U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Engaging the Past with Jon Wiener

The following post comes from Rebecca Denne and Rachel Fulk. Denne is a first year graduate student in IUPUI’s Departments of History and Library Science. She is interested in public history and archives. Fulk is a first year graduate student in IUPUI’s Department of History.  She is a teaching assistant with interests in post-1945 American history and women’s history. They were both students in Ray Haberski’s spring semester course on post-1945 United States history.

titanImmediately after the Cold War came to a surprisingly quiet end, many conservatives (and not a few liberals) attempted to cement the Cold War as a “good war” in the minds of the American public and proclaim a specific place for it in American collective memory. But the American people did not buy into this historical narrative. Instead of acceptance, the public condemned and questioned Cold War decisions and strategies. As a result, historical sites around the United States with the job of explaining the Cold War often apologize for actions of a nation that, at least in the conservative view, “won” the Cold War.

This failure of the “Good War” framework is what Jon Weiner examines in How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America. Wiener presents the memorialization of the Cold War through two arguments—conservative and realist.[i] The conservative argument portrays the history of the 20th century as a drama in two acts, with the United States battling totalitarianism in the early Cold War and Ronald Reagan defeating the Soviet Union to end the Cold War. The realist argument states that the Cold War was a conflict between nations with particular interests that those nations worked to defend and advance. By this interpretation the U.S. did not necessarily represent the “good” side but rather pursued its own interests through resources and markets around the world.[ii] Weiner’s monograph is unique in that he makes his argument about forgetting the Cold War by traveling to sites that seek to remember or memorialize it. Through these visits, Wiener grapples with the relationship between history and memory, testing his thesis to reveal how conservative and realist arguments have shaped the memorialization of America’s Cold War past.

Wiener’s journeys to U.S. Cold War sites did more than merely confirm a conservative framework. His encounters demonstrate how the conservative argument has failed. For example, Wiener begins the book with a trip to the Reagan library, which he points out should be the “white-hot heart” of the Cold War victory narrative but instead focuses on a display of Air Force One, a completely apolitical exhibit. So, rather than utilize the perfect place to exemplify Reagan’s dream of tearing down the Berlin Wall, the library draws attention to Reagan’s dream of displaying “this magnificent aircraft” to the American people.[iii] Another curious example is Fulton, Missouri, the site where in 1946 Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain.” That speech, perhaps more than any other moment in the early Cold War, contributed to linking the “Good War” with the burgeoning Cold War. However, the Churchill Memorial in Missouri does not highlight the one reference that so clearly linked the war on fascism to the war on communism. Instead, the memorial celebrates WWII and the Greatest Generation and sidelines Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech by pointing out that Churchill believed U.S. policymakers were being too confrontational with the Soviets, especially in later years when both nations pursued an arms race that threatened world destruction.[iv]

Or consider another central narrative of conservative historiography: combating Communists within the United States. Wiener observes that in exhibits at the FBI website, the Newseum, and American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, “there seems to be nowhere in America where a history museum defends [Hollywood’s] blacklist or presents HUAC in a positive light.” In fact, he concludes that these museums condemn those who named names and honors those who resisted.[v] Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons plant northwest of Denver, might boast about manufacturing the plutonium triggers for hydrogen bombs from 1952 to 1989—these same bombs protected the U.S. from what many considered an imminent Soviet imperial threat. But it does not. Instead, Rocky Flats is being commemorated in a way that features the history of the anti-war activists who campaigned for years to close the plant.[vi]

These four examples, out of the twenty-one Cold War sites that Weiner visited, document the failure of the conservative Cold War framework: “The conservative’s museums weren’t built, their monuments have been neglected, their ideas mostly forgotten.”[vii] The conservative framework has failed.

