New England Historical Association Recap

On Saturday morning, my father and I drove down to Salem Massachusetts to the New England Historical Association‘s spring conference, held at the Salem State College. Earlier this year, I had a paper accepted for presentation by the group, and it was time to present it.

The paper is entitled ‘The Military Roots of Manned Spaceflight and the Cold War‘, my master’s capstone paper that I graduated from Norwich University’s School of Graduate Studies with, and I was placed on a panel called Cold War Politics in the United States and Mexico, along with two women: Julia Sloan out of Cazenovia College with her paper: ‘Placating the Left by Vilifying the United States: Mexico’s Domestic Foreign Policy 1959-1979‘ and Matra Crilly from Simmons College with ‘Returning to Republican Motherhood: The DAR’s Postwar Strategy Against Communism‘, two excellent presentations that I learned a lot from over the course of each presentation.

My paper, as the title suggests, looks to the background developments in the military/political sphere that allowed for the proper conditions for manned spaceflight on the part of the United States and the Soviet Union. This largely starts from the Second World War, where rocket scientists found an ample supply of funding in Germany as Hitler worked towards building new weapons to use against the Allies. With the fall of Nazi Germany, rocket scientists defected or were captured by the United States and the Soviet Union, who in turn used them to create their own weapons. With the introduction of the nuclear bomb to the battlefield, missile and rocket technology proved to be a highly effective (after quite a bit of perfection) method for delivering them, and as such, each country began to build more and more missiles to counter the other. Ultimately, space became the ultimate high ground, and highly public programs that sent people into space were created, eventually leading to the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon. My presentation went well, I thought, and I was able to stay within my allotted time of twenty minutes. (There was a little prompting of time, with cards)

The following two presentations were pretty interesting. Julie Sloan spoke on Mexico during the Cold War, which I knew nothing about. Apparently, there was a move on the part of the government to use public perception to move against the United States, capitalizing on old grudges over lost territory and worries over American imperialism to stay in power. While the country never became a communist style government, it did support fellow Latin American countries during that time period, including Cuba.

Marta Crilly also spoke about Communism, in this instance, with the way the Daughters of the Revolution sought to move against communist agents and teachings within the United States in a very scary way: seeking to promote patriotism over learning, and shunning anything remotely ‘un-American’ in the post-World War II era. The group, of which members could join only by proving that they had a direct link to members of the Revolutionary army during the 1776 War for Independence. Discussion turned to some observations of similar other organizations within the United States throughout its history, combating immigration during the 18/19th centuries and to the modern day, with the current Tea Party movement.

Our Moderator, Avi Chomsky, noted at the beginning of our panel that this seemed to be a selection of papers that had been thrown together linked only by their connection to the Cold War, with three very different elements. In light of this, she worked to pose several questions to the three of us that would help us put our papers together at some basic elements: What was communism, what was the Cold War, how was Cold War Policy made and how did the Cold War impact Latin America?

The three of us tackled the first question, with help from the audience: for me (the first two questions were wrapped up here), Communism and the United States was not really a war of ideologies: it was a conflict of two governments, and as such, the Cold War was really about domination. Ideology in this instance was a force that was used to get the citizens of each country in line with shared interests to diametrically oppose the other. Marta joined in here noting that the perception of Communism was an extremely vague definition, as looked at through the eyes of the DAR: it was essentially anything that was considered un-American. Someone in the audience brought up the point that this is similar to rhetoric about the current administration being a socialist: the definition is perhaps deliberately vague, enough to get anyone very annoyed. Julia also noted that there were similarities taken in Mexico at the same time: America was seen through a certain lens at this point in time, fueled by a large number of old grudges, pushed to certain perceptions by policymakers.

Throughout the discussion, I’ve realized that I’ve never really looked at how Communism was looked at through the lens of the space race: certainly, there is an amount of irony with the United States using NASA, a publicly funded venture, as a symbol of American economic, technological and military might against Communism. Certainly, there was a number of the above perceptions about communism from the astronauts themselves, as well as a mix of motivations from the rocket makers themselves, looking more for scientific achievement over politics. Within this context, I think that even more so, the Cold War was less about ideology and more about two large nations looking for a larger influence in the world around them for their own benefit. In George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, he notes that nations will work towards their own interests, and at times, global chaos, rather than order, is far better for a nation, despite potentially stirring up national security concerns. In this is some truth: nations will act to preserve themselves. In the Cold War, the United States faced a massive and united foe: The Soviet Union. Their opposing ideology allowed for the nations to gather their people in a fairly united front, but at the end of the day, ideology really mattered little, just national concerns.

In the end, the conference was quite a bit of fun. I had spent several days reworking my presentation, pouring over books and sources to refresh myself, so having that aspect over with was a relief. I enjoyed sitting in on a couple of other papers and presentations, and enjoyed the historical discourse around me. With my presentation, I joined the New England Historical Association, and I suspect that I’ll be attending future conferences in the very near future. Many thanks to my father for both driving me down and attending my presentation, as well as Dr. Steven Sodergren from Norwich for sitting in and asking a couple of very good questions. Similar thanks goes out to my fellow panel mates, for their work and very interesting talks.