The Cold War Industry: On Louis Menand’s “The Free World” and Anne Searcy’s “Ballet in the Cold War”

May 7, 2021   •   By Harlow Robinson

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

Louis Menand

Ballet in the Cold War: A Soviet-American Exchange

Anne Searcy

IDEAS WERE THE primary weapons of the Cold War. “Hot” conflicts like the disastrous one in Vietnam did break out during the four decades between the late 1940s and the late 1980s, of course, but the real combat was a clash of ideologies between communism and democratic capitalism. That struggle between two imperial belief systems (led by the USSR and the United States) played out in all sorts of different arenas, from the economy to science to culture.

Cultural and intellectual historians have been especially eager to chronicle and analyze the period. Since the Cold War ended (more or less) with the collapse of the USSR 30 years ago, a Cold War Industry has bloomed in academia, flooding the marketplace with books examining every nook and cranny of this eventful era, so beloved of members of the Woodstock Generation (I count myself among them) who inhabited it and now look back upon it with a weird nostalgia for what seems like a simpler time. The untethered pluralism that has followed feels more confusing and even dangerous to most of us. The Cold War offered certainties — a choice between two alternatives. Today’s world is so much more fragmented, so difficult to categorize.

Two new contributions to Cold War historiography take radically different approaches — one macro, the other micro. Baby Boomer Louis Menand serves up a vast, rambling, exhaustively researched, and highly personal helicopter survey of what he considers to be leading (mostly American) intellectual, cultural, and artistic figures, focusing heavily on high culture, biography, and relationships. What interests him is really social history: “How X ran into Y, which led to Z.” Anne Searcy, a member of the post–Cold War generation, on the other hand, zooms in close in a taut and cogent study on one small but enlightening story: the exchange of leading American and Soviet ballet troupes between 1959 and 1962. She calls the Cold War “a fight for a historical narrative, a contest over what style of government — communist or capitalist — was the next appropriate stage in global development.” In impressive detail, she shows how this struggle informed choreography and public perception of dance on both sides of the Iron Curtain.


In a preface, Menand writes that he sees his book as a novel “with a hundred characters.” (Perhaps he was thinking of such “large loose baggy monsters” as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, as Henry James saw it.) Actually, 100 is an undercount. And novels have plots. The many, many, many erudite pages of The Free World teem with scores of philosophers, composers, artists, authors, rock bands, psychologists, professors, beatniks, actors, critics, film directors, diplomats, revolutionaries, dictators, presidents, publishers, philanthropists, journalists, photographers, architects, feminists, and editors. So many people are constantly coming and going and all too soon (in Mae West’s immortal words). The tony cast is New York City– and Ivy League–centric. Himself a professor at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker, Menand finds it important to provide educational credentials for just about everybody. In his over-long chapter on Lionel Trilling, an influential critic and professor at Columbia, but not really (as even he belatedly admits) a major figure in the Cold War, he writes:

Yale tenured its first Jewish professor, the philosopher Paul Weiss, in 1946. By the mid-1950s, Trilling, Harry Levin (AB Harvard, no PhD) at Harvard, M. H. Abrams (PhD Harvard) at Cornell, Richard Ellmann (PhD Yale) at Northwestern, Leon Edel (PhD Université de Paris) at New York University, and Charles Feidelson (PhD Yale) at Yale, all Jewish, were leading figures in the field of English literature.

Whew! Let’s call a department meeting. Elitism lurks in the background here.

As its title indicates, The Free World seeks to investigate and illuminate the concept of freedom, the “slogan of the times” Menand grew up in. In his introduction, he quotes from President Truman’s famous 1947 speech to Congress, where he contrasted the American “way of life,” based on “the will of the majority” and “guarantees of individual liberty” and “freedom of speech,” with another way of life “based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority.” Art and ideas, Menand writes, “were an important battleground in the struggle to achieve and maintain a free society.” He developed this interpretation in a course he has taught for many years to undergraduates, “Art and Thought of the 1960s,” and the 18 chapters of this book do indeed sound like separate chatty lectures in search of a central narrative line. Rather haphazardly, they deal primarily with his personal favorite era, the 20 years between the late 1940s and the late 1960s.

Menand remains oddly silent, however, about how the Cold War ended with the rise of glasnost and Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR, the dramatic revolutions that swept across the Eastern European satellite states, or even the Berlin Wall coming down. Gorbachev’s name does not even appear in the index, a strange omission for a book claiming to provide a history of Cold War intellectual history. His treatment of the popular appeal of Marxism is cursory. Two of the truly seminal events of the period, the Woodstock Music Festival and the Stonewall Uprising, receive a single passing mention: “In 1969, the year of Woodstock and of the Stonewall riots that launched the Gay Liberation movement, the median age of Americans born between 1946 and 1964 was fourteen.”

