- Environmental Histories of the Cold War
In his 2004 Bernath Lecture, Kurk Dorsey chastised historians for not paying enough attention to relationships between nature and foreign relations, despite a similar call made by Mark Lytle in 1996.1 Dorsey argued, "Our current environmental crises and recent environmental diplomacy have deep historical roots that we need to take more seriously."2 Dorsey proposed reexamining the Cold War for the influence of environmental factors, which he hoped would contextualize and help correct contemporary environmental challenges. The thirteen chapters in Environmental Histories of the Cold War, a collection of essays edited by J. R. McNeill and Corinna R. Unger, take his suggestion [End Page 231] seriously and reflect, in a global perspective, the evolving relationship between environmental history and Cold War history.
Environmental Histories of the Cold War highlights how the Cold War—a political, military, sociocultural, and economic battle across the globe—occurred within, was shaped by, and significantly sculpted the natural environment. McNeill and Unger's introduction explains how most conventional reckoning "still does not acknowledge that the Cold War was fought on Earth in the biosphere with repercussions that will last for perhaps a hundred thousand years" (p. 3). They also suggest several themes for research related to the Cold War environment— many addressed in this book, others left to the work of future scholars. These themes include the environmental effects of proxy wars; the Cold War connections to agricultural changes, like the green revolution; the impact of military bases, massive infrastructure projects, and military-industrial complexes; the mobilization of science to control various environments; scientific experts and environmentalism; environmental diplomacy; and, of course, the hundred-thousand-year legacies of nuclear weaponry.
McNeill and Unger's coedited collection operates at the intersections of environmental, diplomatic, and world history, as well as the histories of science and technology. While the book is not a major contribution to the above-mentioned fields, its synthesis of these fields marks it as important and useful to understanding and teaching the intertwined histories of the Cold War and the environment. The book's essays emerged from a spring 2007 conference held at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., an institution that supports scholarly cooperation among U.S. and German historians and emphasizes the international roles played by these nations. The essays selected for the book move beyond this narrow focus. Instead, they mirror the recent historiography of Cold War studies by collectively presenting connections between the Cold War and the natural environment as a global phenomenon. The selected chapters examine issues in China, the former Soviet Union, India, Europe, North America, Oceania, and Southeast Asia. Environmental Histories of the Cold War also expands on works by environmental historians who have recently noted warfare's central role in human-nature interactions.
One challenge of using the environment as an interpretive lens to examine the Cold War is separating environmental changes that happened during the Cold War from those caused directly by the Cold War. McNeill and Unger's introduction occasionally overstates itself, arguing, for instance, that "it is hard to find much of significance in environmental history during the Cold War that did not have some [End Page 232] direct or indirect connection to the Cold War." Or, that "almost everything that happened during the years from 1945 to 1989 bore some connection to the Cold War" (p. 18). Nonetheless, the volume's thirteen essays all examine intriguing topics with well-argued, inventive, and often surprising examples of direct Cold War-environment connections, while still acknowledging the deeper physical and ideological roots of their topics.
McNeill and Unger divide the essays into three broad categories: science and planning, geopolitics and the environment, and environmentalism. Like natural environments, however, many chapters transcend these boundaries and explore aspects of more than one category. For example, Kristine Harper and Ronald Doel inquire into U.S. president Lyndon Johnson's attempted use of scientific weather control as a geopolitical tool against...