Louis Menand Examines the Churn of American Culture After World War II

Art and Thought in the Cold War
By Louis Menand

Historians who write about the early Cold War era have a particularly sharp eye for the underside of American politics. Their narratives, for the most part, stress racism, McCarthyism, the diminishment of women, restrictive immigration laws — all vital truths, but not the only truths, from our admittedly messy past. It is much the same regarding studies of Cold War culture, with book upon book skewering lowbrow entertainment, excessive consumerism and stifling conformity. There too often is a blind spot in which the positives of this era — soaring college enrollments, record book sales, judicial blows against racial injustice, a declining wealth gap — are viewed as tangential to the narrative, or worse, as cover for the nation’s many ills.

The evenhanded approach of Louis Menand, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Metaphysical Club,” is like a breath of fresh air. “The Free World” sparkles. Fully original, beautifully written, it covers the interchange of arts and ideas between the United States and Europe in the decades following World War II. Menand is no cheerleader; his assessment of America’s failures can be withering. But his larger point, backed by a mountain of research and reams of thoughtful commentary, is that American culture ascended in this era for the right reasons. “Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered,” he tells us.

Much of this was the result of the forced migration of intellectual talent after Mussolini and Hitler came to power. We tend to remember the scientists who fled — like Albert Einstein — much more than the composers, performers, writers, poets, philosophers and political theorists. At a time when immigration to the United States had all but ended, the door remained ajar for those with unique résumés. “Getting into the United States was like getting into a highly selective college,” Menand writes.

They made their mark quickly. Menand begins with a sweeping account of the ideas that buttressed American foreign policy at the dawn of the Cold War. His central figures include the native-born George Kennan, the State Department adviser who argued that Soviet expansion could best be contained through vigorous countermeasures, with military force the last resort, and Hans J. Morgenthau, a German Jewish refugee whose seminal 1948 work, “Politics Among Nations,” provided Kennan and others with intellectual cover. Morgenthau preached a theory known as Realism, aptly described by Menand as international relations guided by a nation’s “cold consideration of its own interests, not by some set of legal or moral principles.” The theory would be severely tested in Korea, Cuba and Vietnam.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of April. See the full list. ]

The term “Cold War” came from the socialist George Orwell, the most influential anti-Bolshevik writer of his time. As Menand makes clear, Orwell’s most notable works, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” were directed at fellow leftists who failed to acknowledge the crimes of Stalin. They were understandably popular in the United States, where fears of Soviet totalitarianism were in full swing. Was there really a difference between Nazism and Communism? (President Truman spoke for many in linking the two.) Those who had lived through the experience, including the German Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt, saw totalitarian movements as “mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,” easily led and resentful of those who supposedly profited at their expense. Its ring is familiar.

As the United States and the Soviet Union jostled for supremacy, another competition was unfolding as well. Paris had long dominated the West in literature, dance, food, fashion and all things sexual. There were a few dissenters. Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow found Paris to be cold, condescending, charmless — a city, Bellow said, that “could not bring itself to concede that it was a center no longer.”

Paris didn’t decline culturally following World War II; it was eclipsed. Fiction and poetry were now thriving in the United States, led by native rebels like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Censorship was fading, with the notable exception of the comic book industry, which agreed to ban sexually explicit content following lurid congressional hearings into the rise of juvenile delinquency. Modern art was fast becoming an American genre, with Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg holding sway. For those who have looked at a Pollock drip-painting and thought, “My 5-year-old could do that,” Menand convincingly explains the roots of Pollock’s genius. And he carefully links the ascendancy of these artists to a conveniently timed revolution in their industry. “They needed critics … who could understand and write about their work, dealers who would show it, and curators and collectors who would buy it.” Put simply, they needed an art world that would cater to their wants. America provided one.

France had also led in cinema. Its film industry had survived the Nazi occupation by engaging in what Menand describes as passive collaboration. But the Cold War spurred the Hollywood studios to remind Washington that movies were a perfect vehicle for spreading American good will. Hollywood had thousands of movies to unload, and Europe became a prime dumping ground. Resistant at first, the French came to accept the intrusion. Even the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir adored Hollywood westerns — Sartre’s favorite movie actor was Gary Cooper, a man, he wrote, “who thought little, spoke little and always did the right thing.”

