In 1941, during World War II, German émigré sociologist Hans Speier wrote an essay in Social Research titled, “Magic Geography.” In this essay, he argues, “Maps are not confined to the representation of a given state of affairs. They can be drawn to symbolize changes, or as blueprints of the future. They may make certain traits and properties of the world they depict more intelligible — or may distort or deny them.” I discovered Speier’s essay in the old basement library at the New School for Social Research while doing research for Jaeho Kang, who was working on a project about propaganda during the 1940s. As a former mapmaker, I was immediately struck by Speier’s essay and its rational-leaning argument dancing under such a fanciful title. Beyond the title, I was captivated by the futurity of the maps Speier studied, how they mapped desire and fear, and how they were equally a cartography of the emotional landscape (of both the creators and users of the maps) as well as the physical one.

Timothy Barney’s Mapping the Cold War: Cartography and the Framing of America’s International Power does similar work, but his book hits us at a later date. Mapping the Cold War explores the, “magic geographies,” created by cartographers during the mad time of, “mutual assured destruction,” when so much was being distorted and denied (and during which Speier was working for the State Department’s Occupied Areas Division before moving on to the RAND corporation). Through Barney’s text, we see Cold War maps emerge as yet another weapon in the arsenals of the USSR and the USA. He shows how it was not only the maps, but also the talk they generated, the stories they told — what Barney calls the, “rhetorical life,” of maps — that were dangerous. Most of this cartographic chatter sought to divide the world into spaces of us versus them — spatial frameworks of antagonism made to appear natural with a cartographer’s sleight of hand.

Maps of the Cold War resemble propaganda maps of previous decades, but they are filled with new tropes and symbols: menacing arrows, anxious missiles, minuscule spies wearing fedoras and clutching briefcases, and, most surreally, the long tentacles of octopi — symbolizing the mystery and the reach of the enemy. As the description of these maps piles up, a new gallery of cartographic arts is available for the reader to study. Barney shows how, during World War II, US citizens were already being coached to read maps from a new perspective, and from the very hearth of the president! Before the fireside chat of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 23, 1942, his press secretary released a statement instructing Americans to get out their maps and globes as they listened to the president’s address. Barney describes how, armed with their cartographic representations, listeners heard the president instruct, “look at your map…This is a new kind of war. It is different from all other wars of the past, not only in its methods and weapons, but also in its geography.” (p. 26)

Following Michel de Certeau’s (p. 129) dictum in The Practice of Everyday Life, “what the map cuts up, the story cuts across,” Barney (p. 1) works to explore the, “cartographic conundrum,” of this time by taking us through the technological and ideological developments in mapping and some of the key and colorful mappers of this era. Mapping the Cold War shows how postwar cartographers extended the cartographic socialization that began with FDR. Throughout the book, Barney helpfully gives us several Virgils to lead us through the new hellish terrain of mapping the nuclear landscape: we are guided by Isaiah Bowman, FDR’s principal geographer; Richard Edes Harrison, an “accidental mapmaker, a substitute cartographer,” who developed maps with what he called the, “vulture’s view;” S.W. Boggs, a state department mapmaker and a, “gentleman geographer,” from the golden age of, “maps and chaps,” (1940s–1950s); and finally, my favorite, William “Wild Bill” Bunge, a radical cartographer and anti-nuclear activist for the Reagan era who created the amazingly strange Nuclear War Atlas.

If the aim of most cartography is to appear rational (regardless of the underlying ideologies) the goal of Bunge’s Nuclear War Atlas is to illustrate the irrational. Barney shows how Bunge takes the familiar tropes and themes of Cold War maps and flips or pushes them to extremes. In one of Bunge’s maps, we see a representation of, “New Chicago,” a post-apocalyptic city in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, populated by marauding and invading zombies as well as the blind, sick, dying, burnt, and insane, all living amidst wiggly lines of radiation. Another map works to collapse the divide between the US and the USSR in the production of the mongrel city Moscington. “In Moscington,” Barney (p. 205) writes, “the White House is down the street from the KGB, while the CIA and the Kurchatov Atomic Energy Institute follow each other on the Potomac River… The world in this map is reduced solely to state power; all else is left out.”

Bunge’s maps are intended to wake us up to the threat of nuclear war, but they are so extreme that they do the opposite; they can thrust us into a somnambulant state where we can imagine only a destroyed future filled with irradiated zombies. This danger is a radical version of what Boggs called, “cartohypnosis,” a condition where one becomes mesmerized by a map and thrust into a state of, “suggestibility.” (p. 46)  This is what Speier was trying to warn us about in 1941 and what Barney reiterates in 2015. Mapping the Cold War reminds us that, “maps are fundamentally insecure,” and that they are, “always mapping.” Though Barney’s examples are historical and do not lead us directly to the present, by showing us the role that maps played during the Cold War, we should be spurred to think more deeply about the cartographic in our current daily lives. What Mapping the Cold War illustrates most profoundly is that maps create not only representations of the places of our world, but also stories about those places and readers of those stories about places.


Timothy Barney. Mapping the Cold War: Cartography and the Framing of America’s International Power (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015)