Kenneth A. Osgood, 35
Associate Professor of History, Director, Alan B. Larkin Symposium on the American Presidency,
Florida Atlantic University
I know why Stanley Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove a comedy. Sometimes it is just plain difficult to take the Cold War seriously. Having spent the past ten years studying Cold War propaganda, I have embarrassed myself in more than one archive by disturbing the silence with unexpected bursts of laughter.
There was, for example, the time I found a civil defense poster giving Americans straightforward advice for protecting themselves from a nuclear attack:"Don't be there!" And then there was the national security investigation into the birthplace of"Ham," the chimpanzee sent into outer space as part of the U.S. effort to catch up with the Soviet Union's lead in the space race. The classified memorandum confirmed that, yes indeed, Ham was an American-born monkey. And then there were the ideas for demonstrating American scientific prowess. Why not drop a hydrogen bomb into a typhoon to reverse its direction? Maybe dig a harbor in Alaska by exploding a thermonuclear device? Or perhaps use a rocket - i.e. a ballistic missile - to deliver the mail?
And of course there was Atoms for Peace, the program designed to make Americans less fearful of the atomic bomb by highlighting all the wonderful benefits of atomic energy. Inspired by Atoms for Peace propaganda, National Geographic comforted its readers with the knowledge that golf balls had been made radioactive so they could be more easily located when lost in the rough. And dogs benefited from atomic energy's healing power too, the magazine revealed in a caption of a photograph of a boy holding his puppy as it received radiation therapy for a cancerous tumor. Perhaps, I thought as I kept encountering references to dogs in the course of my research, I should write my next book on the"Canine Cold War."
But I'm not a satirist. I'm a historian. My task and my challenge is to take all this seriously - to understand, to explain, and to find meaning in a world that sometimes seems very different from the one I am living in now. In this endeavor I am reminded of a personal experience that was both unsettling and inspiring. I was a junior at Notre Dame looking into graduate programs in history. I arranged a meeting with Otis Graham, the eminent political historian who was then teaching at U.C. Santa Barbara. I think I expected him to be so dazzled by my brilliance that he would accept me into the program on the spot and shower me with cash. Instead he told me not even to apply to graduate school - or at least not yet.
He said I should follow"Graham's Rule." He explained that historians write about life, and that to be good historians we needed to be grounded in the real world; we needed to have many rich and varied experiences."So take a year off," he advised me."See the world, do the kind of things you can only do now, while you are young. And then, when you are ready, go to graduate school."
At first I was crushed. This was not the advice I expected. But an hour later I was inspired, and I soon was spending my time following Graham's rule. I worked as a chef at a ski resort and a golf club in Utah; I spent six months studying Russian in Monterey, California and St. Petersburg, Russia; I worked as an intern at the State Department in Washington, D.C., and I drove my pickup truck from California, to Florida, to Maine, to Alaska, and back. A year and a half later, I started graduate school at U.C. Santa Barbara.
I learned Graham was right. These experiences made me a better historian. They changed the way I view and interpret my study of the past. Conversely, so too has my study of history changed the way I look at the world. Even the seemingly narrow subject of my research -- the Cold War's propaganda battles -- offers broader lessons and bigger insights. It clarifies the way humans communicate and interact -- the way they represent themselves, the way they spin unpleasantness, the way they deceive others, and the way they are willingly deceived by others. It is also a subject that became strangely relevant after September 11th, 2001 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Will today's Stanley Kubrick make a film about the war on terror? Will it be as much of a cultural landmark as Strangelove was? And will it be a comedy, a tragedy, or a little of both? I know enough to know that only time will tell.
By Kenneth A. Osgood
About Kenneth A. Osgood
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