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How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America Hardcover – October 15, 2012
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"Simultaneously hilarious and the best thing ever written on public history and its contestation." --Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz.
"A fascinating and entertaining book." --Eric Foner, author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.
"Combines the author's splendid skills as a reporter with the eye of a scholar. Lively and fun, yes, but also analytically and scholarly grounded. . . a rare and remarkable achievement." -- Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland.
"trenchant . . . and uncommonly frisky." Tom Carson, The American Prospect.
From the Inside Flap
Jon Wiener, an astute observer of how history is perceived by the general public, shows us how official efforts to shape popular memory of the Cold War have failed. His journey across America to visit exhibits, monuments, and other historical sites, demonstrates how quickly the Cold War has faded from popular consciousness. A fascinating and entertaining book.” Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 18631877
"In How We Forgot the Cold War, Jon Wiener shows how conservatives triedand failedto commemorate the Cold War as a noble victory over the global forces of tyranny, a 'good war' akin to World War II. Displaying splendid skills as a reporter in addition to his discerning eye as a scholar, this historian's travelogue convincingly shows how the right sought to extend its preferred policy of 'rollback' to the arena of public memory. In a country where historical memory has become an obsession, Wiener’s ability to document the ambiguities and absences in these commemorations is an unusual accomplishment.” Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
In this terrific piece of scholarly journalism, Jon Wiener imaginatively combines scholarship on the Cold War, contemporary journalism, and his own observations of various sites commemorating the era to describe both what they contain and, just as importantly, what they do not. By interrogating the standard conservative brand of American triumphalism, Wiener offers an interpretation of the Cold War that emphasizes just how unnecessary the conflict was and how deleterious its aftereffects have really been.”Ellen Schrecker, author of Many Are The Crimes: McCarthyism in America
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The primary battle is between conservatives who see the struggle between the US and USSR as an unavoidable final clash between good and evil, in which the men in white hats prevailed thanks to the leadership of Ronald Reagan. Interpretations from the center and left see a more nuanced struggle between nation states that, if it could not have been avoided, certainly could have been reduced in length and impact. Mainstream policymakers pursued goals of "containment" and deterrence" while conservatives argued for "rollback" and victory. Overall, suggests Weiner, "the Republican right lost all the big policy battles of the Cold War" as presidents from both parties rejected their arguments. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he argues, conservatives in congress began to make plans to establish their interpretation as the official memory of the Cold War.
Weiner crosses the country to find many of the 30 locations where parts of the dismantled Berlin Wall are displayed. He tells the story of the Victims of Communism Museum, authorized by Congress in 1993, but never constructed. He visits the Churchill Museum in Missouri and the blacklist exhibit at the Motion Picture Academy in Beverly Hills. Along the way, Weiner recounts events that were memorialized at each site and comments upon visitors and their reactions. One of his most unusual trips is to the Whitaker Chambers pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark in Maryland. This site commemorates the location of evidence used to convict Alger Hiss of espionage. The Landmark is not on the map, the area is not signed and Weiner finds, perhaps not surprisingly, that he is one of only two visitors to the Whitaker Chambers memorial that year.
There are some problems in this book. Weiner's political sympathies are not on the conservative side and are often on display as when he triumphantly informs the reader, "there seems to be nowhere in America where a history museum defends the blacklist or presents HUAC in a positive light." The author also has a tendency to present quotes from members of the public attending these sites as if such statements are revealing, if not definitive. Finally, the book moves a bit slowly.
On the positive side, I can't remember a more comprehensive effort to trace how memory has been made material through the often haphazard process of creating monuments. Weiner provides a map of 47 locations scattered from Northampton, Massachusetts (the Julie Nixon nuclear bunker), to the B Reactor in Washington, the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona and the Reagan monument in Grenada. One can argue whether the Private Presley exhibit at Graceland or the MacArthur Museum are, strictly speaking, Cold War memorials but Weiner is nothing if not inclusive. At times, he presents interesting arguments as when he wonders if the Alger Hiss evidence was forged and the typewriter that was used to create the documents is in the Nixon Museum.
How We Forgot the Cold War is actually about how a society remembers. The text is often polemical and the writing can be discursive. The book does, however, have both descriptive value and interest as an examination of the fragmented and not wholly disinterested process by which a free country decides how to create memory. Photos are often well chosen and helpful to the reader. I found the book flawed but often fascinating; an argument for Amazon to allow reviewers the use of half stars as I am left firmly between 2 and 3 stars on this one.
Why — considering the floods of money spent on the military and foreign aid, proxy war casualties, not to mention additional lives lost on Air Force reconnaissance missions — are there not grand monuments or international caliber museums?
This is the foil used by Wiener throughout is book written in with wry and wizened style. A book which is marked by the history it contains as well as by its unbiased analysis and strategic overview of the events of the Cold War. For example, I was surprised to see a map showing a few dozen sites across the United States devoted to an event or interest of the Cold War. Quite a lot! But no grand museum or encompassing remembrances, even at presidential libraries. Odd that the huge cost and effort of the Cold War be treated apparently in a dismissive fashion, perhaps?
Not only are the chapters enjoyable but the captions are more than informative, not merely descriptive, and often wryly observant. An example of politicians using a Korean War memorial to place their names upon its plaque without naming as much as a single person who served in that war. Another is of a monument purported to be erected by a thankful population but was funded, built and placed by a foreign group.
Wiener, a professor of history at U of California–Irvine, has the wisdom of a scholar as well as an elder. He makes connections and observations which may span years, or even decades, allowing us to see facts in their ultimate context. His experience when visiting the Reagan Library, as well as investigating Reagan’s continuity-of-government program (which involved Oliver North), for example, as well as noting the collaboration of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in the Ford Administration during the 1970s. There is so much more and How We Forgot the Cold War is an excellent read as it is written smoothly and intelligently without sensationalism. The analyses are cogent and not derivative, the work of others is not rehashed by the author. Wiener visited most of the sites mentioned in his book, including National Park nicknamed the “Pumpkin Patch” which is seen by two or even fewer people each year.
The conclusion and epilogue’s fifteen pages speak volumes and could be used as the core of a college course on either the Cold War or politics and policy implementation. This book is part of a nexus of Cold War history writing since it is cogent, cited, indexed and possesses thorough notes — especially since the author’s eyes see much of what many of us have missed.