Menand’s blizzards of dates and statistics bury the reader under deep drifts of Too Much Information. No one can accuse the author of not doing his homework, but maybe he spent too much time in his office in the stacks of the Widener Library (for which he expresses gratitude in his acknowledgments) and not enough making sense of the thousands of books and articles he has consumed. It has taken Menand, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his considerably more focused preceding book, The Metaphysical Club, 10 years to complete The Free World. It shows. He has committed the fatal sin of biographers and historians: falling in love with his sources. In tiny print and double columns, the exhaustive footnotes run to a whopping 84 pages. The only way I could make my way through this massive tome was in very small doses, like reading separate entries in an encyclopedia. Paragraphs (most of the same unvarying length) often begin with the perfunctory, X was born in … his parents were … he studied at …

There are some bright spots. His chapter on Hannah Arendt, “Outside the Law,” and what he calls her “evil fairy tale,” the groundbreaking The Origins of Totalitarianism, conveys both the drama of her life (a last-minute escape from Nazi-occupied France through Lisbon to the United States) and the prophetic power of her ideas. His concise summation of her argument goes like this: “Totalitarianism was the perverse union of the belief that there is a supreme and unappeasable law of historical development with the belief that nothing is true and therefore everything is possible.” Unfortunately, Menand seems himself to have disregarded what he describes as one of the principles of the historicist hermeneutics she practiced: “History is not facts, but the meaning of facts.”

Menand begins with a chapter on the inevitably well-bred diplomat and Russia hand George Kennan, covering the well-trodden ground of the evolution of his policy of containment toward the USSR. Next he turns to George Orwell (“the leading anti-Stalinist intellectual of the British left”) and Nineteen Eighty-Four, veering into a discussion of the Marxist political scientist James Burnham. Chapter three, “Freedom and Nothingness,” treats postwar Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir; digresses into an intriguing discussion of the impact of the translation into French of American fiction (especially the works of William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett); then makes a U-turn to Sartre’s “existentialism,” which, Menand concludes somewhat breezily, was less a philosophy than a lifestyle. What I missed in this chapter was mention of the mutual love affair between Paris and Americans and American pop culture reflected in such Hollywood films as The Last Time I Saw Paris and An American in Paris. The optimism and fun of 1950s Hollywood cinema was a powerful tool in winning hearts and minds all over the world.

Subsequent chapters deal mainly with the usual suspects: the New York art scene that revolved around Jackson Pollock and the new movement of abstract expressionism; the New York literary insiders (“The Best Minds”) revolving around Lionel and Diana Trilling and their student Allen Ginsberg; French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and structuralism. Menand devotes his longest chapter, “The Emancipation of Dissonance,” to the who-met-whom-when interconnections between artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and dancer Merce Cunningham, and New York’s displacement of Paris as the center of modern art. His chapter on the rise of the recording industry, rock music, and the Beatles, half as long, feels patronizing, especially this dubious conclusion: “Race had a lot to do with the music business in the United States. It had much less to do with the music.” And he says nothing about the vibrant California folk/rock scene. (Indeed, poor California doesn’t even make the index.)

“Concepts of Liberty” wanders from British philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s romantic meetings with poet Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad to the rise of the paperback industry, pornography, and censorship. “Children of a Storm” takes on the idea of Blackness in the United States and France (“négritude”), skimming over the careers of Martin Luther King Jr., authors Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and the racial consequences of decolonialization. “Consumer Sovereignty,” about product design in Britain, seems unnecessary. As a lifelong East Coast academic, in “The Free Play of the Mind” Menand lavishes attention (and statistics) on the growth of American higher education before flitting among the Beat poets, the deconstructionists Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, and the Yale English Department. Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, and art critic Clement Greenberg star in “Commonism.” In “Vers la Libération,” Menand finally turns his attention to women, but devotes most of his attention to a darling of New York intellectuals, Susan Sontag. Norman Mailer, Baldwin, and literary gossip dominate the chapter on the Civil Rights movement, “Freedom Is the Fire.”

“Hollywood-Paris-Hollywood” opens with an insightful exploration of the little-known connection between François Truffaut and Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde, a film championed by New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who gets the rest of the chapter. Here Menand pauses to examine the magazine he has long written for, making the questionable assertion that it avoided “anything that hinted at cultural pretension,” and calling its readers “culturally insecure.” The final chapter, “This Is the End,” muses on the impact of the Vietnam War on the decline of American prestige and trust. But after more than 700 pages, his conclusion seems anti-climactic and hardly surprising: “The political capital the nation accumulated by leading the alliance against fascism in the Second World War and helping rebuild Japan and Western Europe it burned through in Southeast Asia.”


