In the 1950s, the CIA believed books could change the world. The organization gave millions of dollars to publishers and literary magazines. They printed special lightweight copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which were then loaded onto balloons and sent across borders. They sent Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man through the mail to specially-chosen addresses around the world.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, 700 of the Soviet Union’s most famous writers gathered in a grand auditorium to listen to speeches denouncing modernist literature in general, and the work of James Joyce in particular. Soviet Realism was the only acceptable style in which novelists can work, and praise for the state literary technique was effusive. Across the street from the conference, an enormous banner read: “Writers are the engineers of human souls,” a phrase coined by Stalin himself.
Cold Warriors, the historian Duncan White’s definitive new account of the literary personalities who fought the Cold War, is full of anecdotes like these, which tend to sound more like the fever dreams of a delirious librarian than historical fact. Art has always been political. Books change the world. As literary culture has shrunk in size and influence, those sentiments sound more like pedantic tweets than concepts most human beings actually believe. Nevertheless, Cold Warriors is an exhaustively researched defense of those principles, which half-a-century ago were broadly embraced by both writers and the governments happy to fund their work.
The book, out August 27 from Custom House, describes how writers like Mary McCarthy, John Le Carré, and Graham Greene fought on the front lines of the ideological battle between capitalism and communism. White’s narrative, which follows writers as they fight, write, spy and give speeches through the latter part of the 20th century, begins in 1937 with Orwell catching a bullet in the neck fighting fascists in Spain and doesn’t quit until well after the dissolution of the USSR.
White shows us a world in which politically significant novels can’t be printed fast enough to keep up with demand, so popular that they’re sold secondhand like tickets to the first run of Hamilton, at “seven or eight times the cover price.” When new editions come out, people line up around the block to get them.
But while literary culture had enviable popular appeal during the Cold War, its central place in culture made it the subject of intense government scrutiny, in both the USSR and the West. Novelists were considered powerful allies but also nasty enemies, and in the years after World War II, literature was used as a political weapon by clandestine intelligence services on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The KGB, CIA and M16 recruited writers freely — and whoever they didn’t directly recruit, they indirectly funded. Good writing won hearts and minds; by the same token, a few wrong words offending the powerful could land a writer in prison, exiled, or killed outright. Some writers went to the wrong kinds of conferences; shortly afterward they died in suspicious circumstances. When the Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova became too difficult to handle, her son was abducted to make sure she wouldn’t misbehave. Others were punished more directly, with a bullet to the back of the neck.
White’s meticulous account of these times unfolds a bit like a thriller itself. When Graham Greene thinks the Soviet secret police are out to get him after the liberation of Paris in 1945, his first thought is not to flee, but instead to get a gun — from Ernest Hemingway. Literary figures continue to socialize at an alarming rate in this book, since readers learn early on that when writers fraternize with each other, they get up to no good. At conferences they are “whisked from banquet to banquet in Rolls-Royces, toasted with champagne, and celebrated in song.” They attend secret meetings, hang out with dictators, or, on the Soviet side, even dare to recite anti-government poetry to their nearest and dearest friends, who subsequently inform on them to the secret police.
A good chunk of this book is spent in prisons, where Arthur Koestler and Isaac Babel endure harrowing conditions because of the words they’ve written. Koestler’s novelization of his imprisonment and break with Soviet communism went on to be published in 1940 as Darkness at Noon, which sold an absurd amount of copies and made Koestler a household name. Babel wasn’t so lucky. I held my breath reading over the details of his last days — broken by torture, he repudiated what he had written, informed on his friends, and then in his desperation, tried to take it all back. In the space of a morning he was tried, pronounced guilty and shot.
In the USSR, poets were feared for what they could do. Even in the horrific purges of the 1930s, a certain reverence was held for writer-prisoners — they were killed not because they were useless layabouts, but because they were considered particularly dangerous people, a fact clarified by the propaganda battle fought over the publication of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. The book was banned in the Soviet Union, but a smuggled copy made it to the West, where it became a bestseller, due in no small part to the promotional efforts of the CIA.
The agency then got their hands on a Russian language manuscript and sent copies of the banned book back behind the Iron Curtain. By that time, White documents how the literary struggle of the Cold War had grown far more sophisticated than a naked clash of ideology: “CIA were invested in the idea that literature that did not look like propaganda was much more effective at winning hearts and minds than polemical material — this had been their whole rationale for backing the non-Communist left and magazines like Encounter … Doctor Zhivago was not written as propaganda or out of ideological fervor, but nevertheless it was banned by Moscow, and this suited the CIA’s needs perfectly.”
One thing all the writers in ‘Cold Warriors’ seem to have in common is an inexhaustible supply of dissent.
The free circulation of Pasternak’s literary achievement was a huge coup for the American side, who had managed to weaponize both propaganda and high art. In a similar episode of art being used for a wider political agenda than it was first conceived, Orwell was horrified by the reaction to his bestseller 1984 — it was anti-Stalinist, but Orwell was a hardcore leftist, and he believed Britain’s best chance at flourishing in the future was a smooth transition to socialism. He was forced to address the issue directly in his essay “Why I Write,” but that didn’t stop reviewers from calling 1984 an attack on socialism and Britain’s Labour Party, which White diagnoses as “the first signs of the novel’s future as a bible of hard-right libertarians … Orwell was critical of the Labour Party but only for not going far enough; he wanted to see the House of Lords and titles abolished, and an end to the elite public schools.”
One thing all the writers in Cold Warriors seem to have in common is an inexhaustible supply of dissent. They are never comfortable where they are; they share an almost pathological desire to break with the established political orthodoxy of whatever group they happen to be a part of at the time. They obsessively look for the hypocrisy, the complexity, and the tumult of the human heart, which is simply not a great way to get along with a political party. Whatever value as a propaganda tool they might have had, writers of this era were fiercely independent. Orwell went to Spain to fight fascists, but left horrified by the conduct of his own side, and determined to write about its failures.
The scale and stakes of literary conflict were fundamentally altered with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Contemporary literature may be aligned or opposed to the policy interests of regimes and administrations, but writers are no longer household names, and it’s hard to imagine even a literary sensation like Knausgaard or Ferrante having a big impact on the diplomatic balance between nations.
Still, the world of Cold Warriors lingers on. Reactionary forces are on the rise globally. Nationalism is ascendent. The cult of personality has gained fresh life. Skirmishes continue to be fought on cultural ground. On the internet, the progessive left and the alt-right battle in the comments section on YouTube, and art deemed “too political” (or, on the other hand, not political enough) is boycotted, censored, or deleted. Moderators at tech companies now arbitrate the kind of ideological conflict once handled by the clandestine intelligence operations of superpowers.
Elsewhere, critics of Putin like Masha Gessen carry on in the literary tradition of Arthur Koestler, brazenly speaking truth to power. And in China, where the totalitarian curtain never lifted, writers continue to be censored or imprisoned as a matter of routine. In an eerie echo of the Soviet suppression of the news of Pasternak’s death, the Chinese regime suppressed and censored news of the death of writer and activist Liu Xiaobo two years ago. In 2015 the Causeway Bay booksellers were snatched from their homes and underwent forced re-education to bring their politics closer to Communist party orthodoxy.
Cold Warriors shows a neglected aspect of well-trod history, a geopolitical reality shaped by writers as much as generals. It is the definitive rebuttal to what seems like an increasingly prevalent view: that literature’s battles have no effect on the wider world. Isaac Babel said it best: “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.”