Around 1949, fresh out of college at Northwestern University, my mother moved to New York to take a job at NBC. She arrived at the dawn of U.S. television. NBC had entered the business just about a decade earlier. Rather than being assigned to a sitcom or a variety show, she ended up at the NBC Opera Theatre, one of the splashiest, most expensive ventures in the new lineup. The corporation had long sponsored its own radio orchestra under the leadership of the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had fled Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s for refuge in the United States. When television came along, executives assumed that one of its functions would be to make Toscanini-style high culture available to the American masses. That dream—that a major television orchestra and opera company would be both popular and profitable—lasted an astonishing 15 years, from 1949 to 1964, before NBC concluded that the future of television lay elsewhere.

This is roughly the time period covered in Louis Menand’s new book, The Free World. Menand is less interested in classical impresarios such as Toscanini than in the cultural innovators of the age: the philosophers and composers and painters and wise-man diplomats whose ideas put them at the cutting edge of Western culture. In Menand’s telling, for a brief period following World War II, U.S. liberalism proved its power and luster by creating a society open enough to foster vibrant exchange in the realm of high culture, art, and ideas—and rich enough to sustain the men and women engaged in such work. That moment came crashing to an end in the 1960s, as challenges at home and abroad tarnished the United States’ self-conception as the epicenter of “the free world.” While it lasted, it produced something like a golden age of intellectual and artistic experimentation, with a bona fide popular audience.

Although Menand’s subtitle links this period of cultural innovation to the Cold War, the relationship he imagines between artistic expression and geopolitics is often tenuous. Major philosophers and academic thinkers wrestled with the fate of the world, but not necessarily in ways that explicitly privileged the United States or the Soviet Union. Composers and painters and choreographers explored the existential dread of a post-nuclear world but did not tend to weigh in on any particular policy direction. The diplomat George Kennan and other Cold War realists put in star turns at the helm of the new American leviathan, but the connections between their thought and, say, John Cage’s classical compositions can be hard to trace. “The free world,” Menand suggests, was a feeling and impulse and form of expression more than it was any sort of coherent political body. 

Despite its impressionistic style, Menand’s book speaks powerfully to one of the most important themes in twentieth-century U.S. politics: the ways in which the Cold War—and the specter of communism—reshaped American society from top to bottom. As historians such as Mary Dudziak and Glenda Gilmore have shown, the struggle for postwar civil rights was tied to debates over communism and Third World revolution. The U.S. welfare state, too, was developed with socialist models as inescapable points of reference. It has long been obvious that anticommunist sentiment constrained liberal policy ambitions in the 1940s and 1950s, when universal health care was derided as “socialized medicine” and champions of labor rights were inevitably accused of harboring communist sympathies. In less obvious ways, however, the Cold War drove the United States in more progressive policy directions: as a struggle against a society that claimed to stand for cradle-to-grave economic security, the Cold War pushed the United States to present itself as a model nation, supposedly able to provide its citizens with the best quality of life in the world.

Menand’s cultural story often implies, rather than identifies, explicit connections between those geopolitical debates and the realm of high culture. But in art and thought, too, the Cold War was inescapable. In the academic sphere, the influx of federal money into universities, spurred by the Cold War knowledge competition, restructured intellectual life, for both good and ill. On the left, the implosion of the Popular Front, combined with the repressive atmosphere of McCarthyism, led to a sense of dislocation and disillusionment for an entire generation. The swirl of geopolitics brought thousands of pathbreaking European artists and intellectuals into the United States even as it made cultural exchange with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe increasingly fraught. Perhaps most of all, the early Cold War lent a sense of vibrancy and high stakes to nearly everything happening in American arts and ideas, high and low, as the nation set out to declare and then win a global culture war.

from the ashes

Menand’s style in The Free World will be familiar to fans of The Metaphysical Club, his Pulitzer Prize–winning 2001 bestseller. That book tracks the intellectual lives of four erudite men: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, the first three of whom met in an intellectual club of their own devising. Together, according to Menand, they invented pragmatism, transformed American liberalism, and contended with some of the greatest questions of their day. 

