American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War: A Critical Reassessment

American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War: A Critical Reassessment


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American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War: A Critical Reassessment by Steven Belletto

The time is right for a critical reassessment of Cold War culture both because its full cultural impact remains unprocessed and because some of the chief paradigms for understanding that culture confuse rather than clarify.
A collection of the work of some of the best cultural critics writing about the period, American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War reveals a broad range of ways that American cultural production from the late 1940s to the present might be understood in relation to the Cold War. Critically engaging the reigning paradigms that equate postwar U.S. culture with containment culture, the authors present suggestive revisionist claims. Their essays draw on a literary archive—including the works of John Updike, Joan Didion, Richard E. Kim, Allen Ginsberg, Edwin Denby, Alice Childress, Frank Herbert, and others—strikingly different from the one typically presented in accounts of the period.

Likewise, the authors describe phenomena—such as the FBI’s surveillance of writers (especially African Americans), biopolitics, development theory, struggles over the centralization and decentralization of government, and the cultural work of Reaganism—that open up new contexts for discussing postwar culture. Extending the timeline and expanding the geographic scope of Cold War culture, this book reveals both the literature and the culture of the time to be more dynamic and complex than has been generally supposed. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609381134
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Series: New American Canon Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

 An assistant professor of English and chair of the American Studies program at Lafayette College, Steven Belletto is the author of No Accident, Comrade: Chance and Design in Cold War American Narratives (Oxford, 2012) and has published essays on postwar literature and culture in such journals as ELH, American Quarterly, Clio, Criticism, and Genre. He is an associate editor of the journal Contemporary Literature. Daniel Grausam is the author of On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War (Virginia, 2011) and is currently completing Half Lives: The Legacies of the First Nuclear Age, an interdisciplinary study of post-Cold War American nuclear culture.

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American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War



Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-113-4

Chapter One




In the upshot of World War II, it first appeared that the 1 subject of this chapter, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's invasive surveillance of African American authors, would go the way of the 1919–20 Palmer Raids, a relic of the anticommunist emergency flushed from Bureau memory. "The world that the [FBI] faced in September 1945 was very different from the world of 1939 when the war began," the Bureau's self-produced on-line history sensibly remarks. African Americans, tasting "equality during wartime labor shortages, had developed aspirations and the means of achieving these goals [that they] had lacked before the war." Harry Truman of half-Southern Missouri, elevated to the White House after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's sudden death, was privately less sympathetic to black aspirations than the fallen president. Yet the real-politik of a regionally fractured Democratic Party and a Soviet-challenged national image pushed his administration to employ honeymoon capital to widen the cracks in white supremacy opened by wartime organizing. In 1946, Truman appointed the board of the first federal Civil Rights Commission. Inside a year, its integrated membership had produced the landmark report To Secure These Rights, recommending presidential measures to eliminate religious and racial segregation. In 1948, Truman gave Southern Democrats hell by endorsing the Commission's advice to desegregate the U.S. military. As viewed by the late Malcolm X biographer Manning Marable, these overtures lured African Americans into a short-sighted, long-lasting accord with Cold War liberalism. As viewed by the FBI, they were an immediate challenge to display egalitarian bona fides.

Marching ahead of the army, the Bureau honored its black troops in the October 1947 issue of Ebony, Afro-America's highest-circulation source of positive images. The unsigned, splashily illustrated cover story "Negro FBI Agents in Action" cautioned that Bureau employees doing "highly confidential work cannot be publicly identified." This was a handy dodge for an institution that employed all of fifteen black investigators between 1919 and 1956. J. Edgar Hoover's publicity-seeking Crime Records Division nonetheless permitted flattering portraits of two racial exceptions: James E. Amos, one of the Bureau's "crack agents," and Sam Noisette, the director's "personal aide," a self-described soul brother to Hoover who worked the door to his boss's inner sanctum. Amos is painted as a hard-bitten encyclopedia of G-man wisdom, a "gray and balding" survivor of gangland battles who "has gum-shoed for the FBI for the past 26 years." His assistance in writing "an unhappy finis to Marcus Garvey's dramatic 'Back to Africa' movement" suggests the inconvenient truth of his hiring before the Hoover administration. Hoover's younger protégé Noisette, by contrast, is cast as the trusted doorman of the national security/publicity state, "the greeter to thousands of Americans who come to Washington to see how the world's most scientific anti-crime agency works." Between the heading "Front Man for the FBI" and the handsome photo of Noisette attending to criminological relics in the director's reception room, Hoover's postwar Bureau clarifies its comfort with black window dressing, the personal aide rivaling the crack agent as the representative black FB eye.

