A Cold War Bleg


Researching the Cold War in recent months—I’m working on a new book—I’ve kept finding that the conflict has already begun to blur and recede from American minds. Even though the cold war ended just before they were born, for instance, I find that my own teenaged children possess only the vaguest recognition of the conflict. They can provide me with serviceable one- or two-sentence summaries of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the First and Second World Wars, but not of the Cold War. The Vietnam War ended badly—they know that. And they recall having come across a paragraph or two in their high school history books about a conflict in Korea. But the cold war itself? The complete arc? Blank stares.

Is there any objective way in which I can demonstrate this, do you suppose? Any illustration involving not anecdotes but data? Polling information, perhaps, showing that more Americans can name the decade in which (say) the Civil War took place than the decades in which the Cold War unfolded? Or a study of high school textbooks, maybe, showing that fewer pages are devoted to the Cold War than to the Second World War? Ricochet readers, I think we can all agree, represent the most literate and best-informed in cyberspace. If any of you can point me in the right direction help, I’d offer you my gratitude—and there’s no truer graditude than that of a writer who’s been helped over a rough spot—and a really sweet mention in the acknowledgements.

There are 39 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Profile Photo Member

    Peter, I can identify with your children’s “blank stares” re the Cold War. I’m not sure how their high school US history classes are structured, but I remember mine was broken into two years: 1. the Founding to the Civil War/Reconstruction. 2. Reconstruction to Present Day.

    Inevitably though, we fell behind schedule and had about two-three weeks of school left as we were wrapping up WWII–and in those two to three weeks, we learned about Vietnam as we pursued independent research projects on a topic of our choice. The only thing I knew about the Cold War was that it was not a “Hot War” and that it was between the Soviet Union and the USA. It wasn’t until college, when I became interested in conservative thought, that I realized how important the Cold War was, first from a philosophical perspective, then from a historical one. That led me to Chambers’ Witness and, eventually, to John Lewis Gaddis’ sometimes confusing book (which I wish would have been ordered chronologically rather than topically!).

    Needless to say, your book will be a needed and welcome addition!

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Inactive

    Peter, I don’t have any data right off hand, but the Cold War remains the bedrock of academic histories of US foreign policy. While other themes do get consideration, as a general rule of thumb the further one goes back in time the less literature there is available. That this remains the case, only further begs your question.

    This problem has arisen, I believe, because diplomatic historians remain fairly marginalized outside of their own circles. There are multiple reasons for this situation, but the most important are probably: 1) Military histories remain much more popular amongst the general population, and 2) Other academic historians of the U.S. show little interest in diplomatic history. Most university survey courses in U.S. history these days represent the Cold War only briefly, and usually as having just been a tool for drumming up irrational fear and war-mongering that distracted from the more important social and cultural developments of the post-war era. I suspect this has, therefore, filtered downward.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Member

    Expanding on emily’s point, one of the larger issues faced is that this is a “conflict” which lasted for more than half of the 20th century and it was fought largely by proxy.

    How can a kid educated in the American system be reasonably expected to describe such a multi-dimensional “conflict” in a couple of sentences ? My own generation, that being the one immediately preceding your kids’ generation, were aware of the cold war in the 80s and early 90s and even so they only vaguely recognize the threat that was the Soviet Union. To discuss socialism and communism with my peers is like discussing it with late 20s/early 30s people from 1900 — they have no awareness of the nature of the conflict of liberal democracy vs statism or the horrors witnessed under the various collectivized system. Good luck in getting them to discuss lenin, trotsky or stalin as well. Heck, just this week i tried discussing the possibility of rational participation in society with a very intelligent good friend from college and was largely told it was an irrelevant subject.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Podcaster

    The Cold War was, for the average American, a feeling. We knew what they were capable of and we knew what we would do in response. You could show them the evolution of it as it was portrayed in popular cultural. On the lighter end there’s Silk Stockings, the Astaire-Charisse musical remake of Ninotchka to Red Dawn, the ABC miniseries Amerika and everything in between.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Inactive

