When media mogul Ted Turner unveiled his CNN series "Cold War," he modestly dubbed it "one of" the most important television events of the past few years. As it turns out, he might as well have skipped the qualifier - this 24-part series (beginning Sunday, 8-9 p.m., and continuing nearly every Sunday through April 4) is nothing short of astonishing.
Three-and-a-half years in the making, "Cold War" is narrated by actor Kenneth Branagh and produced by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, of "The World at War" fame, in conjunction with CNN. The series features more than 500 eyewitness interviews; utilizes more than 1 million feet of film footage, much of it never before seen in the West; and puts on record many of the most significant players of the past 50 years, including three United States presidents and an exclusive interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Only 10 minutes of the 5-1/2-hour Castro interview appear in the series, but as part of the educational thrust that Turner envisions for the series, full transcripts of that interview, as well as all the others, are available on a Web site (www.coldwar.com).
"When I started CNN [18 years ago] and really got involved in trying to figure out what the world problems were and what could be done about them," recalls Turner, "it was very clear to me, early on, that the cold war was the most dangerous thing that America and humanity faced."
The idea for this series came together during the 1994 Goodwill Games in Moscow. Conscious that the tension between the superpowers was receding, Turner realized that the moment had come to capture the most important players, not to mention previously unattainable information from various countries - in particular, Russia.
The key was to let the information and the sources tell their own stories, la "The World at War." Enter Isaacs, who points out that while "Cold War" focuses on historical record, it was gratifying to discover that history still had a few surprises. "There are nuggets of new information in the series that I think haven't been clearly spelled out before," he says. "Fidel Castro ... tells us, which I don't think we knew categorically before, that the missiles in Cuba in October '62 were armed."
One of the challenges of interviewing leaders whose place in history is still being written is to avoid self-serving accounts of events. Vladislav Zubok, consulting historian for "Cold War," agrees that steering clear of factual distortions was important but explains, "If this person wants to put in an element of self-serving presentation, let us hear him." He adds that in some cases what was viewed as cold-war propaganda was put in the series as an example of exactly what it was.
As for the most significant historical question, could the cold war have been avoided, the show's producers point to a comment from former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Notes Isaacs, "He says that the West grossly exaggerated the power of the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War." That country lost 27 million citizens in the conflict and was too weak to be a threat.
Why air this series now? The absence of certain crucial interviews makes a compelling case: While producers were able to connect with former US Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush, they were too late for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Turner says that history is simply too important. "In order to understand the present and future, you need to know the past."
* Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org