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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Free World

Art and Thought in the Cold War

Louis Menand

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Red Army soldiers Alyosha Kovalyov and Abdulkhakim Ismailov raising the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag building in Berlin, May 2, 1945. A flag had been raised there on the night of April 30. The picture, by Yevgeny Khaldei, is of a reenactment. This is the altered version; one of the two watches on Ismailov’s wrists—evidence of looting—has been edited out. Khaldei was inspired by Joe Rosenthal’s photograph (also of a reenactment) of marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945. Khaldei’s image was iconic because it was evidence for the claim that it was the Communists who had defeated fascism in Europe. (Tass / Getty Images)

The wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union was a union of necessity. The war against Nazi Germany had to be a two-front war. The United Kingdom and the United States needed the Red Army to engage the Wehrmacht in the east, and the Red Army did its job. Between June 22, 1941, the day Germany invaded Russia, and June 6, 1944, D-Day, 93 percent of German military casualties, 4.2 million missing, wounded, or killed, were inflicted by Soviet forces.1 And Stalin needed (and complained that he was slow to get) British and American forces to attack Germany from the west. The Allied coalition was held together, in the end, by one common goal: the total defeat of Nazi Germany.

As long as the fighting continued, few people thought it prudent to speculate publicly about future animosity between the United States and the Soviet Union. Many officials in the Roosevelt administration, although they were realistic about the matters that divided the two countries and were frequently exasperated by Soviet behavior, operated in the hope that the United States and the Soviet Union would be cooperative partners in world affairs after the war was over. These included, besides Roosevelt himself, his two secretaries of state, Cordell Hull and Edward Stettinius, and, more important, since Roosevelt paid relatively little attention to the State Department, his secretary of war, Henry Stimson, and his longtime consigliere, Harry Hopkins.2

Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. On May 8, Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe. Less than three months later, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on August 15, Japan surrendered. The defeat of the Axis powers meant that the Allies had to reach agreements about the future of Japan, Italy, and Germany, but it also put the fate of a vast amount of territory into play. And much of that territory—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania in the west; Turkey and Iran in the south; and Manchuria, Korea, and the Kuril Islands in the east—lay on the borders of the Soviet Union. With their enemies defeated and their armies no longer in the field, the United States and the Soviet Union could disagree openly about the design of the postwar map. And they did.

This was not surprising. The Americans and the Soviets had different national security interests; they had different understandings of international relations; they had very different political, economic, and diplomatic principles. For eighteen months, each government tested the resolve and goodwill of the other and was duly disappointed. Then, on March 12, 1947, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, Harry S. Truman relieved the situation of ambiguity.

“At the present moment in world history,” Truman said, “nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.”

One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

“I believe that it must be the policy of the United States,” he said, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”3 Truman did not mention the Soviet Union in his speech, but everyone who heard him understood that “armed minorities” referred to Communist insurgents and that “outside pressures” referred to the Kremlin. This became known, almost immediately, as the “Truman Doctrine.” The speech was, effectively, the declaration of the Cold War. It would last forty-four years.

During those years, each nation accused the other of cynicism and hypocrisy. Each claimed that the other was seeking to advance its own power and influence in the name of some grand civilizing mission. But each nation also honestly believed that history was on its side and that the other was headed down a dead end.4 This meant that the outcome of their rivalry could not properly be decided by military superiority alone, since the matter was not finally about brute strength. It was about ideas, and ideas in the broadest sense—about economic and political doctrines, civic and personal values, modes of expression, philosophies of history, theories of human nature, the meaning of truth.

Truman called his speech “the turning point in America’s foreign policy,” and many in his administration thought the same thing.5 Its image of a world divided between irreconcilable systems had a powerful effect on policy. Among other things, it killed any chance for a revival of prewar isolationism. It underwrote an enormous buildup of American military capacity. In 1947, the national defense budget was $12.8 billion, or 5.4 percent of GDP; in 1952, Truman’s last year in office, it was $46.1 billion, 12.9 percent of GDP. In 1953, even though the Korean War had ended, $53 billion of the nation’s $76 billion budget was spent on defense, and the defense budget remained around 10 percent of GDP for the rest of the decade.6 And Truman’s dichotomy—if you are not with us, you are against us—drew the United States into conflicts around the world in which disputes that appeared to be indigenous and parochial could be reframed as battles in the struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism, not Communism specifically, was the threat Truman identified in his speech, and Truman thought that all totalitarian systems are essentially police states and essentially the same.7 In the United States during the Cold War, anti-Communism was just one variety of a politics that was close to universal: anti-totalitarianism. For some Americans who worried about these matters, the future toward which things might be headed was “Communistic”; for others, it was “fascistic.” But the imagined futures—whether evoked by allusions to the Brown Shirts or the Bolsheviks, the gas chambers or the Gulag, the Gestapo or the KGB—were fundamentally the same. American anti-Communists were anti-totalitarian, and so were American anti-anti-Communists. The anxiety that the liberal democracies could be sliding toward totalitarianism was shared by people who otherwise shared little. It was equally a left-wing anxiety, a right-wing anxiety, a mainstream anxiety, and a countercultural anxiety.

But what is totalitarianism? How does it arise? Why are people drawn to it? Most important: Could it happen here? People disagreed about how to answer the first three questions, and this made the last question an urgent one. Anything might potentially be a step in the wrong direction. Truman’s dichotomy therefore had the same effect on art and thought as it did on government policy: it transformed intramural disputes into global ones. It made questions about value and taste, form and expression, theory and method into questions that bore on the choice between “alternative ways of life.” It suggested that whatever did not conduce to liberal democracy might conduce to its opposite. Was consumerism the road to serfdom? Was higher education manufacturing soulless technocrats? Was commercial culture a mode of indoctrination? How could racial and gender inequities be compatible with democratic principles? Which was more important, liberty or equality? Freedom of expression or national security? Artistic form or political content? Was dissent a sign of strength or subversion? Was that a national liberation movement or was it Communist aggression?

In the first two decades of the Cold War, many people therefore believed that art and ideas were an important battleground in the struggle to achieve and maintain a free society. Artistic and philosophical choices carried implications for the way one lived one’s life and for the kind of polity in which one wished to live it. The Cold War charged the atmosphere. It raised the stakes.

Copyright © 2021 by Louis Menand