The article below was published in Pinnable’s newsletter in . The exhibition When the Russians come ended on 1 September.


The Netherlands and the Cold War

The Cold War was a total war, short of the use of force. West of the Iron Curtain we had NATO, the alliance whose key purpose it was to keep the Russians out (and the Americans in, and the Germans down), and on the other side there were the USSR & its satellite states, with an army approximately three times bigger — roughly what you need to successfully invade a country. Just thirty years ago, the possibility that the Russians would invade the West was an everyday threat. Of course no one knew how or when it might happen, but if they came, we had better be prepared to face an attack. On until 1 September, the exhibition When the Russians come at the National Military Museum in Soest looks at how the Dutch survived the Cold War, presenting events from a political, military and social perspective. Using an audio guide in Dutch or English, you need approximately 1½ hours to see the exhibition.

Operational map of the Polish coastal front
Operational map of the Polish western theatre (detail)

When I visited the exhibition, I was surprised to find a map that outlined a Polish plan for an offensive against West Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, which also included nuking six Dutch cities. I always thought that the adversaries in East & West were both comfortable with the situation of the Iron Curtain and had a vested interest in maintaining its status quo. But before 1985, all defence planning of Warsaw Pact states was based on the notion that attack is the best form of defence, and therefore these plans were to be carried out only after an initial nuclear strike by NATO, an assault the West never envisioned. So, in the end, it turned out that the Cold War had just been much ado about nothing, and for that reason it’s by far my favourite war.

Reader comments


I grew up in the 1970s & 80s, and our civil defence organization’s instructions for how to protect your family and yourself in case of a nuclear attack were hanging in my father’s study, together with its parody containing guidance on what to do on Judgement Day. In 1983, my classmates & I attended the peace demonstration in The Hague, but we left early and had a very enjoyable afternoon at home playing with my Lego train set.


In an article about the Plan operacji zaczepnej frontu nadmorskiego from 1970 displayed above, the authors suggest that this map of the Polish western theatre (the so-called ‘coastal front’) was not just designed as an actual plan for an onslaught on NATO, but also to produce a narrative about the Polish armed forces as capable of undertaking such a massive enterprise.


It wasn’t just the Warsaw Pact that made plans to effectively end the world: the United States’ Single Integrated Operational Plan for the Fiscal Year 1962, or SIOP-62, in force from 1961 until 2003, had, in case of a nuclear attack by the Sino-Soviet bloc, a very similar retaliatory purpose.


The East German NVA also made plans to conquer West Germany within a week, but I wonder how the Polish LWP supposed they would do so with nuclear mushrooms popping up all over the place. (I guess we’ll never know.)

Albert Einstein

I don’t know what weapons will be used in the Third World War. But I can tell you what they’ll use in the Fourth — rocks!

Mient Jan

In 1983, the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States. The protocol for the Red Army would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own. But, as duty officer Stanislav Petrov correctly guessed, it was a false alarm, and he reported a system malfunction, thus saving the world from a nuclear Armageddon. Thumbs up, I say.

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