What Did You Do in the Cold War, Daddy?



2014 is a year of important historical anniversaries. We recently observed the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that ignited World War I. We have marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy that changed the outcome of WWII. And later this year we will observe the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the beginning of a process that culminated two years later in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the 46-year super-power struggle.

Ever since the fall of the wall, American conservatives have made might efforts to sustain the master narrative to the Cold War, the overarching myth that dominated international politics through the second part of the 20th century. The fall of the wall was the symbol of the triumph of the West. Good had defeated evil. [Or, if you prefer: Light had triumphed over darkness; liberating capitalism had bested dehumanizing collectivism; Christianity had defeated a godless state.] The heady victors singled out the recently retired President Ronald Reagan as being principally responsible for the defeat of the “evil empire.” His clarity about the nature of the enemy, his willingness to increase military budgets and dream of great weapons systems, and his optimism about the inevitability of the West’s victory had produced great results. All other important figures – The British Prime Minister Thatcher, the Soviet President Gorbachev, the Polish union leader Walesa, and the Polish pope John Paul II were all part of Reagan’s supporting cast. This deification of the vigilant and resolute Reagan began with the collapse of communism. For folks on the right, the Cold War was another “good war” like WWII; Communism like Nazism had been vanquished, the world made safe for democracy and American benevolence. That the Reagan record showed compromise and caution as often as boldness was brushed aside by those eager to burnish Reagan’s reputation.

In his book How We Forgot the Cold War (2012) University of California, Irvine historian Jon Wiener asks  important questions: Why is this story of American victory not present more emphatically and assuredly at those many historical sites that are devoted to Cold War history? Why is it that the conservative master narrative about the latest good war has not resonated more powerfully in the American popular imagination, especially at a time when the Republican world view has been powerfully represented in the Oval Office, the houses of congress, and in the media? Why is it that the American public is either indifferent to or skeptical about the Cold War story first trumpeted 25 years ago.

Wiener’s approach to answering these questions is not to turn to academic histories about the Cold War and its aftermath, though he is more than familiar with the literature in this sub-section of American history. Instead he visits numerous historical sites to find what stories are being told by the public historians, by the individuals and groups that create and manage these sites. The sub-title of his book, A Historical Journey Across America, strongly suggests that Wiener is a road scholar interested in and judgmental about places where history is being written and disseminated to citizens who are occasional historians. This is a book about how history is written and the past is framed.

The places to which he goes are quite varied. There are, of course, the Presidential libraries of Truman, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan. He spends time at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri where Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, at a bunker deep beneath a  North Carolina mountain where our elected representatives would wait out a nuclear attack, and at the computer where he logs into a virtual tour of the Cold War provided by the Central Intelligence Agency. Additionally he spends time where the junk of the Cold War can be found: dismantled weapons plants, still radioactive waste dumps, ICBM missile silo sites, and Arizona “boneyards” where obsolete aircraft are parked.

What he finds when he visits these diverse sites is not the spirit of bold triumph but instead timidity, distraction, and amnesia. The creators and managers of these various sites apparently don’t want to join their voices to those of the self-righteous conquerors. Even the Reagan Library gives more attention to Air Force One, the presidential jet that was not Reagan’s alone, and to the creation of events like Hippie Days which try to suggest through tie-dyed costumes the spirit of dissent in the 60s when Reagan was California governor. Wiener concludes that from the curators’ perspective you have to have a gimmick to bring to the museum an ahistorical public adverse to controversy.

The same practice of de-emphasis on the Cold War years occurs at other places. At Westminster College  more attention is paid to Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” message that inspired “Britain’s finest hour” during WWII than is given to his post-War prophesy. And never mind any indication that there were skeptical Americans who believed that Churchill’s metaphor had set us on the wrong path in dealing with Stalin.

Not surprisingly the CIA virtual tour acknowledges “shortcomings” but fails to indicate the agency’s miscalculations, unconstitutional actions, and all too frequent cluelessness in important Cold War episodes. You’ll not find a mention of CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala in the 50s; you’ll not find any indication of intelligence snafus like the failure to predict the Korean invasion or even the fall of the Berlin wall.  Or the botched “invasion” of the Bay of Pigs in Castro’s Cuba. If you are looking for a counter-narrative, turn to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA and read my blog on Brothers: Allen and John Foster Dulles and their Secret War by Stephen Kinzer.

