How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America

How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America

by Jon Wiener

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Hours after the USSR collapsed in 1991, Congress began making plans to establish the official memory of the Cold War. Conservatives dominated the proceedings, spending millions to portray the conflict as a triumph of good over evil and a defeat of totalitarianism equal in significance to World War II. In this provocative book, historian Jon Wiener visits Cold War monuments, museums, and memorials across the United States to find out how the era is being remembered. The author’s journey provides a history of the Cold War, one that turns many conventional notions on their heads.

In an engaging travelogue that takes readers to sites such as the life-size recreation of Berlin’s "Checkpoint Charlie" at the Reagan Library, the fallout shelter display at the Smithsonian, and exhibits about "Sgt. Elvis," America’s most famous Cold War veteran, Wiener discovers that the Cold War isn’t being remembered. It’s being forgotten. Despite an immense effort, the conservatives’ monuments weren’t built, their historic sites have few visitors, and many of their museums have now shifted focus to other topics. Proponents of the notion of a heroic "Cold War victory" failed; the public didn’t buy the official story. Lively, readable, and well-informed, this book expands current discussions about memory and history, and raises intriguing questions about popular skepticism toward official ideology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520954250
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/15/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Jon Wiener is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. Among his books are Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files (UC Press) and Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower.

Read an Excerpt

How We Forgot the Cold War

A Historical Journey Across America

By Jon Wiener


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95425-0


Hippie Day at the Reagan Library

When the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, announced it would hold a "hippie contest" one Saturday, I wondered what it would take to win. Dress in tie-dye and refuse to get a job? Put on bell-bottoms, take LSD, and jump out the window? Grow long hair and give the finger to your country, while decent kids were risking their lives defending freedom thousands of miles away?

The hippie contest was part of a daylong "fun-in" (their term) to celebrate the opening of an exhibit titled "Back to the 60s." As visitors went through the library gates that morning into the beautiful tree-lined courtyard, we were greeted by a kindly woman giving out free samples of Ding Dongs (a Twinkie-like confection). Frisbees were also being handed out, bearing the motto "Back to the 60s, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library." Is that really what it was like in the sixties—free frisbees and Ding Dongs for everyone? Handed out by Reagan's people?

According to conservative ideology, victory in the Cold War was the work of one man above all others: Ronald Reagan. Alone among presidents, he refused to accept the continued existence of the USSR. That is the argument John Gaddis makes in The Cold War, the definitive statement of the conservative interpretation. Reagan famously described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." That's why he sought to "hasten [its] disintegration."

The story has been told a thousand times. Indeed, if you Google "Reagan won the Cold War," you get 150,000 results. It was Reagan who stood at the Berlin Wall and proclaimed, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" It was Reagan who funded the mujahadeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, wearing the Red Army down in its own Vietnam-like quagmire. It was Reagan who ordered a massive military buildup, including "Star Wars," that his supporters claim drove the Soviet Union to bankruptcy. And when the Berlin Wall fell, it was Reagan who got the credit.

Margaret Thatcher put it most bluntly: "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot." Bob Dole, running for president in 1996, told the Republican National Convention, "Were it not for President Reagan, the Soviet Union would still be standing today." Dinesh D'Souza summed up the conservative consensus in the National Review when Reagan died: "Reagan won and Gorbachev lost.... In the Cold War, Reagan turned out to be our Churchill: it was his vision and leadership that led us to victory."

Thus if Cold War victory were going to be celebrated anywhere, the Reagan Library should be its white-hot heart. But the Reagan Library has never held a "Cold War Victory" festival in its courtyard. Instead, it had Hippie Day.

The library courtyard on Hippie Day was teeming with activity: in one corner, dozens of kids were hard at work tie-dying T-shirts; the results of their labors hung on lines around the courtyard, drying. The tie-dye would be featured in the day's climactic event: the hippie contest.

Onstage in the courtyard, an Ed Sullivan look-alike was introducing a Beatles sound-alike group. They wore the collarless black suits of the early lovable-lads-from-Liverpool period but said nothing about the benefits of LSD or being more popular than Jesus. "The sixties," "Paul" remarked, "when boys liked girls, and girls liked boys, and the only one swinging both ways was Tarzan."