    Have you taken the kids to the International Spy Museum here in D.C.? There’s a lot of light-weight stuff, but it also offers some Cold War history that they might find interesting.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member

    I guess we’re condemned to repeat everything.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Member

    Your Grace — if Angelina Jolie’s movie SALT is any indication, then you might be on to something.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Inactive

    A fear on the “Free World” side of the Cold War was that the Soviets could take over, or dominate, a string of third-world nations (in Latin America or Africa) not by going to war, but by covert means. They could accomplish it by creating and supporting armed communist movements inside those third-world countries, which can end in a coup, and thereby the Soviet sphere of influence expands once again. Of course, our way to obstruct that was often to do the same thing with whatever non-communist movements were available in those countries. So, our motives were good, but we had a hard time winning the propaganda war. It looked like we were doing the same thing as the Communists. But we were doing it on behalf of Freedom, or the closest thing each country had to Freedom. The Soviets were doing it to create another slave state.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Contributor

    Thanks for all this, folks. (And my daughter’s experience in high school exactly paralleled your own, Emily.)

    One more question: It occurs to me that somebody may have conducted a poll sometime in recent years, asking how many Americans could identify, say, “Khrushchev” or “Stalin” or “Lenin,” contrasting Cold War figures with, say, “Hitler” or “Churchill.” Has anybody in Ricochet Land ever come across such a poll? An if so, can you tell me where to find it?
    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Editor

    Peter, I would imagine that if such a poll had been conducted, they’d know about it at CWIHP. Have you tried them?

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Inactive

    I will second Emily’s comment that lack of time to teach the Cold War is more responsible than a lack of textbook content. In addition, teachers generally don’t get to this unit until near the end of the year when kids are already thinking about summer vacation. Consider also the following:

    (1) The Cold War was an extremely long conflict, about 40 years, and fought largely by proxy over battlefields from the Americas, to Africa, the Middle East, and Eurasia. The complexity and duration of the fight deserve an entire semester of study, but teachers don’t have the luxury of time.

    (2) The proxy aspect of the Cold War meant many Americans didn’t have any skin in the game. Vietnam resonates because we have millions of veterans. Korea, though significant as the first military action in support of Truman’s containment policy, is already known as the “Forgotten War.”

    (3) The idea that communism needed to be fought was undermined in the 60’s by the “war is never justified” mantra from the left. An easy but false dismissal of tyranny, and the need to fight it.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Member

    Peter, I’d say the most important aspect of the Cold War that kids need to understand is that it wasn’t merely a conflinct between the Soviets and Americans. We were trying to prevent communism from spreading around the world. Many public educators dismiss that idea as paranoia, but you and I know that communism and similar totalitarian ideologies did indeed spread like wildfire… including to our own doorstep.

    They also need to understand that Americans commonly expected the “cold” war to go “hot” at any moment. It was not just two nations having a staring contest. People died, and bomb shelters exist all over the nation.

    But I know what you’re looking for is figures. I’ll see if I can find some.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Inactive

    Peter, I can only offer you anecdotal evidence about name recognition based on my classroom experience. Every high school kid knows about Hitler and the Holocaust. The subject is widely covered across many subject areas. About half my kids can identify Churchill as a British leader, but only half of those know his significance. Lennon is more recognizable then Lenin. Stalin was some sort of communist, right? Khrushchev is unknown.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Inactive

    Hmmm, I guess my school was the exception to the rule, since we spent quite a lot of time on the cold war in my AP US history class. Perhaps it was a required topic on the AP exam. Either way, the curriculum broke down when we got to Reagan anyway since my 80s-educated teacher was congenitally unable to give the Gipper any credit. At least it wasn’t that Yangs vs. Kohms cartoonishness that seems to be all that pop culture can remember about the conflict.

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Inactive

    “than” Damn that Spellczech!

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Contributor

    I am very embarrassed to admit, Claire, that I hadn’t actually thought of checking with the Cold War International History Project. But I will do so, pronto. What’s Turkish for “thank you kindly, ma’am?”

