‘Cold Warriors’ is a thrilling dive into Cold War propaganda

Duncan White explores the impact and manipulation of the literary elite of the Cold War era, touching on writers like Orwell, le Carré, and Pasternak.

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
“Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War” by Duncan White, Custom House, 782 pp.

The Cold War was fought largely on the battlefield of ideas. As Duncan White’s massive and enjoyable book “Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War” makes clear, conflict with the Soviets centered on cultural, rather than actual, warfare. 

The U.S. cultural offensive against communism in the 1950s was spearheaded by the Psychological Strategy Board, made up of representatives of the U.S. State Department, Department of Defense, and the CIA, which reported, “Books – permanent literature – are by far the most powerful means of influencing the attitudes of intellectuals.”

White delves into the involvement of the CIA and other shadowy government entities that had a hand in influencing what, and who, was published. The CIA, for example, secretly funded literary publications. Many writers, unwittingly, became part of the propaganda campaign, while others came under suspicion as communist sympathizers. It appeared that writers couldn’t win: If their work argued strenuously against communism, they could be branded in the public’s estimation as tools of the government’s anti-communist efforts, as novelist Mary McCarthy discovered when her 1967 booklet “Vietnam” and her 1968 booklet “Hanoi” failed to find a large audience.

The stakes were higher for writers in the Soviet Union. The crackdowns by which Premier Joseph Stalin consolidated power decimated the intelligentsia and continued to inflict damage even after his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin’s brutality. 

White points out that “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 debut, “served as a reckoning with the unspoken past of purges and camps, and it made his reputation as a major writer. It also made him a target.” 

Poet Anna Akhmatova bravely gave public readings in Moscow and Leningrad despite being officially censored. She knew she risked arrest, White relates. “She had been submerged in obscurity for so long that when she broke the surface, she could do nothing but gasp for breath, some part of her knowing that the hand of the state, the hand of Stalin, would soon push her back under.” 

Boris Pasternak, best known in the West for “Dr. Zhivago,” was skeptical of the so-called thaw, the loosening of cultural restrictions in the early 1950s and ’60s by Khrushchev: “He believed Khrushchev looked like a pig and behaved like one, too.”

White presents a vivid, personality-driven chronicle of books going to war – and of writers finding themselves either caught up in the gears of international spycraft or acting as spies themselves. 

In these pages, readers will encounter the writing of familiar figures, including George Orwell, Václav Havel, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, and Joan Didion, but in a completely different context. 

One figure looms over the rest: British Second Secretary David Cornwell, who wrote spy novels under the pen name John le Carré. After his “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” became a runaway hit, literature and life blended until it was difficult to tell them apart. 

“Much of the jargon was invented from scratch by le Carré, only to be later adopted by British spies who devoured his books, the fiction becoming the reality, which later validated the novels’ veracity,” White writes.

“Cold Warriors” serves up these stories with an unfailing dramatic flair, which makes for irresistible reading. In the battle over ideas, the pen is truly mightier than the sword.

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