Cold War Modernists

Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy

Greg Barnhisel

Columbia University Press

Cold War Modernists

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Pub Date: February 2015

ISBN: 9780231162302

336 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $50.00£42.00

Pub Date: February 2015

ISBN: 9780231538626

336 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $49.99£42.00

Cold War Modernists

Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy

Greg Barnhisel

Columbia University Press

European intellectuals of the 1950s dismissed American culture as nothing more than cowboy movies and the A-bomb. In response, American cultural diplomats tried to show that the United States had something to offer beyond military might and commercial exploitation. Through literary magazines, traveling art exhibits, touring musical shows, radio programs, book translations, and conferences, they deployed the revolutionary aesthetics of modernism to prove—particularly to the leftists whose Cold War loyalties they hoped to secure—that American art and literature were aesthetically rich and culturally significant.

Yet by repurposing modernism, American diplomats and cultural authorities turned the avant-garde into the establishment. They remade the once revolutionary movement into a content-free collection of artistic techniques and styles suitable for middlebrow consumption. Cold War Modernists documents how the CIA, the State Department, and private cultural diplomats transformed modernist art and literature into pro-Western propaganda during the first decade of the Cold War. Drawing on interviews, previously unknown archival materials, and the stories of such figures and institutions as William Faulkner, Stephen Spender, Irving Kristol, James Laughlin, and Voice of America, Barnhisel reveals how the U.S. government reconfigured modernism as a trans-Atlantic movement, a joint endeavor between American and European artists, with profound implications for the art that followed and for the character of American identity.

Cold War Modernists is a thoughtful, well-written reexamination of the use of modernism in American arts and letters as a diplomatic and cultural tool in the early Cold War. It is sure to become the standard text on cultural diplomacy in the early Cold War.

Robert Genter, author of Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America

This is a thoroughly excellent book, a magnum opus of genuine scholarship, and a genuine delight for readers.

Lawrence Rainey, University of York

This book fills a long-felt need for a scholarly work on the importance of U.S. cultural exchange with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Yale Richmond, Foreign Service Officer, retired, and former Counselor for Press and Culture in the American Embassy in Moscow

Conceptually sophisticated, thoroughly researched, and lucidly written, Greg Barnhisel's important new study combines an assured grasp of historical context with sensitive readings of artworks and literary texts to illuminate previously obscure aspects of the 'Cultural Cold War.'

Hugh Wilford, author of The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America and America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East.

Deftly working across genres, Barnhisel mobilizes rich archival sources to show not only the accommodation of modernism to anti-Communism but also the entanglement of the highbrow and the middlebrow. In that way, this lively, fascinating book contributes to the histories of both cultural diplomacy and cultural hierarchy.

Joan Shelley Rubin, author of Cultural Considerations: Essays on Readers, Writers, and Musicians in Postwar America

[A] groundbreaking book.

Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly

Making good use of archival sources, Mr. Barnhisel provides an engaging and informative survey.

Glenn Altschuler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Cold War Modernists makes a valuable addition to the grown literature on the cultural aspects of the Cold War. Thoroughly researched and written in a compact and readable style, it is a work that sets itself a viable task and accomplishes it.


An exquisite, intricate, and satisfying study.... Essential.


A welcome addition to the scholarship on modernism after the Second World War.

Lise Jaillant, Textual Practice

An important source for scholars and students of Cold War culture.... Thorough and illuminating, offering a rich new account of a story we thought to be familiar.

Will Norman, The Review of English Studies

Greg Barnhisel's Cold War Modernists charts impeccably the transformation of twentieth-century modernism from abrasive (European) avant-garde to a stylistic iconography of Western (American) freedom.... It is one of those commendable books that invites you to revisit what has already been said and makes you realize that the established story, up till now, was lacking.

Giles Scott-Smith, Diplomatic History

Barnhisel's book will rightly become the go-to reference for critics and historians of the Cultural Cold War.... Cold War Modernists focus on the arts-adjacent institutions that filter literary and artistic value provides a new way to think about how and why modernism has had such a lasting legacy in the 20th century.

Donal Harris, Los Angeles Review of Books

Coherently organized, superbly researched, and judiciously balanced.

Stephen J. Whitfield, Journal of Cold War Studies

An important source for scholars and students of Cold War culture. The account it offers of cultural diplomacy in the Truman and Eisenhower years is both thorough and illuminating, offering a rich new account of a story we thought to be familiar.

Will Norman, Review of English Studies

Barnhisel's book has a good deal to teach historians of the Cold War located outside art and literature departments.... He sifts through dozens of unpublished primary sources and writes with narrative drive as well as learned, enlivening wit.

William J. Maxwell, Journal of American History

The greatest merits of this work are its grand scope, clear argument, and impressive archival research; the writing is crisp, witty, and accessible.... [An] outstanding book.... [Cold War Modernists] deserves wide readership. There is no denying that Barnhisel has contributed to our collective understanding of modernism and its role in Cold War cultural diplomacy.

Andrew J. Falk, The American Historical Review

Elegant and richly researched

Against the Current

A refreshing contribution to scholarship on the so-called cultural Cold War.... Cold War Modernists displays a literary critic's sensitivity to rhetorical nuance combined with an intellectual historian's grasp of cultural, social and political contexts. It is written with style, assurance and at times with wit.

Jason Harding, Literature & History

[Cold War Modernists] is an impressive achievement, based on extensive archival research, a close reading of the most important secondary literature, and some key interviews.

Dr. John H. Brown, American Diplomacy
Abbreviations and Note on Unpublished Sources
1. Freedom, Individualism, Modernism
2. "Advancing American Art": Modernist Painting and Public–Private Partnerships
3. Cold Warriors of the Book: American Book Programs in the 1950s
4. Encounter Magazine and the Twilight of Modernism
5. Perspectives USA and the Economics of Cold War Modernism
6. American Modernism in American Broadcasting: The Voice of (Middlebrow) America

Read the introduction:

Choice Outstanding Academic Title, 2015

About the Author

Greg Barnhisel teaches in the English department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. His previous books include James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound and, with Catherine Turner, Pressing the Fight: Print, Propaganda, and the Cold War.