Roots of American Exceptionalism:  Dirty Kitchens, Bedlam & the Bomb

Victory Culture

The defeat of Nazism and the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, created what some cultural historians refer to as a “victory culture” in the U.S.  Prior to America’s entrance into the war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, debate in Congress and among the U.S. citizenry concerning the war in Europe was intensely mixed.

Recovering from the Great Depression, and looking back at the destruction of the Great War, a strong current of isolationism was, despite Hitler’s outrages, an important aspect of the nation’s polity.  The Great War had demonstrated the difficulties inherent in attempting to manage Europe from three-thousand miles distance. But improved communications, transportation and military technologies soon shrunk the world, and by 1941 the U.S. was poised to alter the balance of world power.

Victory culture brought a new dynamic to the American socio-cultural climate in the early Cold War years, as a rigid American nationalism sprouted from the ashes of Europe.  The U.S., through diplomacy and innovative economic planning, schemed to fill the post-war European void. The historian John Lewis Gaddis argues that the U.S., like Russia, sought security in its post-war policy. However, one reality of America’s geopolitical situation hadn’t changed since the Great War.  America was still isolated geographically, making management of European and U.S. security difficult given Stalin’s purpose, which “was not to restore a balance of power in Europe, but rather to dominate the continent as thoroughly as Hitler had…”

America’s experiment with isolationism came to a bitter end with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, its world hegemony arose with the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and victory culture grew up under “containment.”  In this scenario one may begin to discern the complexity of poetic responses to the Cold War.  The Cold War’s effects on the human psyche in general, and the poetic imagination in particular, were varied and unlimited, but without doubt American writing changed with the invention of the Bomb and a ratcheting up of American nationalism. Writing changed because the end of World War II and the onset of Cold War changed American culture. Intellectuals found interesting things to examine within the context of a burgeoning cultural revolution, including growing consumerism, and a quickening technology, a deconstruction of American values, ascendant militarism, an awakening sexuality and evolving gender roles and, most importantly, a new realization of the frailty of the planet Earth.  The effect of this new awareness created chasms within society, which poets addressed in their work.

The House of Bedlam

In her 1949-1950 role as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, or Poet Laureate of the United States, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was an unlikely choice to carry the banner of intellectualism for the new American Empire.  An array of poet laureates before her was selected for the job as much for their unwavering faith in American virtue as for their supposed contributions to American poetics.  Archibald MacLeish, as Librarian at the Library of Congress during World War II, had led the U.S. propaganda effort.  His job, which he performed admirably and enthusiastically, was to help shape a pro-war citizenry.   His opposite, Robert Lowell, sat out World War II as a conscientious objector.  Subsequently Lowell, like Joseph McCarthy, began to see the menace of communism everywhere in American life.  He was Poetry Consultant in 1947-1948.  An unstable man and brilliant poet, Lowell was given to drink, depression and telling authorities about his friends’ political lives.  He was also a friend and would-be- lover of Bishop.  Unfortunately for Lowell, Bishop preferred the love of women, but that didn’t stop him from recommending and pushing for Bishop’s selection as Poetry Consultant, a seeming contradiction in an era when homosexuality and communism were often assumed to be similarly evil.

Nervous and never quite comfortable in her consultant position, Bishop kept a journal while sitting in her office near the U.S. Capitol.  In her poem “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” she describes watching a performance of the all-male Air Force Band on the steps of the Capitol.  The militaristic and patriarchal flair in the performance caused her to furtively write:  “On the east steps the Air Force Band / in uniforms of Air Force blue / is playing hard and loud, but—queer—/ the music doesn’t quite come through.”

The all-male ensemble, the military regalia, the music not quite clear—these are aspects of Bishop’s social disaffiliation, of her sense of literal queerness, of her disenchantment with the rising Cold War ethos.  Victory culture and the politics of containment had her flummoxed.

