To really understand the Cold War and its relevance to our contemporary world, we must take another detour through myth. The birth of the national security state coincided precisely with the peak popularity of western movies. Westerns had been central to the movies from the beginning. In 1910, more than twenty percent of American films were westerns, and the trend continued. In 1959, westerns comprised one quarter of all prime-time network hours. Eleven of the top twenty-five shows were westerns.
The genre attracted audiences worldwide, but it also evoked ambivalence. People throughout the Third World understood perfectly well that they were the Indians in these stories. Many connected American affluence to the theft of their resources by post-colonial oligarchs. While they lived in darkness, Americans appeared to be enjoying the brilliant light of their all-electric kitchens.
The range of acceptable discourse in our corporate media still frames the Cold War in terms of America’s heroic containment of Soviet expansionism. The media does this for an important reason. Since our paranoid American imagination (with the media’s help) has simply replaced the Soviet threat with the War on Terror, the motives of our leaders must be consistent: protecting America from the irrational, evil Other, who “hates us for our freedoms,” as George Bush said.
According to Noam Chomsky, however, classified U.S. government documents in the late 1940s acknowledged that the primary threat after World War Two was not Soviet expansionism but Europe’s “…refusal to subordinate their economies to…the West.”
It is certainly true that the Soviets brutally dominated Eastern Europe. However, no political scientist will ever be able to explain to what degree Soviet policies expressed the fanatic excesses of totalitarianism, or to what degree they were a paranoid reaction to forty years of German – and American – aggression. What we do know is that in May 1945, Brittan once again prepared plans for invading the U.S.S.R. (as it and America had done after World War One), “to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire."
“The purpose of propaganda,” writes psychologist Sam Keen, “is to paralyze thought, to prevent discrimination, and to condition individuals to act as a mass.” It is critical to understand how quickly all of our major institutions (government, media, universities and churches) converted post-war optimism into hysteria, since this was neither the first nor the last time this has happened. In demonizing communists, they utilized the mythic narratives that Americans had already been consuming for fifteen generations.
Mere months after Hiroshima, Life Magazine depicted rockets raining down on America from the east, predicting millions of dead. Advisors told President Truman in 1947 that in order to win approval for his foreign policy of perpetual militarism he would have to “scare hell out of the country.” His Attorney General publicly warned that communists “…are everywhere – in factories, offices – and each carries with him the germs of death for society.” J. Edgar Hoover declared that “Communists are today at work within the very gates of America.” The madness was already inside the gates…
Propaganda films (do you remember “newsreels”?) portrayed Russia threatening Europe with its tentacles, or as a grapevine (the perfect image of Dionysus) spreading over the map. Week after week, they depicted a state of crisis, and with no alternative voices in the major media, reality was what appeared onscreen. Politicians brayed, “Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran…this red tide… like some vile creeping thing…spreading its web westward…”
Americanism now had a “higher power” (the state), dogma (anticommunism), zealots (the F.B.I.), modes of excommunication (the Hollywood blacklist) and clergy. Billy Graham, America’s most famous preacher, declared that communism was “a religion inspired…by the Devil himself.” Religion: what other word can describe the all-encompassing force that anticommunism injected into American life, how the fear, as well as the sense of identity, spread?
In this sense, 1950s Americanism can be called a negative ideology, of mere opposition to or fear of another way of thinking. Or we could call it a religion of denial, because it allowed nuclear bellicosity, neo-colonialism and de facto segregation to coincide with the ideals of freedom and opportunity. Millions resolved this dilemma in the only way they could, by accepting the unrelenting propaganda and agreeing that to be American was to be anticommunist. “If Americans could only band together against the common red foe,” writes Joel Kovel, “they would know who they were.”
A half-century before the “Neo-Cons,” reactionaries were willing to say absolutely anything to amplify fear. From this point on, we can follow the predatory imagination to its logical extreme – doing whatever is necessary. But the myth of noble American intentions is so pervasive that generations would pass before liberals, themselves innocent believers in “fair play,” would even begin to understand that conservatives had never played by the rules.
It was the time of HUAC, McCarthyism and bomb shelters. Children crawled under desks as practice for protection from atomic blasts, while the U.S. Air Force decimated Korea. The FBI intimidated unions, school boards and universities, where 600 instructors were fired. Some 2,700 federal workers lost jobs, and 12,000 resigned. As in the Salem witch trials of 1692, one could save oneself by naming names. The hysteria was a sobering reminder of how thin a veil our modern temperament is, how mythic furies still drive our imagination.
What makes this period so maddening, and so similar to our present time, however, is that millions managed to deny the hysteria by immersing themselves in consumer delights, vacuous sitcoms or paranoid narratives (Foreign Intrigue, I Spy, Passport to Danger, I Led Three Lives, The Day North America Is Attacked and Nightmare In Red.) Subtler film allegories (Invaders from Mars, The Manchurian Candidate and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) expressed the fear – or fantasy – of pollution. The 1953 version of The War of the Worlds ends by warning: “Keep watching the Sky. Stay vigilant against another attack.” The Blob featured a shapeless, red jelly that, like Dionysus, seeped effortlessly through all man-made boundaries. People reported alien abductions.
Later, Hollywood mythologized the C.I.A. James Bond, with his “license to kill,” reincarnated the Redemption Hero, exempt from all laws (a privilege that both of our recent Presidents have claimed for themselves).
Despite, or perhaps because of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine, neither side could instigate nuclear strikes without being destroyed itself. The Cold War, however, rarely involved direct confrontation. Instead, as Chomsky has argued, a tacit compact developed that allowed a sharing of world management. The Soviets dominated their satellites in Eastern Europe, while the U.S. was free to overthrow Third World democracies. From this perspective, consider this 1960 statement by General Thomas Power, commander of the Strategic Air Command: “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.” Was this the joke of a psychopath or cynical hyperbole deliberately intended to maximize anxiety? Or would only the former do the latter?
Before the hysteria dissipated, complete trust in anyone was impossible – just as in the Titan missile bunker I described in my previous blog – because “they” could be anyone or anywhere. The propaganda was effective because it relied upon three centuries of American paranoid mythology.
In its fear, the public supported undemocratic security measures that the government (as it would in 2001) claimed were necessary to protect democracy. In a 1954 poll, seventy-eight percent of Americans agreed that it was a good idea to report any neighbors they suspected of being Communists. Indeed, for a decade the red communist supplanted the black man as both “inner” and “outer” Other.
Later, however – much later, in 1995 – George Kennan, the architect of “containment,” admitted, “…there was not the slightest danger of a Soviet military attack.” The Cold War and all of the vicious genocides it engendered throughout the Third World, had been the most expensive lie in history. Part three of this essay will take the story in the direction of the present.