Already, the CIA reported, up to eight medium-range missiles could be fired from Cuba. Within six to eight weeks, the two longer-range missile sites would be ready too. Once all the missiles were installed, it was estimated, only 15 per cent of US strategic forces would survive Soviet attack. '[It's] just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of medium range ballistic missiles in Turkey,' fumed Kennedy. 'Well, we did, Mr President,' someone reminded him. Ken­nedy's next thought was to order air strikes against the missile sites. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff could not guarantee that all the missiles would be destroyed in such a raid, leaving the possibility open of Soviet retaliation. Instead, Kennedy adopted a twin-track approach. He decided to impose a naval blockade to halt further Soviet shipments of military hardware to Cuba. At the same time, he issued an ulti­matum demanding that the Soviets withdraw their missiles; this was broadcast on television. In case this ultimatum was rejected, he ordered the preparation of an invasion force of 90,000 ground troops.

At 10 o'clock in the evening of October 24, the Russian barman at the National Press Club in Washington overheard two seasoned hacks discussing an impending 'operation to capture Cuba'. The news reached Khrushchev - dishevelled by a night on his office sofa - the next day. OPLAN 316, which envisaged an air strike followed by an amphibious invasion, was indeed ready to get underway. And repeatedly during the following days key figures like McNamara urged invasion, even if it meant the Soviet Union 'doing something' in Europe in response. As Kennedy himself admitted, an invasion would have been 'one hell of a gamble'. He did not know how big a gamble. For the two Red Army regiments Khrushchev had sent to accompany the missiles were equipped with eighty short-range missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Each had an explosive power of between five and twelve kilotons. On September 7, as tension first began to mount, Khrushchev had dispatched a further six atomic bombs for the Ilyushin 11-28 bombers on Cuba, along with twelve nuclear Luna rockets. Each of these could blow a hole 130 feet wide and deep and kill everything within a radius of a thousand yards. Khrushchev had also sent four submarines with nuclear-tipped torpedoes. Although he had expressly forbidden his commanding officer in Cuba to use these weapons without his permission, a full-scale American invasion would have presented him with little alternative - other than abject surrender.

Yet even this would not have worried some senior military figures - and not only the chronically bellicose LeMay. The new head of Strategic Air Command, General Tommy Powers, was known to be undaunted by the prospect of a nuclear war. (It was he who once said: 'At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.') Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson (also an ExComm member) argued that an American strike on Cuba would lead to a Soviet strike on Turkey, which would require the US 'to respond by knock­ing out a missile base inside the Soviet Union'. 'Then what do we do?' he was asked. The politicians had no illusions about what war would mean. Kennedy spoke of 200 million dead; Khrushchev of 500 million. 'If the United States insists on war,' he told a visiting American busi­nessman (one of many informal channels used during the crisis), 'we'll all meet in helL' This did not mean that war was impossible. It meant that the two sides were now playing the game of chicken in earnest. There is, of course, a 'cooperative' outcome in the game of chicken.

If both players swerve, nobody wins, but both come out alive, and no one can call the other a chicken. That was indeed what happened in the Cuban game. Khrushchev offered Kennedy two possible deals, one delivered through the usual, rather slow channel of the diplomatic telegraph, the other broadcast on Radio Moscow. The first simply envisaged a withdrawal of the missiles in return for an American guarantee not to invade Cuba; it reached the State Department at 9 p.m. on Friday, September 26. The second, which reached the White House as the ExComm convened thirteen hours later, offered a withdrawal of the Cuban missiles in return for the withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. According to the legend spread by Kennedy's hagiographers, the second of these proposals was spurned. In fact, it had already been suggested by the Americans themselves to the Soviet agent Georgi Bolshakov, probably at the instigation of Kennedy's brother Robert, the Attorney-General and the President's closest confidant. Nevertheless, a war could still have broken out that weekend, despite the search for a compromise. Castro certainly thought so. In the early hours of Saturday 27th, fuelled by sausages and beer, he drafted a letter to Khrushchev which essentially urged him to go nuclear if the Americans invaded, 'however harsh and terrible the solution would be'. The 'Maximum Leader' was enjoying the effect of the crisis on the popular mood. 'We did not even arrest anyone,' he later remarked, in a revealing moment of candour, 'because the unity of the people was so staggering.' Later that morning, at 10.22 a.m., an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet SA-2 rocket. The pilot, Rudolf Anderson, was killed. Cuban anti-aircraft batteries subsequently fired at other low-flying American reconnaissance planes. Meanwhile, another U-2 had unintentionally strayed into Soviet airspace near the Bering Straits. When Soviet MiGs took off to intercept it, Alaskan-based F-102As were scrambled. Elsewhere, mere accidents came close to triggering the apocalypse. A bear at Duluth airbase led to the mobilizing of nuclear-armed F-106s in Minnesota. A routine test at Cape Canaveral was mistaken for a Soviet missile by a radar unit in New Jersey.

