Magazine | September 9, 2019, Issue

The Cold War of Words

Arthur Koestler (left) at the Galerie Mokum in Amsterdam, January 11, 1969 (Wikimedia)
Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War, by Duncan White (Custom House, 800 pp., $32.50)

Known as the Cold War, the clash of interest between the United States and the Soviet Union played out on several fronts, and culture was one of them. On both sides, the leadership had to do what it could to persuade the public that its values were superior, in the end worth fighting for. Intellectuals therefore came into their own because they were identifiable supporters of the political and social values under which they were living, or, perhaps more crucially, because they were critics. Survival might be a matter for the military; freedom was at stake for everybody.

Duncan White, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, sketches the involvement in the Cold War of a score or so of intellectuals, most of them American or British, with select Russians thrown in. Each merits a separate chapter, mostly biographical. White’s chosen few had only a moral sense of right and wrong in support of their anti-Communism. The CIA and British intelligence services were slow to become institutions fit for the Cold War. This book’s opening page describes the moment when the best that American intelligence agents could do was to fly 500 illicit books into Poland by attaching them to inflated ten-foot balloons. White makes a case that the long war of words over Communism was always a matter of personality, and he locates its origins in the Spanish Civil War. In a famous pamphlet, 127 leading authors took the side of the Left while only six came out for the Right. The British and French official policy of bemused neutrality in the civil war left the field open for Stalin and Hitler to intervene. The clash of interests appeared simple. A Communist now became an anti-fascist. All good men are anti-fascist, and therefore objectively, as the Party would say, all good men are Communists. Hemingway’s political engagement and his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls illustrate this trite syllogism.

Real anti-fascist passion motivated George Orwell. His comrades in the trenches called themselves anarchists. He was lucky to survive a bullet through the neck and luckier still to escape from Stalinist Communists under orders to murder other leftists, whether anarchists, Trotskyists, or whatever. Political reality was catching up with someone determined to tell the truth and master of a clear style all his own. The various articles he wrote about his experience in Spain, and his book Homage to Catalonia, have been reprinted many times, but it still comes as a shock to remember that publishers rejected all of them for fear of offending the Left. Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, was one of these fainthearts, and in just a few sentences about him Orwell shows what scorn can do. Animal Farm and 1984 had the power to turn the image of Stalin from Uncle Joe to Big Brother. Czeslaw Milosz, himself at one time close enough to the Polish Communist Party to consider joining it, describes in The Captive Mind (1953) the amazement of his fellow Poles that Orwell could write so exactly about Communism when he had never lived under it. No British writer since Shakespeare has had such influence on public opinion, and White does him justice.

The Soviet Union was a police state, unmatched when it came to the black arts. A worldwide network loosely referred to as the Comintern consisted of activists at home and secret agents abroad. Something like a thousand media outlets and front organizations spread the Party line in many languages and many countries. Propaganda, deception, and information were indistinguishable. The United States and every country in Western Europe had its Communist party, whose leaders ensured obedience to Moscow. The course of events in the real world obliged Howard Fast and Richard Wright, the best-known American Communist writers, to understand that they had been peddling illusion and lies. Soviet writers had to deal with illusion and lies on a daily basis in the certainty that disobedience was likely to lead to a death sentence. White tells the tragic stories of Isaac Babel, Boris Pasternak, the poet Anna Akhmatova, and Andrei Sinyavsky. No less tragic, Alexander Fadeyev, head of the writers’ union and therefore official enforcer of obedient literature, could not live with the harm he had done and shot himself. Except for the religious dimension, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a 20th-century Voltaire. White sees him as the bravest of the brave, with the unusual gift of cunning on top of it.

Arthur Koestler worked for the Comintern and knew the Party from the inside. When he perceived how the Party preferred causes to people, he broke with it. Escaping to Britain in the chaos of 1940, he nevertheless had with him the manuscript of Darkness at Noon. Although in the form of fiction, this exposition of the Party served as Koestler’s anti-Communist credentials. The watching world had been stupefied by trials in Moscow when foremost Communists pleaded guilty to crimes of treason they could not possibly have committed. For whatever reason, Walter Duranty, Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, had denied that the trials had been rigged. Koestler’s explanation was that the Party’s abusive appeal to loyalty could pressure anyone to confess to anything. The Communist press bracketed him with Orwell, often openly calling for their assassination. 

In order to have a forum in which to debate with the Soviets forcefully and regularly, Koestler helped to launch two projects, the Congress of Cultural Freedom and the monthly magazine Encounter. Unanimously leftists of one stripe or another, the contributors to the rival magazine Partisan Review sounded as though they were having a private conversation. Encounter’s editor, Melvin Lasky, was as formidable a character as Koestler, and he obtained financial backing from the CIA. When this became public knowledge, Stephen Spender, Lasky’s deputy and more a ninny than a poet, resigned. What did it matter where the money came from when Encounter was arguably the best magazine ever published in the English language, with an emphasis more on poetry and fiction than on politics? A number of critics made it an issue that the magazine depended on official but undeclared backing, but is that enough to discredit social democracy? White concludes the relevant chapter harshly, “Koestler fought the Cold War too hard.” Room should have been found in these 700 pages to mention the Sovietologists Walter Laqueur and Leo Labedz, front-line soldiers in the Cold War. For many years they edited Survey, the most authoritative specialist journal about the Soviet Union, presumably paid for by British intelligence. Both of them had encyclopedic memories that allowed them to have the last word. 

In the course of the Cold War, anti-Communism was liable to dissolve into anti-anti-Communism. Put another way, there were intellectuals who accepted that Communism was an evil but didn’t like those who said so nor the way they said it. Graham Greene was one such. By nature an outsider, he sought to give offense, which fitted him, or perhaps unfitted him, for the Cold War. No writer outside the Communist Party has so continuously maligned the West and justified the Soviet Union. In a letter to the London Times in September 1967, he summed up his feelings. “If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States, I would certainly choose the Soviet Union.” America for him is “just the drugstore and the Coca-Cola, the hamburger, the sinless empty graceless chromium world.” Two of White’s chapters are devoted to Greene and generously overlook or underplay Greene’s pride in “my friend Fidel Castro,” his contribution to the Sandinistas in the hope his money would buy bullets, his defense of Kim Philby, the spy who betrayed Britain for Stalin’s Soviet Union, and much else of the sort. A similarly indulgent chapter sets up John le Carré, another outsider by nature, as heir to Greeneland, morbidly downbeat about the workings of democracy, capitalism, pharmaceutical companies, or whatever. As though they were like for like, le Carré repeatedly holds up the morality and efficacy of Soviet agents against their British counterparts. 

“I confess that when I went to Vietnam early last February I was looking for material damaging to the American interest and I found it” is the revealing first sentence of Mary McCarthy’s Vietnam (1967). Anti-Communism, she was writing to her friend Hannah Arendt, was more of a danger than Communism. President Nixon, she feared, was setting up a police state. If you wanted law and order and proper police protection, you would defect behind the Iron Curtain. On whose side was this dubious heroine of the Cold War? She was representative of a type that saw nothing wrong (and a great deal right) in ridiculing the social system that provided her with indispensable royalties.

Cold Warriors is a big and brash book at the heart of which is the surprise that all in all, even in these godforsaken times, the pen managed to remain mightier than the sword.

This article appears as “War of Words” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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