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A Great Cultural History of the Cold War!
on March 19, 2017
In "The End of Victory Culture", Tom Engelhardt argues that inability of the Korean and Vietnam Wars to fit into the dominant narrative of American culture, coupled with the inability to openly confront the Soviet Union due to the prospect of nuclear war, led to the feeling of malaise that pervaded the Cold War. Engelhardt structures his argument into four sections: War Story, that examines the creation of the victory narrative; Containments, that examines early upsets to the victory narrative; The Era of Reversals, which explores the role of the Vietnam War in shattering the dominant narrative; finally, in Afterlife, Engelhardt explores early attempts to reinstate the victory story in popular culture and through limited, highly choreographed military actions in Grenada and Iraq. Engelhardt draws upon the work of Paul Boyer, Elaine Tyler May, and John Dower in discussing the Cold War as well as other historians like James McPherson when he examines the cultural legacy of the Civil War in victory narrative.
In establishing the war narrative as a discursive device, Engelhardt argues, “Triumphalism was in the American grain” (pg. 3-4). The war narrative could not take on an aggressive tone, however. Engelhardt writes, “From its origins, this war story was essentially defensive in nature, and the justness of American acts was certified not only by how many of <i>them</i> died, but by how few of <i>us</i> there were to begin with” (pg. 5). Americans could justify most actions in war as long as they conceived of themselves as underdogs. After World War II, however, “shadowed by the bomb, victory became conceivable only under the most limited of conditions, and an enemy too diffuse to be comfortably located beyond national borders had to be confronted in an un-American spirit of doubt” (pg. 6). This narrative, and its upset, plays a key role in Engelhardt’s insight into the Cold War.
The upset, however, took time to develop. Engelhardt explores both the joint role that the military industrial complex and consumer culture played in upsetting that narrative, writing, “The arms race and the race for the good life were now to be put on the same ‘war’ footing” (pg. 77). The media repackaged the war narrative through film and television and toys for children that sold Americans the narrative in a time of increasing uncertainty. Engelhardt writes, “The United States was involved in a global ‘war,’ yet Americans were militarily unmenaced” (pg. 87). This conflict of ideas spread throughout American culture since, “in 1950s America, the worlds of consumer arcadia and global fear, of twenty-four-hour-a-day television and twenty-four-hour-a-day airborne nuclear-armed bombers coexisted” (pg. 87). Finally, McCarthyism, HUAC, and containment on a global scale obliterated the us-versus-them dichotomy because they “helped transform America’s enemies into beings who looked indistinguishable from ‘us’” (pg. 122).
Writing of the impact of Vietnam on American culture, Engelhardt argues, “Because it was impossible to ‘see’ who had defeated the United States and hence why Americans had lost, it was impossible to grasp what had been lost. So American victimhood, American loss – including the loss of childhood’s cultural forms – became a subject in itself, the only subject, you might say, while the invisibility of the foe who had taken the story away lent that loss a particular aura of unfairness” (pg. 180). Vietnam obliterated the narrative of American certainty without an identifiable enemy. Engelhardt writes, “Vietnam was like an ambush that refused to end and for which no retribution proved satisfying” (pg. 194). Even when Americans could fight back, it was not satisfying. According to Engelhardt, “Victory somehow meant defeat, for to win you had to destroy what you ‘won,’ and to destroy what you won – the villages, towns, and cities of Vietnam, not to speak of its livestock, land, and people – was to ensure the enmity of those in whose name you fought” (pg. 206). This led to atrocities that flipped the script with which American soldiers grew up in the early Cold War of the 1950s. Without a clear explanation for the change that occurred in their cultural narrative, Americans sought desperately for an answer in the late 1970s through the early 1990s.
Engelhardt argues that George Lucas’ "Star Wars" led the cultural charge against the upset to the victory narrative. He writes, “In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom <i>and</i> victory, captivity <i>and</i> rescue, underdog status <i>and</i> the spectacle of slaughter” (pg. 267). Further, the American military placed the blame for the troubles of Vietnam on the media and carefully orchestrated and choreographed Grenada and Desert Storm in order to prevent the public outcry that accompanied American actions in Indochina. Engelhardt argues, “In the new version of victory culture, the military spent no less time planning to control the screen than the battlefield, and the neutralization of a potentially oppositional media became a war goal” (pg. 290). Despite this choreography, however, the war story no longer offers the comfort it once did when facing the future.