Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Rightly forgotten

In How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, Jon Wiener looks a story whose ending keeps getting rewritten

The following review was recently posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

Jon Wiener has spent much of his career at the intersection between journalism and academe, in the process enriching both. Actually, his specialty has long been chronicling the life of the mind in the contemporary United States in books like Politics, Professors and Pop (1991), Historians in Trouble (2005), and the recently published e-book, I Told You So, a collection of interviews with the late Gore Vidal. In his latest book, How We Forgot the Cold War, Wiener makes his most systematic foray into the historiographic sub-discipline of collective memory with a counterintuitive look at a recently concluded chapter in American life.

The book is counterintuitive in a number of ways. One is that you don't often find a historian who can barely contain his glee over the way an entire society seems engaged in a process of "forgetting" the Cold War. As he makes clear, however, what's being forgotten is not the Cold War itself so much as a neoconservative interpretation of it. Which is also counterintuitive, given the way the political right has dominated national discourse in the last generation and has been able to literally institutionalize its views. Insofar as it has been remembered, Wiener shows how Cold War memory has in many cases been displaced -- folded into the history of World War II, for example, or cast in terms of a saga of (radioactive) environmental sustainability. This, too, is counterintuitive: Wiener shows us a series of historical sites that say they're about one thing but in fact show themselves to be about another.

Finally, what's counterintuitive here is that way Wiener takes a collection of what are essentially travel pieces -- the heart of the book consists of 20 approximately ten-page essays on specific Cold War museum exhibitions (plus one on the 1998 CNN documentary Cold War) and fashions them into a cohesive piece of scholarship. These essays range from the amusing "Hippie Day at the Reagan Library," where the counterculture lives on in the land of the Gipper, to "Cold War Elvis," where Sgt. Presley makes an appearance at the General George Patton Museum (and, we learn, scares the East German authorities more than the Third Armored Division ever did). He also includes a number of pieces involving nuclear waste that suggests anxieties continue to linger long after the reasons for such weapons, and their supporting infrastructure, have been dismantled.

In every case, Wiener manages to weave together closely observed reporting about the personalities he meets and the exhibits he sees along with more analytic prose that contextualizes those exhibits historiographically. There's a kind of rhetorical locution that surfaces again and again that runs along the lines of "This is what (conservative) ideologues have said, but this is not what we're shown." The refrain is quite effective in driving home the point at hand. It's also effective in conveying the broad tenor of Wiener's own perspective on the Cold War, strongly in the vein of the William Appleman Williams revisionist variety.

There were times in reading the book when I wondered if we in fact needed as many examples as we did to get Wiener's point, and I did find myself wondering at times -- as Wiener notes critics of the CNN documentary asserted -- whether leftist scholars were a little more willing to, say, cut the (typically pragmatic) Soviets more slack than the (typically hegemonic) Americans in events like the Cuban Missile Crisis -- but he makes his argument with as much clarity as any scholar I've read. Even better, he does so concisely; any one of the the chapters in this book would make an excellent piece of reading for classroom discussion. How We Forgot the Cold War is as welcome a contribution to the literature of memory generally as it is the Cold War in particular.