Monday, August 27, 2007

Postwar, by Tony Judt


While I’ve been unable to make it through Moby-Dick this summer (just 480 pages left to go before the autumnal equinox), I have been making surprising time through Tony Judt’s epic Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Judt combines a superhumanly broad grasp of European politics and culture with a writing style that can only be called “breezy,” in light of what could be wretchedly dry subject matter.

He doesn’t just discuss Europe, but also the Soviet Union and the U.S. and their efforts to promote or denigrate Communism. Apparently, the U.S. brought a lot of public-diplomacy dollars to the task:

By 1950 the US Information Agency had taken overall charge of American cultural exchange and information programs in Europe. Together with the Informational Services Branch of the US Occupation authorities in western Germany and Austria (which had full control of all media and cultural outlets in the US Zone in these countries), the USIA was now in a position to exert huge influence in Western European cultural life. By 1953, at the height of the Cold War, US foreign cultural programs (excluding covert subsidies and private foundations) employed 13,000 people and cost $129 million [annually], much of it spent on the battle for the hearts and minds of the intellectual elite of Western Europe.

That’s about $890 million in 2003 dollars, if you’re keeping track. A lot of that money went to establishing “America Houses,’

with libraries and newspaper-reading rooms, and [to] host lectures, meetings and English-language classes. By 1955 there were sixty-nine such America Houses in Europe. ...

Which is not to say USIA and its governmental brethren did everything right:

Like American-supported radio networks, ... the America House programs were sometimes undermined by the crude propaganda imperatives emanating from Washington. At the peak of the McCarthy years the directors of America Houses spent much of their time removing books from their shelves. Among dozens of authors whose works were deemed inappropriate were not only the obvious suspects—John Dos Passos, Arthur Miller, Dashiel Hammett and Upton Sinclair—but also Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Alberto Moravia, Tom Paine and Henry Thoreau. In Austria, at least, it seemed to many observers that the US was sometimes its own most effective foe.

Who might appear on today’s multimedia list? The obvious suspects would be Christopher Hitchens, the Dixie Chicks, Al Gore and Seymour Hersh. Non-obvious candidates for book removal might include Bill Gates (critical of U.S. engineering talent), Bono (U.S. and EU policy toward Sudan) and Studs Terkel (Dos Passos’s nonfiction successor, I’d say).

Got others?

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