How America Didn’t Win the Cold War (A Travelogue)

By Andrew GumbelNovember 17, 2012

How America Didn’t Win the Cold War (A Travelogue)

How We Forgot the Cold War by Jon Wiener

IN THE EUPHORIC FIRST WEEKS after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German protesters who had risked everything to overthrow their government and were now jockeying for position in the emerging new Germany were puzzled by a growing number of news reports from the other side of the Atlantic.

American conservatives, they kept hearing, were claiming credit for ending the Cold War and “liberating” them from the yoke of Soviet communism.

They were puzzled not just because the names of these conservatives — Gingrich, Buchanan, Kemp — were unfamiliar. What baffled them was more fundamental: they hadn’t received American help at all. The CIA, by its own later admission, was entirely absent during the long months and years when East German dissidents organized covert meetings in churches and semi-derelict apartment buildings, usually no more than a step or two ahead of the Stasi, the all-pervasive secret police.

No Americans had helped the protesters organize a massive rally on the 40th anniversary of East Germany’s founding, on October 7, 1989, which embarrassed the leadership in the presence of the visiting Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was not the Americans, but rather a coalition of civic leaders, including the celebrated conductor Kurt Masur, who negotiated a truce in Leipzig two days later and convinced the security forces not to open fire on the 70,000 people in the crowd. Many of the officers, who had been given live rounds and instructed to emulate the Chinese massacre in Tiananmen Square if necessary, put down their weapons and joined the protests instead.

I was in Leipzig as a young reporter just a few days after the Wall fell on November 9, and remember being struck by the hundreds of thousands of people filling the town center on a freezing winter’s night, and the enormous pride they expressed as they pushed to topple the regime. This was their victory, the triumph of “people power,” and they had done it overwhelmingly by themselves. The only discernible American presence was the Tracy Chapman song “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” blaring from loudspeakers in the market square.

And yet, back in the United States, a mythology took hold. Ronald Reagan had set this train in motion, the narrative went, because he had gone to the Berlin Wall in June 1987 and fearlessly told Gorbachev to “tear down this Wall.” And now it had happened. The mythology grew strong enough over time that many people developed the erroneous impression Reagan was still president when the Wall came down. (In fact, he had been replaced 10 months earlier by George H.W. Bush.)

Reagan himself traveled back to Berlin in late 1990 and gave a speech congratulating himself on engineering the end of the Cold War. His signal achievement, he said, had been the decision to station nuclear cruise missiles in West Germany and his pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile shield program also known as Star Wars. But this, as Berliners knew better than anybody, was a convenient and self-serving rewrite of history. It was not true, as Reagan and other conservatives liked to argue, that aggressive increases in military spending had caused the Soviet empire to bankrupt itself as it scrambled for a response; the Soviet economy was already in tatters when Reagan took over, and there was no evidence of significant change in Soviet military spending in the 1980s. Reagan’s 1987 visit to Berlin had been a diplomatic near-disaster, marked by rioting young westerners angry about the cruise missile deployment, and about US policy in central America. The president’s call to tear down the Wall seemed generic at the time — every western political leader who passed through said much the same thing — and had no discernible effect on either the East Germans or the Soviet leadership.

Far from giving Reagan a hero’s welcome on his return, Berliners ignored him; he spoke to row upon row of empty seats. If any foreign leader deserved credit, they felt, it was Gorbachev, who had promised to keep his tanks and troops out of Eastern Europe and issued a striking warning to Honecker on that anniversary visit, that “life punishes those who drag their feet.” Still, it was not Gorbachev who ordered the Wall to be opened. He was in no position to, because it happened largely by accident.

By early November 1989, Honecker had stepped down, East Germans were leaving for the West in droves via Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and the Communist Party was desperate to offer the population a sop so it could retain its grip on power. Günter Schabowski, the government spokesman, was handed a hastily drafted document before his daily news briefing on November 9 and instructed to announce that travel directly into West Germany would now be permitted. The leadership intended to draw up detailed plans establishing ground rules over the following 24 hours, but Schabowski did not know that. So, when asked about the timeline, he peered quizzically at his papers and said the freedom to travel took effect “immediately, without delay.” The sheer weight of people rushing to the border crossings along the Wall that night made it impossible for the regime to backtrack.

