Sunday, March 15, 2009

How Cold War Propaganda Lives On

I've just returned from an all-too-short road trip in the southwest. One of our stops was Las Vegas. Though we were there only briefly, we were able to visit the Atomic Testing Museum near the campus of UNLV.

From the 1950s through the 80s, the heart of the Cold War, a site a few miles outside the city of Las Vegas was used for atmospheric nuclear weapons testing (meaning, above-ground, radiation could drift and kill you with the slightest shift of wind). Civilian spectators as nearby as 7 miles would watch the blasts and subsequent mushroom clouds and it became quite a tourist draw.

The history of the nuclear testing site has always been fascinating to me, especially because of the voyeuristic aspect of the story. Tourists watching with awe and amazement as weapons that they knew had caused unbelievable pain and destruction are detonated. I'd hoped for some perspective on that craziness and maybe the overall madness of the Cold War era and the arms race.

But as has happened at historical museums time and time again, I was struck by how very propagandistic the narrative at this museum was. One placard justified the arms race by stressing that this wasn't an aggressive thing the U.S. was doing by openly testing nuclear arms by the hundreds, that this was defensive posturing--after all, the Soviets were "set on forcing Totalitarian Communism on the entire world." The exhibit included a pretty positive take on McCarthyism. And in a video presentation with interviews from the dedicated workers who ran the test site, one gentleman told the audience with tears in his eyes that it was entirely upsetting to him that in the 1970s, when fears of radiation and an anti-war movement created vocal protestors at the site, "people didn't understand that my work at the site was done to protect the very rights they were using by protesting." In what way did nuclear weapons testing protect anyone's free speech?!

In another video on how important knowing the history of the testing is today, one scientist who had worked at the site mentioned that he would be afraid to live in a world where people weren't regularly reminded that the U.S. still has the power of a nuclear strike. "I think it's important that people see what nuclear weapons are capable of and remember that they have something to fear. It scares me that this history is being pushed aside in a world where we face so many threats." Are we still a nation that wants to use nuclear attacks as a threat?!

It isn't just that people who go to this museum are being subjected to Cold War-like propaganda, but that the style of thinking of the museum is so persistent in our contemporary war/peace dialogues. The unchallenged narratives of the Cold War have justified our wars in the middle east. That somehow pre-emptive violence or the threat of preemptive violence makes us safer instead of making us a target...That doing anything associated with formal "national security" is in the spirit of protecting Americans' freedoms. This thinking still persists all around us, in our museums, and unfortunately, in our text books and our public dialogues.

In better news, I was able to buy this awesome tin of "Commie Mints" at the museum's gift store. And in true Commie fashion, I made sure to distribute the mints fairly to my whole party :)

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