Warm Feelings for a Cold War

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In her book “The Future of Nostalgia,” Svetlana Boym reminds readers that nostalgia was originally a medical condition. The word was coined by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in the late 17th century. He used it to describe a debilitating disease that plagued its victims with depression, obsessive thoughts of returning home, and hallucinations of scenes from their homeland and the voices of distant loved ones. Populations especially at risk of contracting nostalgia included displaced workers, students from foreign lands, and of particular concern, soldiers fighting abroad. Boym explains that “[i]t was unclear at first what was to be done with the afflicted soldiers who loved their motherland so much that they never wanted to leave it, or for that matter to die for it.”

Today, of course, nostalgia is no longer a battlefield illness. Instead, curiously, nostalgia manifests itself among many Americans as a longing for wartime.

Lately the Cold War has appeared in American mass media, looking—well, a little Kodachrome. Last year’s presidential campaigns struck more than a few observers as unsettlingly nostalgic for the good old days of the Red Menace. And this week the FX Network launches “The Americans,” a show set in the early 1980s about a pair of Soviet agents under cover as a married couple living in the suburbs of Washington D.C.

I’m writing these words before the premiere of “The Americans” so I can't comment on the actual content of the show, but for a show about spies and concealed violence lurking in suburban homes the promotional campaign has been remarkably wistful. The show’s Facebook page, for instance, invites audiences to recall and comment about their fondest pop culture memories from the 80s. 

Of all the ways a television show might evoke memories of living with the looming threat of World War III and nuclear annihilation, naming my favorite Cosby sweater isn’t the first to come to mind.

These sorts of appeals to audiences’ fond recollections of the 1980s call attention to just what it is about the present moment that makes so many people and institutions, from politicians to Hollywood studios, want to tell stories and call upon shared memories of the late Cold War. Just what is it about life in the here and now that makes the 1980s seem like a nice place to visit and tell new stories?

Of course, nostalgia for the Cold War is no simple thing, and it would be a mistake to try to explain every instance of it with a single, simple motive or function. Certainly at least one effect of this proliferation of stories and imagery and figures set in the Cold War is that they provide us with convenient means of talking about some of the thorny issues of the ongoing present from the relative safety of the recent past. But that’s true of most stories that are told in the present about people and events set in different times.  Downton Abbey provides viewers a chance to explore class conflict without the risks that come with debating class politics in the present day. Clearly there’s something more specific going on with nostalgic gestures to the Cold War in particular.

For instance, it’s important to keep in mind that television and movie studios today aren’t fabricating a longing for 80s-style imaginations of war from thin air. The popular culture of the Cold War was ready-made for nostalgia. I know plenty of people my age who talk about watching Top Gun and Red Dawn in their youth with the same sort of sentimentality you’d usually associate with feel-good holiday movies like Home Alone. And why shouldn’t they? After all, if you substitute the security of a suburban Chicago house for the national security of the United States, Home Alone and Red Dawn are essentially the same coming-of-age story: Isolated youth defends home from invaders.

These sorts of stories that we consumed during the Cold War really did link personal growth and character development to nothing less important than the survival of the nation and the fate of the world. Think of how something as intimate and personal as the way parents love their children turns out to make the crucial difference between peace and nuclear holocaust in the movie War Games and Sting’s song, The Russians. The Soviet submarine captain in the Hunt for Red October decides to defect to the United States not because of his political disagreement with the Soviet state, but ultimately because of the death of his wife. Some of the most iconic stories about the Cold War produced in the 1980s weren’t about international conflict itself so much as they were about international conflict as a stage or a metaphor for the strains on people and relationships to which audiences could relate their own lives.

Reviewing “The Americans” for the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley remarks that “[i]n the age of ‘Homeland’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ it’s a little hard to recall how powerful the cold war mind-set was, and how imminent the possibility of a nuclear first strike seemed in those days.” Stanley’s claim here seems to be that thanks to “The Americans” we can remember that Americans were terrified well before we declared War on Terror. It was news to me that we ever forgot, but perhaps we acquired this amnesia for the Cold War the same way we acquired nostalgia for it.

It’s tempting, then, to think that stories like “The Americans” nostalgically appeal to memories of 1980s in order to criticize the America of 2013: To remind viewers that we — The Americans — used to be more personally invested in patriotic national defense; to recall that we once thought about defending the nation the way that we thought about defending ourselves and our families; to assert that we once knew who we were relative to an identifiable enemy, even if “they look like us” as a character in “The Americans” warns in the show’s trailer. (As opposed to those other enemies that don’t “look like us” Americans. Wink wink.)

But that vision of a more unified and patriotic America is itself largely a product of the stories made in the 1980s that only used the Cold War as a flat backdrop for other stories. When we try to talk about the present in the nostalgic terms of a Cold War against a national enemy, we must recognize that even during the Cold War often we weren’t actually talking about the Cold War when we talked about the Cold War. Think back to “Top Gun” and try to remember: Were the enemies flying MiGs Russians? Cubans? East Germans? The movie never actually identifies “the enemy,” because the international conflict doesn’t in any way influence the story. All that mattered was that the enemy was the kind of enemy who flew MiGs. And more importantly, “we” were the kind of people who could recognize the enemy as the enemy.

Nostalgia isn’t just a longing to return home, it’s about obsessing in the present on the idea that you used to be at home. But those fond memories of who “we” used to be in the Cold War in popular culture weren’t any more accurate or reliable self-reflections than our fictions about ourselves are today, Homeland and 24 included.