Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Literature

Title: Lillian Hellman
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The Cold War was fought on the literary as well as the diplomatic and political fronts. Although it did not provide so immediately absorbing subject matter for writers as did the two world wars of the twentieth century, it created a tense, competitive environment in which all thoughtful writers operated. Sometimes openly but often by parable or indirection, serious writers confronted the social, political, and philosophical issues raised by the conflict, which eventually split the world into two opposing ideological camps. During the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, a significant number of American writers found their careers threatened should they express sympathy for communism. Their often-coerced testimonies before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate subcommittee were invariable dramatic and sometimes life-altering. Always mindful of the feared blacklist, writers learned to proceed with caution. Those who did not conform resorted to the use of pen names. At the same time, the interest generated by Senate hearings and Cold War intrigues provided the more openly commercial writers, those who produced entertainment that titillated casual readers, a superabundance of plot possibilities.

Decades before the Cold War began, numerous men and women of letters had found socialist and Marxist ideas attractive. Some had flirted with communism and had looked toward the Soviet Union as a noble experiment. Naturalism, the literary movement that dominated serious European and American fiction in the first half of the twentieth century, had actually encouraged many writers in this direction. Since the time of Émile Zola in late nineteenth-century France, practitioners of literary naturalism had prided themselves on their ability to rouse the public and mitigate miserable living conditions by highlighting social abuses in fiction. Because these writers knew the social problems of Western Europe and the United States best and juxtaposed this reality to the rosy propaganda that was emanating from the Soviet Union, it was not uncommon for them to respond positively to features of the communist message.

As the HUAC hearings got under way, writers who had worked in Hollywood were particularly vulnerable to the committee's scrutiny. Lillian Hellman (1905–1984) was perhaps the most highly publicized writer to confront HUAC directly. A major American dramatist and woman of letters, she had earned her reputation with such plays as The Children's Hour (1934), one of the first Broadway dramas to treat lesbianism, and Watch on the Rhine (1941), an antifascist play. Although born in New Orleans to an affluent family, she had become involved in radical politics under the influence of her companion, Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961).

Hellman became an eager student of Marxist texts and briefly joined the Communist Party for humanitarian and idealistic reasons. In the early years of World War II, she had carefully followed the party line, first urging the United States to stay out of the conflict, during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and later advocating involvement when Germany violated its treaties by invading the Soviet Union in 1941. By the time she was called to testify before HUAC, her days with the party were over. By skillful management of public relations, she was able to avoid tattling on former associates without going to prison herself.

Hammett was not so fortunate. Although a dedicated Marxist who had supported radical movements in the United States, he claimed that he had never actually joined the Communist Party. Nevertheless, he refused to cooperate with HUAC, invoking the Fifth Amendment eighty times during his testimony. Refusing to identify communist sympathizers he had known, he was sentenced to six months in federal prison, was blacklisted in Hollywood, and was hounded by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for the rest of his life. His writings, identified as subversive by Senator McCarthy and McCarthy's sidekick Roy Cohn, were removed from many libraries. This was a considerable disappointment to Hammett's many readers, who regarded him as a creator of the American hard-boiled school of detective fiction with his Sam Spade and Thin Man stories. His best-known works, such as Red Harvest (1927) and The Maltese Falcon (1930), are still regarded as classics of the genre.

Other writers with strong Hollywood connections caught up in the HUAC net included Clifford Odets (1906–1963), Ring Lardner Jr. (1915–1983), and Arthur Miller (1915–2005). Odets emerged as one of the sadder figures of the McCarthy era. A leading playwright of the 1930s and 1940s and the author of Waiting for Lefty (1935) and Golden Boy (1937), Odets was a member of the Marxist League of American writers, which had included the great American novelist Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945). Odets joined the party itself around 1935. According to his later testimony, he resigned six or eight months later in disappointment. The communist publications The Daily Worker and The New Masses had unfavorably reviewed his plays, labeling him a "hack writer" who did not properly promote proletarian themes. When he later testified before HUAC, Odets attempted to downplay leftist influence in Hollywood, claiming that the collaborative system that produced Hollywood films made it next to impossible for a writer to inject Marxist ideas into scripts. Because of his conciliatory approach to the committee, many of his colleagues accused him of collusion with the enemy, and the experience left him disheartened.

Lardner was the son of a popular American humorist and had been an Academy Award-winning screenwriter in 1942. He was the youngest of the group of motion picture screenwriters and directors accused of communist sympathies, designated as the Hollywood Ten. In the 1930s he had visited the Soviet Union to judge, he believed, the Marxist experiment firsthand. At that time he had truly believed it his duty to try to communicate Marxist ideas through film. HUAC regarded him as an important witness, but his failure to answer the committee's questions resulted in a citation for contempt, a year's prison sentence, a $1,000 fine, and the Hollywood blacklist. For two years he was forced to make his living anonymously. His novel The Ecstasy of Owen Muir appeared in England in the 1960s but could not be published in the United States. He was finally able to return to Hollywood in the 1960s, where he earned a second Academy Award for his work on the screenplay of M*A*S*H (1970).

