Lost Time: The Forgetting of the Cold War

September 1, 1995 Topic: Society Tags: BusinessContainmentCold WarGulf War

Lost Time: The Forgetting of the Cold War

Mini Teaser: Forgetting the Cold War means distorting the lens through which we view the present. Consciously or unconsciously, it is an act of denial and repudiation, asserting or imagining that what was, was not, and that what was not, was. It is un-remember

by Author(s): Ian Gambles

The end of the Cold War was the beginning of its long journey into
history. Countless records in many media insure that its total
disappearance from human consciousness--the fate of the wars of what
we call pre-history, and of some of the darker periods of recorded
history--is inconceivable. People who take the trouble will always be
able to learn about the Cold War, analyze its events, and interpret
it in ever-changing historical perspective.

But knowledge and memory are different. To remember--not merely in
the sense of personal recollection, but in the sense of remembering
the fallen, remembering Munich, or even remembering Ozymandias--is to
endow knowledge with meaning. Individuals and societies alike are
influenced in their decision-making and their behavior by the lessons
they draw from history and the importance they attach to their own
inheritance. History remembered is history active on the political
stage of the present. Although we know about the Cold War, and will
continue to study, explain, and understand it, I shall argue that it
is in this sense a war we have already begun to forget.

Forgetting recent history is not the same as forgetting the distant
past--say, the Punic Wars, which took place in a world so totally
unlike ours that it is impossible to conceive of them being
meaningfully remembered. Forgetting the Cold War means distorting the
lens through which we view the present. Consciously or unconsciously,
it is an act of denial and repudiation, asserting or imagining that
what was, was not, and that what was not, was. It is un-remembering.

How We Forget

There are two ways of forgetting recent history: conscious state
forgetting and unconscious social forgetting. State forgetting is the
deliberate silencing of a particular part of the past for political
purposes. In its extreme form, it is the Stalinists' airbrush.
Totalitarian regimes can use the apparatus of repression to control
information and silence dissent to the point where people profess to
believe, and frequently actually do believe, that experiences within
their own lifetime did not in fact happen. The Chinese Cultural
Revolution, for example--perhaps the most comprehensive and violent
attempt ever to disown history--would itself have been much more
difficult to launch had not the desperate famines of the Great Leap
Forward, and Mao's personal role in inflicting them, been the subject
of some effective state forgetting.

But it is not only totalitarian regimes that engage in state
forgetting. England decided during the First World War to forget the
Germanic origins of its own royal family, smoothing the path of
jingoism by removing an inconvenient reminder of a pre-nationalist
history. Fifty years after the Second World War, Japan has finally
half-decided to start remembering its own war crimes. Time will tell
whether the democratic, bureaucratic state forgetting in the
schoolroom lessons and political speech of the postwar decades has
done lasting damage to the new Japan or not.

In these milder forms, which do not involve altering records or
punishing remembering, the state acts rather as an initiator and
facilitator of social forgetting: a gradual, collective loss of
interest in a part of the past that conveys an undesired self-image.
The democratic state, creating power by working with the grain of
society, chooses and is chosen to manipulate symbols in a popular
manner, elevating one period of, or episode in, history to exemplary
importance and consigning another to forgotten irrelevance.

Nothing better illustrates the extraordinary power of combined state
and social forgetting than post-colonial nationalism in the Third
World, which turned its back on a whole pre-colonial age of
non-national, largely boundary-less history. Surviving as proudly
non-European nations in a world where Europeans had defined
nationhood--and mapped, counted, and recorded your nation with scant
regard for pre-existing realities--required forgetting on an heroic

It is this combination of state and social forgetting that is
beginning to erode the meaning of the Cold War in contemporary
European and American politics. To a degree that
varies--significantly--from country to country and region to region,
we have begun to treat the era of the Cold War as lost time,
imagining continuity where in fact there has been change, denying and
disowning the reasons why we are where we are. There is probably
nothing to be done to prevent this process.