At the General George Patton Museum of Cavalry in Louisville, you’ll find some interesting artifacts of Elvis Presley who was stationed – with Colin Powell – in Germany between 1958 and 1960. The attention is on Elvis’s stardom and patriotism, but not on the questions that he and other GIs were raising: why would the Russians invade West Germany? What are we doing here?

At the nuclear weapons testing area at Hanford in Western Washington you’ll find more attention paid to the monumental environmental clean-up project than the causes of environmental degradation. Wiener half expects to find a wall text that boldly claims that the development and testing of nuclear weapons was vital to preserving American freedoms during the long Cold War, but no such proclamation can be found. The mood is of assurance rather than triumph.

While many of these commemorative places are ill-conceived at best and deceitful at worst, Weiner does find three examples of places that “get it right.” The Truman Library encourages critical thinking by inviting visitors to read and reflect on competing interpretations of Truman’s actions. Visitors are invited to go through “flip-books” in order to grapple with questions like the necessity of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan or coming to the assistance of the South Koreans. Were such an approach taken at the Kennedy library we would have not only his apologists’ judgment (that he was a brave cold warrior whose nerve and intelligence prevented a nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis), but also the judgment of the radical right (that he was an appeaser who bungled the opportunity to take out Castro once and for all) and the radical left (that he was a reckless macho-adventurer who disregarded his predecessor Eisenhower’s warnings about the rising influence of the military-industrial complex).

At the Rocky Flat (Colorado) weapons-building compound, he finds that the customary voice of museum authority have been replace by multiple voices – of workers, neighbors, politicians – who have a point of view about the function of the facility.  Wiener also has high praise for the Ted Turner-commissioned CNN documentary on the Cold War (1998), a documentary that gave equal time to America’s Cold War opponents. The fact that the documentary was denounced so vociferously by conservatives is, for Weiner, evidence of its fair-mindedness and quality.

Weiner concludes his tour by trying to account for the gap between the enthusiasm of the advocates and the indifference and skepticism of the public. Part of the public’s skepticism is due to its knowledge that struggle hasn’t always been as black and white as the jingoists depict. The Cold War led America to embrace many freedom-denying dictators around the world, strong men who squashed liberation movements within their country, tyrants who were useful because they proclaimed that they were anti-communist. Skepticism is also the result of looking at evidence that the Russians and the Soviet Union were never as powerful and as menacing as drawn by the alarmists inside and outside of government. This awareness of a mighty miscalculation of Soviet strength and intention has led many to wonder whether it was all worth it, whether far less costly means might have brought about the same result, and more quickly.

Wiener offers some even headier reasons for this gap, and they have to do with the nature of the contest. The “body count” of the Cold War was rather low by comparison to the World Wars. [This conclusion would be contested by the advocates for a Victims of Communism Museum; they claim that 100 million died as a result of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.] And that the Cold War has not produced powerful symbols like the battleship Arizona that galvanize the public both in 1941 and today. Finally, we seem to be as a people uninterested in battling over the interpretation and ownership of the Cold War; compare this indifference to the intensity of devotion to Civil War mythologies that still animate our political discourse 150 years afterwards.

Wiener concludes his work with a brief rumination about the Iraq War and the ways in which today’s citizens and tomorrow’s generations will tell stories, especially in public history sites, about the war. It’s interesting to speculate whether the Gulf Wars will have monuments at all, and whether they can be as eloquent as the Viet Nam Memorial.  There is no question that neo-conservatives like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz still believe in the master narrative about American exceptionalism, hegemony, and the application of military power to a whole range of international problems. While the architects of the Iraq war should be thoroughly discredited, they still get attention on Sunday morning talk shows and on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. If they were to read Weiner’s book (and that’s a big if), would they finally conclude that very few people are buying their product and that they should fade away? Or would they soldier on, fully believing that their Gulf Wars, like World War II and the Cold War, were all good wars worth fighting?



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *