Penny M. Von Eschen is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Studies and Professor of History at the University of Virginia. In her new book, Paradoxes of Nostalgia, Von Eschen offers a sweeping examination of the cold war’s afterlife and the lingering shadows it casts over geopolitics, journalism, and popular culture.
Your introduction discusses the many ramifications of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on American domestic politics, from the rise of family-values conservatism in the 1990s to the War on Terror to Trump’s appropriation of alt-right nationalism a few years ago. What do you think it was about the American experience of the cold war that created such a lasting impact on American society?
Cold war ideology and practices encouraged an American identity structured around an enemy and a deep sense of an existential threat to the American way of life. With the disappearance of the Soviet bogeyman, prominent politicians set about the construction of new enemies at home and abroad. Looking outward, academics, policymakers, and popular culture (think of Tom Clancy and Hollywood) turned to a clash of civilizations frame where Muslim peoples in particular were seen as constituting a threat to the “West.”
Looking inward, with declining standards of living for the middle class and accelerating inequality in the global economy, many Americans began turning on each other. The conservative rhetoric of “family values” had long been a staple of the New Right but escalated dramatically in the early 1990s. Now that the US government (really New Deal/Great Society liberalism) was no longer held as a superior model to the Soviet state, government itself became the enemy, pitted against the family in the minds of Pat Buchanan and leaders of the Christian right. Since the late 1940s, cold war attacks against “godless communism” mobilized an anti-communist consensus premised on the idea that the US was a Christian nation. Those key conservative tenets of the Reagan era, the Christian right and antigovernment ideology, accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The roots of a later convergence between American and Russian conservatives can be seen in the early nineties. With the Soviet enemy gone, “family values” conservatives scapegoated Black Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, and discredited government as protecting the lives and livelihoods of these undeserving groups. Rebooting the cold war notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, anti-government Americans found new, if unexpected cultural bedfellows from right wing Russians.
And critically, the lasting impact of the cold war on American society lies in the decisions made—and the roads not taken—in the years surrounding the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Widespread calls for political openness, a serious reckoning with the cold war past and proposed reforms to address the social, economic, and environmental costs of cold war policies were largely ignored. Instead, US foreign policy was defined by the projection of unipolar military force and a doubling down on the extractive and ecologically destructive industries that had sustained cold war militarism.
The cold war is commonly understood to be a conflict between American capitalism and Russian communism. Does this obscure the nature of the conflict and its aftermath? What other forces affected the development of the post-cold war world order?
Indeed, that view distorts both the conflict and its aftermath, and in both cases conflates democracy and capitalism in a way that doesn’t hold up under serious scrutiny. Capitalism, the pursuit of profit, entailed control of global resources that was inherently undemocratic, leading to US overt and covert interventions in countries where the US access to resources was at stake. In terms of the conflict itself, the Reagan administration had justified its support of brutal right-wing dictatorships in Latin America, Asia, and Africa—one example of many is General Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile—arguing that supporting right–wing authoritarian governments was acceptable as long as they were anticommunist. Policymakers justified such anti-democratic policies by claiming that such dictatorships could be reformed from within, whereas left “totalitarian” governments could not.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, US policy makers began to justify interventions into sovereign nations in the name of “democracy.” But triumphalism’s conflation of capitalism and democracy helped justify radical deregulation of industry and banking, leading to the outsized influence of money in politics and severely undermining democratic institutions. There had been a genuinely utopian aspect to the cold war, with each side promoting universal values and claiming that its system could bring prosperity and happiness to its citizens and the world. After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, instead of viewing government as responsible for protecting the well-being of society, US state policies shifted to deregulation, privatization, and increased incarceration. As economic inequality increased, these shifts led to disinvestment in public infrastructure, underfunded public education, and media consolidation, making daily newspapers and independent media a vanishing resource. In the United States, politicians and journalists saw voter suppression as compatible with the idea of free elections. Economic inequality on a global scale set the stage for anti-democratic resentment in the United States and a global turn to the right. Cold war triumphalism fueled the hubris of American exceptionalism, free trade, and catastrophic wars in the Middle East. Before and after 9/11, anti-immigration policies fueled a politics of blame and xenophobia, distracting many Americans from examining the forces undergirding economic inequality.
You write that the vision of the cold war was and is constantly contested, both by prominent political figures but also by the public. How has one particular vision of this past come to be solidified?
The past is always being rewritten for the aims and perceived needs of the present, so in that sense, the history of the cold war has never solidified; but two dominant threads have profoundly shaped US politics. First, conservatives in the early 1990s declared that with global communism defeated, the “real cold war” has only begun. This time, the targets in what increasingly came to be viewed as a Manichean struggle, were government social programs, and in the right’s “culture wars,” all who did not fit the mold of a white, heteronormative Christian nation.
The afterlife of the cold war has shaped foreign policy, as well. Cold war triumphalist narratives—the idea that the United States “won” the cold war through military might, have shaped justifications for war from the earliest post-cold war interventions in Panama and Iraq, through the war on terror, and even to this day in Ukraine. Above all, this idea of US “victory” though military strength has elevated military responses over diplomatic solutions. This is starkly illustrated in responses to Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. The western response has shifted from the immediate goal of defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion—a strategy where diplomacy could and should have been the centerpiece—to an expansion of war aims approaching the totalizing logic of the cold war.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to bring this discussion out of the realm of memory. How do you see nostalgia for the cold war affecting responses to the invasion?
The war in Ukraine is very much a contest over memory. Putin seeks to mobilize an invented and mythologized history harkening back to sixteenth century Tsarist Russia. He sees Ukraine as an integral part of Russia. Putin rewrites history, asserting a Russian, not a Soviet past. In his view, the Soviet Union betrayed Russia’s legitimate imperial claims by giving too much autonomy to Ukraine and other regions. Needless to say, his self-serving view of the past is perverse and contradictory. Putin attempts to court African countries and the global south more broadly, by claiming the legacy of past Soviet support of anti-colonial and independence movements. At the same time, he rejects the egalitarian values that these movements stood for.
It seems like, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tensions between Russia and NATO have been rising over the past decade. What was your experience like in writing this book during these developments?
The experience? Ongoing distress. It was claims about NATO expansion along with the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that prompted my investigations into triumphalism and nostalgia. Like the justifications for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for the expansion of NATO relied on distortions of history; both exemplify the dangers of US triumphalism. At every juncture during the expansion of NATO, diplomatic alternatives were available. When George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev declared the end of the cold war in 1989, Gorbachev, like US Secretary of State James Baker, believed that there had been a clear understanding that NATO, viewed by both sides as a cold war creation, would not expand, and certainly not to Russia’s borders.
The expansion of NATO epitomizes the rejection of a vision of a multipolar demilitarized world in favor of the assertion of US unipolar power. Another path not taken was a burgeoning environmentalism. Instead, US policymakers doubled down on support for fossil fuel industries. In the very same week Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall, the US denounced a global climate agreement by attacking climate scientists. As US policymakers pursued control of oil reserves in the former Soviet sphere, they sought to weaken the United Nations and other multi-national organizations. Indeed, NATO expansion and undermining the UN constituted the two foreign policy pillars of the Republican Party’s Contract With America in 1994. In the victor’s history version of the cold war, diplomacy was suspect by definition, portrayed as appeasement and weakness, leaving militarism as the only solution to conflict.
In 2014, when tensions over Ukraine led to the collapse of the Obama administration’s 2009 reset with Russia, Jack Matlock Jr., the last US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, drew an analogy between the active American role in organizing street protests in Kiev, and the hypothetical prospect of foreigners leading Occupy Wall Street movements. His point was that American policy, in expanding NATO and placing military bases near its borders, had needlessly provoked potential retaliation from Russia. None of this, of course, justifies Putin’s brutal invasion of a sovereign country. But if the United States is to have any constructive role in ending rather than expanding the conflict, it would have to begin with an honest account of its post-1989 role in the region. In addition to the tragedy for the people of Ukraine and Russia, the war highlights the utter failure of the post-cold war global order to wean itself off oil, and the failure to create strong multilateral institutions that could meaningfully address global climate, health and inequality.
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