(Photo by Katarina Andersen. Image shows the “Revising the Cold War” panel).
By Michelle Chan
Consider the Cold War, a conflict of global scale that depended on fears of uncertainty and prompted national scrambling to maintain and strengthen imperial control. The actions and ideologies of hegemonic powers during the Cold War are felt in the 21st century. Those who lived through the Cold War continue to go about their lives in the world dramatically changed by the era, and important historical questions are yet to be answered. How deep does the Cold War go into global citizens’ minds, actions, institutions, and states? The Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest hosted the 3rd installment of the Revisionist History series, “Revising the Cold War,” on Wednesday, November 6th, 2019. The panel discussion explored some of the core questions and ways people have breathed meaning and debate into the Cold War.
The guest speakers present were: Alex Wellerstein, Assistant Professor at Stevens Institute of Technology; Meredith Oyen, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland; and Manu Bhagavan, Professor of History at Hunter College. Commentary was given by Villanova’s own David M. Barrett, Professor of Political Science. Wellerstein delved into the psychological aspect of the Cold War, which weaponized fear and emphasized the nation’s demonstrations of “developmental” prowess and informational secrecy. Various nations were demonstrating their “developmental” status by exhibiting technological advancements, while advocating that their own ideology was superior and keeping governmental inner workings hidden. The panelist’s discussion broke the bilateral dynamic of United States versus the Soviet Union by moving beyond the narrative of the iconic battle between capitalist and communist ideals armed with world-shaking artillery of the modern era, which was merely a portion of the conflicts brought upon by the Cold War, as the conflict was global and legacies of the Cold War are felt internationally.
To start, Paul Steege, the faculty director of the Lepage Center and mediator of the night’s event, set the tone of the discussion, as the act of historians revisiting and revising topics is often accompanied with “…a whiff of the dangerous.” The Cold War is far from a case closed scenario regarding its historical influence, especially as scholars increasingly unveil valuable connections from the Cold War to better understand the modern era. What’s more, the tendency for the Cold War to be branded with a layer of tense theatrics to illustrate the era of multi-national anxiety gives further insight into the psychological front (as fear became a politicized spectacle) and ideologies of the Cold War. One of the best practices to address an era built on tension and uncertainty is to offer something concrete, namely find some solid ground to build the conversation. Steege, thus, began the conversation, asking, “Who won the Cold War?”
The speakers all emphasized the value of readdressing the concept of the Cold War itself, by first challenging the preconceptions assigned to the Cold War. Bhagavan addressed the question by describing the scope of affected landscapes to include India and other countries previously thought to be unrelated to the conflict. He challenges common perspectives about the Cold War, as he went beyond nation-states, and suggested scholars include all people in a “Cold War World.” Bhagavan, instead, made an argument about the purpose of conflict, stating “the winner is imperialism.” Afterward, Oyen suggested the usefulness of using the “Cold War” as a tool of analysis. While global, the Cold War has limitations and he argued “…they’re connected to it but not determined by it,” thereby changing the conflict from an entity to a lens. Addressing the looming presence of nuclear weapons in Cold War rhetoric, Wellerstein turned the focus from the material threat towards the conflict’s birth of proxy wars and resulting casualties despite the “cold” status.
The Cold War encompasses a wide range of historical, political, and intellectual complexities. For Oyen, flexing the broad terminology is a “refinement” that scholars should pursue. As connections continue to pop up, and add to the behemoth of Cold War forces, they prompt the question: how should historians redraw their methodological parameters? As global as Cold War discussions are, Bhagavan stressed “field specificity.” Each nation experienced the Cold War in a different way. Bhagavan, who specializes in Indian Cold War history, highlighted the shift India experienced from being unrelated to the Cold War to becoming a central part of the narrative. The change from ‘unrelated’ to ‘related’ status entailed historians regarding India as a new access point to paper trails. India became relevant due to the nation’s participation in violent discourse and was deeply affected by Cold War imperialist agendas.
Steege led the conversation into the realm of violence, beyond “imagined violence,” as exhibited in nation-states in Africa, Asia, and other areas that suffered casualties from Cold War forces. Nevertheless, Oyen offered advice – “Embrace the power of ‘and.’” Rather than adopting an “either-or” perspective, the word “and” connects the interplay between the nations as effected by both Cold War activities and imperialist endeavors. The effects that led to violence were widespread and interconnected. Oyen emphasized the need to restore agency to the people, as opposed to granting the “Cold War” concept center stage, and restoring individuals to a “subject” status of analysis as opposed to “object.” Wellerstein further elaborated on the idea of agency with “loose power” – the use of the Cold War by those in the past as a vehicle to garner political support on a national level. Amidst discussions of key figures, Wellerstein offered a lite motif to analyze individuals and the tone of the Cold War – a battle of idealism and realism. As a reference to the beginning of the conversation, Barrett highlighted a large societal component embedded into the psyche of Cold War peoples, the influence of a genuine fear of global annihilation and the value of “winning” for the public and the nation.
What do we do with the aftermath? One of the major fronts of the Cold War resided in intimate spaces, within homes, like never before due to the growth of technology. The people witnessed the world more than ever. Nevertheless, the historian is also a product of cultural and social circumstances. The discussion unveiled some key pillars of the Cold War era: conquests of imperialism, ideological struggles of realism versus idealism, and the effects of society grappling with potential annihilation in the face of nuclear war. The question of the aftermath may lead to further inquiries, so what are the takeaways? How do we calculate the casualties of a Cold War? What are the roles of the people beyond the national level? Revisiting the Cold War gives historians the opportunity to test preconceptions of winning and losing, thereby tracing how deeper roots of the era feed global forces of diplomacy, ideology, and immigration. The “Revising the Cold War” discussion established that violence as a means of exercising power, also in the form of perceived threats, not only defined the era but shapes how we understand and live in our world today.
The videos of the first three panel discussions, as well as information about the next three panels for the spring semester of 2020, can be found here.