Miller (1915–2005), like Hellman, was a major twentieth-century American playwright whose drama Death of a Salesman (1949) redefined tragedy for the modern theater. A liberal activist from youth, Miller had still never been willing to put himself under the discipline of the Communist Party. He rejected its doctrine that all artists should employ their talents to further the party line. Yet he believed that the Communist Party should be able to function legally in the United States, and he condemned HUAC as a pack of witch-hunters. While Miller was willing to be forthright with HUAC about his own beliefs and actions, he firmly refused to testify against others. On several occasions in later years, Miller publicly expressed his conviction that the very existence of civilization depended on trust and loyalty. Although his career survived and he became a media celebrity upon his marriage to Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe, Miller did not escape unscathed. He was even refused a passport by the State Department.

Two later Miller plays powerfully reflect his reactions to HUAC and the anticommunist hysteria that damaged the careers of people close to him. The Crucible (1953), ostensibly about the Salem witch trials of early American colonial history, was generally understood to be a parable of McCarthyism. After the Fall (1964) was a more direct depiction of Miller's personal experiences as a harassed artist and husband of a neurotic film star.

To those who were seized by the Red hysteria, it often seemed that all American letters had turned leftist. There were, however, significant counterbalances. During the early years of the Cold War, Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) and William Faulkner (1897–1962) were among the most admired American writers. Hemingway believed that a writer betrayed his art if he used it to promulgate an ideology. The extreme subjectivity of Hemingway and the social conservatism of Faulkner made them unlikely heroes of the Left.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1947), a horrific piece of political satiric fiction by the English writer George Orwell (1903–1950), circulated throughout the United States and was widely interpreted as a vision of what the West would become if dominated by the Soviet Union. In the society of Oceania, as described in the book, the omnipresent television set indoctrinates folk in the Big Lie, the government's interpretation of everything. All speech, action, and even thought are controlled by Big Brother.

Another book that profoundly influenced American thought appeared in 1949. The God That Failed was a collection of essays by important novelists, poets, and journalists whose earlier ideals had been betrayed by the reality of what the Soviet Union had become. They had all initially believed communism to be the best hope for the oppressed masses of the world. The participants in The God That Failed were Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian novelist; Louis Fischer, an American journalist; André Gide, a French essayist and novelist; Richard Wright, a major African American novelist; Ignazio Silone, an Italian journalist and novelist; and the British poet Stephen Spender.

Especially moving was Richard Wright's narrative of his emergence from Mississippi plantation life to a writing career in Chicago. The Communist Party had promised equality for all, with particular concern for the plight of the African American in the years before the successes of the civil rights movement. Wright's eventual discovery of the tyranny and duplicity of the party was a painful epiphany.

Equally powerful was Gide's account of his visit to the Soviet Union in June 1936 as a guest of the Soviet Society of Authors. He had approached his visit with the conviction that the Russian experiment was the wave of the future. Although he was shown every courtesy and provided the finest accommodations the country had to offer, his eyes and ears were open. He was unable to deny that the vast masses of Soviet citizens still lived in abject poverty. While the rest of the world was bombarded with rosy visions of an ideal state by the party's propaganda machine, Russian workers continued to suffer under deplorable tyranny that rivaled that of the czars.

Perhaps the most outspoken and abrasive literary opponent of communism in the United States during the Cold War was Ayn Rand (1905–1982), a native of Russia who had experienced communism firsthand and passionately hated it and all its works. Her novels, which sometimes became best-sellers and always attracted a cult following, were rarely more than fictional embodiments of her ideas and prejudices. We, the Living (1936), The Fountainhead (1943), and Atlas Shrugged (1957) extolled the virtues of self-interest, the fulfilment of individual potential, and the value of capitalism as the system best designed to favor self-fulfilment. As a friendly witness before HUAC in October 1947, Rand attacked early Hollywood portrayals of life in the Soviet Union as an idealized lie. She testified that the Soviet Union was in fact a prison from which many were risking their lives to escape. Her claim that Russians smiled only "privately and accidentally" was widely quoted and was ridiculed by Hellman and others.