A key reminder in How We Forgot the Cold War is that memory and history are not the same thing. While conservatives have attempted to frame the history of the Cold War as a memory of American actions against the “Evil Empire,” the public has often chosen to remember the Cold War differently or to question the manipulation of their public memory. Wiener relates a poignant reminder of the conflict between history and memory in his chapter, “The Museum of the Missile Gap: Arizona’s Titan Missile Museum.” Wiener and a group of tourists had reached the control room and the guide had finished talking about the course of action to be taken after launching a nuclear missile, mainly, that the crew would sit back and relax. Weiner writes:

Silence fell over the group, as they realized what the guide left unsaid: when the crew emerged from underground, the ‘topside’ world would have been destroyed. Roy [the tour guide] sensed the troubled silence and said, ‘If you had a granny in Moscow, you’d have hate like hell to turn that key.’ One older man blurted out, ‘If I had a granny in Moscow, I wouldn’t do it.’ Roy shot back, ‘Then the commander would pull his handgun and fill you full of holes.’ A shadow had fallen over the tour.[viii]

Far from the historical narrative, the tourists’ memories of the Cold War tended toward the humanistic rather than the heroic—many could not imagine releasing missiles that would cause the deaths of millions of people. History mandates that the Soviets were a block, an inhuman coalition against freedom and liberty. But memory has humanized the historical narrative. The Soviet menace has been replaced by a granny figure, a figure largely regarded as helpless in some ways and in need of assistance. The conservatives’ attempts to produce a historical narrative that represents the Soviets as the enemy has become challenged by the realist perspective of tourists who have come to see the Soviets not as adversaries but as people who were caught in the middle of what could have been the most destructive disagreement over ideologies in world history.

Wiener’s general argument about approaches to memorialization can be also be applied to local sites where we live, in Indianapolis. What do the memorials of this city have to say about post-war America and the Cold War? We only really see the Cold War when it turned hot. The Vietnam and Korean War memorials comprise the memory that conservatives tried to create as the ‘official’ memory of the Cold War. These monuments are underwhelming for a city which is second only to Washington D.C. for acreage dedicated to war memorials.[ix]

war memorials indy

The Vietnam and Korean War memorials were commissioned in 1996 to honor the Hoosiers killed in those wars. They are two, half-cylinder sculptures of limestone and granite. The Vietnam piece is just slighter taller than the Korean one. This reflects the comparatively greater number of Hoosier lives lost in Vietnam. The concave sides of the structures are engraved with the names of those who died, while the convex sides bear excerpts of letters from soldiers.[x] Viewers experience both the physical cost of war in terms of the number of causalities and the emotional loss of the lives behind the statistics. They interact with the sculptures by walking behind the engraved names to see the personal messages: to see the lives behind the statistics.

That the Indianapolis Korean and Vietnam War memorials commemorate the lives of local soldiers fits the conservation approach to Cold War commemoration. As Susan Sontag said: “The memory of war is mostly local.”[xi] By shifting the focus of national conflict to local consequence, the sculptures are better able to connect with their communities. In this way, the memorials can focus less on motives or goals that might cause contention with viewers. Ironically, the site focuses on the soldiers so as to avoid addressing the wars. Korea was, after all, a war lost to memory. The question of which side won the Vietnam War is still contentious. The way these memorials are designed keeps the conservative “good war” framework in play. Korea and Vietnam, both militarily “lost wars”, are somehow elevated through memorialization. The names of fallen soldiers on a memorial can make “Bad wars” in “good wars.” Visitors to these sites are unlikely to view the wars within the memory of the Cold War and they are not commemorated as such. Each is remembered only within the context of the years each war spanned. Yet, Joshua S. Goldstein of Foreign Policy magazine, estimates that worldwide there were 180,000 deaths a year from 1950 to 1989.[xii] A significant portion of these deaths were a result of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Despite the global effects of the Cold War, memorial sites fail to interpret these wars within the greater conflict. Instead, each is memorialized in isolation.