By the afternoon of the 27th, the members of ExComm were in a state of high anxiety. The day had begun with a warning from J. Edgar Hoover that the Soviet officials in New York were shredding documents, apparently in the expectation of war. Then came Khrush­chev's second, very public proposal, apparently contradicting his first. Of all those present, only the President himself seemed to take seri­ously the idea of trading Turkish missiles for Cuban; the majority of his advisers saw it as a bid to weaken NA TO, the transatlantic military alliance of which Turkey was a member. At 4 p.m. came the news of the downed U-2. We know from the tape recordings Kennedy secretly made of this meeting how he reacted to this bombshell: 'How do we explain the effect?' he asked, barely coherent. 'This Khrushchev message of last night and their decision ... How do we - I mean that's a ... ' The phrase on the tip of his tongue was presumably something like 'a provocation we can't ignore'. But if that was what Kennedy nearly said, he stopped himself. Instead, he sent his brother Robert to discuss the Cuban-Turkish missile swap with the Soviet ambassador, lining up the UN Secretary General to raise the issue the next day if he drew a blank. The key point, as Robert Kennedy explained to the Russians, was to avoid 'public discussion of the issue of Turkey'. He did not have to spell out his brother's and the Democratic Party's vulnerability on the issue. There had been repeated Republican accusa­tions that the administration was backsliding over Cuba; and Con­gressional elections were due the following month. It must also be remembered that the Cuban crisis came just a year after the building of the Berlin Wall, the latest in a succession of Soviet challenges to the four-power control of the former German capital.

Khrushchev was asleep on his Kremlin sofa while all this was hap­pening. The ambassador's report did not reach the Soviet Foreign Ministry until the following morning. As soon as he was briefed about what Robert Kennedy had said, Khrushchev drafted another public letter, which was duly broadcast at 5 p.m. Moscow time, 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. (It should have been earlier, but the courier got stuck in rush-hour traffic.) This time Khrushchev merely said that the missiles in Cuba would be dismantled, crated and returned home. It was over. 'I felt like laughing or yelling or dancing,' recalled one intensely relieved member of ExComm. The British journalist Alistair Cooke watched a seagull soar in the sky above him and wondered why it was not a dove. Yet a gull was perhaps the right bird. For at the same time Khrushchev sent two private messages to Kennedy. The second said that the missiles were being withdrawn only 'on account of your having agreed to the Turkish issue'. Later, the American ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, would be accused of having raised the Turkish issue. This was a smear; it was the Kennedy brothers who had done it. Nor was the crisis quite at an end. The Pentagon continued to prepare its invasion of Cuba, still unaware (or ignoring the fact) that there were ten times as many Soviet troops on the island as they had estimated and that they were armed with battlefield nuclear missiles. It was not until November 20, when Khrushchev agreed also to withdraw the 11-28 bombers, that the game of chicken was really at an end.

When both drivers swerve, as we have seen, there is no winner. True, having concealed from the American public his readiness to abandon either toppling Castro or the Turkish missiles, Kennedy could strike a tough-guy pose as the Soviets dismantled their missiles. But his military chiefs were disgusted; to the President's face, LeMay called it 'the greatest defeat in our history'. On the other hand, so convincing was Kennedy's claim to have made Khrushchev blink over Cuba that, just over a year later, a Castro sympathizer named Lee Harvey Oswald shot him dead. ':. Khrushchev also emerged from the crisis weaker. At a meeting of the Central Committee on November 23, he sought to make the best of it, with characteristic peasant humour: 'It was not necessary to act like the Tsarist officer who farted at the ball and then shot himself.' A Soviet missile had downed an American plane. 'What a shot! And in return we received a pledge not to invade Cuba. Not bad!' But the men with the medal-bedecked chests felt that he had acted recklessly for little net benefit. In October 1964, two years after trading Cuban missiles for Turkish, Khrushchev himself was traded in for Leonid Brezhnev. In truth, Castro was the sole beneficiary of the crisis - and he was the only one of the three leaders who was disappointed by the peaceful outcome. According to Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, when Castro heard of the compromise, 'he swore, kicked the wall and smashed a looking glass' . Yet Castro's position was enormously strengthened by the crisis. Kennedy was soon dead, Khrushchev ousted. The Cuban leader, however, would enjoy more than four more decades in power.