Not long after the Ebony piece, however, the Bureau's favorite African American employees were widely known to work on retainer, far from headquarters. From January to October 1949, FBI spies shined in the notorious Smith Act trial of twelve Communist Party leaders arrested for advocating the violent overthrow of the United States. All twelve were found guilty as charged under the 1940 statute, and the verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court's Dennis decision of 1951, an opinion virtually outlawing American Communism. Ellen Schrecker, the prominent liberal chronicler of McCarthyism, suggests that the trial was a painful blend of barricades shouting match and literary-critical seminar. Anticommunist prosecutors and Communist theoreticians loudly clashed over the layers of double-talking "Aesopian language" in the Marxist-Leninist canon. As in the original Red Raids of 1919–20, crescendos of rhetorical violence in leftist writing were presumed guilty of the performative, and legal briefs were thick with selections from the Bureau's vast library of radical publications. 10 Yet what clinched the jury's guilty verdict was the personal touch of well-rehearsed FBI informers—or loyal "informants," in the sanitizing terminology promoted by their Bureau handlers. African American William Cummings, a Toledo, Ohio, auto worker who entered the Communist Party for the FBI in 1943, was one of seven witnesses chosen to take the stand from a casting call of sixty. According to his testimony, vicious Marxist literature rhymed with informal party schooling, which "taught militants that one day the streets would run with blood."

Cummings was not the only African American infiltrator working for Hoover. A disproportionate percentage of the FBI's approximately one thousand informers in the postwar Communist Party were black, about half of these salaried professional anticommunists for reasons of conviction or necessity. Recruiting African American sources was preferred as the Bureau schemed to transform the party's staunch antiracism into an existential threat. The "lingering obsession with white chauvinism protected black members from suspicion," FBI historian Kenneth O'Reilly explains, since "white communists who accused Negro comrades of working for the FBI often found themselves accused of racism and drummed out of the party." Federal Loyalty Board and McCarthy committee hearings thus often hosted the likes of William O. Nowell, once one of the party's longest-serving African American recruits, a graduate of Soviet cadre schools who appeared on behalf of the U.S. government at over forty trials and hearings between 1948 and 1954. Manning Johnson, formerly an experienced party manager, received $4,500 a year from the Justice Department for his eagerness to lie "a thousand times" to defend national security. Lola Belle Holmes pulled in speaker's fees from the ultraconservative John Birch Society after testifying at the Smith Act trial of black Communist Claude Lightfoot. Julia Clarice Brown, a Clevelander who named 120 names of ex-comrades before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), offered a race-first defense of her double-faced cohort in I Testify: My Years as an F.B.I. Undercover Agent (1966). "There can be no doubt," she proclaimed, "that the real and ultimate goal of Soviet strategists is the absolute domination of world humanity by a Caucasian Communist elite." In Brown's calculation, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had more in common with Alabama's segregationist governor George Wallace than either could afford to admit.

Making cases and headlines, Brown and similar Bureau informers helped to create an aura of undercover daring seductive enough to diminish the attractions of James Amos and other aging FBI idols of the gangster era. Shape-shifting spies starred in the breakthrough Bureau entertainments of the early 1950s, finally unseating the self-consistent gangbusters of the FBI fictions of the 1930s. I Was a Communist for the FBI, declared the informer-hero of the eponymous 1951 film, charitably cast as a documentary for the purposes of its Academy Award nomination. FBI mole Herbert Philbrick (the introducer of Julia Brown's book) revealed how I Led Three Lives: Citizen, "Communist," Counterspy in a lucrative 1952 memoir adapted for television until 1956. By the middle of the decade, Cold War secret agents had completed the burial of perhaps the Bureau's greatest fiction, the New Deal "public hero" (a burial anticipated, in fact, in Ebony's equal praise for Amos and Noisette, the latter more Man Friday than hard-boiled G-man). The public enemy plot had given way to an "espionage plot" feeding off the corpse of Soviet spying, a security threat in fact largely removed from American territory by 1951, the year Senator Joseph McCarthy first denounced an immense Communist conspiracy and in turn invented "one of the most consequential conspiracy theories in U.S. history." Projected in sepia tone, the FBI's new model protagonist looked oddly like the narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), a great American novel shorn of its extensive Bureau references before the last draft. Ellison's talkative leading man matched the FBI's as a clever screen for clashing ideological impressions, resurrected from the party underground to speak on the frequencies of anticommunist consensus. Hoover pugnaciously shielded his rising class of spy-heroes, black and white, from "pseudoliberal" criticism. "You find reference to [informants] in the Bible," he insisted to the readers of U.S. News and World Report. Along the way, he defended the African American informers who played a willful part in persecuting W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and several of the other black artists discussed later in this chapter. Here as elsewhere, the story of the FBI's close engagement with Afro-modernism is not in every respect a black-and-white morality tale.

