Wednesday, September 11, 2019

COLD WARRIORS, how writers' words were weaponized in war for "spheres of influence"

The Cold War was first an earsplitting siren, my first grade teacher urging us to crawl under our worktables and cover our heads. Hiding from "Nukes" was only a drill but real to me. Our teacher standing tall was very brave, as she waited--for what? The end of the world, wasn't a concept but many of us had seen mushroom clouds on TV, unsure what the images meant. We learned the BOMB brought peace, that our government protected us. But it was scary, threatening, a weird weapon in some global Western--bad guys behave or else?   Ideas are powerful after the unthinkable.

COLD WARRIORS: Writers Who Waged The Literary Cold War by Duncan White (Aug. 27, 2019, Custom House/William Morrow) is an  exciting read of huge scope, showing how literature was weaponized by both sides in an ideological conflict (western capitalist vs.eastern communist). Establishing "spheres of influence" meant survival for competing systems of government.

The information battlefield: "Operatives inflated ten-foot balloons, armed them with their payloads, waited for favorable winds, and launched them into Poland..These were not explosives or incendiary weapons; they were books. At the height of the Cold War, the CIA made copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm rain down from the Communist sky....This was one campaign and there were front organizations that produced tens of millions  of books, leaflets, pamphlets, posters and hundreds of thousands of balloons flying them in."

COLD WARRIORS begins in Spain in the 1930s,when a fateful bullet through Orwell's neck might have changed the course of the world. That fraction of an inch was the difference between him being another promising novelist fallen in the fight against Franco or a writer who fulfilled his potential. The book moves from Spain to Moscow's "show trials," and New York, where Mary McCarthy, found herself isolated for her lack of symathy for the Russian "experiment." Later, she will report on Vietnam's endgame. The circular plot follows five major writers (American, British, Russian)-George Orwell, Stephen Spender, Mary McCarthy, Graham Greene and Andrei Sinyavsky--through time and geography. The book ends in 1991 with Greene, Solzhenitsyn and  LeCarre in Moscow (1986-1991).

Writers suffered severe consequences for their words. In the West, depending on your politics, a writer, like Richard Wright, who fled to France, could find his voice silenced--his work unpublished. Yet Orwell's voice was amplified in global editions. And politics made strange literary bedfellows: "the dynamics of the Cold War made the U.S. government the champion of difficult elitest art--that of James Joyce, Jackson Pollock, and William Faulkner--in large part because it was banned in Moscow.. Unknown to many of these artists, these organizations that published challenging literature were U.S. backed. Modernist writers must have felt it as validation instead of collaboration."

In the Soviet Union,  a writer, such as Pasternak, embraced by the official writers union, celebrated by his countrymen, made a good living, and traveled abroad. But if he spirited a controversial work (Dr. Zhivago) to publication abroad, he became invisible. No longer able to support himself, new publications pulped, he was hounded by surveillance, and often banished to a Siberian work camp. The poet Anna Akhmatova was applauded by thousands in public readings and then abruptly banned when a poem offended Lenin. Deprived of a living and her son, who was sent to Siberia, survival became an act of will. But Isaac Babel, shot in the head, purged in an anti-semitic paroxysm, had no such option. Uniquely, Solzhineitzyn weaponized the publication of his books. As an international figure, he became untouchable--until forced into exile..

One side's loss was thought to enlarge the reach of the other. And, among the literary giants in this book--Solzhenitsyn, John le Carre, Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, Boris Pasternak, Gioconda Belli Arthur Koestler, Vaclav Havel, Anna Akhmatova, Isaac Babel Howard Fast, Lillian Hellman, Mikhail Sholokhov--some had serious effects on outcomes of conflicts; such as the surrogate war in Vietnam, Poland's Velvet Revolution, the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua.

I especially enjoyed the sections in COLD WARRIORS about spies and writers. Driven by patriotism, ideology, personal experience or demons, these men and women were also often attracted to the dark glamor of the secret life. Philby, who became a master double agent, lived the life. Graham Greene and LeCarre, who acted as spies, were fundamentally writers. Philby in Cordoba, Cambridge, Vienna and London (1934-1942), Greene (1941-44) in Freetown, St. Albans and London, and Castro's female agent in Washington's inner circle, give a fascinating look at lives lived in fiction and fact. When reality became muddled, the consequences were irrevocable.

One of the things I loved about this book were the facts, fairly unknown in the U.S. On the end of the Vietnam War: "In the spring of 1968, polls showed that after the Tet Offensive, opposition to the war was widespread in the United States. On April 1, the bombing stopped. The previous night McCarthy listened on Voice of America as Johnson announced the end of aerial bombardment of North Vietnam and that he would not be standing for relection in 1968. Domestic dissent had worn down the Johnson administration. In October 1967, one hundred thousand protestors had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and roughly thirty thousand of these marched on the Pentagon."

Many people today have no idea of this history, because much of our media focussed instead on drugs and sex of the 1960s counter culture--the first generation to work with the entire population to stop an unpopular war. Those marches were a coalition of groups with a common cause, including the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and other Veterans Groups. Young and old, housewives, feminists, retirees,  Republicans and Democrats, politicians and clergy.. Colleges were closed as students throughout the nation knocked on doors with info about the March; including a copy of the U.S. Constitution about a citizen's right to end an unjust war. I was a witness to what national unity can accomplish.

But the focus of COLD WARRIORS is on the writers. They shaped an era of warring ideology which changed the borders of a post war world. Ironically, the era ended as a "zero sum game," defined as  a mathematical  proposition "where each participant's gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of other participants."

Today it might be useful for young writers in the U.S. to consider how literature can regain its impact on our culture. We could of course blame our short attention spans on internet immersion or actually look at the kind of censorship we take for granted--a kind of economic censorship. Years ago as now, truly controversial novels, books about our political ideas and what they lead to, would not likely be published in the U.S. If they are critical of capitalistic or even "neo-liberal" values, they would be deemed "uncommercial." Those works are okay, often lauded if about another country.  Our home-grown Dreisers and Dos Passos don't get published.

We are getting closer to having no choice but to get serious. Rapid climate change gives us no choice. Personally, I am a fan of  university and genuine small publishers. My own, Pelekinesis, published new editions of my political novels, The Anarchist's Girlfriend and Paradise Gardens.  I recently released a pdf of PG (a cautionary tale set when the environment is uninhabitable and unbridled capitalism has led to feudalism) a few places so perhaps my words might "gain utility."


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