The Cold War Museum at Vint Hill Farms

The objectives of the Cold War Museum of Vint Hall fall into two categories: educational and commemorative. It pursues these goals by hosting conferences exploring key aspects of the Cold War confrontations and maintaining an exhibit of artifacts and memorabilia of this period.

By Stephen R. Bowers l September 22, 2014

The end of the Cold War in 1991, an event often heralded as an ideological victory for anti-communists and conservatives, brought about numerous calls for the creation of official landmarks, museums, and monuments as commemoration of this juncture in not only U.S. history, but global history as well. From Berlin to California, independent groups and various governmental entities designated sites to enable present and future generations to remember the events that for almost half a century shaped the nature of global conflicts.  In the former East Germany, one entrepreneurial individual even purchased a small village that he intended to operate as a replica of the oppressive East Germany, complete with hostile “border” guards and a hotel-restaurant combination featuring bad service and poor food reminiscent of the old GDR. This resort was intended to enable parents to show their children what life had been like in the “workers and peasant state.”  After all, memories are often kind and in the years since 1991, many of the former communist party nations have experienced a rise of nostalgia for the certainty that came with life in a regimented state.

However, unlike the end of World War II, the end of the Cold War brought dissatisfaction to some segments of Western society. Perhaps they too considered this event as a victory for the anti-communists and the conservatives who supported such figures as President Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, whose book Witness was a literary tribute to the rejection of communism. Consequently, political controversy surrounded some of the Cold War sites and even the National Park Service fell into the resultant arguments.

For others, the end of the Cold War was an opportunity to study that historic period by arranging occasional conferences and displaying artifacts that tell the story of the decades after World War II. The Cold War Museum at Vint Hill, Virginia is committed to these goals and has not been suffocated by such political controversies.  The museum is located in buildings on the former Vint Hill Farms Station that was a signals intelligence facility for the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the U.S. Army during the Cold War.

The idea for creation of this museum was a series of conversations in 1994 between two graduate students at George Mason University.  Gary Powers, whose academic specialty was Cold War history, wanted to create a memorial for his father, Francis Gary Powers, the U2 pilot shot down over the USSR in 1960. Powers and fellow graduate student John Welch, whose specialty was non-profit organizations, initially set out to create what would have been the Francis Gary Powers Museum and Institute for Study of the Cold War. As the son of a World War II veteran, John shared Powers’ belief in the necessity to preserve the historical legacy of this period.

By the time the museum opened its doors in November, 2011 Powers and Welch were joined by others who currently volunteer their time to maintain the museum. The Cold War Museum does not receive funding from any governmental agency but relies on the efforts of the volunteers who are responsible for its existence. There is a board consisting of prominent and respected specialists, many of whom are retired military, who support the museum’s work. In addition, there is an honorary board that boasts the services of Dr. Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev, as well as David Eisenhower, grandson of President Eisenhower.  John Deperro, an aerial reconnaissance specialist who is not a board member, plays an important role and Jason Hall, a George Mason University professor, serves as executive director. John P. Feldmann, a veteran of the USS Liberty who missed the accidental attack on the vessel during the 1967 Six Day War, lives near Vint Hill and is a regular contributor to the work of the museum. Gary Powers, Jr., while no longer serving as director of the Museum, lives in the Richmond area and is still active in its programs.

While Powers and Welch originally focused on the U2 incident, they soon realized that though this was a dramatic chapter in Cold War history, it was not the entire story.  The work of the California Cold War museum, an Air Force project, impressed Powers and Welch because it was an important early step toward providing a broader context of the Cold War environment but they believed that more could be done.

The objectives of the Cold War Museum of Vint Hall fall into two categories: educational and commemorative. It pursues these goals by hosting conferences exploring key aspects of the Cold War confrontations and maintaining an exhibit of artifacts and memorabilia of this period.  On 13 April 2013, the Museum joined with the Initiative for Russian Culture, when it sponsored an event entitled “The Strength in Dialogue in Russian-American Relations.”  Hosted at American University, the Cold War Symposium commemorated the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 commencement speech at AU. While various participants in the Cold War dramas of the 1960s participated in the conference, one of the most notable participants was Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Soviet premier, a first-hand witness to the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontations, and now a U.S. citizen. The museum publishes an internet bulletin, The Cold War Times, which shares information about its activities and other events of interest to Cold War scholars and veterans. It also maintains a blog offering notices of important events hosted by the museum or in cooperation with other institutions.

The Museum maintains relationships with various universities, including George Mason University and Liberty University. In pursuit of these relationships, it has provided internships and hosted tours for student groups interested in the history of this era. Although the Museum is not open on a daily basis, it will arrange to host groups that contact the staff in advance.

The commemorative objectives of the Museum are reflected in the displays in its main building in Vint Hill. There the visitor will see an abundance of exhibits and memorabilia. Private donors who want to preserve memories of this important time in U.S. history have been the most frequent contributors of these items. A generous Cold War veteran who had a collection of thousands of Soviet era flags donated them to the Museum where many of them are on display.

Given the Museum’s association with Francis Gary Powers, it is not surprising that its display includes a 1964 G-Suit exhibit that was part of the equipment for U2 pilots. Staff members provide visitors with an account of the technical aspects of the suit and the role that this technology played in Cold War surveillance operations.

Another especially impressive exhibit is a rocket that came from the Florida International Museum.  It was originally a component of a Cuban Missile crisis exhibit. When Gary Powers, Jr. was serving as museum director, he led a fundraising effort to purchase the rocket and bring it to Vint Hill.

Although the Cold War Museum does not focus heavily on Cold War era intelligence work, there are several items relating to the United States Military Liaison Mission to the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. Most notable are USMLM license plates, Soviet restriction signs, and a commemorative exhibit about Major Arthur Nicholson, the USMLM member shot by a Soviet sentry in 1985 and often described as the last victim of the Cold War.

In addition, the museum founders knew that while events such as the various Berlin crises, the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis were recognized, less attention was devoted to preparations for life after a nuclear apocalypse.  Therefore, exhibits include much of the paraphernalia for our preparation for surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. The museum features displays of fallout shelter signs, Civil Defense implements, the console for CD communications in a post-war Washington, DC, and even canisters of water and survival crackers.

On November 10, 2013, the museum hosted Vint Hill Farms Station Day, the first of what will be an annual event providing historical perspectives on the work that took place at Vint Hill during the Cold War as well as its World War II contributions. Vint Hill Farms Station Day was a reminder of both the Cold War era and of previous historical events associated with this location. In this respect, the event was a reminder of continuity between World War II era activities and those of the Cold War years.

In an era when so much of our culture has been either politicized or commercialized, the Cold War Museum is unique in maintaining a commitment to its basic goals. As a privately funded endeavor, it demonstrates that there are many individuals still working to insure that future generations do not forget this time in which the United States sacrificed to insure the blessings of liberty.  

Stephen R. Bowers, Ph.D. is a professor of government in the Helms School of Government at Liberty University. Professor Bowers is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.