Can you briefly describe your book project?
Mapping the Cold War traces the development of new perspectives of America’s international power during the Cold War through the lens of maps. Cartography during the Cold War, more than ever, became an archetypal practice of American foreign policymakers, the press, academics, and everyday citizens as they tried to make spatial sense out of an ideologically split global landscape. I became interested in how such spatial ideologies of containment and liberation, Second Worlds and Third Worlds, and others, were articulated through new projections, scales, borders, shapes, colors, and graphics.
What initially drew you to this topic?
I’ve been, let’s just say, a map “nerd” for about as long as I can remember. Atlases were my favorite books as a kid. But I didn’t realize I could really study these favorite things of mine until much later. It was in grad school at the University of Maryland, where I was studying rhetoric—often traditional speeches and other verbal forms of communication—that I became enamored with our field’s relatively new study of the visual image. Soon after, I was writing about maps as persuasive and dynamic political texts, something that was not really part of our field (rhetoric and communication studies) at that point, and I was off and running. Of course, I found quickly that plenty of amazing scholars had already built this interdisciplinary body of work on mapping and political cultures, and after a few self-pitying days of depression over the rhetorical power of maps NOT being my own brilliantly original idea, I was hooked by wanting to look at a lot of great maps and see what they were up to. And in terms of the Cold War part, I am old enough to have grown up during its tail end, but young enough that there is still a substantially mysterious aspect to it that pulled me in—that nagging question of “how could this have happened and what sustained it for so long?” I have enough distance from it that such a question seems natural and worthy to me.
How did you develop your archive for this project?
Maps are ultimately a tricky but fun set of texts to study. Seemingly, they are inanimate objects that are usually buried in archives and other reports, books, magazines, newspapers, etc. as supplements and informational add-ons to other, more traditional, evidence and texts. In other words, they aren’t typically the stars of the show, so they just kind of sit there—and it’s up to the researcher to dig and bring forward these “afterthoughts.” But that is part of why I came to find them so important. Maps’ very ubiquity during the Cold War revealed cultural texts that were so ingrained in the political and military waging of the Cold War that they were taken for granted. Policymakers would use maps to make important decisions in the direction of the Cold War, public officials would use them to teach geography to American citizens so that these citizens could participate in or consent to iterations of this war, and experts would use maps to conceive of newly strategic parts of the world—conceptions that impacted large swathes of the global population in both beneficial and dangerous ways. I wasn’t always that lucky to find the stories behind some of the best maps, but I was surprised by just how cartographic the Cold War really was—just the sheer volume of maps produced, and then how much talk about mapping went on both behind-the-scenes and in the public arena through the U.S. Government, think tanks, professional organizations, magazines etc.
I essentially started one rainy day at the Library of Congress, where I simply asked for their folder called “U.S./World Relations, 1945-1969,” a collection which is uncatalogued and is a mish-mash of American Cold War-era maps. Just the diversity and provocative statements in this one (large) folder made me think, if I can make these maps themselves the main story, I may have something on my hands. I didn’t realize, of course, how deep I would have to go. The Library of Congress’ Map Division provided a home base, but I would have to venture out, for example, to the Dept. of State Geographer’s Department archives through NARA, the American Geographical Society’s archives in Milwaukee, and in pursuit of the propaganda maps produced by, of all places, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The more maps I looked at, and the more I saw the geopolitical conceptions of the world associated with these maps activated into actual practice, the more I realized that these maps weren’t just reflecting Cold War realities, they were shaping those realities and had an undeniably active role.
What was the strangest or most interesting thing you found in the archives?
