Rediscovering the Cold War

On a cold, bright November morning in 1995, a British film crew pans the streets of Fulton, Mo. Little has changed in the last 50 years.

But shreds of archival information recently unearthed for CNN’s “Cold War” documentary series paint a much different, colorless picture of Fulton in March of 1946.

That month, President Harry S Truman accompanied former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Fulton’s Westminster College.

There, Churchill declared that an “Iron Curtain” had descended in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, signifying a division of ideologies that would shape the history of the second half of the twentieth century.

To retell the story of the Cold War is to relate the history of the modern world, a history that unfolded on fronts from the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan, and spilled over into the battlefields of popular culture and the marketplace, where ultimately, victory was ours.

The question of how to blend the momentous events from the past 50 years into a comprehensive documentary and deliver it into the living rooms of the world is the story behind the making of CNN’s landmark documentary.

The 24-part series, which debuted Sunday and will run in one-hour segments through April, is set to re-examine the defining struggle of our times.

The 50-person effort spanned three years and required shooting more than 1,000 hours of original footage and screening 1,500 hours of additional reference material. Many of the images, gathered from more than 500 interviews in 31 countries, never have been seen by an international audience, according to the “Cold War” home page (http://cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war).

With its $15 million budget, the project is the most ambitious undertaking in CNN’s 18-year history, and several members of the GW community helped make it possible.

GW adjunct professor Christian Ostermann is the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project, which has been a key source of documents for CNN’s production team.

Ostermann, who took over as director in 1994 from GW diplomatic affairs Professor Jim Hershberg, teaches History 182, a U.S. history course that focuses on foreign relations since 1900.

Ostermann’s Cold War project proved to be a valuable source of important documents from former East Bloc countries, China and the Soviet Union.

The National Security Archive, housed in Gelman Library, provided access to American documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Its director, Tom Branton appeared as a guest on CNN’s follow-up program Sunday night which looked closely at U.S.-Soviet relations during and immediately after World War II.

The documentary is the brainchild of CNN head Ted Turner, who wanted to produce an international perspective of a conflict typically seen as a rivalry between two superpowers.

And in Turner’s world, it’s not just the victors who get to write the history books. In “Cold War,” both sides are represented; both sides are winners and both sides are losers.

In choosing a team of largely British filmmakers headed by veteran documentary maker Jeremy Isaacs – reknowned for his 1973 series on World War II entitled “The World at War” – Turner avoids the America-centric spin.

For his part, Isaacs has assembled a team of award-winning documentarians, historians and writers who bring the fear, uncertainty and mistrust of the Cold War to life.

The narrator is British actor Kenneth Branagh.

The three main historical consultants were chosen to provide a varied perspective: John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University, Vladislav Zubok, a fellow at GW’s National Security Archive, and Lawrence Freedman, a British historian.

“We have what it feels like to live in Berlin and have potatoes flown in (during the Berlin airlift) and what it feels like to oppose tanks in Prague,” Isaacs said. “I’ve tried to show the impact on people of the decisions imposed on them by their leaders.”

Isaacs said the documentary is short on analysis and long on anecdote.

“It’s big on the human incident that brings large political matters clearly home to us,” he said.

Included among the historic interviews conducted for the series are excerpts from former President George Bush, Cuban President Fidel Castro and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

Former President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were unable to give interviews but appear in the archive footage in several segments.

“But it is the `ordinary people’ interviewed who ensure that `Cold War’ never loses its connection with the millions who survived it,” said series producer Martin Smith.

“(We talk to) soldiers in Afghanistan, factory workers in Germany, peasants in Greece, anti-war protesters in the United States, Gulag prisoners in Siberia, a nurse in Korea, and a farmer in Cuba,” Smith said.

GW students were among the first people to screen the documentary when Ostermann showed several segments to his History 182 class last spring.

Part of Ostermann’s involvement was education outreach through CNN subsidiary Turner Learning. By compiling a curriculum for educators based on the documentary, Ostermann said he hopes to help future generations of professors teach about the Cold War.

The documentary is intended not only to rekindle memories of one generation, but to educate a generation too young to remember “duck and cover” drills and the arms race.

“I’m concerned that my grandchildren will read about the Cold War in a history book and it will just be a paragraph, without conveying what the 45-year struggle was all about,” Turner told The Washington Post.

“Many of the documents we uncovered behind the former Iron Curtain turned out to be useful material to the producers,” Ostermann said.

For example, CWP obtained notes taken by the secretary of the Soviet Politburo during the height of the October 1956 Hungarian uprising, Ostermann said.

“We now know for the first time that the Soviets were almost ready to pull out of Hungary,” Ostermann said. “In fact, it was at the last moment when they decided to go in and suppress the rebellion.

“Cryptic, meaningful notes like these let you become a fly on the wall to history, and often we find that they dramatically alter the interpretation of history,” he said.

“In another instance, we came across a never-before-published diary of the aide to Warsaw Pact Supreme Commander Victor Kulikov. This aide, General Anoshkin, recorded information about a discussion between the Communist military and Polish Premier W. Jaruzelski in December 1981,” Ostermann said.

Until now, it was widely believed that Jaruzelski was forced to declare martial law to put down the Solidarity labor movement because he feared the Soviets would invade, Ostermann said.

“In fact, it now appears that, based on the journal entry, the Polish President was actually counting on military support to suppress Solidarity,” Ostermann said.

In addition to the 24 segments, CNN will launch an interactive Web site that will offer expanded versions of the interviews in text, audio and video, as well as a multimedia database of historic photos and speeches.

Two companion sites to CNN’s page also will provide in-depth documentation for events covered in the series. Both the CWP site and GW’s own NSA site will have extensive documentation that goes beyond what is covered in the series.

“I think it’s spectacular,” Ostermann said. “The footage they’ve obtained is just amazing.”

“In one of the early segments, you’ll see a homemade video of Churchill’s `Iron Curtain’ speech.”

It’s 1946 in Fulton, Mo. There at the podium is Churchill, puffing on his cigar. The Iron Curtain is about to descend. The `Cold War’ is on.

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