The Cold War Reviewed



Matthew Farish . The Contours of America's Cold War . Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press , 2010 . xxvii + 351 pp. Notes, index. $75.00 (cloth), $25 (paper).

The significance of spatial considerations is central to this interesting book by Matthew Farish, assistant professor of geography at the University of Toronto. He focuses on the geographical underpinnings of the conduct of the Cold War by the Americans, including on how the human sciences were militarized under the logic of global threat. In accordance with the norms of modern academic geography, Farish argues that space was conceptualized in a politicized fashion and links this to a militarization of the social sciences. The crisis caused by the onset of a Cold War in which the American nuclear monopoly rapidly ended in 1949 was projected in intellectual argument and alignment, and Farish makes interesting relevant points about the nature of “containment” theory. As in the chapter on the militarization of geographical knowledge, there is a particularly useful account of how tendencies developed during the Second World War were continued into the postwar world. Military patronage of academic activities, such as mapmaking, attracts attention. From 1942 to 1945, the government employed two out of every five geographers who were members of the three national associations. This period was important to postwar patterns of activity as well, more obscurely, as to the connections and patronage that was (and is) so significant in academic life. There was also, as Farish shows, a significant shift in vocabulary. Regions were reconceptualized within a language of systems in which cybernetics, a word coined in 1947, played a major role. Man as machine had consequences in terms of the understanding of context, causes, and consequences. As Farish indicates, this process was linked to the rise of statistical advice, and there is considerable discussion of MIT, notably its continental defense research, as well as of the RAND Corporation, and computer-assisted analysis. The politicized nature of geographical discussion is ably brought out in the consideration of the protection of North America from the threat of Soviet attack.

The city as target for attack provides another geographical sphere for consideration, and this approach links geography, vulnerability, and psychology. Farish relates this issue to social politics, presenting the suburbs as a key area of concern and car-led dispersal as a means of flight to safety, with the poor of the inner city largely ignored.

The range of vision then shifts to consider outer space, which is presented as another aspect of the knowledge-linked militarization of the world. Farish concludes by accepting that, although the drive to map and classify the Earth, to maintain security, to turn regions into scientific laboratories, and to translate laboratory constructions into urban, continental, or global models were not uniquely Cold War phenomena, nevertheless it was only in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s that these factors all united under the banner of military militarization.

As with many other instances of this school of geography, there is a tendency to underplay other possible readings of the situation and, in particular, to focus on a dominant zeitgeist and discourse that does not place sufficient weight on such a pluralism. In emphasizing the role of geography, Farish notes the decline of the subject at Harvard. Its example was also followed by other prominent institutions, but the implications of this are not really brought out. Nor is there sufficient discussion of the postwar problems facing political geography as a subject, nor the criticism of environmental determinism in some quarters and the concomitant interest in possibilism.

Political division was also an issue. Farish briefly cites Strausz-Hupé, but does not have the space to point out that the latter's work was located in a divisive political context. Drawing on his view that the West faced fundamental problems due to philosophical and moral confusion and failure, Strausz-Hupé called for a more robust approach to containment and specifically argued that the Eisenhower administration was foolishly passive. His ally Henry Kissinger is neglected by Farish, even though the attempt to define goals and parameters that made sense of limited war was geographically significant. Farish's focus on the United States, while valuable and understandable, also leads to a tendency to deny agency and influence to others.

Nevertheless, his book has much to offer. It is a very good example of an important strand in geographical work and captures the extent to which the flux in international developments and weaponry in the 1940s and 1950s posed major problems. The imponderables of possible conflict meant that it was very unclear how to measure strength and capability and to plan action. Farish offers an important guide to a central series of linked responses that both reflected and confirmed key aspects of American strategic culture.