All posts by alexandrahenz

RBA Research Topic: U.S. Perceptions of Germany during the Cold War

My research topic revolves around U.S. perceptions of Germany during the Cold War, specifically the binary rationale that German realities were cast into. As I analyze the U.S.- German alliance as a primarily strategic relationship, I intend to show how this binary logic “watered down” the complex international relations between the U.S. and Germany to a “with us” or “against us” mindset, which resulted in ambiguous and conflicting policies towards Germany.

This is a visual outline of my ideas:


The Third Party in the Cold War’s Binary Logic: Analyzing American Perceptions of Germany

My research topic pertains to the American perception of Germany since the end of World War II: I will be analyzing the binary rationale used to make sense of German-American relations and to craft often ambiguous narratives of Germany. This is particularly relevant because these narratives have profoundly impacted U.S. domestic and foreign policy since the Cold War.

Numerous scholars have analyzed the role of U.S. foreign policy in increasing the divide between West and East Germany during the Cold War. American policies in West Germany and West Berlin served to contain the expansion of the Soviet Union and to provide a direct comparison between the ideals of the Western and the Eastern blocs. To do so,  U.S. policy had to economically and politically tie West Germany into the alliance against the Soviet Union. However, rallying support for the German cause was not easy during the Cold War, as Germany had been cast as the enemy in both World Wars. Therefore, the U.S. government humanized Germans by presenting the ideological battle in Europe as a continuation of what America had been fighting for. This led to the creation of often conflicting narratives of Germans – at times “heroes” and at times “enemies.” Through my research, I want to show how ambiguities in the primarily strategic relationship between the U.S. and Germany persisted throughout the Cold War, until today. Specifically, I will be looking at the attitudes pertaining to West Germany supported by the U.S. government. In addition, I will try to show that the German-American relationship is still very much confined to the binary rationale in which it was conceived and that this concept of either “with us” or “against us” has framed U.S. foreign policy over the past century.

STAR TREK: Cultural Critique in Science Fiction

In his “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series”, Nicholas Evan Sarnatakes reflects on the Original Series as a geopolitical discussion of Cold War events. Thus, he presents the show as a medium to critique U.S. foreign policy and to promote democracy, tolerance, and self-determination. For instance, the episode “Mirror, Mirror,” which aired on October 6, 1967, explores the themes of American moral superiority and responsibility.

In the episode, the Starship Enterprise requests to operate the mines on the planet Halkon. However, when the Halkonians refuse, the delegation from the Enterprise leaves (despite their military supremacy). A freak storm then transports the crew members to an alternate universe, in which they serve an “evil empire” (82) that promotes violence and force to achieve power. Once the heroes manage to return to their original situation, the Starship Enterprise leaves the orbit, respecting the Halkonians’ decision.

This episode serves as a powerful defense of democracy and self-determination. The premise of an alternate universe enables an apt juxtaposition of the values of the Federation, representing the U.S., and those of the “evil empire,” representing American geopolitical rivals like the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the episode goes beyond the binary rationale of the Cold War and creates a sense of responsibility for American moral superiority. Sarantakes points out that “the message […] is that a democratic country like the United States is […] better than its autocratic rival, the Soviet Union, and that U.S. foreign policy should reflect these merits” (83). Thus, U.S. foreign policy is held to a standard of American excellence: the show promotes an ethical, democratic, and anti-colonial approach to foreign policy.

The use of science fiction to convey these political messages is particularly apt, since it enabled the show’s producers touch on divisive issues without facing controversy or backlash. Further, the idea of using a narrative to commentate on geopolitical events is very effective, since the episodes’ storylines make it possible for producers and writers to ‘show’ rather than just ‘tell’. For instance, the embodiment of the Soviet Union through the Klingons gives American rivals a concrete face instead of just an abstract description. Therefore, the use of science fiction and fantasy writing often self-consciously serves as a cultural critique. Another such example is the Start Wars franchise, which heavily references World War II and the Nazi regime.


“Anxious Urbanism” in Cold War America”

In his “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War,” Matthew Farish defines the notion of “anxious urbanism.” According to him, urban decline and suburbanization in the Cold War-era were a consequence of the fear and panic caused by the risk of impending nuclear disaster. Thus, spatial containment served as means to neutralize both the threat and the fear of the atomic bomb.