The Free World, too, is filled with chance encounters, creative relationships, and discussions over dinner. This time, however, Menand has scaled up. Rather than four characters, he offers dozens, each chapter its own deep dive into a fleeting but consequential group conversation. Gathered (willingly or unwillingly) in the United States, some of the West’s most important intellectuals, composers, writers, artists, and wise-man diplomats made beauty and meaning out of a world in which the Holocaust, nuclear power, and Cold War ideology suddenly loomed large. In the process, they produced their own host of “isms”: structuralism and poststructuralism, anticommunism and anti-anti-communism, nihilism and existentialism, realism in international affairs and abstract expressionism in high art.

Amazingly, they found a popular audience for their musings. “Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered,” Menand writes of the 1950s, in implicit contrast to today’s era of 280-character thoughts and Instagram poses. Kennan’s learned memos drove foreign policy. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings became national icons. Existentialism provided a vocabulary for middle-class disaffection. From the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the world adopted a language of, as Menand puts it, “anxiety, authenticity, bad faith”; from Sartre’s friend and rival the writer Albert Camus, that of “the absurd, the outsider, the rebel.”

Born in 1952, the son of a historian and a political scientist, Menand recalls hearing all these names over dinner in his childhood home outside Boston. His sense of both admiration for and distance from his subjects permeates the book. Perhaps he dreamed as a child that he might one day enter this glittering world of high-culture celebrity. It may have been a disappointment to come of age—indeed, to become a Harvard professor and New Yorker writer—only to discover that the happenings of such a world no longer mattered as much.

Jackson Pollock in East Hampton, New York, January 1949
Pollock in East Hampton, New York, January 1949
Arnold Newman / Getty Images

The most vibrant protagonists in Menand’s story are the European refugees forced by circumstance to flee to the United States and resigned (to varying degrees) to make the best of it once there. The German-born political theorist Hannah Arendt arrived in New York in 1941, barely speaking a word of English. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss arrived that same year, seizing the offer of a post at the New School as a lifeline out of Nazi-occupied France. Over the course of the late 1930s and early 1940s, dozens of other major thinkers, artists, and writers made similar trips, many of them Jews fleeing for their lives. By one estimate, more than 700 European fine artists alone—painters, sculptors, photographers—moved to the United States between 1933 and 1944. On their arrival, they formed vibrant communities to carry on their work. And whether they liked it or not, most of them became American in one way or another.

U.S.-born citizens were part of the cultural mix, too, of course. One thrill of the age, according to Menand, was the chance for Americans to mingle and brainstorm with the best that Europe had to offer. Before the war, such exchanges had happened mostly in Paris, the undisputed center of Western culture. After the war, they took place in cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and, above all, New York. Some of what drove the cultural renaissance of the 1940s and 1950s was a deep American anxiety about whether or not the United States’ intellectual and artistic achievements were any good—whether they were, in short, worthy of the country’s new status as a global superpower and the arch-defender of liberal democracy. “In 1945, there was widespread skepticism, even among Americans, about the value and sophistication of American art and ideas,” Menand writes. Part of the mission of the early Cold War was to prove that the country’s artists, writers, and intellectuals were indeed ready for the global leadership that had been thrust upon them.

The Cold War’s soft-power struggles generated no end of tiresome propaganda and covert manipulation. Such crass forms of cultural imperialism are not Menand’s concern. He takes on the more sophisticated aspects of Cold War culture, in which Americans sought to advertise their country’s artistic vitality and openness to new ideas by way of heightening the contrast with its totalitarian rivals. “Responsible liberals feel better adjusted for having an appreciation of art and ideas that are contemptuous of the values of responsible liberals,” Menand writes. What made the postwar United States great, Menand suggests, was a willingness—at least within the liberal establishment—to contemplate its own flaws and failings. That tendency toward self-critique may ultimately have been the tragic flaw of Menand’s midcentury creatives. But while the moment lasted, the combination of imperial ambition, liberal individualism, transatlantic exchange, and social affluence produced groundbreaking books, paintings, and musical compositions. 

The Cold War led to creative and intellectual breakthroughs with staying power beyond their immediate moment.