In the English language, it was genre fiction that most directly exploited the Cold War. Spy thrillers became a staple, expertly penned by Graham Greene (1904–1991), Ian Fleming (1908–1964), John Le Carré (1931–), Tom Clancy (1947–), and others. Greene was a major British writer who rarely concealed his hostility toward American policies. He divided his literary output into two clear categories: his serious fiction, which explored religious and philosophical themes, and his entertainments, often set against worldwide political conflicts. The Third Man (1948) unfolded in postwar Vienna with a leading character who bore a remarkable resemblance to Soviet mole Kim Philby, a man for whom Greene had once worked. The Quiet American (1955) used Vietnam as a back-drop, at the beginning of the American involvement in the turmoil generated by the French and by nationalist and communist factions. Our Man in Havana (1958) revealed a cloak-and-dagger world of espionage more ridiculous than awesome.

Fleming, another British writer, created the character of James Bond, perhaps the most popular of all fictional Cold War spies, certainly after the cinema discovered him. Bond's most notable Cold War adventures erupted in From Russia with Love (1957) in which Bond romped with buxom Soviet female agents as he battled SMERSH, the Soviet organ of vengeance, interrogation, torture, and death; in For Your Eyes Only (1960), in which SHAPE headquarters, a Russian hideout near Paris, is destroyed; and in Octopussy (1966), which found Bond snaring a top Soviet agent found bidding for a Fabergé egg in a Sotheby auction. The Bond stories were splendid camp, and their exaggerations made many feel that the Soviets were more buffoons than threats.

Le Carré, a third British spy novelist, made good use of his personal experiences in the British Foreign Service as background for his novels. Among his best-known thrillers are The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). These narratives suggest a grim, lonely espionage underworld in which values are often blurred and loyalties sometimes ambiguous.

Clancy, an American, wrote thrillers rivaling the appeal of the leading British spy novelists. Books with special Cold War relevance included The Hunt for Red October (1984), Red Storm Rising (1986), Patriot Games (1987), and Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988). He wrote a fast-paced adventure narrative, more real-world than were the James Bond adventures, yet he avoided the moral ambiguities that intrigued Greene and Le Carré.

Science fiction became the most popular literary category during the Cold War, particularly after paperbacks became widely distributed. This genre at its best provided an even more provocative attack on communism than had the spy stories. Hundreds of paperbacks were published each year, some predicting dystopian futures in which tyranny would prevail. Others painted a horrifying panorama of a planet devastated by a Cold War turned hot in a thermonuclear disaster. These narratives generally refrained from siding with either East or West in the conflict. The destructive potential, they seemed to say, is spread about equally throughout the human race. The bomb had become the new Frankenstein monster, the golem through which the suicidal impulses of humanity would find expression.

Two of these apocalyptic novels attracted special attention. Neville Shute (1899–1960) was a British writer living in Australia when he published On the Beach (1957). He envisioned a near future where nuclear war has wiped out all life in the Northern Hemisphere. Australians alone survive, but only for a few days, with full awareness that global winds will soon bring radioactive contamination to them.

Three years after the appearance of On the Beach, Walter M. Miller Jr. (1922–1996) published his hauntingly poetic A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the few science fiction books that has crossed over literary categories to become recognized as a significant work of twentieth-century American fiction. In this unusual science fiction story, after the nuclear holocaust the tiny Catholic Order of Leibowitz undertakes the task of preserving some memory of previous civilization.

Although writers in the English language have most notably confronted the Cold War in their fiction, European literature has also been strongly conditioned by the events of the period, often struggling with Cold War issues on a philosophical or religious plane. In Italy, France, and elsewhere on the European continent, atheistic views, strongly influenced by the dialectal materialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, have battled Christianity in the minds and hearts of serious writers.

In France, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), highly sympathetic to Marxism although frequently critical of the Soviet Union, best represented the atheistic position. In 1945 Sartre founded a political and literary magazine, Les Temps Modernes, which reflected his position as an independent socialist addressing Cold War issues. His novels, such as The Age of Reason (1945) and Troubled Sleep (1949), gave fictional embodiment to his social and philosophical ideas. A more mellow atheistic French voice was that of Albert Camus, a fellow existentialist who had actually once been a Communist Party member. His novel The Plague (1947) has been variously interpreted as a parable of Resistance fighters in Paris revolting against Nazi domination and as a protest against all revolutionary movements that justify the use of any methods to achieve their ends.

Espousing Christianity even in a France often labeled "post-Christian" were writers such as Georges Bernanos (1888–1948), François Mauriac (1885–1970), and Julian Green (1900–1998), an American citizen who spent most of his life in France and wrote almost exclusively in the French language. Much of the career of Bernanos was devoted to writings that promoted his liberal views, which included his denunciations of French bourgeois values and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's exploits. As a frequent essayist, Bernanos took positions with which both communists and ultrarightists could occasionally agree.