The Cuban missile crisis showed just how close to a Third World War it was possible for the United States and the Soviet Union to come, despite their vastly increased destructive capabilities. Yet it also revealed that even if they both chose to swerve in the great game of nuclear chicken, war could still be waged in other ways. It is some­times claimed that the advent of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' ushered in an era of world peace. But this is to misunderstand the character of the Cold War. The real and bloody Third World War was in fact fought by the likes of Castro - in the Third World itself. The War of the World had been a succession of head-to-head col­lisions between the world's empires, played out in the crucial conflict zones at either end of the Eurasian land mass. The Third World's War, by contrast, was fought indirectly in new and more remote theatres, where the strategic stakes (though not the human costs) were lower.

There were three reasons for this relocation of conflict. First, the possibility of ethnic conflict in the western and eastern borderlands of Eurasia, the principal battlefields of the first half of the century, had been dramatically diminished. Not only had ethnic cleansing during and after the Second World War decimated minority populations, homogenizing societies as never before; at the same time, the most contested frontiers of all were hermetically sealed. After 1953 the border between North and South Korea was transformed into a heavily fortified zone across which no human being dared venture. In 1961, as we have seen, a wall was built across Berlin and through the heart of Germany, with the intention of stemming the flow of East Germans absconding to the western Federal Republic; its effect, how­ever, was to formalize not only the partition of Germany but also the division of Europe. Central Europe disappeared. Henceforth therewould be only Western and Eastern Europe. Churchill had earlier warned of the dangers of an Iron Curtain stretching between 'Stettin in the Baltic and Trieste in the Adriatic'. Yet once it was drawn, this geopolitical drape turned out to have unexpected benefits. Political segregation turned out to stop what had once been one of the principal sources of conflict in Central and Eastern Europe - friction between the peoples of the imperial borderlands. As Kennedy rightly observed, 'a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war'.

The second reason conflict moved was economic. The War of the World had been propelled forward by economic volatility. It had been the great interruption to globalization caused by the First World War that had plunged the world economy into three decades of upheaval. Inflation, deflation, boom, bust and depression; these had been the forces that had intensified the instability of both Europe and East Asia. They had weakened the existing empires. They had undermined the new democracies. They had heightened racial antipathies. They had paved the way for the empire-states that arose in Turkey, Russia, Japan and Germany, each with its own pathological yearning for ethnic homogeneity and hierarchy. It had been economic volatility that had justified Stalin's creation of the planned economy, a new kind of slave state based on state ownership of capital and unfree labour. Above all, it had been economic volatility that had inspired a new and ruthless imperialism, based on the seductive notion of 'living space' - of economic recovery through territorial expansion.

The 1950s and 1960s were quite different. In both the West and the East, economic growth rates rose to unprecedented heights. Aver­age per capita growth rates for the period 1950-73 were higher than those for 1913-50 in almost every major economy except India's. In Spain growth was 34 times higher; in Germany and Austria just under 30 times higher; in Japan 9 times higher; in Italy 6 times higher. The Eastern Bloc economies also fared well; Stalinist planning proved a remarkably effective way of reconstructing economies ruined by war. Hungarian growth was eight times higher in the 1950S and 1960s than it had been in the era of world wars and depression; Eastern Europe as a whole enjoyed per capita growth of nearly 3.8 per cent, more than four times the pre-1950 figure. The Soviet Union achieved annual growth of just under 3.4 per cent, nearly a full percentage point higher than the United States (2.4 per cent). Ironically, the highest growth rates of all were achieved in the vanquished Axis countries. Moreover, the vulnerability of the major economies to cyclical slumps declined markedly. Between 1945 and 1971 the vola­tility of growth in the world's seven biggest economies was less than half what it had been between 1919 and 1939.

Economic rivalry began to take over from strategic conflict, a change vividly illustrated by Vice-President Richard Nixon's visit to Moscow in July 1959. His host loved to taunt the West. 'Whether you like it or not, history is on our side,' Khrushchev famously warned: 'We will bury you.' Nixon's inauguration of the American Exhibition at the Sokolniky Park in Moscow was the American reply. The high­light of the exhibition was an all-mod-cons kitchen, complete with dishwasher, electric cooker and - the American domestic goddess's most cherished possession - a huge refrigerator. It was, Nixon declared expansively, 'like those of our houses in California'. 'We have such things,' replied Khrushchev. Nixon seemed not to hear him: 'This is our newest model. This is the kind which is built in thousands of units for direct installation in the houses. In America, we like to make life easier for women.' Khrushchev shot back: 'Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism.' No matter what Nixon showed him, Khrushchev flatly refused to be impressed. If the American kitchen was ahead of the Soviet kitchen, it was merely a matter of historical happenstance:

KHRUSHCHEV: How long has America existed? Three hundred years? NIXON: One hundred and fifty years.

KHRUSHCHEV: One hundred and fifty years? Well then, we will say America has been in existence for 150 years and this is the level she has reached. We have existed not quite forty-two years and in another seven years we will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, in passing you by, we will wave to you.