During Bishop’s time as Poetry Consultant, the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound was confined to St. Elizabeth’s, a mental hospital in Washington D.C.  One of her consultant duties was to visit the imprisoned poet, who had broadcast pro-fascist propaganda while living in Italy in the early days of World War II.  From her visits with Pound and in recognition of the toll war had taken on the mental health of Americans, Bishop fashioned “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s.”  Moved by the madness surrounding her, she wrote:  “This is the house of Bedlam / This is the man / that lies in the house of Bedlam / This the time / of the tragic man / that lies in the house of Bedlam.”

She saw Pound’s circumstances as tragic, which they were, but she was unprepared to separate him from the other victims of war.  The time of the tragic man belonged to everybody.  The human race, not just Pound or the other patients in the hospital, had sunk into bedlam.  The Cold War was an extension of bedlam, and victory culture had become a coping mechanism for average Americans.

In June, 1950 the Korean War began and shortly thereafter Bishop finished her year-long consultancy and moved to Brazil, where she lived for the next eighteen years.  As Pound had coped with imminent war by backing the wrong side in 1939, Bishop coped by turning her back on America.  At the height of World War II she had written a poem titled “Roosters.”  Its central metaphor constructs an imminent fight between roosters when:  “at four o’clock / in the gun-metal blue dark / we hear the first crow of the first cock / just below / the gun-metal blue window / and immediately there is an echo.  And then the moment of truth:  Now in mid-air / by two they fight each other / Down comes a first flame-feather / and one is flying / with raging heroism defying / even the sensation of dying.”

The poet, fatigued by war, cared not to see more images of heroism and dying.  A woman of privilege, she escaped.

Bishop’s return coincided with the rise of the anti-war protests and cultural upheavals that swept through sixties America. Many Americans had finally come to understand the dark absurdities of victory culture containment and the constant threat of annihilation.  Many had thrown their support behind the liberation movements of other nations, as well as of individuals. When Bishop returned she returned to a people who finally made some sense to her.

Ferlinghetti & Ginsberg

Elizabeth Bishop had emerged from the academic school of American poetics, where a sense of cool disengagement and intellectualism prevailed.  As she was fleeing the U.S. another school of poetry was emerging.  Centered on Columbia College in New York in 1949, a literary movement of a different sort began with the emergence of a new intellectualism.  Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and others, were direct, in-your-face poets with bad attitudes in a time when grey-flannel appropriateness was the norm.  Ginsberg was openly gay and proud, a troublemaker who had been kicked out of Columbia.  Kerouac, a football star, lost his scholarship after a row with Columbia’s coaching staff. Cassady and Burroughs were bi-sexual.  Cassady grew up in Denver’s rugged downtown ghetto, abandoned by his his drunken father.  Burroughs, scion of the Burroughs Office Machines Company family, was a profound drug taster.   Corso was a tough guy who had literally grown up homeless on the streets of New York.      As writers with vastly different voices they were anti-victory culture propagandists.  Their contributions as Cold War protesters would not be defined for another decade or more, as the Beats’ relevancy and massive popularity grew in the restless sixties.  Redefined countless times through the next decades, they became idealized freedom fighters.  Collectively in the 1950s they raged against ennui and perceived world madness.

In 1950, the year Bishop fled to Brazil, Lawrence Ferlinghetti visited San Francisco for the first time.  He had grown up near Coney Island in New York, the son of Italian immigrants, and commanded a sub chaser in the Navy during World War II. Stunned by The City’s beauty, which reminded him of coastal cities in the Mediterranean, he immediately decided to make it home.   Ferlinghetti (1919–) founded, with Peter Martin, City Lights Bookstore in 1953.  Two years later he founded the publishing wing of his enterprise, City Lights Pocket Press.

Allen Ginsberg’s (1926—1997) Howl and Other Poems was the sixth volume by City Lights.  Ferlinghetti had been present at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on Fillmore Street, October 7, 1955 when Ginsberg read Howl for the first time in public.  “Nobody had ever heard anything like that before,” Ferlinghetti recalled in a 2000 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.  “When you hear it for the first time, you say ‘I never saw the world like that before.’”   He would publish the book and earn the scorn (and free publicity) of the censors.  Poet Michael McClure, marking the 50th anniversary of the reading in 2005, wrote of the approximately one-hundred folks who listened to Howl: “We knew we were standing with our toes against a line in the sand and, whether we felt fear or exuberance we were staring directly at the wall of censorship and repression—and we knew we would not step back.”