While the group played "She Loves You," the photo studio under the arcade offered visitors two different ways to have their pictures taken. You could put on combat fatigues (which they provided) and pose in front of a Vietnam battlefield mural, or you could put on hippie garb (of which they had an impressive assortment) and pose with life-size standup figures of the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper outfits. The action was with the Beatles; all the kids wanted to be hippies, not soldiers. What would Nancy Reagan say about that?

Reagan's political ascent, as the museum exhibits explain, began during the 1964 presidential campaign, when he gave a half-hour TV speech supporting Goldwater. His message was apocalyptic: "We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars." "Freedom" was fighting a worldwide battle to the death against "the ant heap of totalitarianism." If we lost this battle, "a thousand years of darkness" would follow.

Reagan was so much more effective than Goldwater at delivering the message that, as Rick Perlstein has shown, a group of party leaders decided that night he would make a better candidate. They started him on the road to the White House with a campaign for governor two years later. Any serious exhibit about Reagan and the sixties would put "the speech" at its center, on a big screen in a darkened theater, where visitors could savor that historic night.

Instead, on Hippie Day, Reagan's speech ran on a small TV set in a museum gallery dominated by a VW Beetle painted pink and decorated with yellow flowers and butterflies, surrounded by life-size white plaster figures wearing hippie garb, posed working on signs for a demonstration. The signs read, "Vets for Peace in Vietnam," "Hey Hey LBJ—how many kids did you kill today?," "We shall overcome," and "Tyranny is always dependent on a silent majority"—the latter a response to Nixon's speech proclaiming himself spokesman for the silent majority. Reagan built his political career by attacking the people who carried these signs, which made this part of the exhibit incredible.

The TV set playing Reagan's historic 1964 convention speech was set up in a replica of a middle-class sixties living room, with modern furniture and posters on the walls that said "Surfing Party," "Hootenanny," and "Sock It to Me." I don't know of any families that had a "Sock It to Me" poster in the living room.

The problem that seems to face museums like the Reagan Library is that few people will visit if all they're going to get is right-wing ideology about Cold War victory. To attract visitors, they need to find something people will drive twenty or thirty miles to see—something like Hippie Day. The folks at the Reagan Library seemed to think people were still interested in the Beatles but not in Reagan's role in defeating communism. Of course, the version of the sixties on display here lacked the confrontational edge of the original, and it was nothing like the way Reagan portrayed the decade, nor did it have anything in common with Republican ideology that sees Reagan's role in history as equivalent to FDR's in leading the free world to defeat the totalitarian enemy.

Later in the day, the hippie contest began. The entrants were a dozen sweet kids, virtually all girls and all around ten years old. They came onstage, happy and excited, wearing their newly tie-dyed T-shirts and bell-bottoms, sandals, headbands, and beads. One by one they walked across the stage, flashed the peace sign, and shouted "Peace!" Nobody seemed to remember that Nancy had denounced her daughter Patti Davis as "nothing but a damn hippie."

"Let's hear it for these wonderful kids in their hippie outfits," the announcer shouted. "Everybody here is a winner!"

It's not that the Reagan Library neglects Reagan's claims regarding the fall of the Soviet Union. The story is there, with a big multiscreen video history of the entire Cold War narrated by Reagan—among the new exhibits introduced in 2011. And of course the Reagan Library exhibits feature the Berlin Wall, which the National Review called "the most visible, stark symbol of the Cold War divide, a gray, cold tombstone to human freedom."

It's not just the right that found the Berlin Wall a potent symbol of an abhorrent system. John Le Carré wrote in 1989 about standing at the wall "as soonasitstartedgoingup"andstaringat"theweaselfacesofthebrainwashed little thugs who guarded the Kremlin's latest battlement." "I felt nothing but disgust and terror," he continued, "which was exactly what I was supposed to feel: the Wall was perfect theatre as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad." And Chalmers Johnson described the fall of the Berlin Wall as "one of the grandest developments in modern history."

The Reagan Library is the nation's central place for commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. The museum has no fewer than three displays about it. A segment of the "real" wall, three and a half feet wide and ten feet high, weighing six thousand pounds, is displayed outdoors on a terrace (figure 2). The marker doesn't tell you much about the wall, but it does say the display of the segment of it here was "made possible through the generosity of Carl and Margaret Karcher." Carl was the founder of Carl's Jr., a member of the John Birch Society, and the biggest funder of California's Briggs Initiative, the 1978 proposition that would have required firing all gays and lesbians from employment as public school teachers. Even Reagan opposed it, and it didn't pass.