It also produced some excellent parties. In his love for the chance meeting, Menand devotes a good deal of attention to the social aspects of cultural production: the receptions and performances and exhibits where one inquiring soul connected with another, yielding inspiration and alchemy (and, in Menand’s telling, quite a lot of sex). The great couples of the highbrow set animate the book, from Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to Diana and Lionel Trilling to Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Around them swirl a dazzling array of creators and thinkers, each borrowing ideas from the others. “Rauschenberg was fearless and prolific,” Menand writes of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, “but his art and his influence were enhanced by his association with three other innovative figures who also became internationally renowned: John Cage, [the dancer and choreographer] Merce Cunningham, and [the fellow artist] Jasper Johns.” Nearly every chapter contains a similar formulation, with one passionate thinker happening on another, then plunging into a relationship of deep (if sometimes brief) intensity. 

Some of the most fascinating chapters explore the struggles of leftists and ex-leftists to come to terms with the demise of the Popular Front and the emergence of the Soviet Union as the chief geopolitical and ideological rival of the United States. The anguish involved in that experience can be hard to capture today, with the Soviet collapse now a full generation in the past. But many of Menand’s characters came of age in the 1930s, when the communists seemed to be at the cutting edge of antifascist, anticapitalist, and antiracist politics. The realization that Joseph Stalin was killing hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, and holding the rest in thrall to a totalitarian dictatorship, caused a crisis of conscience on the left that took some two decades to unfold. Out of that crisis came some of the seminal works of midcentury thought and literature, including George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949), the work of a self-proclaimed socialist whose own “abuse of socialists,” according to Menand, “could be as vicious as any Tory’s.”

Menand is at his best when dissecting the historical circumstances and influences that produced a book like 1984 and gave it popular currency. Often presented to today’s students as an abstract critique of totalitarianism, 1984 was also a highly specific commentary on the dilemmas of postwar life, drawing on the images and ideas that Orwell found around him. He borrowed heavily from the philosopher James Burnham, the eccentric American communist turned conservative whose book The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941, envisioned a world of competing superpowers similar to Orwell’s Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. By putting Orwell and other figures into historical context, Menand shows how great art can emerge from situations of confusion, muck, and terror. 

The major difficulty of Menand’s book is that he does this again and again, with each chapter introducing its own invigorating new cast of characters. The result can be enlivening. It can also be exhausting. Menand writes in the introduction that The Free World is “a series of vertical cross-sections rather than a survey.” The book nonetheless retains some of the qualities of a college survey course, which indeed it was—Harvard’s United States in the World 23: Art and Thought in the Cold War. That format provides a handy guide to the best method for reading The Free World: one or two chapters per week, engaged with seriously and consistently, with the grand conclusions about how it all fits together left open for small-group discussion.

hearts and minds

Few readers, especially those of an intellectual or artistic bent, will be able to resist Menand’s portrait of a time when an especially compelling late-night conversation or a well-wrought article in an obscure left-liberal journal seemed to carry the fate of the world. Menand is skillful at conveying the thrill of creative discovery, even when it was accompanied by personal difficulty and loss. He has somewhat less to say about the policy choices and economic supports that made such creativity possible. He devotes several pages to the CIA's secret activities and sponsorships, but these are the exceptions in a book focused on biographical and cultural analysis. 

Similarly underdeveloped is any discussion of countercurrents from the right, which underwent its own midcentury cultural and intellectual renaissance. William F. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955 on the premise that “ideas have consequences” (itself an idea articulated by the conservative writer Richard Weaver in 1948 in a book of that title). Midcentury conservatives, no less than their liberal counterparts, professed to recognize the value of intellectual provocation and A-list parties. They, too, had their European exiles, including the economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. They even had their own Metaphysical Club: the Mont Pelerin Society, founded atop a Swiss mountain in 1947 in order to bring the West’s finest free-market thinkers together in a collective rebuke to the emerging liberal order.

Some of that conservative organizing took aim at the most important institution of Cold War intellectual life: the American university. Buckley’s first book, God and Man at Yale, published in 1951, identified his alma mater as a site of outrageously liberal thought, beginning with its supposedly socialist Economics Department and extending to its culture of religious tolerance. Menand’s book underscores the ways in which Buckley’s critique was at least partly true, if not for Yale (which was, in a relative sense, still a bastion of conservatism), then for the American university system writ large. High on the postwar agenda was the dream of making American universities the finest in the world, beginning with the GI Bill and extending into new funding for the arts and sciences. With that influx of money came a generation of thinkers emboldened to think new thoughts but also structurally tied to the liberal project.