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Editor

    “Teşekkür ederim, hanım efendi.” To which I would reply, “Bir şey değil, ağabey,” interjecting a bit of affectionate informality into the interchange by referring to you with a kinship term indicating that you’re my big brother. You will either find this reassuring and caring, because it will touch in you “deep feelings of caring, togetherness, and absolute origins” (Roosens, 1995), or you will be spectacularly offended because we are not on ağabey terms, and I should have known to be more respectful. There are so many subtle ways inadvertently to completely offend people in Turkish!

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Member

    Peter, I don’t know how pending your deadline is, so I’ll go ahead and share what little I’ve found via Google. Unfortunately, a couple of these are only previews, and many are only peripherally related. Be sure to check the dates on each.

    A wide variety of questions.

    American support for nuclear stockpile rises after Soviet Union collapse.

    Americans not sure what to make of new Russia.

    Gallup on post-Cold War views of Russia and China.

    Russians still distrustful of America.

    More than half of Chinese polled believe American and China are heading into a cold war.

    Gallup: Americans believe our military dominance is faltering.

    Gallup: Over half of Americans now have favorable opinions of Russia.

    Only 36% of Americans give Reagan “a lot of credit for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.”

    Only 70% “rate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism as Very Important in terms of world history.”

    Peter, when I typed “cold war awareness poll” into Google and this thread was at the top, I knew your question doesn’t get asked often.

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Contributor
    Aaron Miller: Peter, I’d say the most important aspect of the Cold War that kids need to understand is that it wasn’t merely a conflinct between the Soviets and Americans. We were trying to prevent communism from spreading around the world. Many public educators dismiss that idea as paranoia, but you and I know that communism and similar totalitarian ideologies did indeed spread like wildfire… including to our own doorstep.

    They also need to understand that Americans commonly expected the “cold” war to go “hot” at any moment. It was not just two nations having a staring contest. People died, and bomb shelters exist all over the nation.

    I’d reach back to the Cold War’s earlier stages to emphasize that many important and powerful people, if not Communists, really thought that Communism was probably the future of the world, that the West was exhausted, unjustifiable, doomed. As hard a time as we have sometimes putting together the right set of attitudes about Islamic jihad, it just isn’t the case that the same critical mass of Westerners, including Americans, think fundamentalist Islam is a real alternative to our way of life, with history on its side.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Editor

    Peter, did you ever see this article I wrote about the unread Soviet archives?

    In the world’s collective consciousness, the word “Nazi” is synonymous with evil. It is widely understood that the Nazis’ ideology—nationalism, anti-Semitism, the autarkic ethnic state, the Führer principle—led directly to the furnaces of Auschwitz. It is not nearly as well understood that Communism led just as inexorably, everywhere on the globe where it was applied, to starvation, torture, and slave-labor camps. Nor is it widely acknowledged that Communism was responsible for the deaths of some 150 million human beings during the twentieth century. The world remains inexplicably indifferent and uncurious about the deadliest ideology in history.

    For evidence of this indifference, consider the unread Soviet archives …

    There was lively debate about that piece afterwards; you can read my response to my critics here, and letters to the editor here.

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Contributor

    Not only did I read your article, Claire, I sent it to my friend Yuri Yarim-Agaev, who participated in the Moscow Helsinki Group with Yuri Orlov and Yelena Bonner. For his services to Russia, Yuri was sent into overseas exile in 1980. Yuri and I had lunch shortlyl after your article appeared. Yuri was beside himself. “They’re forgetting,” he kept saying. “The whole world is forgetting.”

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Contributor

    Paules, what grade levels do you teach? Are those high school kids who have never heard of Khrushchev? Or junior high kids? (Whatever the answer, you have my thanks. You’re confirming my own experience.)

    • #22
  23. Profile Photo Contributor

    You may agabey moi, Claire, if I may tutoyer toi.

