The ostensible subject of Jon Wiener’s account of his visits to several dozen Cold War museums, monuments, and memorials is how badly many of them convey what actually happened during that era. He reports that, by and large, they do a poor job of explaining the Cold War and of justifying the sacrifices and costs it required. However, while a number of his specific examples are indeed cringe--worthy, he is far more interested in using them to argue that America was at least as much at fault as the Soviet Union was for starting the conflict, that we have little to be proud of regarding how it was fought, and that there is no reason to claim that America won.
Most of the places Wiener visited, either in person or online, gloss over inconvenient or unpleasant historical events. One of the creepiest sites, the Weldon Spring Mound, a 75-foot pile of radioactive waste products near St. Louis, downplays the dangers of radiation and the exposure of workers at the uranium factory that once produced weapons-grade material. Others de-emphasize the Cold War. At the Churchill Memorial in Fulton, Missouri, the prime minister’s famous Iron Curtain speech gets much less attention than his leadership of wartime Britain. Few of the attractions get large numbers of visitors: The Whittaker Chambers National Historic Landmark in Westminster, Maryland, site of the famous Pumpkin Patch, is virtually inaccessible and so obscure that even the county Visitor Center doesn’t know where it is.
Pieces of the Berlin Wall are displayed at more than 30 sites throughout the United States, including a casino in Las Vegas where visitors to a men’s room are invited to urinate on it. A 2009 Los Angeles art festival paired a real section of the Wall with a “Wall Across Wilshire” upon which artists painted their interpretations, comparing it to the Israeli security wall and the U.S.-Mexican border fence. Wiener gleefully notes that, even at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, “Hippie Day” generated more interest from visitors than the Berlin Wall exhibit.
That the Cold War has not been commemorated in ways that resonate with large numbers of Americans affords Wiener, a historian at the University of California, Irvine, and contributing editor to the Nation, the opportunity to crow that the public has not bought the “triumphalist” conservative view that the Cold War was actually worth fighting, or that it ended in an American victory. One of his prize examples is the Victims of Communism Museum, authorized by Congress in 1993, which planned to raise $100 million for something on par with the Holocaust Museum. Instead, the result was a “ten-foot-high replica of the thirty-foot-high Goddess of Democracy from Tienanmen [sic] Square” on a traffic island on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. Wiener derides the “conservative view” of its original sponsors that the Cold War was a moral conflict between good and evil; its detractors were right to suggest that it was just a conflict between states with different interests—one in which (Wiener notes) the Americans laid waste to Korea, militarized Europe, and supported dictators throughout the world. The Cold War was neither inevitable nor necessary, according to Wiener: Lots of money and lives could have been saved, and repression avoided, if only the United States had recognized that the Soviet Union was never a direct threat to its interests.
While offering a brief acknowledgment of Communist responsibility for famine in China and repression in Stalinist Russia, Wiener does his best to excuse and minimize the horrors and crimes of communism. He piously notes that the victims of Communist regimes “deserve better” than the barely noticed statue in Washington, but he goes on to deride the Black Book of Communism for attempting to equate the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, and for exaggerating the number of victims of communism. Victims of famine should not be put in the same category as Jews gassed or executed by Einsatzgruppen, he argues. After all, as J. Arch Getty, an academic who for years tried to minimize the number of victims, once noted, the Soviet famines were caused by “the stupidity or incompetence of the regime,” and not deliberate policy. Wiener sagely explains that “a significant proportion of the hundred million” alleged victims of communism died “due to poor nutrition and inadequate medical care.” And he inaccurately and offensively suggests that the editors of the Black Book were attempting to minimize the evils of Nazism by emphasizing the evils of communism and blaming Jews for giving Hitler pride of place among mass murderers.