by Louis Menand (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 880 pp., $35)
In The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Louis Menand quotes the artist Robert Rauschenberg as saying, “[T]he largest consideration is that you don’t let any single element actually dominate the picture.” That anti-hierarchical principle informs the structure of Menand’s book as well. No single element dominates—not politics or culture or foreign policy or even the amalgam that makes up the idea of freedom. Menand presents his readers with a wide, busy canvas of events and details. He is too much the modern artist to arrange them into anything as domineering as a direct statement of his thesis, making The Free World into something extremely rare in contemporary American culture, a work of history that is first and foremost a work of art.
Menand does not ignore the standard concerns of Cold War history. He charts the collision between the United States and the Soviet Union, the enlisting of culture in Cold War competition, the alignment of foreign policy with intellectual life in the 1950s, and then the misalignment of culture and power in the Sixties caused by the Vietnam War. Yet these familiar concerns don’t fall into the usual interpretive patterns, partly because of Menand’s gift for irony—one irony in particular. American culture, heavily dependent on Europe from the 1940s through the 1960s, was a source of freedom. The U.S. government turned out to be a poor caretaker of freedom, however, defiling it by waging the Vietnam War and engaging in other neo-colonial ventures.
The Free World is beautiful, original, and idiosyncratic. Soviet foreign policy and culture are peripheral to this study of the Cold War. The religious underpinnings of early Cold War culture are hardly mentioned. Berlin is a mere footnote to Paris. Why? It is impossible to say. The book reflects Menand’s own purview and tastes: his skepticism toward postwar American foreign policy, his disdain for liberal anti-communism, and his preference for a cultural-intellectual style that is low-key, aloof, and at ease with the pleasures of the body because it is not too rigidly devoted to the life of the mind. Were these authorial convictions the foundation of a personal manifesto, they would be enriching. As the main lines of a cultural and intellectual history, they seem so subjective as to be almost arbitrary.
Menand bookends The Free World with two foreign policy thinkers, the academic Hans Morgenthau and the historian-diplomat George Kennan. As early as 1945 Kennan knew a clash with the Soviets was coming; he wanted to keep the military thrust of this clash in check, contain Soviet power, and avoid a crusading American foreign policy. He half-succeeded: He helped move American policy toward containment. But he had to watch President Harry Truman define the Cold War as a dichotomy, a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. This dichotomy, says Menand, “had the same effect on art and thought that it did on government policy: It transformed intramural disputes into global ones.” So began the Cold War.
Menand does not analyze containment as U.S. policy but explores its essentially negative consequences, one of which was the corruption of American culture and politics through its “opportunistic and fear-mongering” rhetoric. Another such consequence was the Vietnam War, which both Morgenthau and Kennan opposed and which led to a whole generation’s viewing the United States as an “imperialist, militarist, and racist power.” Despite their best intentions, Morgenthau and Kennan had created a monster.
Beyond foreign policy, the Cold War inspired a preoccupation with freedom and unfreedom. The political theorist Hannah Arendt impressed the idea of totalitarianism on a receptive American audience, validating the freedom that the United States claimed to be defending in the early Cold War and stimulating worries about American conformity. Throughout the 1950s, Arendt’s theses permeated the debates among the so-called New York intellectuals, who had moved in the 1930s from communist-leaning enthusiasm to an embrace of American liberalism.
The greatest of the New York intellectuals, in Menand’s reckoning, was Lionel Trilling, the intellectual architect of liberal anti-communism in the 1940s and 1950s. Trilling saw in the Soviet Union the world’s preeminent tyranny and recommended that the United States serve as the foreign policy and cultural counterweight to Soviet influence. Menand argues that Trilling saw the condition of the polity as “tied up with the cultural attitudes and tastes of educated people, people like the Trillings and their friends.” Trilling did not praise conformity, but he tended to see non-conformity as a species of conformity “in liberalism’s ‘free culture.’” Trilling’s intellectual affirmation of Cold War liberalism was a rebellion against rebellion.
While Trilling and his fellow-travelers mused on freedom, they failed to take stock of their own country, in Menand’s telling of the tale. They turned a blind eye to the imperative of women’s freedom. With a few exceptions, they did not immerse themselves in the civil rights movement—even a radical New York intellectual like C. Wright Mills, who grew up in Texas and saw segregation firsthand. And the New York intellectuals dismissed popular culture as vulgarity. In the late 1960s, it was revealed that the CIA had funded many liberal anti-communist institutions. But these Cold Warriors “did not need to be bought out,” Menand says, “because they had been on board all along.”
In a way, the Cold War dead ends in Menand’s analysis. A truncated intellectual culture flattered the powers that be, and the bitter result was the Vietnam War. Yet an alternative to this corrupted free world, a free world within the free world, started to emerge in the 1940s, generated by a marriage between American literature and French existentialism. Its first exponents were Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Parisian intellectuals par excellence. The existential spirit flowed back into American culture through avant-garde art—in, for example, the action painting of Jackson Pollack governed by the idea that “art is essentially performance.”
