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.
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.
The piece of the Wall in the men’s room is about four feet high and six feet long. You’re not really supposed to urinate on the Wall, but in the standard urinals attached to it. Above the Wall and the row of urinals is a plaque reading “Gentlemen: The Berlin Wall…over 100 people were killed trying to escape to freedom.” The plaque does not mention Reagan. The hotel says that women who want to see the Wall can ask a security guard to make sure the coast is clear. The Wall there is featured at the website Urinal.net, “the best place to piss away your time on the internet.”
At the other end of the spectrum of cultural capital, Microsoft displays a segment of the Wall in the conference center at its Redmond campus, outside Seattle. It’s part of the Microsoft Art Collection, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. The anniversary book features its Wall section—but not for its cold war geopolitical significance. And the book does not mention Reagan in its guide to the Wall exhibition.
Microsoft’s segment of the Wall, like all the others, is covered with graffiti. The exhibition guide opens with the question “Is this Art?”and points out that many people “customarily think of graffiti as little more than urban vandalism.” But Microsoft wants viewers to know that “the Wall attracted artists—unknown and well-known…whose efforts ranged from scribbled words to complex compositions.” This particular chunk contains “a richly colored, energetic and tightly composed abstraction—a collage of urban graphic gestures.” So it belongs in an art collection.