Indeed, memorialization isn’t always about what we do see but what we don’t. This is certainly true of the way in which the USS Indianapolis has been interpreted at two different sites in the city. While the story of the USS Indianapolis isn’t part of the Cold War, the approaches to memorialization are similar. One is interpreted with a realist approach, while the other is interpreted within the conservative framework.

radio roomThe USS Indianapolis Radio Room at the Indiana War Memorial and Museum uses artifacts to tell a history of World War II. This site is dedicated to the crew of the cruiser which delivered parts for the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945 while returning to the United States air base at Tinian. Of the 1,196 crewmen aboard, 317 survived. 300 went down with the ship and 600 more died from exposure, salt water poisoning, dehydration, and shark attacks. The Navy only learned of the sinking when they spotted the lifeboats on a routine patrol days later.[xiii] The ship’s captain, Charles Butler McVay III, survived and was convicted of causing the disaster.[xiv] But this isn’t mentioned in the exhibition.

Instead, visitors can explore a replica of the USS Indianapolis radio room. Within that interpretation is a brief history of U.S. naval radio history. This is the realist approach to the Indianapolis’ memorialization. Instead of exploring the complexities and ambiguities of the ship’s mission, the exhibition presents the radio equipment and explains how it was used. It illustrates the lived experience of working in the radio room.

But where’s the story of the worst naval disaster in U.S. history? Or the journey the A-bomb took to Hiroshima—the beginning of the Cold War? The fact that the ship was even carrying parts of the bomb is only mentioned in one line of text. The rest of the history and its consequences are not considered.

USS IndyNearby, along the Canal, the U.S.S. Indianapolis National Memorial is interpreted in the conservative framework. The site is a war memorial like those of the Korean or Vietnam Wars discussed earlier. On one side of the stone, visitors view an etching of the Indianapolis gliding peacefully through the Pacific; on the other, name upon name of the deceased crew. The accompanying commentary of the memorial’s website clearly promotes the good war narrative through the lens of World War II. One excerpt reads:

INDIANAPOLIS, which fought the good fight throughout the war; played such a key role in ending the war in the Pacific, saving hundreds upon thousands of American and Allied lives- only to be the final casualty- is only now being so honored- more than 50 years after the fact.[xv]

The monument essentially says that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima saved millions of lives that would have otherwise been lost. It doesn’t mention that the bomb leveled the Japanese city killing tens of thousands of civilians, or that fact that Hiroshima had a population comprised mostly of civilians. The site simplifies the past while forgetting key aspects of it. The Indianapolis wasn’t a cruise liner, it was a war ship. The people on board weren’t neutral civilians, they were soldiers. The Japanese didn’t attack the ship as an act of blind evil. When certain parts of the history are excluded, visitors only get half of the story. Without these elements, it’s easy to portray the United States as savior without addressing the deeper complexities of the conflict.

To conclude, Americans are forgetting or being asked to forget about the Cold War. There are Cold War sites all around us, all across the United States. There are memorials to Cold War conflicts, hundreds of planetaria harkening back to the Space Race, nuclear shelters underground, and rural test sites. The problem isn’t that the sites don’t exist, it’s that they aren’t being effectively interpreted. The failure of the conservative and realist approaches shows that Americans want more significant engagement with history. These “good war” interpretations have been unsuccessful: perspectives are being ignored and visitors aren’t even showing up. Interpreting contentious histories is a difficult task for public historians but an important one.

Historians must relentlessly remind the public that the past is always subject to multiple interpretations. Yes, the USS Indianapolis may have saved millions of lives by diverting a Japanese invasion, but its mission to deliver the atomic bomb directly caused the deaths of thousands of civilians–speculation v. reality, this is the stuff of interesting history. Monuments which interpret history with the conservative framework will likely always exist. This type of memorialization is one of the main ways that Americans like to honor soldiers who give their lives for a cause. The responsibility falls on the shoulders of historians to develop interpretations which contest the portrayal of the events–even if they were unpopular or have little governmental support. Historical sites will likely face harsher scrutiny from the public when attempting to memorialize conflicts in the future – whether through conservative or realist frameworks. Military operations in particular, like Operation Desert Storm or Operation Iraqi Freedom, represent a multiplicity of perspectives, motivations, and lived experiences. Hopefully, historians will take a lesson from Cold War memorialization when it comes to interpreting related sites: there is no one correct interpretation, nor should there be, that is the point.


