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

It is a truism that the Cold War world was more stable than the
post-Cold War world. Yet statesmen continue to act as if it ought not
to be so, as if the (non-existent) "peace dividend" should include a
more manageable, law-abiding world. The fact is that the reasons the
world was manageable during the last half century were the Cold War
reasons we choose to forget and put behind us, and no amount of
wishing or assuming will project an uncaused stability into the
post-Cold War void.

Regional Memory

Images and memories of the Cold War vary from country to country and
region to region, reflecting differences in the degree and character
of that conflict's impact and the different ways it is settling into
peoples' idea of their own past. This spectrum of memory deserves
detailed research in a range of source materials in many languages.
What is offered here is only an impressionistic survey of the
situation in Europe and America.

Consider four regions: Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, Western
Europe, and the United States. For Russia, rocked in a turbulent
present of political and economic uncertainty, contrasting memories
of the Cold War era turn and collide in the political wind, and serve
competing purposes. On the one hand, the Cold War was part of a
monstrous communist plot that has only recently been exposed: an
economy wrecked by collectivization and militarization, a needless
severing and souring of Russia's engagement in Europe, a fruitless
saga of distant foreign entanglements that cost money and lives. On
the other hand, the Cold War offered a recognition of Russian
greatness that has now been suddenly lost. Rival of the United States
on the world stage, master of a great Eurasian empire and hegemon of
half of Europe, leader and lynchpin of a worldwide political
movement, the Russia of the Cold War would have had no trouble
dealing with handfuls of rebellious Caucasians. Least forgotten in
Russia, the Cold War nevertheless is not remembered clearly, as a
victory or a defeat might be. A swiftly and puzzlingly vanished
order, the Cold War's image is already sufficiently clouded for it to
be recreated in competing ways in a fetid political imagination.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the combination of forgetting and
re-imagining is nearer to producing a consensus. The Cold War is
remembered as a period of order and repression, and an initial
tendency to forget about the order has given way to a tendency to
forget about the repression. A curious unreflective forgiveness has
taken hold in many countries, allowing reconstructed socialists to
(re)gain power from the bewildered parties of liberation. Forgetting
breeds more forgetting--the attempt to write off forty years of
society's history as one enormous foreign crime, and to hark back to
pre-Cold War political parties and pre-Cold War property and
privilege, encourages the losers from that process to forget their
complaints against the fallen regime.

Political differences of this nature, however, can be comfortably
accommodated within the framework of democratic debate, and their
impact is softened by a collective sense of self-liberation. A
perfectly legitimate pride in the popular insurrections which ended
Soviet-communist domination leads to a striking supposition in
Central and Eastern Europe of the essential irrelevance of the Cold
War itself. The ups and downs of East-West relations, the crises of
superpower summitry and alliance politics, the proxy wars and the
endless brinkmanship are all swept into the trash with the Soviet era.

In Western Europe, the Cold War is remembered only as a burden, and
its role as a political guide-rail is forgotten. Glad to be rid of
it, people relegate to recesses of the mind the memory that their
neighbors to the east were callously cut off from them, that massed
armies faced each other at the heart of the continent where exercises
and encampments pitted the landscape, that Europe was the "theater"
where the nuclear winter would begin. The dislocation of West
European politics in the 1990s at both the national and the Community
level--the loss of identity, agenda, and constituency on both the
right and the left, the loss of drive in the EU project--is closely
related to the fading of these memories. Clinging only to the basic
Cold War distinction between poverty and repression, prosperity and
liberty, them and us, Western Europe seems unable to remember either
what it was fighting for or the substance of the real socio-political
debate that flourished before "the end of history." (There is at
least enough truth in Fukuyama's audacious--and fundamentally
false--proposition that political actors in liberal democracies have
found themselves increasingly at a post-dialectical loss for anything
to say.) The very phrase "peace dividend" seems to imply that a
long-term investment has suddenly come good, the stock can be sold,
the books closed, and a rich retirement enjoyed. The issues of the
intervening years can be quietly forgotten.

It is worth noting that the most powerful country in Europe, Germany,
must accommodate both East and West European memories. The sharp
discomforts of Wessi/Ossi politics may be primarily economic in
origin, but they surely also owe something to a sort of national
cognitive dissonance, an incompatibility of memories.