Howl is the seminal U.S. Cold War poem.  Its unforgettable opening lines attacked Cold War fear and repression: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…”

The poem “was a vast castigation of American consumer society,”  says Ferlinghetti, who risked all by publishing it and fortunately had the American Civil Liberties Union on his side when the San Francisco Police Department filed obscenity charges against him. Subsequently, he was cleared of all charges after a lengthy trial throughout the summer of 1957.  An earlier customs’ seizure (the book was printed in England) was quickly dropped, but had drawn SFPD scrutiny and led to the charges against City Lights.

The Dirtiest Kitchen

Attacks on the intelligentsia and the attempted suppression of dissidents are a legacy of the Cold War experience.  There were, however, crucial differences in the methods of suppression between the Soviet Union and the U.S. throughout the Cold War.  In the Soviet Union, nothing like the ACLU existed, of course.  America’s rights of free expression gave U.S. authors a distinct advantage over the USSR in the intellectual arena, despite occasional U.S. experiments in suppression.  The crucial differences lay in methods of governance.  The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 betrayed Russian leftists and intellectuals who supported the tsarist overthrow and believed revolution would enhance freedoms. Vladimir Lenin saw writers and artists as rivals and threats to a successful proletarian state-workers’ society meant to improve the lives of Russians.  Lenin’s antipathy for bourgeois society led directly to the early communist suppression of intellectuals, whom he equated with bourgeois interests.  He had an arguable point of course, albeit a historically incorrect one.

With communist power consolidated in 1923, Lenin relaxed the rules for writers and others and a relatively free expression flourished until 1928, when the Central Committee deigned it necessary to begin to “guide” expression and demand “social realism” in the arts.  In the “terror” of the 1930s dissenting writers and other artists were slaughtered and imprisoned along with opposition politicians and social activists.  During World War II artists served a propaganda purpose on every side. Stalin allowed Russians to indict Nazism and defend the motherland.  There were plenty of MacLeish-like writers crushing Nazism with their pens.

Anna Akhmatova (1889—1966) was usefully promoted on the front pages of Pravda during the war, but denied other expression.  Akhmatova had enjoyed a measure of popularity in Russia and around the world as a supporter of Lenin’s revolution, but like many others she fell out of favor with the Bolsheviks in the twenties.  Lenin had her first husband, also a poet, killed.  Stalin brought her back to help destroy Hitler and then returned her to noisy exile to continually butt heads with Andrei Zhdanov, the Party’s cultural affairs apparatchik in the early Cold War era.   She developed a propensity for fighting back.  Her felinity, toughness and public relations skills probably kept her out of jail, but the culture police used other ploys to teach her a lesson, the most famous being the arrest and confinement of her son to prison on typically trumped up state crimes.

Serving Stalin’s purposes, she wrote during the war: “By our doors Great Victory stays. . . / But how we’ll glory her advent? / Let women lift higher the children!  They blessed / With life mid a thousand deaths– / Thus will be the dearest answered.”

Here was social realism! The image of cultural revolution uplifted from mother to child, the dearest cause victory, and despite the thousands dead, the Great Victory near.  But in “Requiem,” a poem denouncing the terror, which did not see publication for many years, she wrote at the Cold War’s height: “In this time, just a dead could half-manage / a weak smile—with the peaceful state glad / And, like some heavy, needless appendage, / Mid its prisons swung gray Leningrad / And, when mad from the tortures’ succession, / Marched the army of those, who’d been doomed, / Sang the engines the last separation / With their whistles through smoking gloom…” 

If Akhmatova’s “The Victory” was state-accepted social realism, her “Requiem” was simply realistic, a cold exposition of what happened to many dissidents during the terror.  Soviet Cold War ideology, then, would not fool dissident poets as they looked at the past or the present, even for those who had written hard for the motherland during the war.  To write more realistically while being suppressed during the Cold War, Soviet dissidents turned to samizdat, self-published and self-distributed writing, and often used pseudonyms to avoid confrontations with the culture police. The practice was extremely dangerous, until Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” in 1956.  His condemnation of the Stalinist “cult” in Russia gave Soviet writers hope and sparked a short-lived and public literary storm.  In the midst of the Khrushchev Thaw poetry grew in popularity and the samizdat flourished.

