Review: ‘Cold Warriors’ by Duncan White

Anti-communist writers didn't just describe the Cold War; they were part of it

A mural of George Orwell with the quotation "Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear", in Belgrade / Getty Images

When he fled Spain in the summer of 1937, one step ahead of the secret police, George Orwell lost his personal copy of a pamphlet by Stalin with the ominous title Defects in Party Work and Measures for Liquidating Trotskyite and Other Double Dealers.

Agents of the Spanish Loyalist government (by this point, wholly under the thumb of the Soviets) suspected the Englishman of being a Trotskyite. Which naturally meant they needed to liquidate him. What else is one to do with double dealers? So they raided his wife Eileen's room in Barcelona, confiscating Orwell's diaries, photographs, and books, which oddly included both a French translation of Hitler's Mein Kampf and an English translation of Stalin's work.

Fortunately Eileen Blair's room did not contain Orwell himself. According to Duncan White in his new book, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War, that didn't stop the police from making sure he was absent by sounding the walls, sifting through the trash, and checking every cigarette paper for secret messages. Orwell, returning from hospitalization for a throat wound received while fighting Franco's forces, went into hiding. A short while later, he and Eileen managed to slip across the border to France.

The war in Spain ended long ago, of course, and its place in the narrative history of political struggle—the titanic story of Left and Right—is no longer as clear as it once seemed. Indeed, much of the Soviets' role in that story is fading from sight. Who remembers, somewhere near the front of memory, the details of the Yezhovshchina—the Great Terror, in which the Soviets purged around a million Russians from 1936 to 1938? Orwell’s lost pamphlet was a transcription of a 1937 speech Stalin had delivered to the Central Committee, justifying the Moscow Show Trials and promising many deaths. Many, many deaths.

Still, George Orwell somehow continues to remain present in our cultural understanding, and that's rather the point of Duncan White's Cold Warriors. You see, on his return to England, Orwell would quickly produce Homage to Catalonia (1938), a nonfiction account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. As it happens, the book was a flop, selling fewer than 700 copies. But it did lead him to be identified as an anti-Soviet leftist, which positioned him to write a review of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1940).

And Koestler's novel, in turn, convinced Orwell "that fiction, rather than journalism or memoir, however scrupulous, was the most effective way to communicate the essence of totalitarianism." Or so, at least, White argues in Cold Warriors, connecting Orwell's time in Spain to the shift to novel-writing that would see the Englishman publish Animal Farm in 1945 and Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. And with those novels, Orwell's works became something more than fiction about what would become the Cold War. They became part of the war itself. In Cold Warriors, White tells the story of the 1950s CIA attaching copies of Animal Farm to balloons and sending them wafting off into the Eastern Bloc, where they would crash like hailstones on the Communist regimes. A hard rain's a-gonna fall.

The issue of complicity lies at the center of Cold Warriors, White insists, because all the writers he mentions were forced, by their government or their conviction, to choose a side in the Cold War. And so we get Stephen Spender and Ernest Hemingway. Graham Greene and Isaac Babel. Mary McCarthy and Anna Akhmatova. Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. John Le Carré and Vaclav Havel. Many more writers make an appearance, but placing complicity at the center of his analysis, White is constantly tempted by moral equivalence, as though, say, the CIA's funding of the magazine Encounter was much the same as the Soviets' imprisoning of Solzhenitsyn.

To his credit, White doesn't always give in to the temptation, but in his discussions of McCarthy and Le Carré, among others, he allows nuance to intrude on truth. Both of the major powers in the Cold War may have behaved badly, but they weren't even close to the same level. The Hollywood Blacklist chased around a hundred people out of the film business in the United States. The Soviets' measures for liquidating Trotskyites murdered around a million people in the Soviet Union. However nuanced the telling, every tale of the Cold War has to begin and end with the fact that the Cold Warriors were right and the apologists were wrong. Soviet Communism was evil, and its defeat was the great moral victory of the second half of the 20th century.

At 700 pages, Cold Warriors allows itself to cover a great deal of ground, but White, a lecturer at Harvard, has the blindspots of his class, and cannot bring himself to consider many anti-Communist writers on the Right. The book is not a history of writers during the Cold War. It's solely a history of those who opposed communism from the Left. We don't get serious accounts of, say, James Burnham and Irving Kristol. We don't even get a mention of a writer named John Paul II in White's story of the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet bloc.

Still, even with its limitations, Cold Warriors is fascinating. White's tale of Graham Greene, for example, catches nearly everything that was wonderful and wacky about the man. Greene's unctuous assurance of political acumen, for instance. The path by which his dislike of America gradually transformed praiseworthy opposition to the Soviets into . . . ah, what was the word? Oh, yes: nuance. The moral equivalence of the anti-anti-Communist.

The Eastern European writers are the ones who shine in White's telling of the literary Cold War, and that may be because he sees them as possessing a kind of purity that could let them oppose the Soviet system without having thereby to defend the West. Anna Akhmatova stands in a brighter, cleaner light than Mary McCarthy (and rightly so). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn emerges a sterner character than Ernest Hemingway (which he was), and even Yevgeny Yevtushenko looks better than Stephen Spender (though they were really about the same). Vaclav Havel makes John Le Carré look like the poseur he is.

The intersection of all these stories—swirling to join, part, and then rejoin across the decades—is what makes Duncan White's Cold Warriors such a long book. It's also what makes it such a fascinating book. Maybe Stalin was on to something in the 1937 pamphlet that George Orwell lost in Spain: The anti-Communists saw the defects in the Communist party's work, while the Communists sought ways to liquidate everyone they accused of being double dealers.