[i] Jon Wiener, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 1.

[ii] Wiener, How We Forgot, 31.

[iii] Ibid., 18.

[iv] Ibid., 54.

[v] Ibid., 79.

[vi] Ibid., 253.

[vii] Ibid., 237.

[viii] Ibid., 229.

[ix] “Indy’s Monuments & Memorials,” Visit Indy, accessed April 2, 2016, http://www.visitindy.com/indianapolis-monuments-memorials.

[x] “Korean War Memorial,” Arts Council of Indianapolis, accessed April 1, 2016, http://culturenow.org/entry&permalink=12491&seo=Korean-War-Memorial_Patrick-Brunner.

[xi] Wiener, 127.

[xii] Joshua S. Goldstein, “Think Again: War,” Foreign Policy August 15, 2011. http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/08/15/think-again-war/.

[xiii] “The Worst Naval Disaster in US History,” USS Indianapolis, accessed April 3, 2106. http://www.ussindianapolis.org/.

[xiv] “A Boy’s School Project Aims to Revise History,” New York, NY: The New York Times, May 1, 1999. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/01/us/a-boy-s-school-project-aims-to-revise-history.html.

[xv] “The Tragedy of the USS Indianapolis,” USS Indianapolis National Memorial, accessed April 28, 2016. http://www.ussindianapolis.org/pfinnstory.htm.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. thank you for an excellent piece! Indianapolis section was especially fascinating.
    NB my name is spelled correctly in the headline but incorrectly in the piece — should be “Wiener” (not “Weiner”).
    [email protected]

    • Jon: Thanks very much for replying to the post. I apologize for not catching the misspelling of your name! The students, both undergrad and grad, found your book to be among the most interesting they have encountered in any history course. As their teacher, I was mightily impressed by the way you weaved historiography into historical observation. IUPUI has a strong Public History program and many of us like to encourage our students to think historically as they move through the city and their communities. Your book is a model of how to do this. The graduate students who wrote this essay are in two different sub-programs and both employ intellectual tools made evident in your book. All to say, it was pleasure to use the book and I will so again.

  2. Thanks for an excellent, clear review of a new book that I look forward to reading. I spent some time photographing the Indianapolis monuments, and I was struck by the intensity of the sculpture: Amid gleaming skyscrapers, we are plunged back into (many) war(s). It sounds like a thematic mapping (maybe a new radical cartography project?) of eras/events like the Cold War still lies ahead of us–good to hear that Rebecca’s and Rachel’s generation of public history scholars is already absorbing the new scholarship needed to begin that work.

    • Sara, I did not know you had spent time in land of war monuments! So, work has been done on Indy’s monumental landscape–John Bodnar, Ed Linenthal, Jon Ebel–but what is needed is what you suggest, a more comprehensive and interactive mapping of what is here and why. Sounds like a potential project for some collaboration!

  3. Having lived through the Korean and Vietnam wars, I offer a nitpick and a side issue:

    –You write “Korea and Vietnam, both militarily “lost wars””. I don’t think of Korea as a “lost war”. If you adopt a very right wing view, it was a war the US didn’t win, but we didn’t lose.

    –unlike monuments and museum there are other ways of remembrance which leave almost nothing for the historian to examine: I’m thinking of visits by veterans back to Korea and Vietnam. Such visits differ–typically a vet can’t visit former enemies in North Korea, whereas in Vietnam a vet is likely interacting only with former enemies (or their descendants) or maybe a former lover.

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