Uncovering the deepest logic behind the victory of the FBI spy-hero means reinspecting the Bureau's zealously literary part in the racial politics of the long McCarthy era, which is the focus of the pages that follow. Aspects of this role flowed from the micropolitics of Hoover's break with Truman, a president unforgivably wary of "building up a gestapo" in the United States and guilty of establishing the CIA in 1947, a detested Bureau rival from the start. Hoover repaid Truman's differences from FDR with a spotlit appearance before HUAC, dramatizing his fresh partnership with antiadministration Red-baiters dismayed by the measured pace of liberal anticommunism. Testifying that HUAC and the FBI shared a paramount goal, "protection of the internal security of the nation," Hoover renounced his primary alliance with executive power by blessing the congressional McCarthyite tactic of "prescriptive publicity" against Soviet penetration. For the remainder of the Truman administration, the FBI disdained both special service to the president and the remnants of the Democratic New Deal that once fostered it. In their place, the Bureau slipped its secret file on Truman to his Republican opponents and arranged to protect state security in concert with a grateful Republican Congress. Following the outbreak of the Korean War, this Congress bucked Truman's veto in order to pass the Internal Security or McCarran Act reauthorizing the Bureau's custodial detention program. Its descendants on Capitol Hill approved or sweetened every yearly FBI budget request until Hoover's death. Beneath the director's ostentatious nonpartisanship, the soul of the FBI's antiradical politics reenlisted in the GOP.

Almost at once, however, the Bureau's technical assistance to McCarthyism exceeded the requirements of Hoover's feud with the Democrats. In Ellen Schrecker's account, the FBI scrambled to occupy "the bureaucratic heart of the McCarthy era." "Had observers known in the 1950s what they have learned since the 1970s, when the Freedom of Information Act opened the Bureau's files," she speculates, "'McCarthyism' would probably have been called 'Hooverism.'" Schrecker's case for Cold War Hooverism depends on a high regard for the functioning of the FBI's charismatic bureaucracy, its design, management, and marketing of a "machinery of political repression" able to install reactionary anticommunism as a touchstone of good government. Providing undercover informers to prosecutors was just one part of the apparatus. Under a secret "Responsibilities Program" established in 1951, the Bureau dispatched file-based, not-for-attribution "blind memoranda" to governors and other "appropriate authorities," warning of possible Communists on the payroll. Well-honed Bureau techniques for indexing dissent directly fed the classic sin of the blacklist, fingering over four hundred public employees for firing, most of them school and university teachers. The names that the FBI could not legally name for state officials it delivered to the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, and other wholesome quasi publics. At least until 1953, when Hoover began to fear the senator's sloppiness, the FBI supplied Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Investigations Subcommittee with everything it could: public praise; back-channel political advice; prejudicial information on enemies culled from the Bureau archives; and former FBI agent Don Surine as chief investigator. In the McCarthy who fell from grace, Hoover met an anticommunist more media-drunk than himself, and he did not enjoy the reflected glare. Even HUAC, the director wrote, seemed to care more for "headlines ... than ultimate security." Ironically, thanks to Hoover's relative discretion, his term as McCarthyism's comptroller-in-chief only enhanced his charismatic appeal. Buoyed by popular anticommunism, public esteem for the director reached its apex, envisioning an untouchable among law-and-order untouchables. In the appraisal of one contributor to Kids' Letters to the F.B.I. (1966), a little classic of youthful obedience, Jesus was indeed a "hero," but "Mr. Hoover has done more toward helping to keep down juvenile delinquency, as well as other crimes."

