Jon Wiener: Remembering the Berlin Wall
This article is adapted from How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, published in October. Copyright ©2012 by the Regents of the University of California. It is excerpted here with the permission of the author, a professor of history at UC Irvine.
For Republicans today, Ronald Reagan provides the gold standard of political virtue. In their view, perhaps his greatest achievement was “winning” the cold war—the icon for which is the Berlin Wall. Pieces of the Wall are on display in a surprising number of American locations, from the low-down (a Las Vegas casino men’s room) to the more upscale (the Microsoft Art Collection in Redmond, Washington). More than forty places in the United States display sections of the Wall, according to Wikipedia . Taken together, these commemorations tell us something about how Reagan, and the cold war, are being remembered—and forgotten.
Of course the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, displays a segment of the Wall—a real one, donated by the founder of the fast food chain Carl’s Jr., plus a Hollywood-style mock-up, on which video is projected of the famous Reagan speech in which he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Until recently, the library had a life-size re-creation of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, where you could have your picture taken next to a mannequin of an East German border guard. But if you thought the other US exhibits would celebrate Reagan as the man who brought down the Wall, you would be wrong.
The displays across America present a stunningly wide range of attitudes toward the Wall. The “most fun” exhibit in the country, according to the guidebook Roadside America (which bills itself as “a caramel-coated-nutbag-full of odd and hilarious travel destinations”), is found at Main Street Station casino in Las Vegas. That’s the one in the men’s room, behind a row of four urinals. The guidebook title for that attraction: “Pee at the Berlin Wall.” This site was named “Las Vegas’ number two historic bathroom” by the Travel Channel in its “Las Vegas Top 10 Bathrooms” documentary. To get there, you leave the glitter and crowds on the strip and head downtown— and down-scale—to what is politely termed the “budget” area of the city’s tourist attractions....
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