Jon Wiener’s HOW WE FORGOT THE COLD WAR

I’m excited to be hosting a book salon for Jon Wiener’s new book, HOW WE FORGOT THE COLD WAR: A HISTORICAL JOURNEY ACROSS AMERICA (University of California Press, 2012) at Firedoglake on Saturday, March 23, 5:00 pm EST. Once it’s archived, I’ll post it on this site.

Here is the introduction I wrote for it:

Jon Wiener, who is perhaps best-known for his 20-plus year court battle with the FBI over the release of John Lennon’s files, is a historian, teacher, journalist, broadcaster, and activist whose interests range from the social foundations of the Reconstruction south to the trial of the Chicago 8, from fraud and corruption in the Ivory Tower to mendacity and malice in Washington. A contributing editor to The Nation since 1984, a history professor at the University of California Irvine, and the host of an afternoon interview show on LA’s public radio station KPFK, his witty writing style, effortless erudition, and fair-minded skepticism rebuke the stereotypes of the humorless progressive and the hidebound academic alike.

Wiener’s new book HOW WE FORGOT THE COLD WAR (“a book that would’ve split the sides of Thucydides,” says Mike Davis, the author of City of Quartz) is a travelogue of visits to sites across the US (plus one in Cuba and one in Grenada) where the Cold War is publicly commemorated. As different as they are—among them are half a dozen presidential libraries, a general’s tomb, missile silos, a VIP fallout shelter, a CIA museum that’s closed to the public, and a proposed $100 million Victims of Communism museum, a grandiose project that was never built—all of them are notable for a curious lacuna: the Cold War itself, or perhaps more accurately, the neo-conservative, triumphalist narrative about the Cold War that has been so successfully projected onto the memory of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan is still the man on horseback when it comes to cutting taxes, bringing the hostages home from Iran, and dispelling Jimmy Carter’s malaise. But if the Cold War was marked by bipartisan consensus from the very beginning, the far right always argued that the Cold War should have been hotter—that instead of containing Communism, the US should have been rolling it back. The conflicts in North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam, among other places, were lost because of insufficient resolve and an unmanly fear of nuclear combat, the story continues. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan called the Evil Empire what it was, ended Detente, liberated Granada, funded the contras, and launched such big ticket initiatives as Star Wars that the Russians finally bankrupted themselves into submission.

That’s the story the right tells, but it’s not the story that’s told at any of the commemorative sites. Many of them avoid the subject of the Cold War altogether. The Churchill Memorial at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill made his Iron Curtain speech, has almost nothing to say about the Iron Curtain—instead, it tells about England’s finest hour, the blood, sweat and tears of the Blitz. Nuclear sites like the testing grounds in New Mexico, the Hanford plutonium plant in Washington State, Rocky Flats near Denver, and the radioactive mound in Weldon, Missouri don’t highlight the theme of sacrifice and ultimate victory but of safety and restoration; their exhibits gloss over the deadly accidents and the high cancer rates that plagued workers and neighbors and assure visitors that the radiation is no longer a problem. When you go to MacArthur’s tomb in Norfolk, Virginia, the story isn’t about how Truman wrongly relieved him of his command in Korea when he proposed to launch a nuclear war against China but about his heroism in World War II.

Wiener visits monuments to Elvis’s military service at the Patton Museum in Fort Knox (Elvis was a Sergeant in the Third Armored Division that Patton had commanded) and at Graceland, delving into the political-military realities of the Berlin crisis, which heated up during Elvis’s service, and the symbolic importance of his presence in Germany to both the US and the Germans (his celebrity was strong enough to spark a series of Elvis-inspired teenaged insurrections in the GDR, where authorities tried to introduce a dance craze of their own, the Lipsi, to counter him). But Elvis wasn’t exactly gung ho himself. “What the hell are we doing this for anyway?” his commander recalled him asking. “Most people I know don’t want any more Korean War kind of stuff.”

Wiener recounts how Sarah Palin admitted that she didn’t really understand why there were two Koreas and tells how Dana Perino, George W. Bush’s press secretary, admitted that she didn’t know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was about. Even right wing insiders aren’t getting the message anymore.

Maybe that’s because most historical efforts to heat up the Cold War were rejected by Republican presidents. It was Eisenhower who warned about the military industrial complex—the Democratic Kennedy, who politicked on a non-existent missile gap, was much more its creature than the old general was. It was Nixon who went to China over the angry objections of such right wing icons as William F. Buckley, and for that matter it was Reagan who brought Gorbachev to the table for negotiations and the moderate George H.W. Bush who presided over the USSR’s collapse.

Perhaps the main reason the Cold War refuses to serve the partisan purposes that its propagandists want it to is because the public was never as on board with its premises as they were for World War II, the last war to end in a decisive victory. Interestingly enough, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were both great proponents of the idea that the Cold War should have been won rather than negotiated—though neither was in office, they acted as consultants for the Reagan administration when it was devising its continuity-of-government plan for a full-on nuclear war (Oliver North was to be its “action officer”). With 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Cheney and Rumsfeld finally had the opportunity to put their ideas into practice, with less than stellar results.

I’m excited to have a chance to finally meet Jon Wiener, who I have been reading for years, even if it’s just in cyberspace, and I am looking forward to your questions and his answers.

The question I want to begin with is this: is the bi-partisan nature of the Cold War part of what makes it so problematic for the right? The Robert Taft/Barry Goldwater right in the 1950s and 1960s, and the talk radio, Tea Party right today, contend that the left is/was soft on Communism—that the difference between Social Security and Stalinism is one of just a few degrees. Maybe you could make that case about the people who were demonstrating for clemency for the Rosenbergs, but you certainly couldn’t say it of Truman, Kennedy, or Johnson, who were Cold Warriors to the core.

Does the Cold War fail as partisan propaganda because it’s insufficiently divisive?

2 thoughts on “Jon Wiener’s HOW WE FORGOT THE COLD WAR

  1. I have not read the book yet but it sounds quite interesting.

    I’m curious to know if the text discusses the space race, which was a costly political gambit and less about scientific exploration than it was about beating the commies in the global prestige game with a bigger bankroll, in my view.

    At a philological level, it would also be interesting to trace the use of the word “socialist” in American political speech, as contrasted to how socialism was actually practiced and expressed throughout the previous century. In most parts of the world, socialism may not necessarily be a dominant political philosophy but it is hardly a dirty word, laden with hyperbolic fears of yellow hordes and red-nailed Russians.

    In my experience outside the United States, the connotations of socialism tend to be positive — a fact looked at with derogatory suspicion by the jingoists. Were the teachings of Henri de Saint-Simon truly justification for millions dead? Are the boom and bust cataclysms of capitalism truly a better way?

  2. Nothing on the space race; he didn’t take a tour of the Houston Space Center or Cape Canaveral. Most of the monuments are for military actions or personages, presidents, and great moments in espionage.

    By a weird happenstance, I was taken on a VIP tour of the Houston Space Center along with a Reagan science advisor around 1987, when the Challenger disaster was a recent memory. As the docent talked about the prospect of weekly shuttle flights and a vastly expanded fleet, astronauts were leaping out of a space shuttle on the other side of the floor, practicing emergency evacuations, providing a bleakly comical commentary.

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