It was all bluster. For ordinary Russians, accustomed to the primi­tive facilities of cramped communal housing, the exhibit was a glimpse of a parallel universe. Around 50,000 visitors came to see it every day; in all, it was visited by 2.7 million Soviet citizens. Richard Nixon's domestic critics used to ask: 'Would you buy a used car from this man?' Most people in Eastern Europe would gladly have bought a used fridge from him.

Nixon's icebox looked like a Cold War-winning weapon. As Khrushchev rightly said: 'What we were really debating was not a question of kitchen appliances but a question of two opposing systems: capitalism and socialism.' The Americans understood this too. Another attraction at the American exhibition was the latest IBM RAMAC 305 computer, which enabled visitors to have their ques­tions answered about American culture and material achievements. It responded to some 10,000 enquiries during the first ten days:

VISITOR: What is meant by the American dream?

IBM: That all men shall be free to seek a better life, with free worship, thought, assembly, expression of belief and universal suffrage and education.

The Soviet Union might not be able to offer its citizens those freedoms. Yet its leaders always insisted that it could more than match the West when it came to economics. Stalin himself had built a Park of Soviet Economic Achievement in Moscow as a showcase for Communist consumer durables to come. One Russian propaganda film even fea­tured a flying car, a kind of Soviet Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The American Exhibition made it painfully clear how far the Soviets were from realizing such visions.

Yet it would be to misunderstand the Cold War to dismiss it as a one-horse race, which the United States was always bound to win. For all its economic limitations, the Soviet Union had other formidable weapons at its disposal. It was not only in the realms of culture and sport that the Soviets could hold their own, though it did no harm to Russian self-esteem that they were nearly always the favourites in chess matches, piano competitions and ice hockey matches.  Not many Americans made high-profile defections to the other side of the Iron Curtain, as did some Russian ballet stars, notably Rudolf Nure­yev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. But the Soviets undoubtedly had greater success in penetrating the other side's intelligence agencies through the undetected recruitment of equally mercurial characters, notably Kim Philby and Guy Burgess. In the realm of global strategy, too, the Soviet Union was a match - and sometimes more than a match - for the United States. That was why, for more than forty years, the out­come of the Cold War was anything but certain. And that was also why there were many parts of the world where the Cold War was not cold at all. For the third determinant of global conflict - imperial decline ­continued to operate in the 1950S and 1960s. Now, however, it was different empires that were declining in different parts of the world. The decline and fall of the British Empire was attended by bitter inter­communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in India; between Israelis and Arabs in Palestine; between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq; between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. It was never entirely clear, and remains hard to say even today, which was the better option: to cut and run (as in India) or to hang on and fight (as in Kenya). Suffice to say that there were comparatively few happy end­ings as the European empires expired, and even where the transition to independence went smoothly, a descent into violence was not long in coming. That was the pattern throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Among the waning empires that spawned this host of conflicts was the more or less informal American empire in Central America and the Caribbean. In 1952 Guatemala's left-wing government, led by President Jacobo Arbenz, enacted Decree 900, a reform that took idle land away from some of the country's biggest estate owners and redistributed it to poor peasants. Among the landowners dismayed by this development was the American United Fruit Company, which owned around 10 per cent of Guatemala's prime agricultural land. In February 1953 the Arbenz government confiscated a quarter of a million acres of company land, offering in return government bonds worth just over $1 million, a twentieth of what United Fruit said the land was worth. When the Guatemalan Supreme Court struck down the reform as unconstitutional, the government fired the judges. 'One can live without tribunals,' one trade union leader declared, 'but one Cold War fondly as a time of peace and stability. The reality is that the second half of the twentieth century was not much less violent than the first. Altogether between 1945 and 1983 around 19 or 20 million people were killed in around 100 major military conflicts. It was just the venues of violence that had changed. Instead of fighting head on, as they came so close to doing in Cuba in 1962, the super­powers now fought one another through intermediaries in what they regarded as peripheral theatres. But to those caught up in them there was nothing peripheral about these numerous hot wars. The degree of superpower sponsorship varied from case to case. Sometimes, as in Vietnam or Afghanistan, American and Soviet troops were in the front line. More often, they were behind the lines, training or supplying local armies. Sometimes, as in Africa and the Middle East, the support itself was subcontracted to other countries. Yet here, as in so many other respects during the Cold War, the United States found that it was at a fundamental disadvantage.

When Trotsky had called for world revolution after 1917, the results had been disappointing. But when Khrushchev spoke buoy­antly of 'an era when socialism, communism and global revolution will triumph', it was a different story. All over the Third World there were popular nationalist movements which aimed to overthrow the last vestiges of West European colonial rule and establish some form of popularly based self-government. The Soviets proved remarkably good at persuading many such movements to adopt their own political and economic model. Decolonization was the wave the Soviets rode; 'popu­lar liberation' was a phrase they knew well how to use. Of course, the American political system had also been the product of a revolt against imperial rule. Yet somehow Lenin, Stalin and Mao had more appeal in the 1960s and 1970S than Washington, Jefferson and Madison. The American model of democracy plus capitalism had far fewer takers than the Soviet alternative of one-party rule plus socialism. This was partly because poor former colonies like Guatemala, Cuba and Angola had a large, impoverished peasantry, of the sort that had been decisive in backing the Russian and Chinese revolutions, but only a small middle class, of the sort that had made the American one. Partly it was because ambitious Third World 'freedom fighters' liked the opportunities the distinctly unfree Soviet system had to offer them. In a one-party system, it was therefore tempting to back anyone who showed signs of being able to beat the Soviet-backed revolutionaries, even if it meant imposing a capitalist dictatorship instead. The problem with this was that very quickly the United States found itself tainted by association with and support for regimes that were every bit as vicious as the worst Communist tyrannies of Eastern Europe or Asia. Worse, it was seldom clear beyond all reasonable doubt that the dictators backed by Washington were always the lesser evil, since the popular move­ments they crushed generally did not have the chance to show their true colours in power. Those left-wing leaders who were overthrown or murdered by CIA-backed regimes swiftly became martyrs not only in Soviet propaganda but also in the liberal press of the West. While experience strongly suggested that Marxists showed scant respect for human rights once in power, those who never made it to power or who held it only briefly could always be given the benefit of the doubt. Like Jekyll and Hyde, then, American foreign policy in the Cold War seemed to come in two guises: by day talking the language of freedom, democracy and the shining city on a hill; by night using dirty tricks to stymie suspected Soviet clients and to promote local 'strongmen' ­a polite term for dictators. Nowhere was this more obvious than in what the United States regarded as its own geopolitical backyard:Central America, the birthplace of the dictum: 'It doesn't matter if he's a sonofabitch, so long as he's our sonofabitch.' This was the hard essence of what some commentators called realism.

In their last days in power in Guatemala, the Communists had resorted to mass arrests, torture and executions. Now the tables were turned. With American encouragement, a list was compiled of 72,000 suspected Communist sympathizers. Yet, just as the Soviets had found in Cuba, the Americans were soon reminded that Central (and South) American puppets came with few strings attached. By the mid-I960s, paramilitary death squads like the Mana Blanca (White Hand) were roaming the Guatemalan streets and countryside, engaging in what the US State Department admitted were kidnappings, torture and summary executions. Soon the Americans had to admit that, in the words of Thomas L. Hughes, the 'counter-insurgency' was 'running wild'. CIA agent John Longan was sent in to bring the situation under control. But his Operation Cleanup was anything but clean. Between leaders, among them the former trade union leader Victor Manuel Gutierrez, were arrested and taken to the Guatemalan military's headquarters at Matamaros. There they were tortured and killed. The Guatemalan military then put their bodies in sacks and dropped them out of a plane into the Pacific. The CIA memo outlining the operation stated simply: 'The execution of these persons will not be announced and the Guatemalan government will deny that they were ever taken into custody.' That was what the CIA meant by a cleanup: a dirty war that left no incriminating fingerprints. Operation Cleanup introduced what was to become the signature tactic of proxy Cold War violence in Latin America, the 'disappearance' of opponents. Over the next thirty years more than 40,000 people would disappear in Guatemala. It was the same story in other military regimes in the region - in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile. Los Desaparacidos became a euphemism for those murdered by the military. With good reason, Viron Vaky, second-in-command of the US embassy in Guatemala, lamented the 'tarnishing' of America's image in the region.

Yet who exactly was being made to disappear? As far as the CIA was concerned, the answer was simply Communist sympathizers, potential revolutionaries whom Moscow might already have recruited to its side in the Cold War. In reality, however, the social conflicts that bedevilled the Third World throughout the Cold War were often as much ethnic conflicts as they were ideological. In this respect, the Third World's War had much in common with the War of the World; it was the old violence in new premises. Just as the Cold War in Angola was essentially a tribal battle for power between the primarily Kimbundo MPLA and the mainly Ovimbundu UNIT A, so too in Guatemala the struggle between government and 'subversion' had a distinctly ethnic character. Guatemalan society was hierarchically ordered, with the relatively well-off Ladino descendants of conquista­dors and their native concubines at the top, and the land-hungry indigenous peoples at the bottom. The proxy war that the CIA was underwriting in Guatemala was therefore not so much a war between capitalists and communists as a war between Ladino latifundista and Mayan peasants. Accused of sympathizing with the communist Guer­rilla Army of the Poor, Mayan tribes like the Ixil subjected not only to wholesale massacres but also to forced relocation and incarceration in 'strategic hamlets'. Hundreds of villages identified as 'red' were literally obliterated; their inhabitants tortured, raped and murdered; their homes destroyed and the surrounding forests burned. When the civil war was finally brought to an end in the 1990s, the total death toll had reached around 200,000. Because so many of the vic­tims were Mayan, the Guatemalan military was deemed by the UN­sponsored truth commission to have committed an act of genocide.

