Cold War Novels and Movies

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Beyond their value as artistic expression or entertainment, novels and movies are cultural records that reflect a society's views and values. During the Cold War (1946–1991), novels and films reflected the anxieties and suspicions created by the specter of Communism and nuclear holocaust.

The Cold War is the label given to the state of geopolitical and ideological tensions between the two nuclear superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, dating from the end of World War II in 1945 through the early 1990s. This tension, never quite crossing the line into overt warfare, nevertheless resulted in decades of armed standoff and wars fought by proxy that could quite easily have escalated into nuclear war and global devastation. The British writer George Orwell, author of the famous Cold War dystopian novel 1984, used the phrase "cold war" in an article in 1945, thus anticipating the use of the term by the American statesman Bernard Baruch in a 1947 speech widely credited for providing this historical period with its name.

A large number of literary and cinematic works in America (and to a lesser extent Britain) dramatized the key issues of the conflict during the Cold War years. These narratives initially featured spies, evil CIA agents, and anti-Communist themes. The unimaginable became imaginable through nuclear-exchange scenarios and fables about invading extraterrestrials and radioactively mutated monsters. In later years, Cold War cinema and fiction became more nuanced and addressed a wider range of themes, tackling such issues as American militarism and institutional corruption, sometimes through satire. In the final years of the Cold War, the imaginative literature of the period tended to reflect America's own growing sense of triumph.

communists, propaganda, and paranoia

Certain types or genres of stories flourished in the United States during the late 1940s and 1950s. In these typically propagandistic narratives, heroic but generally outmatched heroes of democracy battle sinister forces both from within (a "fifth column") and without. Public suspicions of a so-called "international Communist conspiracy" were growing. As the United States became involved in the Korean War, Hollywood released a number of films that both exploited the widespread fear of Communism and sought to defuse any suspicions that the film industry itself was harboring Communist sympathizers. (During the 1940s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation went so far as to investigate films for possible communist propaganda content.) For example, Gordon Douglas's film I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and Edward Ludwig's Big Jim McClain (1952) both feature agents seeking to foil dastardly Soviet plots on American soil. Other films, such as Robert Stevenson's I Married a Communist (1950) and Jacques Tourneur's The Fearmakers (1958), present characters whose trusted family members or friends are suddenly exposed as ruthless Communists, thus establishing that the menace was even closer to home than one thought.

The feverish hunt for internal traitors working for external enemies led to the Communist "witch hunts" of the 1950s. This social phenomenon was reflected most dramatically by science-fiction narratives. Telling stories of otherworldly creatures in fantastic settings allowed greater freedom to comment on the contemporary scene. Notable among these stories is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a novel by Jack Finney later turned into a film directed by Don Siegel in 1956. Despite Finney's denial of any deeper meaning, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is arguably a Cold War metaphor for the dangers of Communist subversion. Anticipated by films such as It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953), Finney's novel and Siegel's film used its fantastic premise—extraterrestrial vegetative pods that take over people's bodies and identities—both as a way to inflame audiences' worst fears about creeping Communist infiltration and as a covert way to critique American conformity and nationalism. The science fiction genre also visualized in palatable form the horrors that World War III would inflict upon the natural world. Numerous screen depictions showed radioactively enlarged monsters on the rampage, such as Eugene Lourie's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Gordon Douglas's Them! (1954), and Bert I. Gordon's The Beginning of the End (1957).

In the later 1950s, some narratives faced the apocalypse head-on. The novel On the Beach (1957), by the English writer Nevil Shute, portrayed the last days of a group of survivors in Australia before the lethal fallout from a global nuclear war reaches them and ends the last vestiges of civilization. The novel was adapted into a film directed by Stanley Kramer in 1959. Equally bleak but grimly humorous is Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), in which several generations of postwar monks in a Utah abbey must guard a sacred relic (a shopping list written by a prewar engineer named Leibowitz) as civilization falls, rises, and falls around them. More optimistic is Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959), in which the inhabitants of the isolated town Fort Repose actually manage to pull together and not only survive but flourish in the aftermath of nuclear war. A number of British films, some with the full cooperation of the government, crusaded against Communism, most notably the two animated film adaptations of Orwell's Animal Farm (Joy Batchelor, 1954; John Halas, 1956) and Michael Anderson's adaptation of 1984 (1956). But in general British filmmakers were not nearly as alarmist or ideologically strident as their American counterparts.

The British reading public was fascinated by tales of Cold War intrigue and espionage. Ian Fleming wrote a series of novels between the early 1950s and early 1960s featuring a British secret agent, James Bond. Bond is a suave connoisseur of luxury, a world traveler, ruthless killer, skilled wielder of weaponry, rakish womanizer, and virtually indestructible force for the defense of Western society in his various confrontations with, among others, agents for the Soviet Union and SPECTRE, a fictional criminal organization. The novels were turned into a highly lucrative cinematic franchise that has continued into the twenty-first century, with a succession of actors portraying an ageless Bond in scenarios ranging far from the series' Cold War origins.