At the library's dedication in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Reagan highlighted the segment on display. Before an audience that included Bob Hope, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jimmy Stewart, Reagan said, "Visitors to this mountaintop will see a great jagged chunk of that Berlin Wall, ... hated symbol of, yes, an evil empire, that spied on and lied to its citizens, denying them their freedom, their bread, even their faith. Well, today that will all exist only in museums, souvenir collections and the memories of a people no longer oppressed."

A second Berlin Wall exhibit at the Reagan Library is part of a replica of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, with a mannequin of a "resolute" U.S. Army MP on one side, standing in front of a huge American flag and a sign that reads, "Achtung! You are leaving the American sector." On the other side of the gate is a gigantic Soviet flag; "an East German border guard stands menacingly," the pocket guide declares. It's a popular background for photos of family members—some of which are posted online at personal websites. When I was visiting, the only comment I heard on this exhibit was a woman complaining to her husband, "They said the wall here was real, but it's a fake!" (I explained that the "real" one is outside in back.) As for the East German border guard, when I asked a couple of teenagers whether he looked "menacing" to them, they told me, "Not really." Raised on horror movies and violent video games, they are used to much more demonic villains.

The wall text here declares, "From 1961 to 1989, the Soviet goal was clear: to 'bury' the decent and free democracies of the West in the name of Communism. The crimes of Communist regimes against civilians resulted in the deaths of 100 million people. President Reagan identified this as the essence of an 'evil empire,' yielding nothing but death and destruction where it comes to power. The Cold War ended when the Soviet Union finally heeded Ronald Reagan's demand to 'tear down this wall.'" That's the message in a nutshell: Reagan told them to do it, and they did.

After Checkpoint Charlie comes a side gallery on the Cold War featuring a video in which Reagan says, "At my first presidential press conference, I said, 'They reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime.'" The Soviet goal, according to Reagan, was "a one-world Soviet state." To put a stop to this, Reagan says, "I decided we had to send a strong message"—so we invaded Grenada! Not only did this help prevent a one-world Soviet state; within a couple of years the Soviet Union itself collapsed. No less than Margaret Thatcher provides the conclusion to the video: "In ending the Cold War, Ronald Reagan deserves the most credit." I'm furiously taking notes, then look around to find myself alone in an empty room.

Grenada gets its own very small display at the library. The wall text reads, "US rescues 800 US medical students," next to a button labeled "Press button to learn more." In Grenada, on the other hand, a big monument commemorating Reagan's invasion can be found outside the airport (figure 3). It was dedicated in 1986 by Reagan himself. The monument reads, "This plaque expresses the gratitude of the Grenadan people to the Forces from the United States of America and the Caribbean who sacrificed their lives in liberating Grenada in October 1983." However, the monument was erected not by the people of Grenada but by the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.

The Cold War room at the Reagan Library is mostly empty because it's a side gallery on the walkway to what the library rightly bills as its biggest attraction, literally and figuratively: the Air Force One exhibit, the "Flying White House" that went on display in 2005. The signs on the freeway say, "Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Air Force One." They do not say, "Reagan Library and Berlin Wall Exhibit." Here, Reagan's "dream" is described not as tearing down the Berlin Wall but as having "this magnificent aircraft here at his Library"—and that dream, the library declares, "has finally come true. We are privileged to have this national treasure and honored by the trust the United States Air Force has placed in us to share it with the American people."

The Air Force One exhibit is completely apolitical. Conservative ideology is nowhere to be found in the 90,000-square-foot, $30 million display. Reagan's "Flying White House," visitors learn, was used by every president from Nixon to George W. Bush, including Carter and Clinton—and thus is hardly a monument to Reagan's unique role in winning the Cold War, which is not mentioned. Instead, visitors learn that Reagan flew more miles in this plane than any other president and that it was in this plane that he "officially started the Daytona Beach, Florida, NASCAR race via phone." He is quoted as saying, from Air Force One, "Start your engines, Daytona."

As for souvenirs of the Berlin Wall, the gift shop sells a paperweight with the inscription, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" It's $49. But it's only one of thirty-three "desk items" for sale. Other paperweights are inscribed with other quotations from the president, including one for $39 that says, "There is nothing as good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse."

