A Discussion of Farish’s Disaster and Decentralization

In his essay Disaster and Decentralization: American cities and the Cold War, Matthew Farish says “East River’s diverse and authoritative cast of ‘scientists, businessmen and educators’ … … detected precisely what was wrong with American Society, and what could thus doom (Western) civilization.” In sum, Farish’s paper discusses the mixing of science, social planning, and containment during the cold war era. This quote epitomizes the process through which these areas were all combined. The purpose of Project East River, as discussed in the paper, was to create a generalized report on the then current vulnerability of America to nuclear attack, and to provide some idea of how vulnerabilities might be dealt with. In assigning this task to a group of scientists, and businessmen the directors of the project represented the Cold War ideal of efficiency, and superiority over the Soviet Union. The report concluded, among other things, that “in order to keep pace with weapons development, it is essential to make urban targets less remunerative,” essentially reducing the American landscape itself to a weapon, one either to be employed by America itself, or its enemies, if nothing were to be done. This attitude is representative the ideas that larger idea that Farish espouses, i.e. that the de-urbanization of America during the era of Containment had as much to do with social change, as it did with the societal shift towards a cold and scientific view of all aspects of life, brought on by the unavoidable lens of nuclear war.

The American obsession with urban disaster sparked by the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and reinforced by the frequent reminders of what could happen to the great cities of America has persisted even beyond the end of the Cold War. It is interesting to consider the destruction of the twin towers during the September 11th attacks with this idea in mind. In the context of urban disaster, the fall of the towers represented, to many Americans, the realization of some of their most profound fears, in that an American city had been attacked, the skyline had been changed, the long predicted urban destruction had occurred. Of course, this destruction was not of the scale often imagined during the cold war, however it represented an opening of the door. With such a thing done, what might now happen in its wake? Thus the idea, and so the image of the falling towers carried much weight with the American people, as it played on a fear created over a period of decades during the Cold War, as well as the new fear of terrorism built up after 9/11, making it a quite a powerful image throughout America.

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