By Duncan White

Little, Brown. 736 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-4087-0799-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

When Mary McCarthy, in an interview broadcast on American television in 1980, said that Lillian Hellman was a dishonest writer and “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’ “, the infuriated Hellman took legal action to combat what she claimed was a libel on her reputation as a successful playwright, screenwriter, and memoirist. It was a late chapter in a Cold War feud that had its roots in the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War. 

When we talk about the Cold War it’s often assumed we’re referring to the years following the Second World War. Churchill’s 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, when he used the term “Iron Curtain” to describe what was happening as the Soviet Union tightened its grip on countries in Eastern Europe that had fallen under its domination, is seen as heralding the start of “hostilities” between Russia and its satellites and the West. But it could be argued that the real beginning can be traced back to the Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the Czar and created a communist state.

There was even something of a “Hot War” when America, Britain, and other countries intervened, ostensibly to stop guns and ammunition that had been supplied to Russia during the First World War  from falling into the hands of either side in the Russian Civil War. The real reason was most likely to frustrate Bolshevik advances. Communism was never going to be accepted by the ruling classes in the West, a fact that often led to dissension between individuals and groups in countries outside Russia. And, as the trouble between McCarthy and Hallman indicated, by the 1930s the battle lines were beginning to be clearly drawn

Duncan White doesn’t go back to the 1920s, but he does start his narrative of how writers on both sides got involved in speaking either for or against communism, in the events of the 1930s, and especially the war in Spain. George Orwell and Arthur Koestler had both experienced what it was like to have a commitment that went beyond words and put them in real physical danger.

Orwell had gone to Spain as a volunteer anxious to help the Republican Government defeat Franco’s Nationalist army. The International Brigades, which most foreigners wanting to fight for the Republic would join, were dominated by the Communist Party. Orwell instead joined the POUM militia, an independent Marxist organisation that was labelled Trotskyist by the communists and so viewed with suspicion. The story of how he eventually had to flee from Spain as the POUM was supressed and its members arrested, and in some cases executed by the secret police, is well-known, and written about in his Homage to Catalonia. It was a book he had some difficulty in getting published, its account of communist machinations as they hunted down anarchists, Trotskyists, liberals, and anyone else not agreeing with their ideas, not being  to the liking of many left-wingers in Britain.

Orwell, as we know, wrote two other books, Animal Farm and 1984, which presented negative views of communism, though he continued to be a supporter of democratic socialism. But his books were often employed by conservative ideologues as weapons in their war against the Soviet Union. He doesn’t appear to have ever become a fanatic in the fight against communism, though his reputation was slightly tarnished in later years when it was revealed that he had provided a list of people he knew and suspected of being communists, or fellow-travellers, to the Information Research Department, a somewhat shadowy government organisation.

Arthur Koestler’s adventures in Spain were even more-dramatic than Orwell’s. Posing as a reporter covering the war from the Franco side, he was, in fact, a member of the Communist Party and a spy feeding information to Moscow. His cover was blown and he was arrested and in danger of being executed. High-level interventions on his behalf secured his freedom in a prisoner exchange, but the whole experience had its effect on Koestler, one result being that his faith in communism had started to crumble. Further misadventures followed and when Koestler finally left the Party he wrote a novel, Darkness at Noon, which questioned the purpose of the Show Trials in Russia, and the actions of old revolutionaries who supposedly confessed to their alleged misdeeds. Like Orwell’s books, it could be used by those wanting to highlight the drawbacks of a totalitarian system, though in Koestler’s case he was more than happy about it being employed in that way. He became, in some people’s opinion, almost a professional anti-communist. 

Stephen Spender also turned up in Spain, though not in a manner that was likely to place him in much danger. I recall many years ago talking to an old Party member who had been active in the 1930s, and who, when I mentioned Spender, referred contemptuously to him “poncing” around in Spain looking for his boyfriend, Tony Hyndman. After falling out with Spender he had run off to join the International Brigades. White devotes a fair amount of space to Spender, though not necessarily about the Spanish episode. In the context of the Cold War, he might be more notable for his links to Encounter, the magazine founded in the 1950s and which, it was later revealed, had been financed by the CIA, along with various other publications.

