Farish, Matthew 2010 The Contours of America’s Cold War, reviewed by Neil Smith
Matthew Farish, The contours of America’s cold war, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2010, 356 pages, $75 cloth, $25 paper, ISBN 9780816648429, 9780816648436
The geography of the Cold War is widely seen as a quite polarized affair between a capitalist and socialist world, and despite its simplicity this cliché has some merit: even if by the early 1950s a certain recoil from the Cold War, whether at the behest of United Nations global liberalism or socialist and anti-colonial revulsion, recognized a Third World complicating the us/them lexicon of newspaper headlines, the cliché nonetheless captures a very real bifurcation of global geographies. There was much more to Cold War spatiality than this bipartite cartography of course, but compared to the worlds that both preceded and succeeded it, this simplification captures something very real. Cold War geographies birthed and nursed their own intricate conundra. So how was the dichotomous spatial complexity of that time and place – especially place – organized into existence?
At least from the US side of things, that is the question that Matt Farish’s book seeks to answer. Central to his focus is the social nexus of geography and militarism, and crucial to that is an effort to understand the relationship between geography as made and geography as conceived. The central dilemma, although Farish might put it slightly differently, is this: even in the midst of making complicated global and local geographies, American capitalism bred a certain contempt for the geographical imagination, effecting a lost intellectual geography even as it created its own impoverished Cold War geography in popular American imaginations.
Farish is a superb guide through many of the machinations – military, diplomatic, mundane – of this constructed geography. This book is a compilation of essays across an impressive range of fields, some covering relatively familiar terrain, some not, but his amalgam makes this a very useful resource and contribution. It significantly advances the collective attempt to reclaim the history of geography as integral to the geography of history. The book’s organization is broadly scalar, offering a detailed series of vignettes of US geopolitical engineering in the two decades after US declaration of war in 1941. He begins with “global views” and while it remains preponderantly global throughout, subsequent chapters address the militarization of geographical intelligence along regional lines with the rise of area studies, the Cold War sculpting of social science toward strategic ends, the manufacturing of North Americaas a cybernetic continental defense platform, and the discursive cum practical orchestration of an atomic urbanism. This is a work from the archival depths, whether its author is unearthing dusty documents and histories abandoned to library shelves since the 1940s and 1950s or else drawing on original reports from often competing and overlapping boards, committees, panels and councils, emanating from theUS government, foundations, and universities. This account effectively tracks the extensive movement between the organized miasma of strategic research and planning in the early Cold War period and popular representations thereof, albeit with the emphasis decidedly on the strategizing, and with the traffic one-way more than reciprocal.
There is a lot of personal detail here in the form of authorship and ideas and yet strangely not enough. The racism of US imperialism – more narrowly, inter-imperialist rivalry among Euro-American powers – is well acknowledged and there is a rather defensive hat-tipping to the masculinism of the implicative politics, but that sensitivity is more rarely leveraged into a pursuit of explanation. Why did “America” draw the contours of the Cold War as it did? Nationalism defines this story, even in its negation, and of class there is not a whiff. That European capitalist classes, not to mention ruling classes on other continents, were actively engaged receives no attention (Canadian arctic accession notwithstanding), and corporate complicity in making the Cold War – pro, con, and bilateral – goes unremarked. Who were these captains of state and industry, these Dr. Strangeloves of Cold war geopolitics: who did they go home to at night, and in whose interests did they pursue the profits, economic as well as political?
This book’s strength is what might be called archival-forensic. It provides an extraordinary tunneling into the geopolitical events as they unfold, but it also shorts the audience on the larger social meaning of the geography of the Cold War. Why and how was a geographical sensibility “lost” in public while in private there was such a maelstrom over the making of global landscapes? Farish meticulously records the considerable complicity of geographers especially in the early phases of Cold War construction, and is laconic about the damage caused by German geopolitics, but does not really analyze the struggle of these geographers to have their concerns, however misguided and even pusillanimous, taken seriously. Geographers carried their lost (or evaporating) geographies with them into the Cold War only to see them jackbooted by realpolitik. They were simultaneously more pathetic and yet more powerfully involved than Farish’s lament allows. The reluctance to take on a more expansive view of capitalism, class and ideology in the making of the Cold War – the close, often neutral, and strangely distanced even uncritical attention to geographical discourse notwithstanding – looms large here. The importance of geographical knowledge to the making of global imperial ambition was utterly transformed by 1945, compared with 1919, a shift grasped however incompletely by various geographers caught up in the moment yet not well appreciated today, and only in this context can the new militarism of the Cold War – its regressive as well as novel contours – be fully appreciated.
For aficionados of the Cold War unfamiliar with its geographical making this book is indispensible. For geographers, historians, and political scientists interested in the Cold War it will be revealing in different ways. Imaginatively illustrated, its mapping of the military/cultural “contours ofAmerica’s Cold War” invites engagement with the contemporaneous class struggle and anti-colonial movements, to name but two social struggles that were also centrally involved in making Cold War geographies. These and other conflicts can also be captured with the same abstract bilateralism as postwar military confrontation but like Cold War militarism, and they too quickly open up into a fascinating tale of how Cold War geographies were made. As a simultaneously historical and contemporary project – the end of the Cold War did not herald the end of US imperialism, but rather an efflorescence that blew itself out with the 2007 onset of economic crisis – we are still recuperating the lost geography that marked the rise of US imperialism, and Farish’s book can help us connect the various different facets of that story.
Neil Smith, Program in Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Av, NY NY 10016, USA