- Historic Sites
Visiting The Cold War Today
From Berlin to Washington to Area 51, landmarks of the era are opening up to tourists.
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
Berlin, on a Cold War day only George Smiley could love: John Le Carré’s hero would recognize the chill rain of this false spring. But the Kurf’fcrstendamm remains thick with tourists. Berlin’s revived status as a political and cultural capital may be the main lure for these visitors, but seeing the places most associated with the Cold War is a big draw too. Americans want to see the monument to the Berlin airlift, the markers commemorating the former Soviet military headquarters, and, of course, the Wall itself.
Not far from where Ronald Reagan stood and called on Gorbachev to tear down the Wall, two rooms in the outbuildings of the Brandenburg Gate stand open to the public. The one to the north, called the Room of Silence, is a place for remembrance of pain and loss. Close by are souvenir stores that sell postcards bearing bits of “genuine” Wall. Such are the two aspects of Cold War tourism.
Between the Gate and the Reichstag stands a line of crosses decorated with flowers honoring those who lost their lives attempting to cross the Wall. Near that is one of many posters—in English—advertising an exhibition titled The Story of Berlin , which plays up the Cold War years and includes a trip into a re-created fallout shelter.
These days there are more and more visitors to the monuments of the Cold War. Tours are full at the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, home of the Cheyenne Mountain Operation Center, and the public affairs department schedules walking tours of the site. The Department of Energy schedules bus tours of the Nevada Test Sites. A Titan II silo near the Green Valley in western Arizona is a popular tourist stop. And local buffs in communities all over the country are calling attention to Nike missile sites that spent decades cheek by jowl with quiet beaches, suburban developments, and shopping malls.
It is fashionable at the war colleges today to speak of postmodern war, a brand-new concept. But if World War II was the ultimate modern war, the Cold War was the first postmodern one, built on symbol, allusion, detection, and concealment. Even its front lines were largely symbolic. Still, it did have one real front line: Berlin, and specifically the Wall.
Like the ancient walls of the Roman Empire, the one in Berlin survives only in fragments. Its most famous point, Checkpoint Charlie, which on October 26, 1961, witnessed a famous confrontation between tanks, is marked today by the House on Checkpoint Charlie Museum, home to a grab bag of strange devices and artifacts from attempted escapes: a boat, a balloon, a BMW Isetta, a tiny threewheeled car that the East German guards wrongly assumed was too small to hide a man.
A more sober consideration is made nearby by about 300 feet of Wall in the area of Bernauerstrasse. This is where the Wall came closest to the domestic buildings in the East, and many escape attempts occurred there. A portion of the Wall has been rebuilt, complete with the “death strip” between its parallel heights of concrete and barbed wire. A documentation center, with photographs and personal accounts, opened there in November 1999, on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall.
In the last Cold War years, as the authority behind the Wall was crumbling, a whole school of art with a flip, cartoony style grew up on its Bernauerstrasse stretch. Its bestknown practitioner was the muralist Thierry Noir. Some of those images are now preserved, barely, at the East Side Gallery on Muhlenstrasse, on the east bank of the Spree.
To see the famed guardhouse at Checkpoint Charlie, you must take the subway to the Allied Museum near the U.S. Embassy complex, in southwest Berlin. That museum gathers artifacts from the decades of the Allied occupation along with its own piece of the Wall, a cargo plane from the airlift, and a guard tower. It also has part of the lining of the tunnel that the CIA dug in 1960 to penetrate the east to tap phone lines. The day I visited, a special exhibition was up of items relating to Francis Gary Powers and the U-2 incident of that year.
The display had been put together by Francis Gary Powers, Jr., from the collection he is assembling for his planned Cold War Museum. A few weeks later I stood with Powers in front of a crumpled chunk of the U-2 his father had flown. We were in the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland outside Washington, around the corner from the National Security Agency, the famed “puzzle palace” dedicated to breaking codes and eavesdropping. After attending an international conference on the Cold War in 1995, Powers conceived the idea of creating a Cold War Museum in Washington to honor his father and all Cold War veterans. He envisions its including a U-2, a section of the Berlin Wall, a KHIl spy satellite, a fallout shelter, and other artifacts.