- The Cold War Culture of Containment Revisited
In his 1952 autobiography, Witness, Whittaker Chambers, the former communist and star witness of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, detailed the social and economic conditions in the Western world that had led many individuals, including him, to betray their own democratic societies. Challenging oft-repeated claims made by conservative politicians that political deviance was caused by lax educational standards or by permissive child-rearing practices, Chambers argued that the appeal of totalitarianism rested in the failure of the project of modernity itself. Borrowing his language from Henry Adams, Chambers argued that communism was merely a symptom of a world in which the Virgin as a symbol of religious wonder had been replaced by the dynamo as a symbol of technological advancement. Modernity, according to Chambers, had stripped away all metaphysical support for morality and religion. Chambers was not alone in his diagnosis of the failures of American society. Commentators from both sides of the political spectrum, including historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and psychologist Erich Fromm, similarly argued that the advanced stages of modernity—monopoly capitalism, rapid technological changes, and a powerful national security state—had caused many individuals to seek relief from their psychological malaise by sacrificing themselves to radical political movements. The Cold War, in this regard, was for many, even those who did not share Chambers’s antimodernism, a product of longstanding transformations within Western society.
Only recently have historians followed Chambers’s lead and begun to situate the Cold War within the larger framework of modernity. For decades, scholarship on the Cold War was dictated by the rigid framework of the conflict itself. Most historians in the 1960s took it for granted that the roots of the conflict rested in Soviet [End Page 616] imperial ambitions, simply debating whether such ambitions were driven by Russian nationalism or by the logic of Soviet Marxism. By the end of the Vietnam War, however, revisionist historians shifted their focus to America’s own imperial ambitions that had led to the disastrous war in Indochina. Recently, postrevisionist historians have accepted the complicity of both nations and have unearthed the complicated origins of this dual drive for global power. Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (2005) blazed this interpretative path, arguing that the conflict over reconstructing Europe after World War II marked only the beginning of the Cold War, which quickly shifted to a struggle over the allegiance of developing nations throughout the so-called third world. Following Westad, many historians have linked the Cold War to American and Soviet modernization programs instituted in the developing world and have detailed the struggles of nations in those areas to maintain their autonomy. The global Cold War, in this sense, was about two rival models of modernization and two competing visions of modernity.
This explains why literary and cultural historians have focused so much attention on the so-called cultural Cold War, since both superpowers strove to convince nonaligned nations about the merits of their particular brand of modernization. As Roland Végső notes in his new book, The Naked Communist: Cold War Modernism and the Politics of Popular Culture (2013), this project produced a profound irony for the US, which attempted to sell modernization programs built upon New Deal-style solutions centered on those forms of industrialization that had supposedly produced the crisis of modernity in the first place. As Végső explains, “while foreign policy demanded an unequivocally and exuberantly positive image of national identity, domestic politics increasingly relied on the rhetoric of crisis that was seriously aggravated by the moral and social failures of American society” (64). That irony was not lost on Chambers, who retreated from...