Akhmatova reemerged when many in the West assumed she was dead.  Other banned and suppressed writers appeared in public.  Crowds gathered in Moscow to celebrate poetry.  A new sense of freedom bloomed as students read regularly in Mayak, named for the monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky which opened on June 29, 1958 in the center of Moscow.  An impromptu reading at the opening led to regular poetry sessions there.  Then, as suddenly as the Thaw appeared, a crackdown began when Alexander Ginzburg, publisher of Syntaxis, was arrested and charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”

One of the first dissident Russian poets to immigrate to the West during the Cold War was Josip Aleksandrovich Brodsky (1940—1996). Joe Brodsky attended school to age fifteen before taking a long series of menial jobs.  A Jew, he unsuccessfully applied for admission to a submarine academy, a slight that may have blackened his view of communism. Though he never directly criticized the Soviet government, he earned a reputation as a “social parasite.”  Scorned by authorities because he appeared to be contributing nothing to the workers’ state while gaining a mass following through samizdat, Brodsky’s diffidence also arose from his childhood memories of growing up in Leningrad, where iconic images of Lenin were everywhere—hero worship he instinctively loathed.

Brodsky was brought to trial in 1964 and convicted of being a parasite.  He was sentenced to a mental ward after his trial judge asked, “And who recognized you as a poet?”  “No one,” Brodsky replied.  “Who listed me a member of the human race?”  The official charge against the poet, commonly pointed at dissidents in the post-thaw era, accused him of being “less than one,” i.e., less than loyal to the one workers’ state and communist ideology.  His “The Berlin Wall Tune” surveyed the tragedy of the Wall:  “Dull is the day here.  In the night / searchlights illuminate the blight / making sure that if someone screams / it’s not due to bad dreams / For dreams here aren’t bad: just wet with blood / of one of your like who’s left his pad / to ramble at will; and in his head / dreams are replaced with lead.”

In the 1970s, while living in the U.S., where he died in 1996, Brodsky penned a book of essays titled, not coincidentally, Less Than One.

In contrast to Brodsky, who spent eighteen months in jail before his release, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933—) played his political cards a little closer to the vest and stayed out of trouble.  The son of a well-positioned party loyalist, he traveled with his father as a youth and eventually became known as the voice of Russia’s “young generation.” Khrushchev and Brezhnev patronized him to illustrate the new Soviet freedoms and he traveled widely as an arts representative until 1963, when he published “A Precocious Autobiography” in English.  His travel was revoked for two years, but his value as an ambassador of Soviet “freedom” was too important to ignore.  In 1968 he objected to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, penning “Russian Tanks in Prague,” with lines that demonstrated he took the provocation personally: “A Russian writer / crushed by Russian tanks in Prague.”

Yevtushenko’s career was a dance.  His early work echoed the 1917 Mayakovsky and showed a youthful loyalty to communism that eroded in the post-Stalin era.  The important thaw year of 1956 saw him shoot to international fame with the publication of Babi Yar, which recalled the German army’s massacre of Jews in Kiev, September, 1941.  But the poem also castigated his own country “for forgetting the message of the Internationale.”   Thenceforth, Yevtushenko was a thorn in the Party’s side, as well as a useful tool.  In an interview for the CNN documentary, Cold War, Yevtushenko provides a glimpse of the Russian mindset in the Khrushchev years.  The poet explains that Khrushchev called him after Yevtushenko sent the deposed leader a birthday card.  Khrushchev, abandoned by the Party, called to express thanks for the gift card and to apologize for treating writers unfairly when he held power.

“I ask forgiveness, your forgiveness, your colleagues’, writers’, about my rudeness.  I know that I was unbearably rude, and I was very ashamed for a long time.” Khrushchev claimed he was repressive only because the hardliners in the politburo accused him of being “too soft with the liberals.” Politics was a profession Khrushchev advised the poet to avoid.  He said, “Please don’t be involved into politics—that’s the dirtiest kitchen we could imagine.”

