September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
“The Cold War is over,” said Paul Tsongas, campaigning for the Presidency in 1992. “Japan won.”
Well, maybe. It takes a long time to sort out a war; Americans are still debating what the Civil War was actually about, and we’re not entirely sure how World War I could even have happened.
Only World War II seems free of ambiguity, and it’s perhaps not surprising that we made a far greater national fuss over the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy landings than we did in August of 1995: D-Day ended with the liberation of Europe and the closing of the Nazi death factories; the thunderclap that finished things for good rolled forward into our own time, continues to vibrate over the present, and perhaps will keep on doing so forever.
But this awful weapon’s slumber seemed most fitful during the wearing decades between Hiroshima and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A struggle so immense, one that drafted so many, many millions, and whose American casualties included the Rosenbergs and the men of the 1st Air Cavalry Division killed in the Ia Drang Valley, is of course beyond even the most rudimentary coverage in a quartet of magazine articles. But I nevertheless think the stories here have something useful to say about the Cold War.
First of all, it was a war. Captain Mentyukov in Sergei Khrushchev’s fascinating behind-the-Iron Curtain account of the U-2 incident certainly understood that when he was ordered to take off in his street clothes (no time to suit up) and ram the American intruder.
And it had its ludicrous aspects. There is grim comedy—far beyond the mysteriously revered slapstick of Dr. Strangelove —to be found in the guardians of freedom managing to drop an A-bomb on a South Carolina family, and the disgraceful way in which the Air Force behaved thereafter.
It was a world war, as Phil Patton’s survey of its sites suggests. (And Americans didn’t forget how to talk like Americans during it: One of the surviving missile silos still bears the legend “Worldwide delivery in thirty minutes or less, or your next one is free.”)
There’s another thing. When, as they will, English departments start offering courses in “Cold War literature,” they will surely include Thomas Mallon’s lovely novel Aurora 7 , for the space program was as integral a part of this war as the Manhattan Project was of an earlier one, and Mallon perfectly re-creates, on the most intimate level, the America that nourished it. Returning, as it were, to this almost limitless battlefield for American Heritage , Mallon went down to the Greenbrier, the great West Virginia resort that houses the once-secret facility meant to receive a Congress that believed the missiles were coming in and hoped to carry on despite them. It’s pure Strangelove stuff to a degree; but in his researches Mallon found a scrap of old government minutes in which President Eisenhower says how things should be handled once the missiles hit.
Despite the telegraphic distillation, Eisenhower’s words seem as moving to me as those of the Gettysburg Address. And if they don’t shed much light on whether or not Japan was the ultimate beneficiary of the Cold War, they sure make it clear that we were on the right side.