What Evil Empire?

Photograph Source: Cover of the book Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War

When did the Cold War begin? In 1917! When, if ever, did it end? Never! What is its most dramatic moment? The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Who if anyone won? No one!

These and other questions (and the answers that follow) are prompted by the publication of a big new book titled Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War (Custom House; $32.50) by Duncan White, a book reviewer for The Daily Telegraph and an assistant director of studies in the history and literature department at Harvard, where Professor F.O. Matthiessen committed suicide in part because of the climate of the Cold War that touched nearly every aspect of academic life in the U.S. after the end of World War II.

Cold Warriors is an odd book, indeed. At times one wonders if the British Foreign Office hasn’t enlisted White. But perhaps it’s just that he has written for The Daily Telegraph for so long that he’s adopted the paper’s view of history.

White is the author of one previous study, Nabokov and His Books, and, while it’s not hard to see why he went from writing about the author of Lolita to writing about the Cold War, it’s also a huge and surprising leap. (Born in Russia, Nabokov lived most of his life in the U.S.) Lolita might be considered a product of the Cold War, though White doesn’t go there. White does include dozens of writers and some spies on both sides of what was called “The Iron Curtain” that influenced writers, readers, critics and philosophers on all sides of the divide, including the French existentialists who tried to forge a “Third Way” independent of East and West.

White would probably say that he aimed for objectivity, or at the least not to take one side over another. He would also probably say that he adhered to his game plan. One can find some even-handed comments throughout his book and criticism of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R from the 1950s to the present day. But on the whole it does seem that he is more critical of Soviet authorities than he of their American leaders.

While he sees the suffering and pain caused by Stalin and Stalinism he doesn’t also see clearly the suffering and pain American writers and readers experienced under McCarthyism, The Red Scares, Nixonism, the Black List, the arrest, imprisonment, deportation and self-imposed exile by U.S. writers such as Richard Wright, Dalton Trumbo, Jules Dassin and by journalists who lost their jobs.

White would probably say that the Soviet Union and the Russians deserve harsher treatment than the U.S. and the Americans. He points to the gulags which were horrendous, though he doesn’t also point to the prisons in the American that had what amount to slave labor and that cast a dark shadow on the South and all across the nation. He also downplays the persecution of U.S. Communists, and their kindred on the Left: Socialist, Anarchists, Trotskyites and plain old-fashioned liberals.

Part of the problem with this book is that White didn’t live through the Cold War from about 1945 to about 1970, when American school kids lived in fear of the atomic bomb, which was the key weapon of the Cold War that prompted some of Allen Ginsberg’s best poems, including Howl and “America” in which he addressed the nation and said, “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, there was also the fear of a Russian invasion and subversion by internal enemies. Moreover, library books were burned all over the U.S., though President Eisenhower who warned of the “military industrial complex”—a product of the Cold War—and lambasted the “book burners.” Anyone who actually lived through that whole period would probably testify to the corrosive influence of Cold War thinking, the demonization of “the enemy” and black and white thinking that was greatly diminished by the radical movements of the Sixties.

In his Introduction, White writes that “One of the biggest challenges of this book was deciding which writers to focus on.” He adds, “some selections seemed obvious for the indispensible influence they exercised over the Cold War: George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Boris Pasternak, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” There are more than a dozen other writers in this book, including Howard Fast, Stephen Spender, Mary McCarthy and Andrei Sinyavsky. Sartre is mentioned only in passing, though his international influence was immense.

What seems like “indispensible influence” to White could seem like less than indispensible influence to other scholars and writers. Had this book been written in, say, 1970 one could easily understand the major attention given to Koestler and Mary McCarthy. They did enjoy a brief moment in the pages of cultural history, but as we have moved away from the period that followed the end of World War II, their role and influence seem much smaller. Koestler created a commotion with Darkness at Noon, but beginning in the 1960s the darkness he wrote about faded fast. Once dominant figures, including Howard Fast, who reinvented himself as a novelist of historian novels, have become footnotes.

The sections on Mary McCarthy, Spender and Koestler don’t make a strong case for them to be rediscovered these days. Moreover, while Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn made big splashes in their day, they now seem like writers whose books became popular in large part because they were banned and censored. So was James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

White argues that with the making of the film, Spartacus, the “the blacklist was broken and the specter of McCarthyism was finally exorcised.” Unfortunately one blacklist followed another.

Persecution based on political beliefs continued after McCarthy’s brand of McCarthyism faded, only to be replaced by Reaganism and Trumpism. White lambasts Putin but hardly says a word about the current U.S. president and he also totally ignores the phase of the Cold War that began in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution and that classic of Cold War literature, John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, which Lenin endorsed and that was an opening salvo in the battles between the USSR and the USA.

In his epilogue White argues that, “Literature is no longer conceived of as a weapon to be deployed in cultural warfare.” One wonders how he could miss the partisan books, movies and TV shows that have been published since 9/11, and the start of the so-called “war on terrorism” that has in part replaced the Cold War.

Cold Warriors could be regarded as evidence that the Cold War has not ended, but rather has taken yet another turn, that includes the Beatles classic, “Back in the USSR” and the recent TV show “The Americans” which is about despicable Russian spies in the U.S.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.