Yevtushenko need not have been warned away from politics, of course.  He made his reputation and was able to stay out of prison because he was a beloved international poet whose main body of work centered on an array of problems focusing on the human condition.  “I became popular nationally not as a political poet, but as a poet of love,” he states in the CNN interview. “For the first time in my life, my socialist lips touched so-called ‘capitalist lips,’ because I kissed an American girl, breaking any Cold War rules.”   His early poems were not political, but rather examined loneliness. They were attacked because the brotherhood of communism denied the legitimacy of loneliness in a nation where everybody was supposedly working toward the same socio-economic ideals.   That, of course, is not the way life works, except in the realm of Stalin’s social realism, which became increasingly moribund before finally dying with the USSR.

The Bomb

If politics is the “dirtiest kitchen,” as Khrushchev avowed, then the U.S. poets were as hip to politics as the Russians.  In his poem “Many Have Fallen,” Gregory Corso (1930—2001) looks back twenty years at his famous work, “Bomb,” which was first published in 1958.

That year he had taken to prophecy, “the heaviest kind: Doomsday / It was announced in a frolicy poem called BOMB / and concluded like this: / Know that in the hearts of men to come / more bombs will be born / …yea, into our lives a bomb shall fall / Well, 20 years later / not one but 86 bombs, A-Bombs, have fallen / We bombed Utah, Nevada, New Mexico / and all survived /…until two decades later.”

His prophecy hinted that the fallout shelters Americans dreamed of buying in the fifties might come in even handier in the nuclear-proliferated seventies.  How could all the testing be good for the fragile Earth?  Why was overkill such a popular enterprise?  These are the questions Corso addressed in 1978, by turning his humorous style against the absurdity of proliferation.  How many bombs would it take to kill everything?

With the Bomb and kitchen politics merging in a whorish nexus, the superpowers hammered away at each other.  They attacked with “beautiful” explosions in great, quiet spaces, like Nevada and Siberia. United States propaganda sought to sell the Bomb in the victory culture containment realm. The Russians struggled to keep up, saddled with their own version of victory culture containment.

In the U.S., the defense contractors grew rich.  In the state controlled Russian economy, the people grew poorer and poorer as defense spending became a black hole filled with rubles.  Mutually Assured Destruction, MAD, unceremoniously became the credo that drove the engine of the American economy. Americans had become what Theodore Roszak would call “Technology’s Children” in 1969’s The Making of a Counter Culture.  Americans were stricken with a “generational disaffiliation,” he wrote.

Before Roszak, the poets and disaffiliated youths were first to comprehend the shifting cultural sands, beginning with the Beats, of whom Corso was a recognized member.  He had returned from England in 1958 to see protesters shouting, “Ban the Bomb, Ban the Bomb (and said) ‘It’s a death shot that’s laid on them…and it’s not as if the Bomb had never fallen…how am I going to tackle this thing, suddenly death was the big shot to handle…not just the Bomb.’”   He dealt with it by writing a volume titled The Happy Birthday of Death, an “ironic epic hymn…” wrote Catherine F. Siegel, “in which the speaker experiences all the standard psychological responses to the unimaginable, the horrific…But the poet knows well that he is singing with his throat cut…” Corso examines the Bomb, finding ironic humor in its awful potential to annihilate humanity.

Todd Gitlin writes, “Whatever the national pride in the blasts that pulverized Bikini and Eniwetok atolls, whatever the Atomic Energy Commission’s bland assurances, the Bomb actually disrupted our daily lives.  We grew up taking cover in school drills—the first American generation compelled from infancy to fear not only war but the end of days.”

The national pride in the Bomb was pure fantasy, dangerous and delusional. It was a peculiar aspect of the dirtiest kitchen, manifest by dangerous and delusional men, whom the poets struggled to pull back into reality.  Corso wrote: “There is a hell for bombs / They’re there I see them there / They sit in bits and sing songs / mostly German songs / and two very long American songs /…they wish there were more songs / especially Russian and Chinese songs / and some more very long American songs / Poor little Bomb that’ll never be / an Eskimo song.”