Hoover was worshipped less earnestly by the minority of American liberals revolted by McCarthyism in any guise, their discontent galvanizing unprecedented open criticism of the Bureau—and unprecedented Bureau pushback. The publication of Max Lowenthal's The Federal Bureau of Investigation (1950), the first vigorously unauthorized history of the institution, is a cautionary case in point. Over five hundred pages, a decade in the making, and released in the same year as the Bureau's first "Ten Most Wanted" list, Lowenthal's book mounts a lawyerly case against the FBI's aura as "the infallible watchdog of American security and liberty." The Hoover Bureau's appetite for "rumors, suspicions and gossip," Lowenthal concludes, "is the realization of the fear expressed" by the FBI's earliest skeptics, the congressmen who confronted President Theodore Roosevelt with the worry that the Bureau "might some day adopt practices habitual to political police systems in Europe but abhorrent to a democracy." Lowenthal, an ex–Supreme Court clerk, onetime congressional aide, and close friend of President Truman, derived little comfort from the quiet approval of his indictment at the White House: word alone of his book's appearance attracted a prodigious Bureau counterattack. Wilting under fire, sales of The Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to break 7,500, disappointing distinguished independent publisher William Sloane. Considered in relation to the history of FBI literary surveillance, however, the book thrived as the inspiration for the intensified Bureau counterliteratures of the 1950s, which were approaching a peak of their own.

Hoover, furious that his reader-agents failed to pick up the scent of Lowenthal's history prior to an advance notice in Publishers Weekly, had plunged into a firing mood even before the book's release. "Mr. Hoover, if I had known this book was going to be published," swore Louis Nichols, head of the crime records division, "I'd have thrown my body between the presses and stopped it." Nichols mended fences with Hoover by supervising an instant refutation. Within the "Seat of Government," the FBI's modestly nicknamed Washington headquarters, this pre-rebuttal of Lowenthal's charges planted the seeds for the most successful Bureau self-narrations of the 1950s: Hoover's own Masters of Deceit (1958), with two million paperbacks sold, and Don Whitehead's rose-tinted The FBI Story (1956), written inside a Bureau office furnished with hand-picked case summaries. Beyond FBI headquarters, Walter Winchell and other columnists friendly to the Bureau immediately adopted the pre-rebuttal's talking points, their objections reinforced in planted editorials ("Smearing the FBI," charged the New York Herald Tribune). Head agents at the Bureau's local field offices were directed to discourage bookstores from stocking Lowenthal's title. One up-and-comer proposed that G-men remove copies from public libraries but was shot down with the news that stolen books might be replaced, doubling sales. The book's author was kept under constant FBI surveillance; during one of his out-of-town business trips, Lowenthal's wife awoke to a 3:00 AM call from a team of agents. Bureau allies denounced him on the floor of Congress as a treasonous New Deal relic and dragged him before an executive session of HUAC. A Nation piece with an immortal title— "The FBI Reviews a Book"—noted the mystery of the session's transcript, which was publicly released, without clarification, "just one day before Mr. Lowenthal's book went on sale."


Excerpted from American Literature and Culture in an Age of Cold War Copyright © 2012 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Culture and Cold Conflict Steven Belletto Daniel Grausam 1

Part I Rethinking Domestic Cultures

1 Total Literary Awareness: Why Cold War Hooverism Pre-Read Afro-Modernist Writing William J. Maxwell 17

2 Reviewing Cold War Culture with Edwin Denby Catherine Gunther Kodat 37

3 Democracy, Decentralization, and Feedback Daniel Belgrad 59

Part II Domestic Cultures/Global Frames

4 The New Frontier: Dune, the Middle Class, and Post-1960 U.S. Foreign Policy Andrew Hoberek 85

5 Cold War Intimacies: Joan Didion and the Critique of Postcolonial Reason Karen Steigman 109

Part III The Global Cold War

6 Pyongyang Lost: Counterintelligence and Other Fictions of the Forgotten War Christine Hong 135

7 The Race War Within: The Biopolitics of the Long Cold War Leerom Medovoi 163

8 The Empire Strikes Out: Star Wars (IV, V, and VI) and the Advent of Reaganism Alan Nadel 187

Bibliography 209

Contributors 229

Index 231

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