Cold War Deserves its Own Monument and Museum

We are enjoying–maybe even wallowing–in the increasing “peace dividends” from the ending of the Cold War. Yet few in the media or academia are reflecting on what caused the war or how the peace was achieved. In an age that synthesizes victimhood in many ways, it is curious how little attention is paid the hundreds of millions of genuine victims, those lives lost or blighted in what John F. Kennedy called the “long, twilight struggle” with communism. It is a didactic story that deserves to be told and remembered.
One way to do so would be through a Cold War museum, logically located in Washington, DC Perhaps there also should be a monument to the victims of communism, most appropriately located in democratic Moscow. Fortunately, the museum, anyway, already is more than an idea.

Given the significance of a half century’s struggle with Marxist-Leninism, and the lingering questions that surround the fates of communist regimes in Cuba, North Korea and even China, there is relatively little evidence in our history books and history channels that it ever happened. Compared to the continuing outpouring of scholarship and cultural artifacts associated with World War II, the Cold War would appear as an historic trifle.

One cannot cruise the television without encountering yet another documentary of World War II, “the good war.” But just as the failure of the peace following World War I led to World War II, the unresolved issues of World War II led almost immediately to the Cold War. And–here is the reason beyond history that a Cold War museum makes sense–if we do not properly process the lessons of the Cold War, the role of American leadership in creating a peaceful and prosperous 21st Century may never quite jell.

Happily, the Cold War did not become World War III. America, Europe and Japan managed to salve the wounds of World War II, grow their economies and undertake new advances in science, technology and culture, even while dwelling in the shadow of nuclear war. But in another sense the Cold War was both world-wide and “hot”. Starting perhaps with the murders of German prisoners and Cossacks in 1945, the civil war in Greece and the suffocation of freedom in Eastern Europe, the Soviets provoked almost unmeasurable human suffering.

The roll call of violence includes Korea and Vietnam, but also Afghanistan, Cambodia, a dozen civil wars and coups or coup-attempts in Africa and the Americas, the brutal suppression of revolutions in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and, collaterally, scores of millions of deaths in Maoist China.

Since the Berlin War came down in 1989, a long, hard period of healing has begun. But the Cold War’s legacy is still evident in the unnecessary starvation going on in North Korea and in the aftermath of communist rule in the Balkans. Much is made of the failure, even at this late date, of the Swiss and other countries to come to terms with the realities of World War II, but almost no nations have yet meditated fully and frankly on the damage done by the Cold War. For example, did the divisions in America caused by our role in the Sandanista/Contra civil war in Nicaragua simply go away? Or are there not some unresolved issues and feelings left over?

There undoubtedly are readers of this column, indeed, who are annoyed that such questions might even be raised. But the questions are there: What did we learn in the Cold War years about the aspirations of people in far away places like South Africa or Vietnam? To what extent was our interest in those places simply defensive? What have we learned about building long term democratic institutions and respecting other cultures? To what extent did multi-national institutions like the United Nations show their worth, and in what ways did they fail?

These are not just questions for scholars and diplomats, but for young students who know next to nothing of the events that shaped our times and, indeed, anyone else who wants to avoid the tragedies of ideological conflict in the century to come. The time for sighing with relief is over, and the task of evaluation should accelerate.

A bi-partisan “Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation” (Post Office Box 1997, Washington, DC 20013-1997) has been organized to create a museum to the Cold War. The foundation is private, but officially commissioned by Congress, with the support of President Clinton, and includes a cast of notable Republicans and Democrats, Americans and former freedom fighters from Eastern Europe, with several heads of state.

Some may think it unseemly for the victors in the Cold War to memorialize themselves in this way. The answer should be a careful fairness in the full assessment of what went on. We should not demonize all those who turned out, to their surprise, to be “on the wrong side of history.” After all, one reason the communist leadership in the USSR was willing to change was Ronald Reagan’s willingness to extend the olive branch to them. To draw the Cold War like some cartoon, with no shadings of light and dark (that ignored the McCarthy era in this country, for example) would weaken, rather than re-enforce, the overall moral power of the tale.

Regardless, on this 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, we need the whole truth told because we need to learn for the future.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.