In the 1950s, foreign films gained a foothold in the United States as well. Part of it was due to a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that forced the Hollywood studios to divest themselves of their theater chains. Part was pure voyeurism — think Brigitte Bardot in Roger Vadim’s 1956 blockbuster “And God Created Woman.” And part was a thirst for something new. Before long, art house theaters were doing brisk business in America’s big coastal cities and liberal college towns.

On occasion, foreign and American film styles clashed with amusing results. Menand’s description of the making of “Bonnie and Clyde” is a masterpiece of storytelling. The script came from two American journalists who imagined “a witty gangster picture featuring cool antiheroes in the manner of Belmondo in ‘Breathless’ and Charles Aznavour in … ‘Shoot the Piano Player,’ together with a romantic situation that would be a little outré, in the manner of ‘Jules and Jim.’” What could possibly go wrong?

François Truffaut expressed interest in making the film before bailing out to do “Fahrenheit 451.” He gave the script to his friend Jean-Luc Godard, who couldn’t fathom why the picture had to be shot in Texas when it could just as easily be filmed in Japan. “I’m talking cinema and you’re talking meteorology,” he lectured the two Americans before bidding them adieu. The option was picked up by Warren Beatty, whose career, post-“Splendor in the Grass,” had hit the skids. Brilliantly cast by the director Arthur Penn, the film barely made it off the lot. The studio boss, Jack Warner, despised it. Beatty bore no resemblance to Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney, Warner’s favorite bad guys, and the script depicting a clan of murderous but otherwise likable hillbillies left the mogul speechless beyond a string of obscenities.

“Bonnie and Clyde” got a better reception in Europe than it did in the United States. Bosley Crowther, the longtime critic for The New York Times, called it “a garish, grotesque film.” Other early reviews were similar, with the notable exception of Pauline Kael’s 7,000-word paean in The New Yorker, a publication, Menand notes, that catered to well-educated, culturally insecure folk “eager not to like the wrong things, or to like the right things for the wrong reasons.” Kael had a reputation for liking almost nothing. In this instance, however, her affection for the film’s quirkiness, sexuality and foreign touches helped to assure audiences, as well as future reviewers, that they were witnessing a changing of the guard. Or, as Menand puts it: “When Dunaway stroked Clyde’s pistol and sucked on her Coke bottle, the New Wave had truly come to America.”

Authors are free to choose their characters, of course, and Menand, with 727 pages of text, is freer than most. There are finely tuned capsule biographies of Elvis, the Beatles, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Betty Friedan and Tom Hayden, along with a host of public intellectuals whose occupation no longer exists. Hundreds of names are mentioned, making it difficult at times to connect the dots. And there are some curious omissions, like Alfred Kinsey, whose huge studies of the sexual practices of America’s men and women caused a cultural earthquake; and Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, the nation’s premier women writers, whose bare-knuckled exchanges are the literary version of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy.

Menand concludes in the 1960s, with Vietnam as the anchor. The antiwar movement had begun with scattered student protests against the role of the modern university as the servant of the power elite — a message borrowed from the sociologist C. Wright Mills, and echoed by President Eisenhower, of all people, in his farewell address. And the protests had remained that way, confined largely to college campuses, until the grinding escalation in Vietnam could no longer be ignored. America’s avant-garde came late to the struggle, but quickly made its presence felt. Political activism replaced political indifference. Some believed that Vietnam sucked the oxygen from America’s most creative minds. Menand takes a more sympathetic view, seeing the shift as a welcome, if belated, response to an unfolding disaster.

Meanwhile, Realists like Kennan and Morgenthau lashed out at the insanity of entering a conflict in which the United States had no legitimate interests. By then, Kennan had softened his earlier views, admitting that containment could never be a blank check. There were nations that were worth defending, and nations that weren’t. His contempt for the arrogance of the Kennedy-Johnson policy hawks outweighed his distaste for radical students waving Vietcong flags.

In 1945, America had been viewed as a cultural backwater with a generous government — one that had shed blood to liberate Europe and then spent billions to get the continent back on its feet. Two decades later, the opposite was true. American culture was confident and diverse, while the government’s reputation was in tatters. One hopes Menand has a sequel in mind. The bar is set very high.

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