The turn to existentialism could also be seen in the 1950s evolution of Beat literature, notably the novels of Jack Kerouac, which were performative and “emotionally uninhibited.” Similarly, rock and roll was “one of the cultural winners of the postwar era,” as demonstrated by the transformative popularity of the Beatles, who took an American “mass-market commercial product,” pop music, and made it into art. Another cultural winner was pop art, the self-referential performance of innocence and corruption in a capitalist economy that Andy Warhol pioneered on canvas and in film. Warhol was unembarrassed by the merging of art and business in his work and in his life.
This type of freedom, derived from existentialism rather than Cold War principles, had as much of an effect on politics as it did on culture. The civil rights movement demanded risky action and sometimes physical challenges to segregation, like Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus. In the early 1960s, student radicalism acquired new overtones. The Old Left of the 1930s took its orientation from Marxist ideas and movements, but Tom Hayden and the others who created the New Left sought a “radical style,” and for them the appeal of politics was “existential,” Menand writes.
The Free World has heroes as well as bookends. Its heroes are the cultural critics Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. In Against Interpretation, Sontag, overturning a half-century of slavishly textual literary criticism, advocated an “erotics of art,” made of encounters that were serious and considered but also pleasurable, even ecstatic. Kael, a film critic enamored of “smart entertainment,” punctured the reigning snobbery of cultural criticism and opened her readers’ eyes to popular culture. Kael advised the over-cultivated that if they simply responded to stimuli, the aesthetics would take care of themselves. Response to stimulus equals action. Aesthetics that “take care of themselves” equal freedom.
The Free World is both a joy to read and an utterly original study of politics, foreign policy, and culture from the 1940s to the 1970s. Still, it does not entirely convince. While Menand takes his subjects seriously and reads them carefully, he also tends to reduce them to their achievement of success. Menand’s fascination with success, with the businessperson hidden within the artist or intellectual, is jarring and especially so given the many cultural forms he omits from his account. The Free World is mostly a book about the progressive cultures of the Cold War. The religiously pious and politically conservative—not “winners,” like pop artists or the Beatles—surface only at the margins. For Menand, culture is essentially what tastemakers in New York and in Paris say it is. This is not an absurd proposition, but it is hardly as capacious or as imaginative as it could be.
Menand also simplifies the politics of the Cold War. He is right, of course, about the catastrophe of the Vietnam War; he is right that the CIA did more harm than good by investing in liberal anti-communism. He would have been well served, however, by dwelling more on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Isolated behind the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe was crucial to the outcome of the Cold War as a whole. Menand gives it the following treatment: “[T]he world was not colonized by Partisan Review or the Museum of Modern Art,” he writes. “It was colonized by Pop Art and Hollywood. Modernist literature did not provide moral sustenance to dissidents in Eastern Bloc countries. Beat literature did. Very few people knew who Lionel Trilling was. Everyone had heard of Elvis Presley.” As evidence, Menand offers Václav Havel’s affection for Allen Ginsberg and Frank Zappa, both of whom inspired him in his activities as a Czech dissident.
This is incomplete. Havel shared something of the style of America’s New Left politics, especially its informality, its existentialist bent, and its willingness to confront authority. But Havel and his entire cohort of dissident intellectuals were also enamored of the U.S. Constitution. They sought in their own countries its limitations on executive power. They wanted the intricate constitutional protection of rights to underpin a new political order in Eastern Europe. These principles were vastly more important to them than the free-wheeling cultural style they admired in the West. Furthermore, Havel and his group endorsed the conventional U.S. Cold War policy; they tended to worry about the Vietnam War not so much for what it was doing to Vietnam as for its potential to sap American self-confidence in the struggle it was waging against the Soviet Union. They drew moral sustenance from the foreign policy set in motion by Truman and Kennan—from the actual, straight-up Free World of which Washington, DC was for years the leader.
More Prague and less Paris would have made The Free World a more complicated and less predictable book.
The Free World is a kind of sequel to Menand’s extraordinary 2001 history, The Metaphysical Club, an inquiry into American intellectual culture after the Civil War. We can hope that The Free World will have its own sequel. The Cold War did not end with Vietnam; it lasted until 1989, or perhaps 1991. What would Menand make of the late 1970s and the 1980s? How would he connect late 20th-century politics and foreign policy to the period’s arts and culture? We can also wonder what Menand would do with the notion of freedom, especially in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and his Republican Party laid claim to it—and Reagan’s many political adversaries claimed it no less fiercely. Was the ensuing battle over freedom a recapitulation of what had gone before and what had transpired in the 1960s? Or did it embody some new logic of polarization that came to be genuinely felt only after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin late in 1991?
Menand is right about the unsettled, contradictory nature of the free world as 19th- and 20th-century Americans understood it. He should give his readers a second gift by taking them to the end of the Cold War, which happens to be the beginning of our contentious present.
Michael Kimmage is professor of history at the Catholic University of America and author, most recently, of The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy (2020).
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe