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The Cultural Cold War

One of the more unusual Cold War battlefields involved American culture. 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.

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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 small-town life to Pollock’s “abstract expressionism.” Some called Pollock’s works un-American and wondered aloud if they were part of a communist plot. In 1946, the State Department assembled a stylistically diverse exhibition of contemporary American paintings that it displayed in Europe and Latin America to demonstrate “the freedom of expression enjoyed by artists in America.” But criticism emerged in Congress. Representative Fred Busbey of Illinois said the exhibit gave the impression that “the American people are despondent, broke down or of hideous shape.” The State Department abandoned the project and sold the works at auction.

The CIA, however, funded the Museum of Modern 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 ballet choreography were all described as artistic reflections of the essence of American life.

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