The truth about the Cold War, then, is that in most of the southern hemisphere the United States did almost as little for freedom as the Soviet Union did for liberation. American policy involved not only the defence of West European democracies like Italy, France and West Germany, which there is no doubt the Soviets tried their level best to subvert; it also meant the maintenance of dictatorships in countries like Guatemala where Communism - sometimes real, sometimes imag­ined - was fought by means of the mass slaughter of civilians. This meant that the supposed 'long peace' of the Cold War was on offer only to American and Soviet citizens and those in immediate proximity to them in the northern hemisphere. For a large proportion of the world's citizens, there was no such peace. There was only the reality of a Third World War, a war that involved almost as much ethnic conflict as the First and Second World Wars before it. It was a war that by the late 1960s the United States showed every sign of losing.

When Richard Nixon was inaugurated as President on January 20, 1969, it was becoming hard for Americans to feel optimistic about the Cold War. Their much vaunted capitalist system, which Nixon himself had proudly showcased in Moscow ten years earlier, was faltering. Inflation was rising but, contrary to the Keynesian economic rules of the 1960s, unemployment was refusing to come down. Imports were growing faster than exports; meanwhile, foreigners were rapidly losing their fondness for the dollar, making it harder to finance the resulting deficits. American society itself seemed to be fragmenting. There were race riots in the inner cities and demonstrations in the the border in Manchuria - proof that this region remained as prone to strategic earthquakes as ever. There was a real possibility that the Soviet Union might launch attacks on Chinese nuclear weapons facilities. But to Nixon and his National Security Adviser, the Harvard historian Henry Kissinger, this was not a crisis, but an opportunity. Kissinger had never wholly accepted the idea that the world since 1945 had been divided into two mutually antagonistic blocs. In reality, he believed, the twentieth century was, for all its polarized political rhetoric, not all that different from the nineteenth. Others might see the Cold War as a crude game of chicken. To Kissinger, it was more like classical diplomatic chess. Just as Bismarck had sought to enhance German power by playing the other powers off against one another, Kissinger now sought to improve America's position by eXploiting the Sino-Soviet antagonism. 'The deepest rivalry which may exist in the world today', he declared in September 1970, 'is that between the Soviet Union and China.' It had been one thing for Yugoslavia, Romania or Albania to break away from the embrace of Moscow. None counted as a great power and, as long as their dictators stuck to the principles of one-party rule and the planned economy, the Soviets could afford to shrug their shoulders. China, with its vast population, was a different matter. It was not so much that Kissinger expected the Chinese to bale the Americans out in Vietnam; rather, he believed an opening to Beijing would force the Soviets to listen to American proposals for a Strategic Arms Limitation agreement. Detente was Kissinger's watchword: a reduction in superpower ten­sion aimed at halting the increasingly burdensome nuclear arms race. Both sides now had enough warheads to obliterate each other's popu­lations several times over. First strikes were out because both sides were clearly capable of retaliatory second strikes. What was the point in building ever more numerous, ever more lethal missiles?

The problem was that this plan meant doing business with China, where no American official had set foot since 1949. Nor did this seem an especially opportune moment to re-establish diplomatic ties. In the late 1960s China was in the grip of a second wave of Maoist radical­ism, the Cultural Revolution. Officially, this was an attempt by Chair­man Mao to resist bureaucratic tendencies and revive revolutionary fervour. In the summer of 1966, more than 1,700 people were beaten to death in Beijing alone. Some victims were killed by having boiling water poured over them; others were forced to swallow nails. More than 85,000 people were exiled to the countryside, where they were forced to work in 'reform-through-Iabour' camps. At Beijing University during the 'Cleansing the Class Ranks' campaign of 1968, suspect teachers were forced publicly to confess their 'problems' and to denounce each other. Those identified as counter-revolutionaries were subjected to investigation by so-called zhuan an groups, which often involved torture. Teachers were held in an improvised jail called the niupeng (ox shack). The teachers themselves were referred to as niuguisheshen ('ox ghosts and snake demons'). Many were driven to suicide. Pan Guangdan, a professor of anthropology and translator of Darwin's works, told a friend: 'I used to follow a three S's strategy: surrender, submit and survive. Now I added a fourth S: succumb.' At least twenty-three faculty members at Beijing University were 'persecuted to death' in this way. (The Red Guards referred to suicide as 'alienating oneself from the Party and people'.) In 1970, during the campaign against the 'Four Olds' (old ideals, culture, customs and habits), around 280,000 people were labelled as 'counter-revolutionaries' or 'capitalist-roaders' and arrested. All this was done in the name of and at the instigation of Mao, who was revered as a god. In the morning and evening, people had to line up in front of his portrait and chant: 'May the great leader Chairman Mao live ten thousand years'. They sang songs like 'Chairman Mao is the Sun That Never Falls'. In all, between 400,000 and a million people are believed to have died in the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution. In the words of William Buckley, a Republican journalist close to Kissinger, rapprochement with Beijing meant dealing with murderers who put South American dictators in the shade. Indeed, Mao's totalitarian regime was now clearly on a par with Stalin's Soviet Union when it came to persecuting its own citizens.

