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Louis Menand
The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2021.

     Louis Menand has written a sprawling, fact-filled history of American art, culture, and ideas between the end of World War II in 1945 and 1965, the year the War in Vietnam escalated and American culture began to unravel at the seams. The book is prodigiously researched, fascinating, very long, and, in some ways, flawed. 


     Menand begins with an acute observation: In 1945, America’s government, which had helped defeat fascism and aggressive empire in Germany and Japan, was admired nearly everywhere in the world, but American art and culture were not taken seriously beyond our own borders. By 1965, the situation had completely reversed--American art and culture dominated the globe, but our politics and government were widely reviled for our dedication to Cold War politics, including what was increasingly recognized as a disastrous and pointless war in Southeast Asia. 


     The era Menand is describing, as American ideas and art circulated and became respected, was, of course, dominated by the Cold War, a superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, an expensive conflict (in various ways) that did not end until the disintegration of the Soviet empire in 1989 and the reunification of East and West Germany. Future historians may well see the twentieth century as containing one long protracted battle that began in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I and did not end until the last Russian soldier left German soil nearly eight decades later, paving the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the formation of the European Union. 


     So a Cold War focus certainly makes sense. At the same time, it’s hard not to see Menand’s effort here as something of a corrective to the era of Trump and to Trumpism more generally. He shows us that there were times when America was respected around the globe, if not for one thing (our decisive help defeating fascism, our democratic system that seemed to be functioning well, at least in the eyes of many at home and abroad) then for our developing   artistic flowering. 


     Menand’s early chapters, delineating the intellectual and political origins of the Cold War, the third major conflict of the century, and what American thinkers had to say about the totalitarian systems we fought, are extremely well done, intellectual history at a high level. The discussions of figures such as George Kennan, one of the first strategists of American-Soviet relations, and political theorists including Hannah Arendt and Isiah Berlin are insightful and very much worth reading, even though such figures have been analyzed many times before. But, somewhat paradoxically, this early, perceptive intellectual history leaves the rest of the book in something of a methodological and narrative muddle. 


     Menand says the book is “not a book about Cold War culture,” but, in many places, that is exactly what it is—for example, when he discusses the ways in which French existentialists such as Sartre reacted to war and its aftermath and the impact of existentialist thinking on America, and vice versa, or his discussion of the New Left versus the Old, or his discussion of the process of decolonization that took place in the same era, as Britain and France, exhausted by war, lost their empires.  


     But apart from these discussions, which follow a clear narrative arc, in the lion’s share of the book Menand ranges freely over the arts and cultural and political events and loses his focus, discussing everything from Elvis Presley to Bauhaus architecture, literary critic Lionel Trilling to the artists Jackson Pollack and Jasper Johns, the Civil Rights movement to literary deconstruction to structural anthropology. These chapters are often chock-full of detail and abundant insight, but the narrative through-line often disappears, and it’s difficult to know how many of these sections relate to the overall theme in any meaningful way, other than that the individuals Menand chooses to discuss lived and worked at the same time. The Cold War theme often gets lost, and, given the book’s hefty length, the reader is sometimes left to wonder why they are reading a digression about Freud, or about the personal relationship between Lionel Trilling and the poet Allen Ginsburg, or how Motown fits in. Too often these sections read a bit like a catalog of who met whom when, who traveled where to do what. The discussion of how Jackson Pollack developed his singular style of painting is interesting in and of itself (he used the floor), but how does that relate to the Cold War, or to anything other than this particular artist? 


     There is a further methodological problem. Menand describes his method as based on vertical cross-sections, which in practice means a focus on headliners. In some chapters, that works. There’s no question that George Kennan was a crucial architect of post-World War II policy toward the Soviets (and a fascinating figure), or that James Baldwin and Betty Friedan and Norman Mailer were major figures who had outsize impact on their times. But in other sections Menand seems to abandon this approach in favor of a more comprehensive narrative style, and  so other figures seem to pop up here and there without much analysis—Allard Lowenstein in politics, Louis Malle in film, Clark Kerr (president of the University of California) in the discussion of higher ed. Again, the narrative thread gets somewhat lost.


     There are two additional problems: First, an almost complete lack of discussion of the American economy, and the widespread prosperity that lay underneath virtually all the artistic and cultural developments Menand is describing. If these twenty years had not been golden years for the American economy, based in corporate capitalism and domestic manufacturing, would we have had the same artistic flowering?  More to the point, would we have been able (quite literally) to afford the Cold War?  The strength of the economy was not merely due to American know-how. It was also a function of the fact that much of Europe and Japan were economically prostrate after World War II; surely that merits discussion in discussing the period.


     Second, fighting the Cold War led us to meddle, often clandestinely, in the affairs of other nations, from Cuba (the most famous example) to Iran to Guatemala (there’s tape of President Eisenhower casually saying we needed to get rid of their government, without a trace of embarrassment or irony). Surely, those episodes mattered to our standing in the rest of the world and to political thought at home and abroad. 


     But despite these problems and omissions, the book is still very much worth reading. American art and culture did flower during these decades, and the world did start paying attention. The Cold War did shape political thinking to an extraordinary degree. America was not the same country in 1965 it had been twenty years earlier, and it was about to change even further—some would say, almost beyond recognition. It is helpful to know where we’ve been, and Menand goes a long way toward showing us. And Menand is a skillful writer; his writing is lively and he brings characters to life, often with unusual and fascinating detail, even if it’s sometimes hard to know how the detail contributes to the bigger picture.

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