In particular, Farish references the “suburban nuclear family” as the “locus of normality – and thus of the burgeoning civil defence programme.” He relates this to the processes of urban decline by stating that “the comforting base of the family was paralleled, at larger scales, by urban and national imaginaries.” Indeed, both the ideal of the nuclear family and that of the suburban household were associated with the notion of security: they were constructed as a ‘bastion’ to shut out the threats of the ‘Other’ and of the ‘city,’ two uncontainable and thus suspicious entities. Therefore, both ideals were considered as central to the American life, regardless of personal circumstance (Farish names them “universalizing constructions”). Their purpose was to contain and neutralize the fear of the possible nuclear threat through the illusion of safety and control.

This fear of impending threats, typical of the Cold War, has gained relevance in contemporary popular media. In many ways, the paranoia and panic produced by the imagery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Cold War is echoed by images of the falling Twin Towers today. While both evoke possible disaster scenarios, the imagery of the Twin Towers is arguably more powerful, since New York is a city central to the American identity. Thus, the narrative of the threat becomes more familiar and more relevant to other American cities.



Domestic Containment and “The Illusion of Unity”

In his book Containing Un-American Bodies, Lugo uses passages by other authors to examine conformism and unity during the Cold War: “the illusion of unity resulted from the official and unofficial repression of political belief, the pervasive fear among intellectuals and others of being accused of radical sympathies, [and] the ideological fervor that the rivalry with the Soviet Union produced” (Brinkley, 2001, p.72). This domestic containment of the population and its beliefs is what Chomsky named “population control”.

I find this quote to be very thought-provoking, as it reveals how limited civil liberties, paranoia, and the ideological battle against communism fostered apolitical, conformist behavior during the Cold War. Specifically, this behavior became associated with being ‘normal’ and ‘American’, thereby implicitly also defining what is ‘abnormal’ and ‘un-American’.  Americans were taught to identify and protect themselves from what is ‘un-American’ and suspicious. Thus, the very distinction between ‘American’ and ‘un-American’ reinforced the conditions that caused it, namely paranoia, censure, and fear. I find it interesting how these notions are intertwined and mutually reinforce each other, continuously pushing the population to conform to a more and more narrow definition of ‘normalness’.

Containment Culture in “A Beautiful Mind”

Since September 11th 2001, containment rhetoric has experienced a revival in American popular culture and entertainment. One such example is the biographical drama A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of American Nobel laureate John Nash and released on December 21st 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks. The depiction of Nash’s “paranoid schizophrenia” exemplifies the Cold War rhetoric’s theme of paranoia, a natural consequence of the nuclear threat, the ideological battle, and the secrecy of the era. I will focus this post on a specific scene, in which Nash is recruited to work for the U.S. Department of Defense by William Parcher. Link to the clip.

In the scene set in the Pentagon, Parcher assigns Nash the role of breaking Soviet codes hidden in newspapers and magazines, which are used to communicate to undercover agents. A radium diode used to indicate access codes is then implanted into Nash’s arm and the scene ends with Nash asking “So what am I now – a spy?”

This clip illustrates containment rhetoric, as its setting (the Pentagon) references the permanent militarism in Cold War America. The comment about Soviet agents (“New Freedom”) evokes the binary logic of the time and the overarching theme is that of paranoia, spying, and the impending nuclear threat. Nash’s task of decrypting messages implies that the enemies have infiltrated the country. The strength of the American ‘hard power’ is indicated by the use of advanced science and technology – in this case, the radium diode.


It is interesting to note that this scene goes beyond the foreign policy notion of ‘containing’ the Soviet spies, but also hints at domestic ramifications of the containment ideology. Only men, most of them in uniform and all of them white and middle class, are present. These traditional gender roles illustrate the notion of ‘male heroism’, implying that men where the ones working on, and ultimately winning, the war. Further, during the entire movie, Nash is constantly reminded that he is an outsider because of his ambition and his intellect (“You are […] the best natural codebreaker”). During the anticommunist hysteria, any deviations from the norm were considered dangerous. As an outsider, his work for the Pentagon gave Nash a sense of purpose, which is comparable to the increase in the levels of trust in the government during the 1960s and after 9/11.

A Beautiful Mind serves as an example of the recent reemergence of containment rhetoric, as it depicts the paranoia, the militarism, and the domestic ramifications of the Cold War through the lens of John Nash’s life.