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Cold War

In a piece called “Mind Games: Remembering Brainwashing” from today’s New York Times, Tim Wiener points to one of the more irresponsible uses of historical documents that I have seen this summer. Apparently “American military and intelligence officers” (he is not more specific) decided in 2002 to examine Cold War CIA studies of Chinese interrogation methods during the Korean War. After all, these Communists were the supposed masters who fed the kinds of fears that later gave rise to a movie like “The Manchurian Candidate.” In one major study the officers found examples of what are now often called “harsh interrogation techniques” when the more negatively valued term “torture” is being deliberately avoided. “They reprinted a 1957 chart describing death threats, degradation, sleep deprivation—and worse—inflicted by Chinese captors. And they made it part of a new handbook for interrogators at Guantánamo.”

The provenance of these techniques might give pause, but here’s the real bombshell:

The irony is that the original author of that chart, Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who had distilled interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists’ techniques mainly served to “extort false confessions.” And they were the same methods that “inquisitors had employed for centuries.” They had done nothing that “was not common practice to police and intelligence interrogators of other times and nations.”

This story reminds me of the student who hurriedly pulls a bunch of quotes from a book without actually reading or studying the book as a whole, let alone thinking about its historical context. The student then slaps the material together in a paper that might confirm his own beliefs, but whose conclusions bear no tangible relationship to the source that he supposedly read and analyzed. Is that what happened here? Or was the document perhaps too complex for them? Perhaps they needed to invest in some historians who were not afraid to dig through this kind of thing in an honest manner, no matter what conclusions the documents might suggest.

Almost anyone who has lived in Germany over the past sixty years will find the following video very strange indeed. It appeared in the early days of the occupation, when the Cold War was still only on the horizon and a strict anti-fraternization policy made sense to the U.S. military leadership.

By the way, if you are a Dr. Suess fan, listen to the language. I’ve read many of his stories to my son, and I can hear the hand he had in this film.

If that film appears ridiculous, here is a piece of wartime propaganda from Walt Disney to put it into context.

By the way, Dr. Suess also addressed the question of war and peace in a famous children’s book from the Cold War, The Butter Battle Book, in which one side ate its bread butter side up, and the other butter side down. This led to mistrust, the erection of a wall, and an arms race.

The Cold War Museum does not yet have a permanent home, but you can visit it on the web. While I welcome this resource, I am disappointed that it focuses almost exclusively on the military side of this conflict. What about the Cold War’s broader impact on culture, politics, and the economy?

I suppose the museum’s current focus cannot be helped, given its close relationship with the Cold War Veterans Association, with which it issues a quarterly electronic newsletter. This association seeks recognition for the service of Cold War veterans and promotes the memory of what was in no small part their achievement. Still, veterans would do well to remember the strong connections between military and civilian life. U.S. armed forces did not simply protect the homeland. The Cold War was fought on the homefront too. And what about the relationship between the American homefront and U.S. military forces deployed around the world?

I hope the museum also finds more room for critical analysis than the website currently evinces. While I understand the need for celebration, the Cold War Museum and the Cold War Veterans Association need to ask tougher questions, especially with regard to the Cold War’s impact on the current state of our military and its relationship with civilian society. This is more than simply an academic question. Do not the men and women that our country places in harm’s way deserve honest scholarship that can help the military to become an even more effective instrument of war and peace?

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