The near entirety of Bob Dylan’s early and mid-career poetry examines the cultural repercussions of the Cold War. Once scorned by academic poets, Dylan’s reputation as a skilled writer has grown.  Clever in his condemnation of victory culture mentality, he takes on the cold warriors: “Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull, / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.”

“Idiot Wind,” released in 1975, spoke to a generation reeling from the Cold War inspired political calculation and abuses of power, such as Watergate.  By 1975 Nixon had resigned, America had lost in Vietnam, and Bob Dylan had learned to expect nothing but the worst from Washington D.C.   He had started out as a protest singer, but he had evolved into something else entirely—a rocker with a savage wit and an individual streak that the folk movement and some Cold War protesters found too enigmatic.

Like the Beats, Dylan scorned the militarism of Cold War culture and the crass consumer society that, provoked by new advertising techniques, created a booming economy at the expense of everything else.   Counterculturists believed rising corporatism and individual greed were playing into the hands of the Cold War provocateurs.  Consumer society acquiesced to the corporate Cold War mentality and helped it thrive at the expense of mental health, spirituality, and the ability to co-exist on Earth.   Consumer Cold War society said if you were to live well on the planet, you needed to buy everything you couldn’t afford.

Advertising, often expressed as guilt mechanism, propelled unreasonable social expectations to the fore.  Questions of identity and selfhood proliferated like cruise missiles.  The New Age dawned and filled the Cold War void in Americans’ lives.  Roszak’s “children of technology” clutched the New Age’s tenets like life preservers and held on.  A new conformity arose, displacing the victory culture of Bishop’s fifties.   Victory culture wasn’t finished however.  It just morphed into a more dominant and pervasive consumer mentality—today’s.  The militaristic U.S. economy gave millions a taste of something they never imagined they would ever experience—wealth and ease.

Pawns in the Game

While the U.S. struggled with the hubris of victory culture at home and containment abroad, third world nations found leverage by playing the Soviets, Chinese and the U.S. against each other.  Poets’ reactions to the Cold War struggle of Third World liberation movements are as varied as the continents where these revolutions played out.

The American poet Etheridge Knight (1931-1991) was a drug addicted eighth-grade dropout who enlisted in the Army when he was seventeen.  After being wounded in Korea, he returned to drugs and went to prison for robbery.  There he discovered poetry and began his identification with the Black Power movement of the 1960s.  He described his work as a response to the “psyche wound” of his war experience.   “It is hard / To make a poem in prison. / The air lends itself / not to the singer. / The seasons creep by unseen / And spark no fresh fires. / Soft words are rare, and drunk drunk / against the clang of keys; / Wide eyes stare fat zeroes / And plead only for pity.”

The psychic wounds created by Knight’s witness to war’s real consequences fed his inability to cope with victory culture. Traumatized soldiers are a manifestation of every war, but the ushering in of the new warfare amid containment politics began to take a toll on even ordinary Americans from the Korean War onward.  While victory culture made the Korean War and the early phase of the Vietnam War palatable to a majority of Americans, another cultural shift would soon occur.  Again, it was largely due to technology and the televised war in Southeast Asia.  “One two three what are we fighting for / don’t ask me I don’t give a damn / next stop is Vietnam” wrote Country Joe McDonald at mid-war.

Television had beamed the apocalyptic nature of war into millions of American homes just in time for dinner every evening, begging the question—what exactly were Americans fighting for in the Nam?  Mothers and fathers and their draft-age sons began to sense something amiss.  “Father, father, father,” sang Marvin Gaye, “we don’t need to escalate.” Etheridge Knight’s psychic wounds were filtering into the body politic.  At that point the Vietnam War was lost.

Here is a poem—shown in its entirety because it is one of the finest Vietnam era antiwar poems—by Bruce Weigl (1949-), published in Carolyn Forche’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness:

The Last Lie

Some guy in the miserable convoy
raised up in the back of our open truck
and threw a can of C rations at a child
who called into the rumble for food.
He didn’t toss the can, he wound up and hung it
on the child’s forehead and she was stunned
backwards into the dust of our trucks.

