Cold Hard Facts
Two years ago I had the privilege of hooding the first PhD in History ever conferred by North Dakota State University. This to say, in accordance with quaint academic tradition, the graduate dean and I draped a doctoral hood around the neck of the author of first PhD dissertation in History ever completed at NDSU, which I had signed as supervisor. This came on the heels of a deliberate decision a few years earlier to establish a PhD program in History where there never had been one before.
So, what the heck do we need PhDs in History for, anyway? Well, people around the university have their own sort of logic, but in my mind, the reason was always perfectly clear: we need more history. PhD programs in History attract bright people to focus their undivided attention on our history and produce new insights–I mean, that’s a requirement of the degree, to produce new knowledge. Of course, anyone can do history, of a sort, and much fine history is written by people without advanced degrees–may it ever be so. Still, the injunction that the writers of dissertations in History produce new knowledge is an incomparable engine for the generation of insights into our collective memory.
So who was this pioneering scholar? His name is Dave Mills, and his fine dissertation is entitled, “Cold War in a Cold Land: Fighting Communism on the Northern Plains.” The Cold War had profound effects on North Dakota and its region, especially in the building of the defense establishment. Most importantly, though, Dave’s dissertation compels us to face the hard evidence and think differently about this era of our regional history.
As a baby boomer myself, I speak for my generation when I say, we’d really like someone to feel sorry for us, the most privileged generation in the history of the world. Surely we suffered somehow, didn’t we? Oh yes, of course, we were traumatized, irreparably damaged and forever haunted by the specter of Soviet nuclear attack.
Except, there is the matter of evidence, and evidence of any such trauma is lacking. Oh yes, we tell one another these stories about Cold War trauma, but the stories came later. Good historians look for primary evidence contemporary to the events being studied. That evidence of Cold War trauma, it turns out, does not exist.
What we do have is evidence, heaps of it, that North Dakotans adjusted pretty well to the crises of the Cold War and, on the other hand, pursued its opportunities assiduously. The defense industry was life support for the regional economy during its worst times.
There is, too, a more fundamental lesson to be learned from this first dissertation in History. It has to do with agency and initiative in a land where, too often, we hold fatalistic views and decline to take our future into our own hands. During the Cold War, while North Dakota limped along, other western states prospered spectacularly. What made the difference in relative fortunes among the western states? In matters of economic development, research & technology were to the twentieth century what railroads had been to the nineteenth century. There were some western states who either had research universities or, in response to Cold War imperatives, rapidly developed them. And there were some states, such as North Dakota and South Dakota, who declined to do so, but instead sat on their hands and watched while the other states prospered. Those other states got the contracts, they built the infrastructure, they enjoyed industrial growth, they made a future for their children, instead of waving farewell to them and crying about it.
This, historical experience teaches us, is what happens. Some people, some states, take action to realize their aspirations, and others watch.