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Cold Warriors:
Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War

by duncan white
custom house, 800 pages, $32.50

In the opening lines of Cold Warriors, Duncan White notes that “between February and May 1955, a group covertly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency launched a secret weapon into Communist territory”: balloons carrying copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This was perhaps the most prominent title among “tens of millions of books, leaflets, pamphlets, posters” that were distributed by hundreds of thousands of weather balloons. “In response,” White ­continues, “the authorities in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland warned its citizens that possession of this material was illegal and even sought to shoot down the balloons with fighter planes and ­antiaircraft guns.” 

Nearly seven hundred pages later, White states the obvious:

Literature is no longer conceived of as a weapon to be deployed in cultural warfare: it is hard to imagine the publication of a novel precipitating a geopolitical crisis in the manner of Dr. Zhivago or The Gulag Archipelago. . . . The specific circumstances of the Cold War will never be repeated, and the idea of literature being deployed by governments on a vast scale is no longer credible.

Of course, governments still worry about writers and writing—China regularly restricts the travel of dissident authors; it goes after booksellers who sell books that criticize the central government; and it bullies foreign embassies, usually Scandinavian, that raise concerns. PEN International regularly documents the situation of imprisoned, suppressed, and disappeared writers living under repressive regimes around the world. 

But in the main, White is correct. It is impossible to imagine governments turning to writers, and writing, to help in a conflict with other nations, let alone devising a contemporary version of literary airlifts by weather balloon. And then there’s the suspicion of patriotism and the military that is now inherent to literary culture. (John Updike spent decades living down the qualified support he once expressed for the Vietnam War.) This reciprocal and mutually affirming suspicion is taken for granted today, but the ­situation was otherwise throughout the Cold War. Indeed, some of the most interesting passages in White’s book describe the public and clandestine activities of (primarily) the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union to deploy literature in the service of their respective national interests, and the willingness of writers to be so deployed. 

Take Richard Wright, who was under FBI surveillance for his communist sympathies in the 1950s, even as the CIA promoted him and his work internationally as evidence of how dissenting writers were free to express themselves under American democracy. Then there’s the only-in-America success story of Howard Fast. After being imprisoned for refusing to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s, the blacklisted author self-published a best-selling critique of McCarthyism, ­Spartacus. A film adaptation starring Kirk Douglas expressed the writer’s anti-conformist views while enjoying massive commercial success. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Boris Pasternak completed the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago and had it smuggled out of the country. The KGB tried to prevent its publication by an Italian publisher, which initially agreed out of shared communist sympathies only to reverse course after the Soviet-supported Hungarian government brutally suppressed the 1956 popular uprising. 

Pasternak emerges as one of the book’s most impressive, if tragic, figures. He wrote his novel knowing it would anger Soviet authorities, but he did not anticipate how Western powers would wield it against his country. The CIA, Dutch intelligence, and the Vatican conspired to provide Russian-language editions of the novel to Russians visiting the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. The CIA regarded it and similar titles as “strategic (long-range) propaganda.” The irony, of course, is that Doctor Zhivago appealed precisely because it wasn’t written as propaganda. As White observes, “The lead character, Zhivago, a doctor and a poet, refuses to engage with politics, and it was this, [the CIA] argued, that was ‘fundamental’” to its meaning. The CIA, whose earliest analysts included people with serious literary training and interests, saw Zhivago as a challenge to the idea that ­politics is the first and last context for ­meaningful ­experience. In this sense, they believed, the book was efficaciously opposed to the first principles of Marxist and Stalinist thought and practice.

As his book gained acclaim in the West, Pasternak was denounced at home by fellow writers and intellectuals in state-controlled newspapers and literary publications. He was also closely watched by the KGB. After he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1958, he was expelled from the national writers’ union, lost his pension, and was attacked by the state press “for his ‘shameful, ­unpatriotic attitude.’” He rejected the prize, abjured Western acclaim, and became suicidal. Pasternak died a broken man, if not without supporters. White describes the crowds who defied the authorities to attend his funeral and silently recite, in unison, some of his lines. 

While Pasternak’s life and work afford an especially tragic example of a writer caught up in Cold War struggles, the efforts of writers such as Ernest ­Hemingway, Graham Greene, and David Cornwell (the future John le Carré)—all of whom sought out some form of work in the military or intelligence—suggest a version of heroism particular to the West’s Cold War culture. They worked not only in support of various national interests but in pursuit of their own personal ends, at once romantic and cynical. Whatever their politics, they pursued them in a way that affirmed individualism and imperfection over and against collectivism and conformism. 

In this context, Mary McCarthy comes off more poorly than most of the other writers chronicled in this account. With customary cockiness, she claimed that novelists could make a special contribution to the broader effort of understanding the Vietnam War amid its conflicting imperatives and narratives: “What we can do, perhaps better than the next man, is smell a rat.” Yet even as ­McCarthy questioned the accounts she was given by the U.S. and U.S.-supported government officials in Saigon, she credulously swallowed the self-­presentation of the North Vietnamese. In addition to suffering from poor sales of pamphlet versions of her writing about the situation in Vietnam, McCarthy was criticized by the likes of Diana Trilling, in the New York Review of Books, for committing the mortal sin of any serious and self-respecting intellectual: ordering one’s capacities for genuinely liberal and open inquiry and analysis to the affirmation of static ideological ­purposes. 

White tends to write in an excited, even breathless, manner. This becomes wearisome, but it’s understandable. He’s not alone in admiring a time when writers were willing and able, and also recognized and reckoned with as serious contributors to national life and geopolitical questions of consequence that weren’t disproportionately about themselves. The latter is very much the case these days, at least in the Anglophone West. Writers almost always show up in public consciousness either for winning prizes or because of Twitter fights over the right relationship of a given writer’s identity and chosen subject matter. Literary imaginations are capable of inspiring greater acts of heroism and villainy than such vain mirrorwork.

Randy Boyagoda is professor of English and vice-dean of Undergraduate Studies in Arts and Science at the University of Toronto. 

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