The Culture of the Cold War (1991)

By Stephen J. Whitfield

As with Thomas Hill Schaub’s study of the era’s fiction, the “Cold War” in the title of Whitfield’s book is somewhat of a misnomer in that he has limited his focus to the period of unprecedented national consensus during the Truman, Eisenhower, and (to a lesser extent) Kennedy administrations. The Culture of the Cold War is divided into chapter-long studies of the major voices of popular culture, each of which, according to Whitfield, reflected and contributed to the polarity that characterized so much of the 1950s. By making case studies of such disparate public figures as Whittaker Chambers, Charlie Chaplin, Billy Graham, Lillian Hellman, and Mickey Spillane (among many, many others), Whitfield exposes the dominant ideologies that shaped the politics, the news media, literature, film, religion, consumer culture, and television of the day.

Whitfield begins by cutting through the hyperbolic rhetoric that dominates so much writing about the Red Scare, calling the period not a “collective tragedy” but a “disgrace.” “Unable to strike directly at the Russians,” Whitfield writes, “the most vigilant patriots went after the scalps of their countrymen instead. Since Stalin and his successors were out of reach, making life difficult for Americans who admired them was more practical.” The McCarthy era witch hunts divided the country into two distinct parties: honest, patriotic, God-fearing Republicans and Communists, a category that included everyone who, for instance, fought for Civil Rights legislation or worried about American poverty or questioned our involvement in Southeast Asia or failed to attend Christian church services regularly. In fact, for a period of several years, Whitfield convincingly argues, anyone who voiced any doubt whatsoever about the perfection of American society was opening up him- or herself to charges of disloyalty, which could then lead to blacklisting, prison, or, in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, execution.

The most lamentable product of the hysterical finger-pointing was the silencing of all progressive politics. Whitfield captures the moment with effective understatement: “Because an intense concern with unsolved social problems may have betrayed Soviet influence, policy options thinned.” The Kennedys make for an interesting study of how dominant the anti-Communist ideology had become. JFK, then a young Congressman from Massachusetts, voted with the majority against several key pieces of proposed social legislation, and RFK served alongside Roy Cohn as an influential aid to McCarthy. New Deal programs atrophied when they were loudly denounced as “pink” and when funding was funneled instead toward the building of the Military Industrial Complex and the securing of American financial interests worldwide. America quickly shifted its focus to production and consumption. Whitfield writes: “What the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were supposed to protect was, above all, a lifestyle intimately associated with the blessings of prosperity. Above all the American experiment meant—at home and abroad-abundance, which was the finest measure of manifest destiny.”

Typical of Whitfield’s book is the case study that closes it. In the final chapter, “Thawing: A Substitute for Victory,” Whitfield looks more closely at the early years of the 1960s, when cracks began to form in the American consensus. Stanley Kubrick’s films offer some timeline of that development: Paths of Glory (1957) was so strangely ambivalent about war that it was preceded by a disclaimer; Spartacus (1960) was based on a novel by Socialist Howard Fast and employed several blacklisted screenwriters, who were given on-screen credit for the first time in years; and Dr. Strangelove (1963) exposed the absurdity of Cold War policy by blending truth and satire in hilariously uncomfortable ways. Whitfield quotes Kubrick on the genesis of the film, which was originally intended to be a straight-forward adaptation of the novel, Red Alert: “ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. I kept saying to myself: ‘I can’t do this. People will laugh.’ But after a month or so I began to realize that all the things I was throwing out were the things which were most truthful.” Whitfield pairs Kubrick with Joseph Heller, whose novel Catch-22 likewise took its form from the “disintegrated” days of Korea and the 1950s. Voices like Kubrick’s and Heller’s, Whitfield argues, helped to bring an end, finally, to the hypocrisy: “The culture of the Cold War,” he writes, “decomposed when the moral distinction between East and West lost a bit of its sharpness, when American self-righteousness could be more readily punctured, when the activities of the two superpowers assumed greater symmetry.”