In the United States, the Cold War is being forgotten in the most
familiar sense of the word. In a country historically sheltered from
international upheaval, geographically oriented to a continent
between two coasts and two oceans beyond them, and politically
absorbed in the short term, the anomaly of intense and prolonged
engagement in an essentially European conflict can be quickly erased.
Except for the many losers in the military-industrial complex, the
American way runs smoother without the Cold War, which was an
obstacle to worldwide business and trade, and a pretext for the
aggregation of power and revenues in the hands of the federal

The main problem with which comprehensive forgetting of the Cold War
leaves the United States is that of leadership. U.S. global
leadership did not derive from the Cold War, but from its political
and economic position after the Second World War. The Cold War
intervened--indeed, was deliberately deployed by the Truman
administration--to crystallize the American role as post-war
multilateralism became mired in rising geopolitical tensions. With no
clear pre-Cold War model to recall, and the Cold War role remembered
only as a duty discharged, perhaps the much-discussed crisis in U.S.
leadership has deeper roots than the qualities of particular

A quick regional survey, then, reveals a slope of regretting,
remembering, and re-imagining. The further east, the more the Cold
War is remembered, the more its passing is regretted, and the more
drastically its history is reshaped in the imagination. The further
west, the more the Cold War is forgotten, the more it becomes
unregretted, unimagined, lost time.

Why Do We Forget?

This still leaves the question of why the Cold War seems to be so
unmemorable. The most important reason is the dearth of powerful
symbols. There is almost nothing to express the meaning of the Cold
War in symbolic form, a form which simplifies complex realities and
concentrates meaning, a form to which emotional significance can be
attached and communicated across space and time. Chunks of
graffiti-covered wall scattered around parks and living rooms hardly
suffice to fill this symbolic gap.

The opposites of state forgetting and social forgetting are state
memory and social memory, and both are heavily dependent on the
medium of symbols. The state remembers victories, anniversaries of a
decisive battle or a triumphant armistice, which vindicate anew the
nation and its cause. It remembers, sometimes, defeats and
anniversaries of humiliation or loss, which teach fresh lessons of
vigilance or rekindle a unifying national grievance. It remembers
days of independence or revolution, which assert its sovereignty and
its ideological identity. It remembers heroes, occasional villains,
and the glorious dead, to give the clarity of deeds and lives to the
abstracts of honor and infamy, and, perhaps, to bless again "the old
lie--dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." State memory is, even if
individual bureaucrats are not conscious of it, purposive and
manipulative; it seeks out symbols that reinforce its identity and
its claims.

Society remembers things that touch large numbers of people in a
significant, visible, and attributable way. Society remembers mass
death from unnatural causes, death on a scale so large that everyone
knows someone who lost someone. Society remembers atrocities, which
imprint a desire for retribution even on those bound only by the
imagined ties of modern community. It remembers journeys, treks, and
other moments or episodes in which the volk became or re-became a
volk distinct from others and linked to a particular territorial or
political destiny. It remembers events, in themselves modest or even
largely mythical, that triggered or articulated a shift in the
national psyche, a turning of generations--the sinking of the Titanic
for example.

The Cold War offers almost none of these. Because it was essentially
a period of peace in Europe and America, and because what conflict
there was tended to be limited, managed, and elsewhere, the Cold War
did not produce the social shocks, the step changes in the life of
the state that catalyze memory and generate symbols. Moreover, the
Cold War was fought primarily among elites. The "Cold Warriors" of
the West were, mostly, conservative politicians and commentators,
military professionals, and some corporations, opposed by an
intermittently effective peace movement led, mostly, by liberal
intellectuals. The Cold Warriors of the East were high-ranking
Communist Party officials, the military, and their ceaseless
opponents in the various dissident movements. For the most part, the
mass of the people was disengaged from the Cold War. This was true in
many places even at its height, and became almost universally true
during the generation-long atrophy of the conflict after the 1962
Cuban Missile Crisis. Excepting only a handful of events, like the
Budapest rising of 1956 and the Vietnam War, the war was not a war
for most people in Europe and America. For most of them, after all,
the decades it covered were ones of unprecedented and constantly
increasing affluence. Of course the rhetoric of confrontation did
seep into their lives and exact its price in terms of heightened
political intolerance, shortages and food lines, lengthy military
service for young men, pervasive enemy images and closed borders. But
the price became lower and lower down the westward slope of
forgetting, and even in Eastern Europe the impact of the Cold War did
not sear the public memory in a manner comparable to the Second World
War. Now it is gone and there are new problems to face.

Essay Types: Essay