Still the Free World

Since it arrived last summer, I have been reading, on and off, mostly in the evenings, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, by Louis Menand.  It is a stupendous work, 18 chapters about criticism and performance, engagingly written and crammed with vivid detail. Most of it was new to me, since, while I am always interested in Thought, I don’t much follow the Arts. The book, in short, is readable, a 740- page article as from a fancy magazine. But then, Menand is a New Yorker staff writer, as well as a professor of English at Harvard University,

It is also a conundrum.  The first chapter (“An Empty Sky,” is about George Kennan, architect of the policy of containment of the Soviet Union, its title taken from an capsule definition of  realism by strategist Hans Morgenthau, in which nations after the war “meet under an empty sky from which the gods have departed”). The last chapter (”This is the End,”) is about America’s war in Vietnam (its title from the Raveonettes’ tribute to The Doors on the death of their vocalist, Jim Morrison).

In between are sixteen other essays: on the post-WWII history of leftist politics, literature, jurisprudence, resistance, painting, literature, race and culture, photography, dance, popular music, consumer product design, literary criticism, new journalism, and film criticism. My favorite is about how cultural anthropology displaced physical anthropology in the hands of Claude Lévi-Strauss and photographer Edward Steichen, organizer of the Museum of Modern Art’s wildly successful Family of Man exhibition in 1955

A preface begins, “This is a book about a time when the United States was actively engaged with the rest of the world,” meaning the twenty years after the end of the Second World War.  Does that mean that Menand thinks the US ceased to be actively engaged with the world after 1965?  The answer seems to be yes and no. When its Vietnam War finally ended, in 1975, he writes, “The United States grew wary of foreign commitments, and other countries grew wary of the United States.”

During those twenty years, says Menand, a profound rearrangement of American culture had taken place   Before then, widespread skepticism existed among Americans about the place of arts and ideas in national life; respect for their government, its intentions and motives, was strong. After 1965, he finds, those attitudes were reversed.  “The US had lost political credibility, but it had moved from the periphery to the center of an increasing international artistic and intellectual life.” The change had come about through a policy of openness and exchange.

Artistic and philosophical choices carried implication for the way one wanted to live one’s life and for the kind of polity in which one wished to live in it.  The Cold War changed the atmosphere. It raised the stakes.

Menand is right about the big picture, I think. Inarguably the US grew much more free in those years, even as the governments of Russia and China cracked down on their citizens. Whether or not the lively arts were the engine – as opposed to the GI Bill, civil disobedience, the Pill, Ralph Nader, Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, the Stonewall Riots, The Whole Earth Catalog, Milton Friedman – hardly matters.

The Free World’s introduction begins with a photograph: Red Army soldiers hangs a Soviet flag from the roof of the Reichstag, overlooking the ruins of Berlin. The photo was a re-enactment, as had been that of US Marines raising a flag atop Okinawa’s Mount Suribachi that had appeared in newspapers six weeks before.

But there was a difference: the Soviet photo been doctored, a second watch on the wrist of the flag-bearer needled away – unwelcome evidence, perhaps, of prior looting in the otherwise heroic scene.  Cover-up was the hallmark of Russian totalitarianism, Menand seems to suggest: what the Cold War was all about.

Fast forward thirty years, to the end of the Vietnam War. The book ends with a striking peroration. Menand writes, “The political capital the nation accumulated by leading the alliance against fascism in the Second World War and helping rebuild Japan and Western Europe [the US] burned through in Southeast.”  The Vietnamese Communists who arrived in Saigon and the Americans left “did what totalitarian regimes do: they took over the schools and universities; they shut down the press; they pursued programs of enforced relocation’ they imprisoned, tortured, and execute their former enemies. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City and Ho’s body, like Lenin’s, was installed in a mausoleum for public viewing.”

Ahead lay another flight, this time Vietnamese citizens from their homeland. Menand continues, “Between 1975 and 1995, 839,228 Vietnamese fled the country, many on boats launched into the South China Sea [bound for Hong Kong or the Philippine Islands]. Two hundred thousands of them are estimated to have died [mostly by drowning]. Those people may or may not have known the meaning of the word ‘freedom,’ but they knew the meaning of oppression.” The English writer James Fenton, then working as a news correspondent, stayed behind to witness the aftermath of war. In the last sentence of his book, Menand quotes Fenton’s judgement: “The victory of the Vietnamese a victory for Stalinism.”

What, then, of the nearly fifty years since the fall of Saigon?  The Chinese turn towards global markets after the death of Mao? The American resurgence as an economic hyperpower beginning in 1980? The collapse of the Soviet Union?  NATO’s e penning-in of Russia? The World Trade Organizations open-arms to China in 2000?  The American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11?  The divisions in US civil society that have increase since?

The Winter Olympics in China underscore that a second Cold War has begun. What might be the consequences of it?  How long will it last? How might it end? Who will turn out to be its Harry Truman? It’s George Kennan?

The distinction between a Free World and authoritarian regimes seems to hold up, though no longer do we think of the others as “totalitarian.” Britain’s reputation is diminished. Is the US still leader of the Free World? Has its authority shrunk?  I put Menand’s book back on the shelf thinking that it was a valuable contribution to work in progress.

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