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Under the Mushroom Cloud

The Cold War has become this year’s hot media topic. Taylor Downing welcomes the chance to look more critically at the era of ‘mutually assured destruction’.

What do the following have in common: Tom Hanks’ latest film; the winner of the 2007 Regional Visitor Attraction of the Year Award; a Channel 4 programme broadcast earlier this year; and the V&A autumn exhibition? All of them popularize and explore the Cold War. Nearly twenty years after the Wall came down and the Iron Curtain went up, the Cold War has become fashionable.

Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman is perhaps the most remarkable manifestation of this trend. It is a political comedy about arming the mujahedeen  in Afghanistan in the 1980s. A Texan congressman, spurred on by a seductive Houston socialite and a loud-mouthed CIA agent, raises tens of millions of US tax dollars to shoot down Soviet helicopters by arming the radical Islamists who oppose the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The film ignores the consequences of this policy – that American dollars helped arm the very people who later, in the Taliban and al-Qaeda, became its enemies. But the film has proved popular and has enabled audiences to laugh, even if rather improbably, at a very Cold War story – for both sides supported their enemy’s enemy at key points in the half-century of confrontation.

The National Cold War Exhibition at the RAF Museum in Cosford, Shropshire, has been an extraordinary success story since it opened eighteen months ago. It has won ten awards, and more than 400,000 visitors have passed through. It concentrates on Cold War aviation technology and features the aircraft, missiles and artefacts of the RAF’s ‘V-Force’ that was the core of Britain’s nuclear deterrent until the Navy’s nuclear submarines took on the mantle. The exhibits are superbly displayed and the website and outreach programme are admirable in offering a substantial Cold War archive closely linked to the requirements of the National Curriculum.

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