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Reviewed by:
  • Rethinking Cold War Culture
  • Tony Shaw
Peter J. Kuznick and James Gilbert , eds. Rethinking Cold War Culture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. 232 pp. $39.95.

In 1987 the University of Minnesota hosted a lecture series on the Cold War in American culture. Lary May, the organizer, wrote in his introduction to the subsequent book, Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), that "after 1945 Americans entered a new phase in their history" and that the United States had experienced "a paradigm shift of major proportions" in the framework of its culture (p. 14). In the years since then, historians, literary critics, sociologists, and anthropologists have all contributed enthusiastically to what has been called the "cultural turn" in Cold War studies. The result has been a remarkable outpouring of publications on almost every aspect of American culture [End Page 144] and how that culture shaped and was shaped by the Cold War. Most scholars, though by no means all, have tended to support May's thesis. The upshot is a powerful body of work that warns of the dangers of divorcing foreign events from domestic developments and argues that, had it not been for the Cold War, American life would have been very different, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.

This volume, based on the proceedings of a recent conference sponsored by the history department at American University and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, subjects this line of argument to intense scrutiny. It takes strong issue with observers who have found the Cold War responsible for every change and cultural distortion occurring from the 1940s to the 1980s. Instead, the chapters explore how the Cold War intersected with the ongoing development of American civilization and sometimes added unique elements of its own. As the editors put it, Cold War culture should not, therefore, be regarded as synonymous with American culture even at the height of its impact (from the end of the 1940s to the early 1960s, and in the first half of the 1980s). Kuznick and Gilbert claim that if we do not take into account long-standing economic, social, political, and cultural trends that existed independently of the East-West conflict, we run the risk of misunderstanding the direction the United States is heading in the post–Cold War age.

Of the volume's nine authors, those who argue most strongly in favor of historical continuity are Peter Filene and Leo Ribuffo. Filene suggests that the Cold War was fought primarily at an elite level and that the conflict pervaded and shaped the experience of ordinary Americans far less than historians would have us believe. Opinion polls, for instance, consistently show that Americans worried much more about family and work than about Communism, even at the height of McCarthyism. If several of the contributors locate the roots of Cold War society, culture, and politics in the 1930s and 1940s, Ribuffo steps back even further. Tracing the roots of post-1945 culture to the Progressive politics of the early twentieth century and Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy, Ribuffo challenges us to reconsider what if anything has actually changed over the past eighty-five years. During "the so-called Cold War era," he says, U.S. diplomats approached foreign policy problems created by World War II via Wilsonian premises crystallized during World War I. The most volatile portion of the Cold War, the "sixties," revived issues of decorum and morals that had lain dormant since the 1920s.

In a characteristically perceptive essay, Stephen Whitfield analyzes one of the seminal "anti-Cold War" texts of the 1960s, Joseph Heller's epic 1961 novel, Catch-22. Drawing on Heller's own papers, Whitfield shows the distinctiveness of certain aspects of Cold War culture. Though set in World War II, Catch-22 brilliantly highlighted the insane logic of militarism during the nuclear age. As a mark of appalling frustration, soldiers would scrawl the book's title on their helmets during the latter stages of the Vietnam War. Christian Appy, by contrast, shows, as previous scholars such as Tom Doherty have, that filmmakers in the 1950s...