Upstaging the Cold War

American Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy, 1940-1960
How dissident artists became cultural emissaries during the early decades of the Cold War


Traditional interpretations of the 1950s have emphasized how American anti-communists deployed censorship and the blacklist to silence dissent, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Yet those efforts at repression did not always succeed. Throughout the early years of the Cold War, a significant number of writers and performers continued to express controversial views about international relations in Hollywood films, through the new medium of television, on the Broadway stage, and from behind the scenes.

By promoting superpower cooperation, decolonization, nuclear disarmament, and other taboo causes, dissident artists such as Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Rod Serling, Dalton Trumbo, Reginald Rose, and Paddy Chayefsky managed both to stretch the boundaries of Cold War ideology and to undermine some of its basic assumptions. Working at times under assumed names and in some cases outside the United States, they took on the role of informal diplomats who competed with Washington in representing America to the world.

Ironically, the dissidents’ international appeal eventually persuaded the U.S. foreign policy establishment that their unconventional views could be an asset in the Cold War contest for “hearts and minds,” and their artistic work an effective means to sell American values and culture abroad. By the end of the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration not only appropriated the work of these talented artists but enlisted some of them to serve as official voices of Cold War cultural diplomacy.

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