Blogs > Cliopatria > Ron Capshaw: Review of American Cold War Culture, ed. Douglas Fields (University of Edinburgh Press, 2006)

Dec 14, 2006 7:50 pm


Ron Capshaw: Review of American Cold War Culture, ed. Douglas Fields (University of Edinburgh Press, 2006)



Characterizing the Left as trapped in a sixties’ mindset never runs the risk of cliché, simply because they constantly offer fresh examples of a counter-cultural lag. For example, the New York Times recently likened the Congressional inquiry into the terrorist surveillance program to the “Pentagon Papers: “ On the stump, Howard Dean never misses an opportunity to compare the Iraq conflict to Vietnam. Meanwhile, Jane Fonda, sniffing the air of times ain’t a changing, dusts off her beads for an antiwar bus tour across America.

But the problem with pining for the past is the editing it requires. Against their intended image of American jingoism, there are the boat people. For every My Lai, there is the Hanoi Hitlon. For every flower child filling a "fascist’s" rifle barrel with a daisy, there is a Weatherman mixing explosives. The result for those who edit is counterproductive; the reader instead learns more about the editor than the era.

Which brings us to American Cold War Culture. This work's value derives not from the power of its arguments, but the self-portrait it gives the reader. On almost every page, the agenda is apparent: to denounce the war on terror by comparing it to their version of the Cold War. This agenda requires the authors to halt history around 1970 and then, skipping whole decades of Venona revelations, the Berlin Wall falling and workers in Red Square toppling Lenin’s statue, resuming it in 2001. Hence archaic terms like military industrial complex can seem fresh and applicable.

In this work, the Cold War was not the complicated affair of halting Soviet imperialism without risking nuclear war but the simple attempt of America to stifle the Left (the argument promoted by the American Communist Party in 1949). No mention is made of Nixon’s détente with Communist China or Reagan aiding the Solidarity movement. Far from stifling the Left, cold warriors came to terms with and even aided some of its segments.

But in this work grey areas are not allowed, only a black and white picture of paranoids (American cold warriors with their Manichean worldview) and the thoughtful (those who can see good in Soviet society and evil in the American one). Even lifelong anti-imperialists like George Orwell as characterized as cheerleaders for American empire building. Left out of this portrait was Orwell’s hopes for a third alternative of a United Socialist States of Europe rather than support for either West or East. Far from a proponent of American empire building, Orwell was a trenchant critic of its strongest proponent, James Burnham. Orwell saw Burnham’s support of American imperialism as “smacking of power worship” and feared that such a proposal would aid rightist forces. A study of Orwell shows him as every bit as thoughtful as the authors believes themselves to be; it clear, however, that it is Orwell’s anti-Stalinism, denounced throughout the essay, that disqualifies him from this camp.

American popular culture in the 50s is equally caricatured as homogenized and paranoid. Much is made of the rightwing mentality voiced by the docu-dramas of the era and the film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But absent from this study are films that criticized the right from such as Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, a study of photogenic fascism, and The Manchurian Candidate, which posited that the far right was a tool of the far left.
American Cold War Culture leaves the reader with the uncomfortable feeling that every author was vetted for correct attitudes before submitting. They all speak with one voice and one message. It conjures up the era but not the one they intended nor the country. Rather than the image of a horde of grey flannel suits casting suspicious glances overseas, the editors, by example rather than intent, recall the era of official, doctored history. Let us hope that when pereiostroika comes to the academic Left, the mountain of facts left out of American Cold War Culture was collected in a samizdat edition.



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