Slices of the toppled Wall now grace the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and a handful of other sites across the United States. But for the most part history has not been kind to the triumphalist conservative account of the end of the Cold War. Reagan’s most valuable contribution may not have been an offensive move at all, but rather the willingness he showed at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986 to phase out all offensive nuclear missiles, a gesture toward détente that appalled his hawkish fellow conservatives but emboldened Gorbachev in his own quest for glasnost, a new openness in domestic and international affairs.

If the triumphalist account is wrong — if the West, led by the United States, did not bring the mighty Soviet bear to its knees — then that raises some troubling questions. In what meaningful way did we win the Cold War? And, if we didn’t win it, what exactly was the point of those 45 nerve-racking years when every geopolitical tremor threatened to trigger our nuclear annihilation?

Such are the questions at the heart of Jon Wiener’s provocative and fascinating new book, How We Forgot The Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America. Wiener is a historian at the University of California at Irvine and a regular contributor to The Nation, among other publications. But he is not conducting a historical analysis here so much as an idiosyncratic sort of investigation. His premise is simple: if, as certain politicians love to tell us, the Cold War was a grand historical struggle, a story of good triumphing over evil and freedom prevailing over communist tyranny, one would imagine the country dotted with memorials and museums attracting the same crowds that flock to World War II memorials and presidential libraries.

And so Wiener goes looking, only to discover that the memorials scattered from coast to coast, while numerous, are hard to find, scarcely visited, and often focus on topics other than the Cold War itself. (Even the Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, site of the famous Iron Curtain speech, prefers to dwell on World War II and the Battle of Britain.) A couple of places — the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, and the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas — are so ruggedly non-triumphalist they offer critiques of the very conflict that their principal subjects waged so assiduously. “Some historians,” Wiener reads with amazement in a display at the Truman Library, “question the wisdom of the President’s actions during the early Cold War years. They argue that a less confrontational approach toward the Soviets — one which sought to understand the fears the Soviet Union had about its vulnerability to invasion from the West — might have prevented a long and costly confrontation that lasted decades.”

If a museum dedicated to Harry Truman — who first articulated the with-us-or-against-us Cold War mentality and vowed to prevent the spread of communism at all costs — can’t toot its horn without mixed feelings, who can? Wiener finds, throughout his travels, that the only people still actively cheering for America’s role in the Cold War are conservative ideologues and lobbyists. But the monuments and memorials they have erected, or attempted to erect, have invariably been met with hostility, or blank indifference. A plan to build a $100 million Victims of Communism Museum, proposed by Congress in 1993 and approved by President Bill Clinton, sputtered so badly that the museum was eventually downgraded to a single memorial statue on a forgettable corner of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC and unveiled, to a modest crowd of a few hundred, 17 years after the project was first proposed. There is something called the Cold War Museum, but it exists only online and concentrates almost exclusively on Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. What about actual victory monuments? Wiener found just one, a Strategic Air Command plaque tucked into the corner of a garden at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, of all places. And it’s hardly a model of bombastic triumphalism. In fact, its slogan pulls off the odd feat of being both tentative and over-insistent at the same time. “The Cold War didn’t just end,” it reads. “It was won.”

Wiener rightly points out that the hawks in the fight against communism were on the losing side of the Cold War from the beginning. They may have wanted to take the fight directly to the Soviets, but containment and détente were the prevailing watchwords of Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Yes, there were covert operations and military interventions to topple unfriendly regimes and ward off communist takeovers, but no challenges to the immediate Soviet sphere of influence. Berlin was the closest thing to a flashpoint between the superpowers in the early years of the Cold War, but the construction of the Wall in 1961, paradoxically, cemented an uneasy truce that significantly reduced the risk of direct confrontation. The most hawkish American interventions — in Korea, at the Bay of Pigs, in Vietnam — almost invariably proved to be destabilizing, tragic failures. Even under Reagan, who swept to office promising to reassert American power in the world, conservatives advocating “rollback” instead of containment of the Soviet threat were themselves contained; they pushed successfully for a new arms build-up and intervention in central America, but they were never more than second-rung players — Team B, as they were known — and ended up badly embarrassed by the Iran-Contra scandal.

