Among other things, the Cold War was an ideological struggle, a battle, in a popular phrase of the 1950s, for the “hearts and minds” of people throughout the world. Like other wars, it required popular mobilization, in which the idea of freedom played a central role. During the 1950s, freedom became an inescapable theme of academic research, popular journalism, mass culture, and official pronouncements. Henry Luce, who had popularized the idea of an American Century, explained that freedom was the “one word out of the whole human vocabulary” through which Time magazine could best explain America to the rest of the world. In many ways, the Cold War established the framework for the discussion of freedom.


One of the more unusual Cold War battlefields involved American history and culture. Many scholars read the American Creed of pluralism, tolerance, and equality back into the past as a timeless definition of Americanism, ignoring the powerful ethnic and racial strains with which it had always coexisted. Under the code name “Militant Liberty,” national security agencies encouraged Hollywood to produce anticommunist movies, such as The Red Menace (1949) and I Married a Communist (1950), and urged that film scripts be changed to remove references to less-than-praiseworthy aspects of American history, such as Indian removal and racial discrimination.

The Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Department emerged as unlikely patrons of the arts. As noted in Chapter 21, the federal government had openly financed all sorts of artistic works during the 1930s. But Cold War funding for the arts remained top-secret—in part because Congress proved reluctant to spend money for this purpose, in part because Americans charged communist governments with imposing artistic conformity. In an effort to influence public opinion abroad, the Soviet Union sponsored tours of its world-famous ballet companies, folk dance troupes, and symphony orchestras. To counteract the widespread European view of the United States as a cultural backwater, the CIA secretly funded an array of overseas publications, conferences, publishing houses, concerts, and art exhibits. And to try to improve the international image of American race relations, the government sent jazz musicians and other black performers abroad, especially to Africa and Asia.

Works produced by artists who considered themselves thoroughly nonpolitical became weapons in the cultural Cold War. The CIA promoted the so-called New York school of painters, led by Jackson Pollock. For Pollock, the essence of art lay in the process of creation, not the final product. His “action” paintings, made by spontaneously dripping and pouring paint over large canvases, produced works of vivid color and energy but without any recognizable subject matter. Many members of Congress much preferred Norman Rockwell’s readily understandable illustrations of smalltown life to Pollock’s “abstract expressionism.” Some called Pollock’s works un-American and wondered aloud if they were part of a communist plot. But the CIA funded the Museum of Modem Art in New York, which championed the New York school, and helped arrange for exhibitions overseas. It hoped to persuade Europeans not only that these paintings demonstrated that the United States represented artistic leadership as well as military power, but that such art embodied the free, individual expression denied to artists in communist countries. Pollock’s paintings, John Cage’s musical compositions, which incorporated chance sounds rather than a fixed score, and the “graceful freedom” of George Balanchine’s choreography were all described as artistic reflections of the essence of American life.

A poster for The Red Menace, one of numerous anticommunist films produced by Hollywood during the 1950s.

Visitors to the Museum of Modem Art in New York City contemplate a work by Jackson Pollock, whose paintings exemplified the artistic school of abstract expressionism, promoted during the Cold War as a reflection of American freedom. The paintings had no recognizable subject other than reminding the viewer of how Pollock had created them, by flinging paint at the canvas. “I want to express my feelings, rather than illustrate them,” Pollock declared.

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