Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cold War Bibliography

I've been too busy not finishing Power in the Blood -- to be retitled by the publisher, unfortunately -- to finish the post about Alex Maleev and romance comics I started below. And, really, too distracted by the book-formerly-known as Power in the Blood to really engage with any serious media. Sure, I managed to watch twelve episodes of the fifth season of 24 -- yes, twelve -- but I'm not moved to write a word about it. In fact, I think entirely too much is written about 24 -- it is just barely political art, despite the tendency of pundits to read it as some kind of reflection of our terrorist-obsessed times. Mainly, I think, it's pleasurable as a puzzle, an abstract mental problem thinly-dressed up with character and plot.

My more serious media time has been dedicated to research. Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, a sympathetic biography of the anti-feminist crusader by conservative historian Donald T. Crichtlow; Ellen Schrecker's Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, one of the definitive histories of the subject that turns out to be disappointingly thin on detail, as if Schrecker was afraid that the fundamental weirdness of the anti-communist fever dreams would prevent contemporary readers from taking their malice seriously. Also, a new collection of columns by the legendary radical journalist I.F. Stone, which is also turning out to be disappointing. Politics, good; prose, eh. Creep-columnists of the same vintage such as Walter Winchell and Westbrook Pegler are more fun to read. Winchell, in particular, the James Joyce of nasty political gossip.

Best of all has been Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad, a scholarly history based in large part on recently declassified documents. I've a habit of becoming temporarily obsessed with historical figures usually considered bland or banal. LBJ, for instance, has long held down a corner of my imagination. Eisenhower is becoming newly fascinating to me, in part because of Osgood's portrait of his fundamental deviousness. The current conventional wisdom on Ike was that he maintained the piece; detractors say he did little else, while boosters -- amazingly, the more popular position -- say that he did so with great skill. In fact, he did neither. Rather, he waged what he himself called "total cold war," perhaps the biggest and most culturally-deadening propaganda campaign in history, studded with plenty of smaller hot wars in far off places, beyond the reach of mainstream American attention. Ike was a sneaky man, and -- in my reading, not Osgood's -- a conflicted character, torn between his public persona of integrity and his secret self, a Lincolnesque operator, politician-as-artist. This is not to suggest that Ike was another Lincoln, or "great," a term I've discovered that presidential historians (though not, to his credit, Osgood) use with absolute earnestness and unjustified social science certainty. Ike was a killer, moreso, I think, than the subsequent presidents who racked up much higher body counts. His wars were small, quick, and dirty -- Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia -- and the bodies hidden from the media. That's important -- Ike understood that he had to hide the bodies. LBJ and Nixon were so addled by self-regard that they could never really comprehend the carnage they caused. Ike knew what he was doing, crushing democracies to save democracy, as he saw it, and he knew just how paradoxical that was. But he did it just the same.