To Kissinger, such considerations had to be secondary; in the great chess game of diplomacy, the imperative was to check the red king, not to worry about the pawns he sacrificed. In February 1972, the ground having been painstakingly prepared by his National Security Adviser, Nixon set off for China. This time he did not come to boast about the superiority of the American way of life, as he had done in Moscow in 1959. On the contrary, he was perfectly ready to conceal his deep-seated distaste for Communism. 'You don't know me,' Nixon opened, inadvertently sounding once again like a salesman, 'but any­thing I say I deliver.' Those in Washington who still lamented the 'loss' of China to the Communists could only gape in amazement as Nixon cheerfully swapped toasts with Premier Zhou Enlai. The handshake with Mao, the photo opportunity on the Great Wall, the sound of a Chinese military band playing 'America the Beautiful' at a banquet in the Great Hall of the People - even in his wildest imagin­ings, Nixon could not have wished for more. What was more, the rapprochement between China and America succeeded in bringing the Soviets to the negotiating table, just as Kissinger had hoped. Within three months, Nixon and Brezhnev had signed two arms control agreements. It was a resounding triumph for diplomacy - and for Nixon's campaign for re-election. Kissinger, the grandmaster of great­power chess, was duly promoted to Secretary of State.

But were he and Nixon in some sense chess pieces on someone else's board? They had assumed that Mao wanted three things: to boost China's international standing, to move closer to annexing Taiwan and to get the United States out of Asia. This was to underestimate the other side. The farewell banquet was awash with liquor and American goodwill - goodwill that the Chinese used to secure all kinds of concessions. Yes, Taiwan could now be marginalized, its seat in the United Nations handed to Beijing. But that was not all; with the United States now so wedded to the idea of good relations with the People's Republic, China could bully its neighbours into satellite status with impunity. Tibet, which had been annexed by the People's Republic in 1951, could now be forcibly colonized by ethnic Chinese. And not just the United States but also the Soviet Union could be kicked out of Indo-China. That had implications for Vietnam that were very different from the ones Nixon and Kissinger had in mind.

It turned out that nothing, not even the Machiavellian genius of  Henry Kissinger, could salvage American honour from the wreckage of Vietnam. Yet it was not failure overseas that destroyed Nixon's presidency. Rather, it was that enthusiasm for domestic gadgets which had so irked Khrushchev back in 1959. Nixon was not the first American president to tap phones and tape-record conversations, but none of his predecessors had done so quite as compulsively. By a rich irony, it was tapes of his own conversations, recordings he himself had requested, that revealed the extent of Nixon's complicity in the Watergate scandal, and forced his resignation. Still, even as he an­nounced his fall from grace on August 9, 1974, Nixon clung to the idea that the opening to China had secured his place in history. As he reminded viewers:

We have unlocked the doors that for a quarter of a century stood between the United States and the People's Republic of China. We must now ensure that the one quarter of the world's people who live in the People's Republic of China will be and remain not our enemies but our friends.

But what kind of friends had Nixon actually made in Beijing? As far as the Chinese were concerned, American weakness presented China with an opportunity to settle two historical scores: one with the Soviet Union, whose leadership of the Communist world Mao wished to challenge; the other with North Vietnam, which had dared to turn to Moscow rather than Beijing for support in its war with the United States. The brunt of this score-settling would be borne by the small state of Cambodia.

Used by the North Vietnamese as a sanctuary and supply route for Vietcong guerrillas, Cambodia had been the target of a supposedly secret bombing campaign ordered by Nixon. The country's ruler, Prince Sihanouk, had tried vainly to play both sides off against one another. On March 18, 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup led by the pro-American Lon Nol; determined to win back power, Sihanouk joined forces with the Cambodian Communists, the Khmer Rouge. The early 1970S offered the perfect opportunity to the Khmer Rouge. The North Vietnamese forces were able not only to elude American incursions, but also to get the better of Lon Nol's inferior army. The Americans stepped up their bombing, but the resulting civilian casualties merely helped the Khmer Rouge to win new recruits.

