by Paul Buhle
Wiener, Jon: How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2012; ISBN-13: 978-0520271418, hardcover, 384pp, $34.95.
(Swans - December 3, 2012) A distinguished historian of US politics and culture, albeit better known to tens of thousands of Los Angeles commuters stuck in traffic as the talk-show host on radio KPFK, Jon Wiener has grabbed one more tiger by the tail. Scarcely had this book emerged than the Weekly Standard flew into a rage. How dare Wiener question the virtues as well as the necessity of the long crusade to expunge Communists and communistic ideas from the American Republic?
Wiener does this by geopolitical history, rather more in vogue these days, when a conflict over the preservations and uses of the home of W.E.B. DuBois in Massachusetts rages on, more than a few historical sites precious to labor and African-American legacies face drastic budget cuts, and the whole question of who visits, why they visit, and what it means provides a context. What is the legacy that we want?
How We Forgot the Cold War spotlights dozens of physical locations, from the statue of "the Senator from Boeing," Scoop Jackson, in Seattle to the Cuban Missile Crisis theater of the JFK Museum in Boston, not to mention such oddities as the Ethel Rosenberg exhibit at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum in West Branch, Iowa. He highlights low attendance and public interest generally in the whole subject of Cold War. For Americans under 30, it seems never to have happened, as unreal as the US alliance with the Russians during the Second World War became for students in the 1960s to '80s. For those older, the purposes are oddly mixed and often downright odd.
The pleasure of this book comes not only from Wiener's keen analyses but from his having taken the tour bus, showed up at Lakewood, California, Memorial Day festivities (and speeches), looked and listened to what guides (printed, spoken aloud, and on CD) had to say, and generally speaking put up with things that drive most of us quickly toward boredom and departure. He rewards himself with the iconoclast's fun along the way, a good deal of it dark humor. Like the plaque to General Curtis Le May on Woody Hayes Drive in Columbus, Ohio, not quite remembering him as a nut ball who ran for vice president with Barry Goldwater in 1964, or the public champion of a blitzkrieg-style bombing of a thousand sites in Cuba a few years earlier -- the prelude to a US invasion of whatever remained of the island's population and architecture.
There are some surprisingly bright spots as well, thanks largely to solid scholarly staff hirings, one presumes, rather than the intent of relatives or the late notables themselves. The Truman Library includes signage wondering aloud about the confrontational rhetoric "Give 'Em Hell Harry" directed at the prostrate Soviet Union close to the end of the war. The CNN series on the Cold War was, of course, even better -- or vastly worse, in the eyes of aging conservatives, who raged at the suggestion that evidence may have been fabricated (against Ethel Rosenberg, for instance) or worse, that both sides had been at fault as they rushed toward a nuclear annihilation narrowly avoided.
There are so many other examples here that the reader must be left to find them, laugh while wincing at all the stupidity and deception (in the Lakewood ceremony for the Korean War, mentioned above, a plaque features members of the city council, not one of them having served in Korea), and ponder the national obsession. Islamophobia, the current model, seems serviceable, with a racial tinge once reserved for the "Chicoms" and Vietnamese, but lacks the unitary thrill of the old Russian Menace. Too much time has passed, and godliness is no longer an American exclusive.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. (back)