Does Reagan really deserve credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union? It's true that there's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!," which is featured prominently, and appropriately, at the library. An uncompromising voice of freedom spoke—and totalitarianism crumbled. But what happened in Berlin in fact was something quite different. Michael Meyer was Newsweek's bureau chief in Germany and Eastern Europe in 1989 and wrote about it in his book The Year That Changed the World. Chance, he says, played a huge part in bringing down the Berlin Wall; what happened was mostly an accident. It began when Hungary decided to open its border with Austria. East Germans thus for the first time had an exit route to the West, and tens of thousands departed every day. East German leader Egon Krenz decided he had to do something to stem the tide; he concluded that, if travel to the West was not banned, East Germans would return after visiting. So he announced freedom of travel, to begin "immediately"—by which he meant the next day, with some kind of "appropriate" controls.

But on November 9, 1989, as soon as the announcement was made, East Germans headed for Checkpoint Charlie, where a border guard decided to open the gate. What happened next is what we call "the fall of the Berlin Wall." As the historian Gerard DeGroot explained, "History pivoted on the misinterpretation of a word. Krenz called it a 'botch.'"

Conservative writers claim that the fall of the wall was the result of a longer-term process, also instigated by Reagan: a massive military buildup by the United States that set off a new round of the arms race that bankrupted the USSR. But these claims, as Sean Wilentz writes in The Age of Reagan, have "little credible evidence" to back them up. "New expenditures by the Soviet Union in the face of Reagan's buildup were not especially heavy in the 1980s," he writes, "and certainly were not enough to cause major damage to its already wracked economy." Scholars examining the Soviet archives that were opened in the nineties found no evidence of any "panicky response to the Reagan rearmament that led to Soviet economic or political depletion."


Excerpted from How We Forgot the Cold War by Jon Wiener. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Forgetting the Cold War

Part One. The End
1. Hippie Day at the Reagan Library
2. The Victims of Communism Museum: A Study in Failure

Part Two. The Beginning: 1946–1949
3. Getting Started: The Churchill Memorial in Missouri
4. Searching for the Pumpkin Patch: The Whittaker Chambers National Historic Landmark
5. Naming Names, from Laramie to Beverly Hills
6. Secrets on Display: The CIA Museum and the NSA Museum
7. Cold War Cleanup: The Hanford Tour

Part Three. The 1950s
8. Test Site Tourism in Nevada
9. Memorial Day in Lakewood and La Jolla: Korean War Monuments of California
10. Code Name "Ethel": The Rosenbergs in the Museums
11. Mound Builders of Missouri: Nuclear Waste at Weldon Spring
12. Cold War Elvis: Sgt. Presley at the General George Patton Museum

Part Four. The 1960s and After
13. The Graceland of Cold War Tourism: The Greenbrier Bunker
14. Ike’s Emmy: Monuments to the Military-Industrial Complex
15. The Fallout Shelters of North Dakota
16. "It Had to Do with Cuba and Missiles": Thirteen Days in October
17. The Museum of the Missile Gap: Arizona’s Titan Missile Memorial
18. The Museum of Détente: The Nixon Library in Yorba Linda

Part Five. Alternative Approaches
19. Rocky Flats: Uncovering the Secrets
20. CNN’s Cold War: Equal Time for the Russians
21. Harry Truman’s Amazing Museum

Conclusion: History, Memory, and the Cold War
Epilogue: From the Cold War to the War in Iraq


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"As popular reading, it's got the humor and wit of Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation and James Loewen's Sundown Towns and DJ Waldie's Holy Land. By which I mean it's witty and kinda mean, and exhilarating bad fun."—Oc Weekly: Orange County News, Arts & Ent

"Wiener's wit and deft grasp of geopolitics make for one of the season's most intriguing historical books."—Philadelphia City Paper

"Who knew the Cold War was funny? Wiener's adventures in American historical memory are surprisingly lively."—Zocalo Public Square

"A provocative and fascinating new book."—Los Angeles Review of Books

"A political argument masquerading as a travel yarn. . . . Wiener's accounts of his trips to nuclear test sites, missile-launching control centers and fallout shelter exhibits contrast the guides' cheerful patter with the prospect of Armageddon."—New York Times Book Review

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How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A revisionist history examining the Cold War from the jaded view of current times rather than the vview of the time. He even tries to get one to believe that Rosenbergs were not guilty! I wasted my money purchasing this excretory work and wasted my time reading it. This book does not deservse to be classified as history.