Triumphalism is almost entirely absent from Wiener’s tour of Cold War monuments; he is assailed, rather, by stories of waste and failure at every turn. Missile silos and sites like the former plutonium production facility at Hanford, Washington, carry the legacy of cancer clusters and expensive clean-ups, overlaid with the uncomfortable taint of official denial. On a tour of the Nevada Test Site, Wiener hears from one of his fellow tourists that inhaling one millionth of a gram of plutonium would be sure to give him lung cancer; the group is advised to stay on the bus with the windows closed. Pregnant women, he learns, are discouraged from taking the tour — not because of the risk of birth defects from contact with radioactive materials, about which the tour operators are strangely quiet, but “because of the long bus ride and uneven terrain.”

Sites memorializing fall-out shelters are more alarming than nostalgic, and the notion, once seriously touted, that nuclear war is survivable invariably collapses under the weight of its own sinister ridiculousness. This is especially true of the giant facility beneath the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, built in the 1950s, where congressmen (but not their wives or families) were expected to hide out, and keep working, through a nuclear Armageddon. It’s not lost on any visitor that the five-hour distance from Washington alone would have made the facility next to useless; the government itself gave up on it in the 1980s and prepared instead — under the auspices of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — for an emergency government in which Congress played no role whatsoever.

Similar institutional bumbling is evident throughout Wiener’s travels, much of it with tragic overtones. It becomes clear, even at an exhibit as casual as the International Spy Museum in Washington, that the courts and the FBI were overzealous in their prosecution of the Rosenbergs, because Ethel was more than likely entirely innocent, and Julius gave the Soviets nothing of value to further their atomic weapons program. (Wiener contrasts their death sentences with the free pass given to Ted Hall, another scientist at Los Alamos who by his own later admission gave valuable secrets to the Soviets.) The prosecution of Alger Hiss was similarly flawed and clearly over-politicized; a farcical attempt by conservative ideologues to establish a National Historic Landmark to Hiss’s nemesis, Whittaker Chambers, at the site of the Maryland pumpkin patch where Chambers recovered a microfilm supposed to contain incriminating documents, provides Wiener with one of his most humorous stories.

The idea that America did not win the Cold War so much as outlast it is not a new one. As early as April 1990, five months after the Berlin Wall fell, the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wondered why Americans seemed so uninterested in celebrating and decided it was because they didn’t entirely know what they had been fighting for. No less a figure than George Kennan — the tortured, occasionally ambivalent but undeniably visionary architect of America’s doctrine of containment at the start of the Cold War — believed that the country’s anti-communist belligerence had served only to harden attitudes in Moscow and prolong the conflict. “Nobody 'won' the Cold War,” he argued in his book At a Century’s Ending. “It was a long and costly political rivalry, fueled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other side.”

What Wiener’s book suggests, most originally, is a possible correlation between the litany of failures he catalogues through his travels, and the adamant insistence of conservatives that the Cold War was a good and noble cause vindicating their political positions. Wiener draws a direct line between the Cold Warriors who once advocated “rollback” and the ideologues who deployed very similar arguments (and were, in several instances, the selfsame people) to push for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One might go a step further and argue that the ultranationalism of the conservative hawks was in fact born and nurtured out of their thwarted desire, over decades, to drive national policy, and out of the failures their ideology weathered when it did push through — in the McCarthy witch hunts, in the FBI’s illegal spying on civil rights leaders and the 1960s anti-war movement and, most strikingly, in the ill-fated attempt at rollback in Vietnam. European history teaches us that ultranationalism is more often born from defeat than from victory — just look at the Serbs, who even before the excesses of the secessionist wars of the 1990s were still clinging to the memory of their historic drubbing by the Turks in 1389. The bitterness of defeat with which the post-Vietnam generation had to contend led directly to the strain of ultranationalism now most commonly labeled neo-conservatism, which promised a more muscular America projecting moral as well as military superiority over the rest of the world.

Much of the country may have chosen to forget the Cold War, or at a minimum not to celebrate it, but for the neocons and veterans of Team B, victory over communism remains a necessary battle cry driving their agenda — in the wars unleashed over the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the ongoing “war on terrorism,” and in the wars they are still itching to fight.


LARB Contributor

Andrew Gumbel is an award-winning journalist and author with a long track record as an investigative reporter, political columnist, magazine writer and foreign correspondent. He contributes regularly to The Guardian, among other publications, and has written extensively on subjects ranging from politics, law enforcement and counterterrorism, to food and popular culture. His books include Oklahoma City: What The Investigation Missed — And Why It Still Matters (HarperCollins, 2012), Down for the Count: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America (The New Press, 2016), and, most recently, Won't Lose This Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System (The New Press, 2020).


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