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.
Both of these arguments parallel, and are as morally offensive and factually obtuse as, the one offered by the Nazi apologist David Irving, who asserts that most of those who died in places like Auschwitz simply succumbed to illness—that Hitler never had a deliberate policy to exterminate the Jews, and that the Holocaust has been used for narrow political purposes.
During their years in power, Communist regimes in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Eastern Europe, North Korea, and Vietnam have murdered and starved to death tens of millions of people, targeted for death because of their ethnic origin or economic status. They have herded millions more into brutal concentration camps. But Wiener isn’t sure what this has to do with the Cold War or with Communist ideology. If America had been wise, he writes, it would have used its power not to defeat its “enemies,” but to negotiate “to maintain the status quo.” While the Cold War might have been “bad news for the Eastern Europeans,” the Soviet Union and, presumably, Communist China posed no threat to American interests, either at home or abroad.
Some commemorative efforts do elicit Wiener’s approval. He is delighted by the Truman Library’s willingness to consider that president’s decisions at the dawn of the Cold War as possibly mistaken. Maybe Henry Wallace was right after all! Also, CNN’s 24-part series on the history of the Cold War is lauded for giving equal time to the Soviet perspective, enabling the network to produce a “universal, not a partisan story.” Wiener defends CNN from conservative charges that it equated McCarthyism with Stalinist repression: The Gulag and the senator were both examples, he writes, of how domestic affairs were affected by the Cold War rivalry. Both topics got an equal number of minutes from CNN, prompting complaints from conservatives, but Wiener notes that their whining can be dismissed since the narrator clearly mentioned that the number of victims was not on the same scale.
Wiener is not nearly as complimentary about the ways in which museums have remembered major cases of domestic communism and espionage such as the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss. He criticizes the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Museum for not sufficiently highlighting the Venona Project, which broke Soviet codes and revealed that hundreds of Americans had spied for the Soviet Union, including the atomic physicist Theodore Hall. But he misinterprets the decrypted cables to claim that the FBI “decided to pursue Julius Rosenberg and let Hall go,” ignoring the fact that the FBI was able to develop admissible evidence that Rosenberg was a spy, while Hall escaped prosecution because the only evidence against him came from decrypted cables that could not be used in open court.
Wiener also falsely claims that the Venona cables and subsequent evidence have confirmed that Ethel Rosenberg was not guilty of espionage. In fact, KGB files reveal that she was guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage! Wiener continues to clutch at the left-wing myth that Alger Hiss was framed by the FBI’s use of a forged typewriter, and, more seriously, he peddles the discredited—and McCarthyite—myth that an innocent State Department employee named Wilder Foote was the real spy in the department. Of course, he does not consider what Venona and other revelations from long-closed American and Russian archives tell us about Communist subversion in Cold War America, or the rationale they provide for an extensive loyalty-security program.
The lack of interest in Cold War history, the low attendance at many historical sites and museums, and the gaping holes in many exhibits are all the evidence Wiener needs to conclude that the public is suspicious of the argument that, like World War II, “the Cold War was a good war,” and that it represented an ideological conflict between communism and freedom. He never considers the possibility that decades of deeply dishonest books by such popular historians as Howard Zinn have contributed to Americans’ moral amnesia about the defeat of the second totalitarian enemy of liberal democracy in the 20th century. (On the same note, Wiener recently added his hosannas for Eric Hobsbawm, the British Communist historian who famously agreed, a few years ago, that the murder of millions of innocent people was justifiable if it could have brought about the promised Communist utopia.)
The Cold War was not a simple battle of good against evil, and historically accurate memorials need to recognize that fact. It entailed moral compromises, American support of unappetizing regimes, and the abandonment of countries and peoples to decades of brutality and mass murder because a prudent strategy to overthrow communism was not available.
At home, it meant building weapons of mass destruction, often in slipshod conditions and in ways that threatened or compromised the health of defense workers and polluted the environment. Seen in retrospect, some of the simplistic rhetoric and plans were laughable (the Greenbrier Congressional Bunker in West Virginia, designed to shelter government officials during a nuclear war, is one example).
Despite Wiener’s sneering tone, there was a national consensus, among both conservatives and liberals, that the Cold War was necessary. It ended with an American victory, a triumph that was also a victory for democracy over communism. That is worth celebrating. And perhaps one day there will be a suitable monument to commemorate that happy occasion.
Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory, is the coauthor, most recently, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.