Rauschenberg's "Untitled Combined (Man with White Shoes)" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, November 2009
Rauschenberg's work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, November 2009
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Menand expresses ambivalence about the rise of the university as a center of intellectual life. With its promise of full employment for intellectuals came a tendency to siphon creative energies into specialized scholarly arenas, he suggests. Several of his characters exhibit a love-hate relationship with their academic posts. “I am ashamed of being in a university,” Lionel Trilling declared on being promoted to full professor at Columbia. “I have one of the great reputations in the academic world. This thought makes me retch.” 

Such rarefied laments were harder for others to make. As Menand notes, many Jewish intellectuals were shut out of Ivy League respectability, although the most ambitious “turned into journalists instead and ended up having a greater impact on literary and intellectual life than most academics ever do.” Women and people of color encountered more difficulty still. Menand identifies individuals in both categories who managed to transcend the constraints of the age, including the feminist activist and author Betty Friedan and the writer James Baldwin. But they occupy a slightly different place in the narrative than do figures such as Kennan and Trilling, who held real institutional as well as cultural power. A few, such as Arendt, landed decent university sinecures. Others were relegated to hand-to-mouth essay writing, activism, and sometimes, as in Baldwin’s case, self-imposed exile. By the time opportunities opened up for them to be considered cultural arbiters in their own right, the postwar high-culture renaissance was in free fall, and the best dinner parties were already over.

Menand attributes this collapse to political shifts both at home and abroad. The civil rights movement called into question the United States’ self-image as a bastion of liberal egalitarianism (and rightly so). The Vietnam War likewise challenged the wisdom of the American imperial project and of “the best and the brightest” who had designed it. At the same time, the rapid expansion of mass popular culture, especially in the television and music industries, displaced the brief postwar emphasis on high art and intellect. As it turned out, most people preferred rock-and-roll to Cage’s silences and 12-tone disarray. 

It seems unlikely that a new cold war with China will produce any sort of high-culture renaissance.

Given the inexorable nature of Menand’s story, it can be hard to imagine how one might restore a world in which achievements in fine art and classical music—or even robust funding for public universities—would be perceived as a path to global power and popular acclaim. If certain prognosticators are to be believed, the United States is now facing a new cold war with China. But it seems unlikely that this cold war will produce any sort of high-culture renaissance. The most powerful calls to increase university funding focus almost exclusively on scientific and technological research, areas in which the Chinese system seems to excel. There is little comparable concern over the future of American arts and letters. In the 1940s, Americans expressed deep anxieties about their status as cultural influencers. Nearly a century later, mass culture seems to be one of the few areas in which U.S. power remains unparalleled around the globe. Political polarization, too, leaves little room for the sort of bipartisan investment (or embrace of intellectual and artistic refugees) that made certain forms of cultural production possible in the early Cold War. Even the most devoted adherents of the “new cold war” metaphor do not envision a primarily ideological struggle, waged in the terrain of hearts and minds. Today’s anxieties focus on economic, military, and technological competition, with cultural and intellectual innovation and freedom distant matters at best.

Should this seem like cause for lament, it is worth remembering that the early Cold War itself was hardly a worry-free time of academic and artistic freedom. Menand’s claim that left-liberal intellectuals and artists achieved unprecedented celebrity and influence is true as far as it goes. But as the historian Richard Hofstadter noted at the time, the United States has long nurtured a powerful anti-intellectual strain—one that reached an especially vicious apotheosis during the 1950s. To the artists and writers who actually lived through the early Cold War, the period seems to have felt less like a renaissance than like a time of vicious and often terrifying far-right reaction. The defining politician of the decade, after all, was not the brainy Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson (a two-time loser) but Senator Joseph McCarthy, the spiritual progenitor of today’s populist “Big Lie” Republican politicians.

It is safe to say, then, that creative types do not necessarily know that they are living through a golden age even when that may be the case. Most intellectual and artistic life—then as now—gains its spice from dissatisfaction with the world. During the early Cold War, that dissatisfaction led to an outpouring of grief and despair and bewilderment and, in the end, a handful of creative and intellectual breakthroughs with staying power beyond their immediate moment. Today’s anxieties will no doubt inspire their own wave of innovation in high culture, art, and thought. It is less likely that those achievements will be widely known, embraced, and supported by millions.

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  • BEVERLY GAGE is Professor of U.S. History and American Studies at Yale University. She is writing a biography of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
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