Across the sudden angle of the road’s curving
I could still see her when she rose,
waving one hand across her swollen, bleeding head,
wildly swinging her other hand
at the children who mobbed her,
who tried to take her food. 

I grit my teeth to myself to remember that girl
smiling as she fought off her brothers and sisters.
She laughed
as if she though it were a joke
and the guy with me laughed
and fingered the edge of another can
like it was the seam of a baseball
until his rage ripped
again into the faces of children
who called to us for food.

Here, in most graphic terms, was U.S. victory culture and containment politics at work in a U.S. occupied country.  The image of an innocent child staring down the dark rage of the warrior who threw the can at her like a baseball is a frozen moment of classic hegemony, the final word on a political policy in utter disarray.

But politicians’ failures did not stop the superpowers’ meddling.  In Latin America, where Cold War played out without the American boots-on-the-ground fervor of Vietnam, but with nonetheless politically poisonous intrigue by the superpowers, two Chilean poets answered the call to leftist politics.

Neruda and Nicanor Parra were leftists with a rabid distaste for South American-style military dictatorships.  Neruda (1904—1973) preferred the idealism of the Workers’ State and had been a staunch Stalinist until the revelations of Khrushchev’s secret speech turned him against the Soviets.  He lived much of the time in ambassadorial roles in Buenos Aires, Ceylon, Java, Singapore and Mexico and was a leading communist politician in Chile until the Communist Party there was banned in 1948.  For over a year he stayed underground in Chile until escaping to Europe, where he stayed until 1950.  In 1971 he became ambassador to France at the behest of Salvador Allende and won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Unwell, he returned to Chile in 1972, dying two weeks after Augusto Pinochet’s military coup of 1973.

He seems to have written “The Dictators” for every brutal dictator he had known in his political career.  “An odor has remained among the sugarcane: / a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating / petal that brings nausea. / Between the coconut palms the graves are full / of ruined bones, / of speechless death-rattles. / The delicate dictator is talking / with top hats, gold braid, and collars… /…hatred has grown scale on scale,/ blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,/ with a snout full of ooze and silence.”

Nicanor Parra (1914–) survived Pinochet’s ruthless dictatorship, becoming a dissenting voice of cultural and academic Chile.  He considers himself an “anti-poet” and writes in a colloquial style. He excoriated the Chilean dictatorship with a razor wit, as in “Warnings:” “No praying allowed, no sneezing. / No spitting, eulogizing, kneeling / Worshipping, howling, expectorating…/ Running is absolutely forbidden. / No smoking.  No fucking”

Parra particularly, among the most well-known Latin American poets, felt the weight of both Soviet and U.S. influences during the Cold War.  He called the era “Modern Times.” “These are calamitous times we’re living through / you can’t speak without committing a contradiction / or keep quiet without complicity with the Pentagon. / Everyone knows there’s no alternative possible/ all roads lead to Cuba / but the air is dirty / breathing is a futile act. / The enemy says / the country is to blame / as if countries were men…”

Modern times in the Cold War era were calamitous and contradicting times.  In these post-Cold War times something else is at work, though it is no less calamitous and contradicting for those who feel estranged from politics, while suspecting that to give up on politics is to surrender a part of living.  The legacy of the Cold War for the U.S, the supposed winner of the long conflict, is that the “lone superpower” is in danger of becoming, like a spoiled only child, a little too full of itself.

The legacy has left the U.S. with a tendency toward hubris, recklessness and a beguiling lack of manners.  It is as if victory culture has become part of the nation’s DNA, as if arrogance is a birthright, as if the United States is incapable of committing a wrong.  For one who survived the Vietnam era, witnessed and felt the outrage of the American people toward their government of liars and cheats, it is impossible to not repeat the question Marvin Gaye asked in 1969 when he told his father there was no need to escalate the war—“What’s Going On?”

Terry Simons is the founder of Round Bend Press Books in Portland, Oregon.  This story is excerpted from his memoir of growing up in Oregon, A Marvelous Paranoia.