Spender always claimed that he didn’t know where the money to enable a publication like Encounter to be published on a monthly basis came from, or at least he didn’t think it was from the CIA. Operatives from that organisation, who had been involved in promoting cultural activities to present the West as intellectually and artistically superior to Russia and the Iron Curtain countries generally, smiled when they heard his protestations of innocence. Perhaps White has it right when he suggests that Spender probably didn’t want to know too much about the money side of Encounter, and was prepared to convince himself that the “fronts” through which it was channelled were genuine?

The question of the CIA funding the publication and distribution of magazines and even books is documented in Cold Warriors. There don’t seem to have been too many occasions when influence was brought to bear on the editors of Encounter (Spender and Melvin Lasky, who almost certainly did know where the money originated) when it came to what they published. Of course, the counter-argument could be that they weren’t ever likely to print anything that really rocked the anti-communist boat, which is why they were financed from the start. But I think it’s only fair to point out that a lot of first-rate material did appear in Encounter. I read it on a fairly-regular basis in the late-1950s and early-1960s, and always found much of value in its pages.

There have been suggestions that the CIA may also have partially supported the literary magazine, The Paris Review, which was founded in Paris in 1953, with one of its editors being Peter Matthiessen. He admitted some time later that he had belonged to the CIA and may have been feeding information about American expatriates in the city to the authorities. White doesn’t mention it, but Matthiessen’s novel, Partisans (1955), is set in Paris and has a plot that involves communist subterfuge. It’s worth noting that another novelist around when The Paris Review was born, was H.L. Humes, whose large Underground City (1958)  took in events involving communists and the Resistance in the 1940s in France. Humes, whose career came to a sad end in madness, was called paranoiac because he was convinced he was being watched. It was only after his death that it became known that the FBI and CIA had files on him.

Paris was obviously a key city in the early days of the Cold War, and the French Communist Party then had a membership and an influence that particularly bothered the Americans. In this connection it might be worth noting that E. Howard Hunt, described as “spy, novelist, and future Nixon ‘plumber’ ”, made a contribution towards anti-communist literature, albeit of a popular kind, with pulp novels like The Violent Ones (1950) and The Judas Hour (1951). The Violent Ones had a Paris setting and a gallery of communist villains. It could be argued that novels like these, clearly designed to reach a mass audience, may have had more effect in terms of convincing people that communists were almost akin to gangsters than some more-literary novels that wanted to show what the evils of communism were.

White’s informative chapters on Grahame Greene and John le Carré (real name, David Cornwell, and a one-time member of MI6) similarly demonstrate how fiction can shape views and attitudes. Greene was not unsympathetic towards genuine liberation movements and his opinions about American policies, in particular, were often caustic in emphasising their shortcomings, as in The Quiet American. As for Cornwell, his characters in the John le Carré books often had doubts about the methods their own side used to confront a ruthless enemy. I think it’s only right to say that both Greene and le Carré were far better writers than Hunt in his pulp mode. He wrote around 70 books in total, and I’ve only read a few of the pulp fiction publications, so he may have been more skilful in other areas.  

All the writers mentioned so far were, in one way or another, in the anti-communist camp, but the American author, Howard Fast, was a staunch member of the Party for many years. Let me admit that, without sharing his political leanings, I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for Fast. He was reviled in the press during what has become known as the McCarthy and HUAC years of the late-1940s and early-1950s, his books were banned from some libraries, and his publishers quickly dropped their options on his novels when leaned on by the FBI.

Fast also spent time in prison, along with the crime writer Dashiell Hammett, because he wouldn’t co-operate with HUAC. Had all that happened to a Russian writer we would naturally have said that it was an example of what literary life it is like in a dictatorship. But Fast wasn’t living in a totalitarian society and there was no excuse for the United States sliding dangerously close to some aspects of one.  On the other hand, Fast was free to do what he did. He set up his own publishing house and distributed his books outside the usual networks that commercial outfits used. He had been a very popular novelist, often taking historical episodes as a basis for his books, and he eventually regained his status as a successful writer.

