November 9th marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a momentous event that signified the end of the Cold War. I was a sophomore in college when the wall fell. Today’s sophomores in college were not yet born. I sometimes forget that a whole generation has now grown up in the United States with essentially no personal memory of the Cold War. What they know of that forty-year geopolitical conflict they have learned in history class, or heard from parents and grandparents, or taken from popular culture.
When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, the Cold War was a prominent backdrop to my life. It was a continual presence in my pre-teen and teen imagination and in the broader culture of the time. I worried about nuclear holocaust. I was freaked out by the television movie The Day After. The Soviet boxer Ivan Drago intimidated me in Rocky IV. The opening scene in Red Dawn, in which invading Russians and Cubans parachute into a schoolyard and open fire on teachers and students, really unnerved me. I ardently agreed with Sting when he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children, too.” I wrote poems and songs about atomic war, radioactive fallout, and post-apocalyptic nuclear mutants. I was actually very concerned about the mutants and what I would do about them if I survived an atomic attack.
I wonder what the Cold War means today for Americans who did not grow up with it. Our political discourse is rife with Cold War references, even if they are sometimes (okay, oftentimes) incorrectly used: President Obama is a communist, or a socialist, or a Manchurian candidate; health care reform will bring back gulags or make the U.S. like Cuba; communist symbols can supposedly be found on prominent Manhattan buildings (or so claimed Glenn Beck, telling FOX news viewers he found images of a hammer and sickle in Rockefeller Center). Contemporary American culture is similarly throwing us back to the Cold War era: take for example the TV show Mad Men, the newest Indiana Jones movie, the documentary Virtual JFK (which imagines what might have happened in Vietnam if Kennedy had lived), and the recently published book The Hawk and the Dove, a dual biography of Paul Nitze and George Kennan. There’s even a popular indie rock band from Fullerton called Cold War Kids. And in 2010, Hollywood will release a remake of Red Dawn; in this version, teenagers will fight an invading force of Chinese and Russian soldiers.
So for the post-Cold War generation, that historical era lives on in partisan political name-calling and in popular culture. Still, it’s strange for me to think that the Cold War is already becoming the stuff of popular memory. For me, it will always be linked inextricably to my childhood, and especially to my childhood fears about how the world might end. My college students today tell me that they don’t even worry about nuclear war. Instead, they fear the world will end as a result of global warming or an infectious disease outbreak. Or some believe that it won’t end at all. Perhaps that’s progress.