After the overstocked buffet of The Free World, Searcy’s lean, muscular, and succinct Ballet in the Cold War provides welcome fat-free nourishment. An assistant professor of Music History at the University of Washington, Searcy examines the phenomenon of cultural exchange between the USA and the USSR through case studies of four different tours by leading ballet companies on both sides: the Bolshoi Ballet’s 1959 and 1962 visits to America, and the tours to the USSR by American Ballet Theatre (in 1960) and New York City Ballet (in 1962). Ballet companies were only one part of the extensive program of cultural exchange that accelerated after the signing of the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement in 1958, “which provided for a reciprocal exchange of artists, media objects, scientists, and students between the two superpowers.”

Both governments believed that this — very expensive and logistically complex — undertaking was important in spreading their respective ideological values. Performances were more effective than “outright propaganda, because propaganda often made audiences feel manipulated.” American political leaders believed that cultural exchange “enabled free American culture to undermine the Soviet government’s credibility with its intelligentsia.” For the Soviet Union, the exchanges with the USA were also profitable, since the monolithic government agency Gosconcert controlled all appearances by Soviet performers abroad and took in almost all the valuable hard currency receipts earned at the box office. The performers (regarded as state workers) received only a tiny amount, usually small per diem allowances. The tours by the Bolshoi were managed not by the United States government but by the impresario Sol Hurok, an immigrant from Russia who was the leading presenter of Soviet attractions in the United States for many years.

In her introduction, Searcy investigates what she calls the “cultural friction” that the exchange of ballet companies generated. Contrary to what most people (and both governments) believed, “ballet and music are not universal languages.” Even though many American ballet companies (including New York City Ballet) had been founded by Russian émigrés (like George Balanchine) fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, they developed a new style that departed from the one that evolved in the USSR. Audiences and critics also formed new — and often contrasting — expectations in both countries. This, Searcy argues, was the main difference between Soviet and American ballet. What mattered was the context in which audiences, critics, and even the dancers themselves perceived both what was happening on stage and the public response.

Perhaps the best example of this “friction” occurred during the Bolshoi’s 1962 American tour, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when tensions between the US and the USSR were at their scary peak. As the highlight of the repertoire, the company and Hurok had heavily promoted a new version of the ballet Spartacus, choreographed by Leonid Yakobson to a flashy score by Aram Khachaturian. Only moments after the curtain rose on the first performance at the Metropolitan Opera House on September 12, 1962, however, loud booing broke out. The reviews that appeared in the following days dismissed Spartacus as a pompous flop, especially compared to the refined stagings performed during the American tour of the Kirov Ballet (from Leningrad) the preceding year. So negative was the critical and public response that Spartacus was pulled from the repertoire after only four performances. Yakobson, a leading figure in the Soviet ballet world, returned home in disgrace.

Searcy explains the Spartacus fiasco as a “question of taste.” American ballet audiences, especially the most sophisticated ones in New York, associated the ballet with overblown Hollywood blockbuster epics on the same theme, especially Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (starring Kirk Douglas), which had appeared only two years before. Critics found Yakobson’s sexually explicit choreography offensive and inappropriate for the ballet stage, and the production’s style tacky and overly emotional. But another one of the productions the Bolshoi brought in 1962, Ballet School — a sparsely decorated and classical celebration of the education of dancers that included the participation of 20 young children chosen from each of the cities the troupe visited — enjoyed a considerable success.

Another surprise was the very positive reception that New York City Ballet received on its 1962 tour of the USSR. American officials had initially feared that the spare, abstract, often plotless style of Balanchine’s choreography would not play well there, since the dominant Soviet aesthetic of Socialist Realism stressed content over form. And yet critics, audiences, and even officials at Gosconcert enthusiastically embraced the company and its impeccably trained dancers, to the extent that Soviet ballet experts began to fear “that the USSR could perhaps be falling behind the West in ballet.” Meanwhile, American dance critics engaged in misleading triumphalist language about the shortcomings of the Soviet dancers, and especially of Soviet choreography. In the politically charged atmosphere of the Cold War, even ballet became an ideological battleground with the two superpowers (and their dance critics) fighting for supremacy.

In a brief epilogue, Searcy notes that Cold War attitudes persist and “continue to define how American and Russian audiences experience ballet.” A similar phenomenon is obvious in American popular culture, especially in television and film, where Russians continue to be portrayed as sweaty and devious villains. The Cold War “ended” 30 years ago, but still casts a long shadow over the way we are now.


Harlow Robinson is Professor Emeritus of History at Northeastern University, author of Lewis Milestone: Life and Films; Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography; Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians; and editor/translator of Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev.