Americans pine for the Cold War

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October 06, 2002|By Kevin Canfield | By Kevin Canfield,Special to the Sun

The Cold War was, in many ways, a dark period in world history, an era in which the United States and the U.S.S.R. spent billions of hours of labor, godless sums of money and an incalculable amount of intellectual energy on the business of "national defense." Decades of duck-and-cover drills and ominous rumblings from across the Atlantic turned eight U.S. presidents and generations of Americans into neurotics.

Don't you miss it?

Hard as it might seem to believe, many Americans do seem to pine for the days when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on a table at the United Nations, shouting that his mighty country would "bury" the West.

The Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis, American-sponsored chaos in Central America, Joe McCarthy, the Berlin Wall, Pershing II missiles, bomb shelters and the rest. But it was also a time when at least we knew -- or were at least pretty certain -- who the bad guys were. Unlike life in America after Sept. 11, when it seems that an attack on civilians could come anywhere at any time, the Cold War at least offered a sense of orderliness, of predictability.

"There was a certain comfort in the Cold War, insofar as having an agreed-upon and, so to speak, reliable rival and even enemy in the Soviet Union," says Walter Hixson, a history professor at the University of Akron and author of Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture and the Cold War, 1945-1961.

"The world now appears more complex," Hixson says, "though in reality it was more complex during the Cold War than most people thought."

Martin Walker, chief international correspondent for UPI and author of The Cold War: A History, says he, too, sees a bit of longing for the Cold War at the Pentagon and other agencies.

"I detect a lot of nostalgia for the certainties of the Cold War, particularly in diplomatic and national security circles," he says. "The Cold War was a predictable framework for international relations, and the Soviets were reasonably rational actors -- unlike al-Qaeda and terrorist organizations."

With the recent openings of a spy museum in Washington and a Cold War Museum in Virginia, a resurgence of cloak-and-dagger novels and other cultural markers, Cold War nostalgia would seem to be at its peak. It's been building almost since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

"That's not new after 9 / 11," says Walter Lafeber, author of America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-1996 and a history professor at Cornell University. "It was said in 1990, 1991, 1992--- a number of government officials said how nice it was before 1989, when at least you knew who the enemy was."

Tom Vanderbilt, author of Sur-vival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America, says he occasionally misses certain aspects of the Cold War.

"I was just thinking this morning, yes, global annihilation was sort of possible, but you at least had a semi-rational -- or it was so irrational that it was almost rational -- set of rules that were preventing that. ... Now it's sort of like anyone with a grudge can create something, without that kind of logic of retaliation or mutually assured destruction."

That, says Stephen Whitfield, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and author of The Culture of the Cold War, is the chief difference: Global terrorist organizations seem bent on killing as many citizens as possible.

"The idea of deliberately murdering as many civilians as possible was not on the Communists' agenda, and we knew it," Whitfield says. "The Cold War enemy was motivated to survive -- not to commit suicide in the process of murdering the innocent. When Khrushchev said, 'We will bury you,' he meant that the laws of history were on the side of socialism, not capitalism; and therefore he could afford to wait."

But to look back at the 1945 to 1990 period as a simpler, more innocent era is far too simplistic. After all, it was the era of blacklisting and McCarthyism.

Which is why Lafeber is not among the ranks of Cold War nostalgists. "The last year I'm nostalgic for," he says, "is 1945, when the Cubs got to the World Series."

Kevin Canfield is a reporter for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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