The Illusion of Resumption

What does it mean to say that the era of the Cold War is becoming
lost time? One of the things it means is that the business of
international politics is being conducted as if there were continuity
between the years before and the years after that era, as if history
were being resumed. This idea is usually conveyed in the language of
freeze and thaw. The structure of international relations is said to
have been frozen by the Cold War, the natural processes of growth,
evolution, and decay chilled into motionlessness by the dead hand of
superpower confrontation. The year 1989 brought the thaw, the release
of this icy grip on history, the return of spring after winter, light
after darkness, awakening after sleep.

There is a lot of truth in this. At least in Europe, where a managed
system of confrontation without conflict was developed, the Cold War
certainly did inhibit change in international politics, as I will
discuss further below. But the broad sweep of the metaphor carries us
too far, into the dangerous territory of forgetting. Consider two
significant features of the post-Cold War scene: the empowerment of
the United Nations and the resurgence of nationalism.

One of the few comparatively clear things about the muddy concept of
the "new world order" is that it involves a substantial role for the
UN as the active agent of the will of the international community.
Since the end of the Cold War, recourse to the UN has become a
prerequisite for the legitimacy of any international
political-military initiative. Operations by UN forces or under the
authority of a UN Security Council resolution in Iraq, Cambodia,
Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Haiti have left the Cold War UN far behind,
and have pursued much more ambitious goals of making or enforcing
peace, settling state borders and supporting efforts to constitute or
reconstitute legitimate governments.

This empowerment of the UN rests on a metaphor of thaw and a reality
of forgetting; it is deeply problematic. The development of the UN at
the end of the Second World War may in some ways have been a
repetition of the fallacy of collective security inherent in the
failed League of Nations, but there were at least deliberate and
skillful attempts to correct some of the deficiencies of the League
in constituting the new version. The resurrection of the UN at the
end of the Cold War repeats the fallacy but without the
reconstruction. The failure of the UN during the Cold War--its
immobilization by superpower veto, its transformation into a
powerless sounding board for the grievances of the Third World--is
blamed entirely on the Cold War itself, rather than explained in
terms of the subordination of the logic of internationalism to the
logic of power politics, a subordination that is inherent in a system
of sovereign states. Thus, newly thawed, the UN is expected to take
up where it left off before it vanished into the freezer.

This cannot succeed. The UN's moment of true credibility as a
representative world body was indeed only a moment--the moment of
creation at the end of World War II, when the distribution of power
in the organization reflected the apparent strength and apparent
unity of the victorious allied powers, the helplessness of the
defeated, and the willingness of the other members to take a
subordinate role. In contrast, the unity of the great powers since
the end of the Cold War is a transient phenomenon. The consensus
behind the UN's authority structure no longer exists. The General
Assembly is no more than a parody of democracy, while the Security
Council is a sort of antiquated and unrepresentative directoire of
some of the great powers, including several who are in decline but
excluding some of the major actors. As the UN extends its scope of
operations into ever more controversial territory, its shallow
legitimacy will crumble in the face of renewed ideological or
geopolitical stand-offs among the key players.

The phenomenon of nationalism resurgent is, if anything, even more
closely bound up with the rhetoric of freeze and thaw and the
amnesiac mind-set. In Europe, there is a worrying tendency to see the
emerging post-Cold War settlement as a continuation and completion of
the aborted post-World War II settlement. Then, borders were adjusted
and populations shifted (only in the central areas, and only where it
suited the Big Four, of course) to achieve a close alignment of
nations and states. Poland became ethnically homogeneous for the
first time in its history. The Sudetens and other German minorities
were sent packing to a shrunken Germany. Now, with the Cold War
freeze ended, the process can continue. The Germans can be reunited,
and--when the Cold War finally ends there too--so can the Koreans.
Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians, Slovenes, Bosnians, and Croats can all
claim their states from the wreckage of repudiated Cold War

Essay Types: Essay