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Louis Menand Tackles Art, Culture, And Politics During The Cold War


For those who want to learn about the philosophy of intellectuals like George Kennan, George Orwell, Richard Wright, Hannah Arendt, Pauline Kael, and James Baldwin, among others, Louis Menand’s book, “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War” is a soaring new offering. “The Free World” is a virtuoso performance about Cold War culture and provides one of the best explanations yet of the complex and often contradictory thoughts of Lionel Trilling and Susan Sontag.

Menand’s strengths are philosophy and political theory. As such, as long as he sticks to analyzing intellectuals, he performs well. It’s only when he deals with the Cold War directly that his thinking becomes muddled.

On Containment

Menand bookends the story with Kennan, the architect of the containment policy. It was constructed to cause the implosion of the Soviet Union by applying pressure on the unstable Soviet economy and denying them fresh territory to attempt to stave off the inevitable collapse. This policy lasted the duration of the Cold War, from 1947 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Curiously, however, Menand ends the book not in 1989 but in 1975, with America effectively losing the Vietnam War. This is followed by Kennan’s testimony before Congress, in which he asserted that containment was still a viable policy in Europe but not so in Asian countries because they had no conception of freedom.

To have shown that containment did ultimately succeed would have vindicated Kennan, rather than show Menand a hapless old man clinging desperately to antiquated ideas in 1975.

The ‘High Tide’ of Anti-Anti-Communism

Menand dedicates this book to his father, whom he labels an “anti-anti-Communist.” Loosely translated, this Cold War-era term means one who sees anti-Communists as a greater danger to America than communists. At times, Menand expresses this sentiment.

Knowing this, it becomes clear why Menand concludes the book in 1975. For, culturally, this was the high tide of American anti-anti-communism. Audiences at the Academy Awards gave a standing ovation to the fantasist and unrepentant Stalinist Lillian Hellman; American Stalinists of the 1930s were rehabilitated by Hollywood into heroic civil libertarians; the North Vietcong were portrayed by Hollywood as admirable agrarian liberals. A different time, indeed.

Cold War Culture Beyond 1975

Yet the Cold War and its cultural expression didn’t end in 1975. It continued a decade and a half later, when Kennan’s prediction of a collapsed Soviet Union occurred.

Pol Pot and the victorious Viet Cong murdered millions of South Vietnamese. The Russians invaded Afghanistan. The Soviets imposed martial law in Poland to crush the Polish Solidarity Movement. The Reagan administration aided the Contras against the communist-backed Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

There was the embarrassment of Chernobyl, which revealed that the Soviets — far from being fearsome and intellectual giants — were, in fact, incompetent. There was the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and the policies of glasnost and perestroika, which inadvertently aided and accelerated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the successful revolt of the Warsaw Pact satellites from the collapsing Soviet empire.

By ending the book in 1975, which implies that Cold War culture ended, Menand short-changes the reader. In truth, Cold War culture didn’t end then but made a robust comeback owing to Reagan’s anti-Communist presidency.

Films like “Rambo” reflected the culture of that period, of both the populace and the Vietnam vets. With the figure of Rambo, here was a man who, through Christ-like suffering, signified the betrayal vets felt by their government (in the films, Rambo is routinely double-crossed by his government into the hands of sadistic communist interrogators).

But with his snarl and machine-gunning Vietcong, Rambo provided both soldiers and the populace an instrument of revenge and proof that the war, in the words of Reagan, was a “noble cause” that could have been won if not for vacillating liberals. Indeed, on the eve of his mission back to Vietnam, Rambo asks his commanding officer, “Do we get to win this time?”

Menand also expresses a notable anti-communism when he echoes what the hawks in the Pentagon predicted would happen if America abandoned South Vietnam: the Vietcong would slaughter millions of South Vietnamese. Of this moment, Menand sounds like General Westmoreland:

The Vietnamese Communists did what totalitarian regimes do: they took over the schools and universities; they shut down the press; they pursued policies of enforced relocation and reeducation; they imprisoned, tortured, and executed their former enemies.

Menand’s Appreciation of Cold War Culture

Revealingly, Menand sees much to admire in American Cold War culture and even at times sounds nostalgic for it:

The United States actively engaged with the rest of the world…The expansion of the university, of book publishing, of the music business, and of the art world, along with new technologies speeded up the rate of innovation. Most striking was the nature of the audience: people cared. Ideas mattered.

In this, he implies that the country lost something culturally and intellectually valuable when the Cold War ended. Additionally, Menand has a large list of historical figures in this work that in the hands of others could seem incongruous: Kennan, Wright, Kael, Arendt, Orwell, and Baldwin, to name a few. Instead, he skillfully shows how they affected the culture and were affected by it.

That said, he doesn’t provide a fuller picture of Orwell. He notes correctly that Orwell was attacking more than the Soviet Union in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” By placing the novel in England, Orwell asserted that even Westerners could go totalitarian.

Menand neglects to show that Orwell was a more flexible anticommunist. He saw the Western Communist parties as composed of an inner ring of dangerous fanatics but notes the fluid nature of the regular members, who often left the party in disgust or shame. Orwell also saw a way out of the Cold War.

Rather than the choice of the U.S.S.R. or America (if put to the test, Orwell grudgingly chose America), Orwell believed the establishment and success of a united socialist movement in the West was a better option. Orwell also predicted the Soviet Union wouldn’t last forever — the country would either have to democratize or perish. In the end, of course, it did both.

The End of Old Hollywood

To be sure, Menand makes odd selections at times, and his argument would be improved with more examples. For instance, he cites the Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway movie “Bonnie and Clyde” as the pioneer of 1960s cinema. It did away with the Hays Code, which kept then-forbidden themes of sex and violence off the screen.

Menand is correct in how the film’s mixture of sex and comedy sank Old Hollywood values. But other films at the time were more reflective of the 1960s. “In The Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” put racism on the screen, headlined by a black American actor, Sidney Poitier. These two movies didn’t have Beatty’s gunplay to the tune of bluegrass music, but they made their points stronger.

With his much-needed rebukes of the “gotcha journalism” and soundbite-dominated media, Menand has made an invaluable contribution to intellectual thought during the Cold War, showing that once upon a time ideas mattered. It’s only when he addresses the politics of the Cold War that he flounders.