Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Culture of the Cold War”


cultureofcoldwar_fThe Culture of the Cold War.  By Stephen Whitfield. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, second edition 1996.

I was preconditioned to appreciate this book when I first picked it up for a reading. I have been devouring studies of the Cold War because of its central place in American civilization in the latter half of the twentieth century, but I was disappointed in The Culture of the Cold War by Stephen Whitfield, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. First, the book is misnamed; it is really about the Red Scare, McCarthyism, the HUAC investigations, the Hollywood Ten, and the larger context of American anti-Soviet fears between the latter 1940s and the early 1950s. I have read other books on this subject that I have found more valuable. I would name David Caute’s The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (Simon & Schuster, 1978); The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (Princeton University Press, 2012) by Landon Storrs; and Richard M. Fried’s Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective (Oxford University Press, 1991) as go to books dealing with this same subject.

Whitfield’s book focuses on suspicions, the stigma of leftism, the potency of ideology, the politics of religion, the encouragement of informing on fellow citizens, the Red Scare among the film and television industry, and the hesitant and late-coming backlash against red baiting. Chapters on each of these subjects dominate the book. His second edition in 1996 appends to this discussion a disjunctive and not terribly well-connected essay on the end of the Cold War to what had gone before. Overall, it is less than a fully satisfying discussion.

I was struck, additionally, by the complete lack of references in the book. I know The Culture of the Cold War was written as an introductory and, I must assume from what was presented, an undergraduate supplemental text but since I want to check everything I was troubled by the lack of scholarly apparatus. There was a good bibliographical essay with key secondary works discussed by chapter, but no way whatsoever to trace the source of important quotes. One example will suffice. Whitfield quotes Eisenhower as saying to televangelist Billy Graham: “Billy, I believe one reason I was elected President was to lead America in a religious revival” (p. 90). Did Ike actually say that? Perhaps so, but there is no way to trace it through references in this book.

It may also be that the quote is incorrect. There is a version of this story in a sermon by Billy Graham on October 6, 1955, entitled “Is There an Answer?” In it Graham tells of meeting with Eisenhower at the Commodore Hotel in New York City. The following exchange took place according to Graham: “‘Billy, do you know why I believe I have been elected President?’ I said, ‘I think I know several reasons, Sir.’ He said: “I think one of them is to help lead America in a religious revival which we must have’.” It’s a small point perhaps, but I want to check sources and was frustrated throughout this book when I tried to do so.

This is an acceptable work on the Red Scare and McCarthyism. For larger perspectives on the Cold War, however, one must look elsewhere.

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