    • #23
  24. Profile Photo Contributor

    Aaron, marvelously useful links. Ten thousand thanks. Jim, you mention having read about the disappearance of the cold war from our consciousness or awareness. If the citation comes back to you, would you let me know?

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Member

    I don’t have any specific advice on the question at hand, but I’ve been on a bit of a Cold War kick lately. Looking forward to your take on it, Mr. Robinson.

    • #25
  26. Profile Photo Member

    Not news to you, Peter, but for anyone who wants a condensed-yet-grand sweep of the Cold War should check out John O’Sullivan on Uncommon Knowledge (2007, spring or summer, I think).

    Also, I bet Bill Bennet would have lots to offer on Cold War historical literacy. Maybe Lynne Cheney, too.

    • #26
  27. Profile Photo Member
    Jim Chase: .. The right time to claim the victory – and ensure its legacy in our collective consciousness, was right there from 1989-1991.

    A depressing note: Those were precisely the years that I was at Ohio State getting a history degree. There was not a word–not a single word–that the events in the news implied a great victory of good over evil, or a validation of our resistance and confrontation over the decades. Rather, it was portrayed as some sort of reconciliation, a coming-together, a putting-our-differences-behind-us. And, of course, it was all brought on by the magnanimity and courage and outstretched-hand of Gorbachev.

    I kinda bought it at the time. Why wouldn’t I? These were professors, after all. Damn them. And damn would I love to go back in time and make a pest of myself.

    • #27
  28. Profile Photo Member

    Peter, I think this is source of my recollection of the attempt to de-legitimize it (the American Thinker, circa 2007, by J.R. Dunn). It’s a good read. The money quote(s):

    “But the most egregious example is the Cold War. Only those who lived through the period have any clear idea of the miracle embodied in that conflict’s end. … It was one of the great victories of the modern epoch, … [a] victory at the highest levels of human endeavor, with nothing of the primitive or brutish about it. … At the same time, it was a victory … in which the average and unheralded individual shared as much in the triumph as any general or diplomat or premier. A glance at the footage of the destruction of the Berlin Wall will reveal as much.And it was buried.

    “Let’s not engage in triumphalism,” we were told by the media, by the left, by the academics. “Let’s not humiliate the Russians… Both sides were at fault here.” We were even told that “Now capitalism must be defeated.” As if capitalism ever built walls, or Gulags, or massacred millions for the sake of demonstrating a theory.

    • #28
  29. Profile Photo Member

    For what it’s worth, a few other things I found along the way this afternoon:

    “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War” John J. Mearsheimer, August 1990 – Interesting look in the crystal ball within a year of the fall of the USSR.

    “Giving Back Cold War Gains” Jonah Goldberg, April 2009. Socialist and communist ideas didn’t die at the end of the Cold War, and the lies have seeped back in through revisionist history.

    “The Evidence for Neo-Communism” James Lewis, 2007. Totalitarianism is still a threat.

    “The Cold War is Over – Did We Win?” Brian Phillips, 2009. Blog post about the seepage of socialist/communist ideas into American education system.

    • #29
  30. Profile Photo Member

    Jim, that’s similar to Steyn’s take in America Alone. He credits the lack of pride by the West in winning the Cold War as a contributing factor to our present overly self-deprecating attitudes, our “collapse of confidence:”

    “One of the most obvious refutations of Fukuyama’s thesis The End of History–written at the victory of liberal pluralist democracy over Soviet Communism–is that the victors didn’t see it as such. Americans–or at least non-Democrat-voting Americans–may talk of “winning” but [our NATO allies] don’t. […]They were, technically, on the winning side against a horrible tyranny few would wish to live under themselves.[…]There was the initial moment of euphoria[…]but when the moment faded, there was no sense on the Continent that our Big Idea had beaten their Big Idea. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to credit the citizens of France or Italy as having made any serious contribution to the defeat of Communism. Au contraire, millions of them voted for it, year in, year out. And with the end of the Soviet existential threat, the enervation of the West only accelerated.” (AA, xxi)

    • #30

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.