Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (review)
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Reviewed by
Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 317 pp.

This is a smart and ambitious book that explores more terrain than the title suggests. It also delivers less than it promises. Traditional diplomatic historians of the Cold War will find portions useful and insightful, especially about the domestic popular culture [End Page 137] of the times, but they will find other parts overreaching in interpretation and imprecise. Nevertheless, Cold War Orientalism is a substantial contribution to the rapidly growing body of literature that goes beyond the formal diplomatic record to examine the broad ideological context of America's confrontation with Communism.

The core of this book examines in some depth the work of several producers of culture in the Cold War era: Reader's Digest, Norman Cousins of The Saturday Review, James Michener, and the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Pearl Buck, The Ugly American, and the Chinese American author C. Y. Lee also make appearances. Christina Klein believes that by studying the work of these culture producers, we can understand the Cold War in new ways. In her view, the Cold War was not just about "confrontation" or "containment" but also about "integration" of non-Communist Asians into an American order and about notions of international racial harmony. She provides fascinating readings of a selection of novels, plays, films, and commentaries directed at a wide, educated audience that envisioned the world in ways that she sees as new and generally liberal. Her "middlebrow" culture producers hoped that their work would help the American public become more tolerant of non-whites and accept an enlightened internationalist role in Asia. Indeed, the portrayal of Asia, Asians, and Americans in East Asia in the texts she studies stands in marked contrast to the "yellow peril" literature of the prewar years and the belligerent rhetoric of militant Cold Warriors. The Cold War, Klein reminds us, was not just about opposing Communism but also about befriending peoples Americans had once disdained. Prominent liberal writers regarded the earlier arrogance and racism as neither helpful nor smart nor humane.

The intellectual highpoint of Cold War Orientalism is an extended study of the musical, and later film, The King and I. Klein skillfully shows that these iconic pieces of American culture evolved out of myth and history to serve a Cold War politics that encouraged Americans to accept a new responsibility for spreading democracy in a decolonizing world and to do so with a firm understanding of the equality of peoples. The Rodgers and Hammerstein version of the famous story of Anna and the king of Siam (now Thailand) came a long way from the original anecdotal stories of the British tutor Anna Leonowens, who worked for the king in the 1870s and was principally concerned about women's rights and concubinage. By 1951, when the updated musical was staged in New York, the story had been transformed into one of modernization, internationalism, and racial inclusion in a liberal American order. Klein begins her book with a Richard Rodgers comment about another of his musicals, the Flower Drum Song: "What's the show about? Well, it's the story of the confrontation of the Far Eastern and American civilizations. . . . The usual thing you hear, you know, is East is East, and West is West, and all that nonsense. We show that East and West can get together with a little adjustment." (p. vii). One can take this as a statement of what Klein's book is all about.

Klein deftly and provocatively links imagination with social practice in showing that the cultural workers she studies not only preached racial integration but practiced it as well. Transracial adoption, which was little known before World War II, became increasingly common during the Cold War. Rodgers and Hammerstein made it a focus [End Page 138] of their South Pacific, a widely admired piece of popular culture in the 1950s based on stories by James Michener. Interestingly, the families of Buck, Cousins, Michener, Hammerstein, and Rodgers all adopted children from Asia or were actively involved in Welcome House, Buck's pioneering effort to...