When the North Vietnamese withdrew, the days of Lon Nol's regime were numbered. The man who would oust him was Saloth Sar, a failed electronics student who had become a Communist while studying in Paris and went by the nom de guerre of Pol Pot. Struck by his leader's cold demeanour and his utter ruthlessness towards their enemies, one of his comrades once compared Pol Pot with a Buddhist monk who had attained the 'third level' of consciousness:

'You are completely neutral. Nothing moves you. This is the highest level.' Just what Pol Pot was capable of doing in this transcendental state became apparent immediately after the capital, Phnom Penh, fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. He and his stony-faced army ordered the immediate and total evacuation of the entire city.

Pol Pot's regime repudiated the very idea of economic progress, seeking to transport Cambodia back into a pre-industrial, pre­commercial, pre-capitalist utopia. 'Year Zero' was proclaimed. The towns were to be emptied. All markets were to be abolished. There would be no money. Everyone would now work in agricultural cooperatives, where there would no private property. They would dress only in black. They would eat communally. The aim was to produce 'Kampuchea': a pure communist agrarian state. Every form of Western contamination was to be eradicated, even modern medi­cine. And as far as the Khmer Rouge were concerned, it did not much matter how many people died in the process. As they told the bewildered city-dwellers, the so-called 'New People' who had not been on the right side during the civil war: 'To preserve you is no gain, to destroy you is no loss.' Destruction was indeed Pol Pot's only forte, since his sole venture into construction - a complex of new canals and dams intended to rival the temples of Angkor Wat - ended in abject failure. The main supporters of the previous regime were executed in short order, along with their families. Anyone who questioned Angkar - 'the Organization' - was treated in the same way. Even to be ill was to betray a 'lack of revolutionary consciousness'. As in China's Cultural Revolution, teachers were viewed with sus­picion, but so too were students and university graduates. The Khmer Rouge were short of bullets, so they used axes, knives and bamboo sticks. Children selected for execution had their heads smashed against banyan trees. Executions were often carried out with a pickaxe in the rice paddies - the so-called killing fields. The T oul Sleng prison became an 'extermination centre', where some 14,000 people were tortured to death, many of them Khmer Rouge cadres who had fallen under suspicion. Some victims were publicly disembowelled, their livers cooked and eaten by their executioners. It was not unusual for a revolution to devour its own children; only in Cambodia were they sometimes literally devoured. In all, between I. 5 and 2 million people died as a result of execution, maltreatment or starvation, out of a total population of only seven million.

What ultimately destroyed this maniacal regime was the war it launched against Vietnam in 1977. This was a war with an explicitly genocidal intent. 'So far we have attained our target,' government radio announced on May 10, 1978: 'Thirty Vietnamese killed for every fallen Kampuchean ... So we could sacrifice two million Kam­pucheans in order to exterminate the fifty million Vietnamese - and we shall still be six million.' Here was a bizarre fulfilment of the American aspiration to exploit discord within the Communist bloc. Two Communist regimes, and two peoples, at war with one another, one backed by the Soviet Union, the other - Pol Pot's - backed by China. Yet precisely the Sino-American rapprochement that Nixon had negotiated led Cold War realpolitik into the realm of the absurd. After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, the United States sided with the Khmer Rouge, which had now retreated to the hills to wage another guerrilla war.

The Cold War, then, was only partly a struggle between two rival economic systems. It was only partly a game of chicken between the American and Soviet strategic forces. It was only partly Kissinger's game of chess between the great powers. On the ground, the Cold War was a host of civil wars, many of them sponsored by the super­powers, few of them entirely under their control. Some of the most egregious episodes of genocide were scarcely related to the superpower conflict at all. That was certainly the case in Pakistan in 1971, when the military regime of Mohammad Ayub Khan waged an authentically genocidal campaign against the people of East Pakistan in a vain attempt to prevent their secession by 'reducing this majority into a minority'. And it was true in Iraq in 1988, when Saddam Hussein launched the so-called Anfal (Spoils) campaign against the Kurds, using (among other weapons) poison gas to wipe out whole villages. Realpolitik meant dealing with repugnant leaders like Ayub Khan and Saddam Hussein; turning a blind eye to their violations of human rights, for the sake of some small advantage over the other superpower. In the end, there could be only one winner in the economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, even if it seemed far from certain throughout the 1970S that the winner would be the former. The game of chicken could end with no winner at all. But the losers in the Third World's War - which raged out of sight while the grandmasters of Washington, Moscow and Beijing played their chess - could be counted in millions.


For updates click homepage here