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Men Out of Focus: Scientists and the Cold War

Josh Sanborn

In the hopes of generating some more discussion, I thought I’d interject briefly as the facilitator of this conversation to follow up on a thread raised by Marko and our panelists in the hopes that they (and any of our readers) may want to respond.

Marko notes in his response to Erica that “the Cold War (much like WWII) does not define the story I tell.” I wonder a bit about this, as I saw a great deal in Men Out of Focus that spoke to Cold War historians. Perhaps this is just a question of emphasis. Historians can incorporate the Cold War without making it “define” one’s story, after all. A good reason to keep the Cold War at an analytical distance is that it proves to be a surprisingly slippery subject. With one faction of scholars insisting that we cannot simply subsume everything that happened between 1945-1991 under the Cold War, and another arguing equally cogently that the Cold War histories ought not to be limited to recitations of summit meetings and throw weights, it is difficult to say what exactly the “Cold War” actually was. One can see this lack of clarity as a weakness in the field, but I admit that I kind of like it, as it encourages all scholars of the period to think deeply about the intersection between Cold War and Postwar and, if the spirit moves, to make a claim about how their own work relates (or doesn’t) to these organizing concepts. For his part, Marko prefers to think of his work as lying at the intersection of post-Stalinist Soviet history and a European “long sixties,” since the “connection between masculinity and the superpower conflict . . . remained elusive.”

But I agree with Eliot, when he gently hints that the Cold War might usefully be brought in more fully, in particular by thinking about the Cold War not only as “conflict” but also as “convergence,” and it’s this observation that I’d like to pursue a bit more. Competition has, for obvious reasons, always taken pride of place in Cold War scholarship, but it has not escaped attention that there was a lot that the US and the USSR could (and did) agree with each other upon, especially the notion that they constituted a small, elite group of two states that deserved the moniker of “superpower.” More to the point in terms of Marko’s work (and cultural histories more broadly), the “enemy” relationship between the two was remarkably intimate. The Soviet Union was not the “Other” of the United States, and vice versa.

One way to distinguish between Cold War and Postwar is to ask which features of either conflict or convergence between the superpowers could be described as distinctively “Cold War” in nature. I focus in my work on Cold War epistemic formations in science and security, so I fully agree with Eliot’s suggestion that the scientific masculinities explored by Marko can (and should) be thought of in relation to the Cold War. (Erica’s book likewise has a chapter on scientists and another on cosmonauts). It is important that the science foregrounded in the movies described in Men Out of Focus (like Nine Days of a Year and Rainbow Formula) is generally one of the distinctive, big three Cold War sciences (nuclear, space, and cybernetics). I think this matters because (as Robert Corber also suggests) Marko’s exploration of the complexities of scientific masculinity is likely to resonate with scholars of masculinity far removed from the field of Soviet history precisely because of this Cold War connection. I’m not sure whether scientists are always anti-heroic in the sense that Marko describes (and Eliot expands upon), but they frequently position themselves as anti-martial. And, as Marko insists, these scientific protagonists (at least sometimes) feel a need for deep ethical engagement and for a sense of humility in relation to the natural world. The Soviet “scientific-technical” intelligentsia in the 1960s both participated in building a massive military-industrial complex and also eagerly engaged with books like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris. So did the American scientific-technical intelligentsia. I think Marko’s insights (along with Erica’s, in her book) help us understand how a “scientific” masculinity played an important role not only in the Soviet Union, but more widely too during the years of the Cold War.

To conclude, I wonder what Marko and the other panelists think about this relationship between three potentially distinct, but obviously overlapping structuring histories: 1) post-Stalinist Soviet history, 2) the history of Europe’s “long sixties” and 3) the Cold War. And if any readers wish to weigh in, please use the comment box below. I will try to get them out of comment purgatory as quickly as possible!

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

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