I think that researchers live for those tidbits of weird and interesting things that are at the bottom of folders and archival boxes. Perhaps one of the most interesting things was when two of my seemingly separate archival hunts collided together unexpectedly. I had written extensively about this AFL map of the Soviet gulags that involved collaboration with the State Department and the CIA, and spread all over the world in all kinds of strange ways. The letters I found in the AFL archives requesting copies of the map to be sent to citizens to help fight communism in schools and the workplace were particularly compelling. But perhaps most interesting was when I went to write another chapter about the use of medical geography in mapping the so-called “Third World.” One map in the American Geographical Society’s Atlas of Disease profiled starvation in the early 1950s, and I was struck by a rash of pink dots all over the Eurasian heartland indicated nutritional and starvation issues. When looking at the folder on the production of that map, I found that the researchers had been in contact with the AFL leaders and used their Gulag mapping to plot areas of starvation. Those pink dots corresponded almost exactly with the purported Gulag camps. Such connections between a scientific organization studying disease and pestilence and an international propaganda effort by a labor union federation reminded me that mapping during the Cold War infiltrated all kinds of different geopolitical spaces and brought strange bedfellows together.
What surprised you while writing this book?
Perhaps the most surprising thing when writing was just how active maps and mapping were during this era. I really came to see that these maps led interesting lives, if that makes sense. If you see a map as being dynamic, changing, and almost living, then you’re able to trace it from its origin point, to its first appearance, say in Life magazine, to its use in a Congressional report, to its re-appropriation later by an armed forces group, then on to its challenge by a protest group—well, then you have a map with an eventful life. Now, not all maps can be traced in such a way, but the point is that shifting our focus to see their adaptations and re-appropriations gives a different spin on the Cold War. The Gulag maps and Atlas of Disease projects mentioned above are good examples of this “rhetorical life” idea, but another one is this fascinating debate that takes place at Oxford in 1984 between Reagan’s Secretary of Defense and the socialist British historian E.P. Thompson over the use of nuclear weapons. Thompson indicts Weinberger over the kind of propaganda cartography the Defense Department uses, and brings out some U.S. and Soviet defense maps as debate exhibits. The anecdote is interesting, but it becomes better when you delve into the defense pamphlets themselves, the use of the pamphlet maps in the debate, the coverage by international media outlets of both the debate and the pamphlets, and then the response by radical cartographers to the kind of defense mapping that Weinberger oversees. Add to that the fact that Weinberger’s assistant is Colin Powell, who talks briefly about the debate in his autobiography, shortly before he uses visual evidence himself (photographs and maps) in one of the most memorable and fateful testimonies around weaponry (in Iraq) in modern history. These maps, in other words, have a longer life than I originally thought, but it’s not just the physical maps—it’s also the idea of geopolitical mapping and cartographic ways of seeing that become part of the “life” of maps, and that surprised and compelled me.
Do you think that studies of modern mapmaking could be a new way to look at more traditional histories/studies of space?
Of course, I am biased in this, but yes, I think so and I hope so. That’s the idea of doing a book like this, as I’d like to enter it into a compelling body of scholarship that takes historical maps seriously. They are beautiful and graphically powerful and there is a certain novelty, for example, to seeing a Soviet octopus on a map, but beyond that novelty, maps tell us a lot about our political culture and the ways we see the world. To visualize and to employ any kind of selective perspective, be it through mapping or other visual media, is to exercise power. And maps go in and out through public and private spaces during an era like the Cold War, giving them a fluidity that can be productive for scholars to appreciate. I hope we will see more studies that integrate the study of visual texts more seamlessly into so-called traditional histories (I can think of a few great examples already), so that the visual studies are not seen as separate or novel, but more as an integral part of studying history.
Have you received any pushback from scholars? Has there been resistance to the idea of maps as a form of visual rhetoric?
I haven’t received any pushback exactly—I think the challenge is more around simply answering, with clarity, the all-important “so what” question. Rightfully, scholars and readers want to know why we should care about some maps that sit in the middle of, say, a Congressional report. Who cares? Aren’t they just visual filler that distract from more important and reliable ways of studying history? That’s a good challenge, though. The very fact that so many maps were placed into the everyday spaces of the Cold War routinizes them and makes them easy to take for granted. So I think it’s not pushback, but it’s more that I am challenged to make sure I am making the case that maps are important, because it’s not necessarily self-evident to someone who hasn’t had their head in a map archive for five years.