He’s probably mostly remembered now as the author of Spartacus, which provided the basis for the Kirk Douglas film of that name. It had a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, another blacklisted writer who had been imprisoned when he defied HUAC. Fast’s total output was extensive, and while no-one is going to claim that he produced major literature he did, on the whole, aim to write books that were popular but also had something to say. They’re not likely to ever be reprinted, but his non-historical novels like Clarkton, Silas Timberman and The Story of Lola Gregg, attempted to comment on what was happening in American society at a time of reaction and do it in a readable and not overtly didactic way. There was never any doubt where Fast stood politically, but he liked to tell a good story to put across his message.

It would have been a brave soul in Russia, or any of the Iron Curtain countries, who even thought of doing what Fast did in terms of criticising the authorities and publishing his own books to circumvent censorship. Writers were closely watched and any deviations from style or content were punished by internal exile, imprisonment, restrictions on publishing, and at the height of Stalinist terror, death. White’s chapters on Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and others who fell foul of the restrictions placed on writers make for grim reading. Akhmatova couldn’t publish for years and was harassed by the secret police. Stalin himself seemed to take some perverse pleasure in ordering her son and her friends arrested, while refraining from having her sent to the Gulag but leaving her to live in poverty and with a constant awareness of how close to being detained she was.

Boris Pasternak was likewise always under surveillance, and once his novel, Dr Zhivago, had been smuggled out of Russia and published in the West (a fascinating story in itself), with encouragement and some financial backing from the CIA, he was watched even more. He was lucky to have lived and have died naturally, though the tensions he experienced as a marked man no doubt contributed to his declining health. Earlier writers, such as Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam had either been shot or disappeared into the camps and died there in circumstances that were never properly explained. A later survivor, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, came out of the camps and his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago created sensations when they found their way to the West and appeared in print there. The embarrassment they caused the Soviet authorities led to Solzhenitsyn being deprived of his Russian citizenship and exiled to the West.

It wasn’t only in Russia, nor among just a few well-known writers, that surveillance and censorship created an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. The subject is probably far too extensive for any writer to deal with it in total, and there must have been numerous novelists, playwrights, and poets in East Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere, who came up against Party instructions about what they could publish. It’s my own suggestion, but the life of Stefan Heym might be a good example. He left Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933, spent time in America and served in the U.S. Army during the war. He had problems with HUAC in the late-1940s, moved to East Germany and, though continuing to publish, was not always looked on too kindly by the Party leadership.

 White does give us an insight into what it was like in Prague when Václav Havel was involved with Charter 77 and his work was banned. Like some others of his fellow-countrymen who had believed in Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring, and then wouldn’t conform when it fell apart as the Russians invaded and the Czech Communist Party started to “normalise” the situation, Havel became a thorn in the side of the authorities. He was imprisoned and on release forced to work at menial jobs. The world was watching what was happening in Prague and other places in the 1970s and 1980s, and it wasn’t as easy for the police and the Party to get away with an excessive use of force. But systems of surveillance and harassment of writers and their families could take a toll and soon wear down all but the most-determined of dissidents. Havel held out until communism in Czechoslovakia collapsed, by which time he had become something of a symbol of resistance for his fellow-countrymen and was elected President of the new Republic.

Cold Warriors is a large book and Duncan White covers a fair amount of literary ground, much of which I’ve moved across quickly. He has things to say about Richard Wright and his days in the Communist Party, his life in Paris in the 1950s, and his tangled relationship with the American authorities. He was always under suspicion, even though he had left the Party years before.  Wright was one of the contributors to an important 1950 anthology, The God That Failed: Six Studies in Communism, along with Koestler, Spender, Ignazio Silone, André Gide, and Louis Fischer. But as an ex-communist, and a black whose books were often critical of racism in America, he was still a candidate for surveillance.

And there was Allen Ginsberg, perhaps a minor player in the Cold War game, but who put in an appearance in Prague, was feted by students and deported by the police. Kim Philby, Hemingway, James T. Farrell (some of his novels and short stories concern the American Left and the struggle against Stalinism),  and a few others, have their Cold War activities examined, and though it sometimes might be thought that little new is revealed, the fact of it being carefully brought together gives it relevance. A broad picture of the literary side of the Cold War is skilfully constructed. Duncan White has written a book that will appeal to those who lived through the turbulent years it covers, but should also be of immense interest to anyone who didn’t directly experience the Cold War (for the record, it kept me in uniform in Germany for almost three years between 1954 and 1957) but is eager to know about it.