Mauriac, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1952, affirmed Christian values with novels that were more concerned with personal and family relationships than social movements. His message in numerous novels was that beneath prosperous exteriors, regardless of the political system, human beings are torn by uneasy emotions in disordered lives of their own making.

Green likewise concentrated on the wars within the human personality in books that reflected his personal dilemmas, his conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism, and his acknowledgment of his homosexuality. These introspective works included Moira (1950) and Each in His Own Darkness (1960).

In Italy, Alberto Moravia (1907–1990), an influential intellect tormented by the plight of the poor, skeptical of Christian solutions, and alert to the appeal that the Communist Party made to postwar Italians, became the best known of his country's novelists throughout Europe and the United States. From the beginning, the socially alienated were his choice subjects, while his style was sparse and realistic. A Woman of Rome (1947), about a Roman prostitute, and Time of Desecration (1978), a political allegory, were among his most penetrating works.

While the intellectuals were debating the social reality portrayed by Moravia and examining his implied solutions, masses of people were devouring the Don Camillo stories of Giovannino Guareschi (1908–1968). These were simple tales somewhat reminiscent of medieval legends of St. Francis, about a village priest in the Po Valley who converses with the crucifix above his altar and verbally spars with his old friend, Pepponi, the communist mayor of his village. The books made the simple plea for Christian virtues above the vapid promises of communism.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Russian writers faced very different problems than their Western counterparts, who often had a bewildering assortment of philosophical options from which to choose. Instead of castigating their opponents, Soviet writers had to concern themselves with pleasing their government and following the party line or else circulating their manuscripts through a flourishing Russian underground. Writing guilds in the Soviet Union operated under clearly defined precepts of socialist realism, which an individual author violated only with considerable courage. In Soviet Russia under Josef Stalin, there was to be no art for art's sake. All writings were to serve the proletarian revolution. Crude propaganda novels flooded the Russian market, celebrating women who chose to forgo singing in the Moscow opera in order to increase their egg production on collective farms or men allowed to marry their intended only after factory quotas had been surpassed.

Ilya Ehrenburg (1891–1967) was one of the best-known writers of genuine talent to faithfully follow the party line. He was, not surprisingly, awarded two Stalin Prizes for The Fall of Paris (1941), a fictional account of French societal decay from 1935 through 1940, and The Storm (1948), a war novel with Tolstoyan pretensions. Vera Panova (1905–1973) was another loyal Soviet novelist who, nevertheless, managed to convey in her writing the compassion and humanistic vision that had been the identifying feature of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists. She received the Stalin Prize in 1947 for The Train. Although she did not fail to tackle social issues according to the cannons of socialist realism, she is best remembered for her loving portraits of children, such as Evodokiia (1959).

Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–1984), who became the Nobel laureate of 1965, was acclaimed by his government as an obedient communist as well as a powerful writer. His most loved work was And Quiet Flows the Don, written between 1928 and 1940. It presented a vast panorama of the revolutionary period in a way that did not displease the authorities.

Two serious Russian writers came into open conflict with their government when they were awarded Nobel Prizes. During the Cold War the prize itself, still the most prestigious in the world for literary achievement, became politicized. In 1958, Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) was coerced by his government into refusing the prize, which was awarded to him not only for a distinguished body of poetry but also for his masterpiece Doctor Zhivago, completed in 1956 but not published in his native land until 1988. Doctor Zhivago's theme was the aspirations of the individual pitted against the demands of doctrinaire systems.

In 1970 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–) was awarded the Nobel Prize. His writings—fictionalizations of personal experiences—had exposed the underside of Soviet life, the ruthlessness of the prison camps, and the injustice of the courts. First Circle (1968) was based on the years that he spent in a prison research institute, while Cancer Ward (1968) resulted from his hospitalization and treatment for cancer during a forced exile in Kazakhstan in the 1950s. The Gulag Archipelago, which began publication in Paris in 1973, was considered his most thorough exposé of the notorious Soviet prison and labor camps. Living under almost constant harassment, Solzhenitsyn did not bend to the Soviet authorities but remained a thorn in their flesh until he finally was expelled from the country in 1974. Equally unhappy in the West, despite the acclaim he received both for his writing and his political courage, he returned to Russia in 1994.

On both sides of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War conditioned both serious and popular literature. The unsettled quality of life and the fears generated by the reality of mutual assured destruction (MAD) may be easily discerned in the novels of several decades, although the conflict failed to call forth the epic writing that has always resulted from the world's great armed conflicts.

Allene Phy-Olsen


Further Reading
Feldman, Burton. The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000.; Lipschutz, Ronnie D. Cold War Fantasies: Film, Fiction, and Foreign Policy. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.; Schaub, Thomas Hill. American Fiction in the Cold War. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
 

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