In sharp contrast to the sophisticated and sexy James Bond is the quiet, middle-aged George Smiley, the British Secret Service superspy created by the novelist John le Carré in Call for the Dead (1961). In this first novel, Smiley exposes the head of a Communist spy ring while investigating a murder but is so troubled by his own actions that he quits the Service. The unassumingly drab but intellectually brilliant Smiley, who appeared in several subsequent novels by le Carré, seems deliberately conceived as the anti-Bond. In le Carré's most renowned espionage thriller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), British agent Alec Learmas is exploited by the Secret Service in a complex triple-cross plot to bring down the head of an East German spy ring. Told from Learmas's point of view as he uncovers the multiple layers of deception, the story highlights the nihilistic absurdity of the spy universe, where nothing and no one can be trusted. In both the novel and the film that was adapted from it by Martin Ritt in 1965, the mistrust of formerly trusted social institutions as a narrative device is representative of a second, more mature phase of Cold War fiction.

paranoia turned inward

During the 1960s, some films and novels turned away from the Soviet "other" and turned inward to criticize U.S. Cold War militarism. Whereas earlier Cold War writers had valorized the government and the military in the face of the Communist threat, those very forces of democracy instead became objects of suspicion. Some writers, such as Dalton Trumbo, Lillian Hellman, Ring Lardner, Jr., and Dashiell Hammett, were so outspoken in this regard that they were blacklisted as Communists. Undoubtedly the most significant work to turn paranoia inward is Richard Condon's 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, adapted for cinema by John Frankenheimer in 1962 (remade in 2004 by Jonathan Demme). The story revolves around a squad of Americans who have been brainwashed by an alliance of Chinese and Soviet forces for the purpose of an assassination plot to take over control of the United States. However, the American domestic front itself, including family and government, is shown to be riddled with monstrous corruption. Another Frankenheimer film, Seven Days in May (1964), based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, presents the spectacle of a right-wing military coup attempt against a U.S. president seen as being "soft on Communism." The film implies that American institutionalized zealotry is just as dangerous as its Communist counterpart.

Fail-Safe, a novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, was made into a film by Sidney Lumet in 1964. In this narrative, the villain is not one man, or even a cabal, but the system itself, which when it inevitably fails is beyond the reach of any individual to control. Only the sacrificial exchange of New York City for the "accidentally" destroyed Moscow, a sacrifice proposed and carried out by the U.S. president, prevents a wider conflagration. Whereas this novel and film are in dead earnest, a similar scenario is treated as a blackly humorous romp through the nuclear graveyard in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, released in the same year as Lumet's Fail-Safe. In Kubrick's film, an American attack on the Soviet Union, led by General Jack D. Ripper, results in full-scale nuclear war that destroys civilization. Only the privileged politicians and generals, along with women taken solely for breeding purposes, are able to survive in mines deep beneath the earth's surface, presumably to reemerge and begin the entire destructive cycle again.

cynicism and the cold war

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal contributed to growing public cynicism toward American government. Works that demonized, rejected, scorned, or ridiculed the U.S. political and military establishment found an appreciative audience. A number of films dealing with political conspiracy theories were released during this period. One of the most well-known was Alan J. Pakula's 1976 film version of All the President's Men, an account of corruption in the Nixon White House by the journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. David Miller's film Executive Action (1973) proposes a conspiratorial explanation for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Pakula's film The Parallax View (1974) is about political assassinations committed by corporations and ends with the rather bleak spectacle of its protagonist not only being killed but being blamed for the plot he unsuccessfully tried to foil.

Other stories highlight the treachery of covert organizations. Sidney Pollack's 1975 film Three Days of the Condor (based on the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady), features a malevolent U.S. intelligence community so eager to consolidate global power it will even kill its own. Robert Ludlum's second novel, The Osterman

Weekend (1972), adapted for film by Sam Peckinpah in 1983, is the story of a television reporter duped by the CIA into investigating his own friends and ultimately threatened with the loss of his family.

the end of the cold war

Beginning in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, society began to tire of the self-critique of the 1960s. Fueled by widespread nostalgia for a return of American triumphalism, a new cycle of works sought to redeem America's failed Vietnam policies. Films and novels reflected a renewed ideological struggle against the Soviet Union, which President Ronald Reagan labeled "the evil empire." This tendency is seen most clearly in films of the early 1980s that showcase successful military efforts to retrieve American prisoners of war from Vietnam, such as Joseph Zito's Missing in Action (1984) and George P. Cosmatos's Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). Other popular films portrayed an apparently imminent nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union, such as John Badham's Wargames (1983), John Milius's Red Dawn (1984), and Nicholas Meyer's heavily publicized, made-for-television "event" movie, The Day After (1983).

In the literary marketplace, Tom Clancy made his best-selling debut in 1984 with The Hunt for Red October, the saga of a Soviet submarine commander whose defection with his crew almost triggers World War III. The anticipated U.S.–Soviet Armageddon, however, was not to be. In the later 1980s the policy of glasnost, or openness, changed the Soviet Union radically. The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s brought the Cold War to an end, but the influence of those tense decades continues. Popular literature and movies use the threat of war and war itself to present a perspective of an embattled nation. The residue of Cold War paranoia may linger, even as the nation faces new threats in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.


Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Henriksen, Margot. Dr. Strangelove's America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Schaub, Thomas Hill. American Fiction in the Cold War. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999.

Shaw, Tony. British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda, and Consensus. London: I. B. Tauris, 2001.

Whitfield, Stephen. The Culture of the Cold War, 2d edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1996.

Philip L. Simpson

See also:Arts as Weapon; Fiction and Memoirs, Vietnam; Films, Vietnam; Olympics and Cold War; Popular Culture and Cold War .