Monday, February 25, 2013

From Victory to Cold War

The years immediately following the victory of World War II are an important and fascinating time in American history, one in which preoccupation with the greatest cataclysm in human history came to what seemed a sudden end on the home front and was followed by rapid and wrenching economic and psychological adjustments that were made in a very short span of time. It was an unsettling experience that in just a few years resolved itself into set perceptions about the nature of modern life in America and danger in the world at large, and engraved social and political patterns of behavior that were to last for decades. The Noir Forties is a book about the “feel” of those years, a cultural history more than a domestic political history or a diplomatic history about the development of the Cold War. If you are interested primarily in political history or the developments in American foreign relations in those years, we have reviewed previously in this blog a number of books that focus more specifically on those facets of the period, 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America’s Role in the World by David Pietrusza; The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 by Robert Dalleck; and most recently, Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, Truman, and the Birth of the Modern World by Michael Dobbs.

It is difficult to identify with any certainty the prospective readership for The Noir Forties, for although this is a book that seems largely concerned with social and cultural history of the period, Lingeman is also interested in identifying correlations between the psychological mood of the times and its expression in political events. He finds that mood best embodied in the genre of American films that appeared just after the war, the films that French critics named film noir, and he relates their atmosphere of paranoia, fatalism, violence, and dread to international tensions and the development of the virulent national anti-Communist and anti-Soviet consensus of the period. But in many ways the choice of political topics feels like a personal miscellany. Others who lived through the period might focus on different political events. The choices are interesting, but readers should not expect to find here a comprehensive survey of the period.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to discussion of some of the representative films of the genre. We also learn something about the state of American unions and the wildness of the American economy just after the war years as price controls were lifted and inflation rose, about the adjustments of the job market to defense cuts and the influx of returning soldiers, and about the return of women from the factory floor to the home. Lingeman discusses the waning days of the New Deal, and has written a particularly interesting chapter on the 1948 Progressive Party candidacy of Henry Wallace. He makes connections between the postwar zeitgeist, films of the period, the advent of McCarthyism, and the Hollywood blacklist. He argues that there was popular receptiveness in the country to military action in Korea because Americans saw it as a way to resolve in a direct and nationally unifying action the anomie and fear of the times. It was the opportunity to end a sense of helplessness and at last confront Communism militarily after having had to stand by during the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe and the victory of the Chinese Communists, developments that became much the grist of domestic politics in these years.

The connections Lingeman makes are interesting, in some cases provocative, and will be arguable, but The Noir Forties perhaps is most interesting when looked at as an exhibition of how we make the history that has occurred during our lifetime our own. At the end of The Noir Forties, Lingeman explains the reason for our compulsion to do that: “You try not to be complicit, but sometimes you must or risk not being part of your times, not having lived. Life is learned through the living of it. Being an actor in history, being part of your times.” The Noir Forties is bookended by chapters that can be characterized as memoir. In the first chapter, Lingeman discusses his time in the Army Intelligence Corps in Japan in the late 1940s, his role as a Cold Warrior, and takes us back to that same time in the closing chapter when he visits the ruins of Nagasaki. The Noir Forties is a retrospective in which he has tied the feelings he experienced at that time to the historical events of the period. It serves as an exposition of the way so many of us in late middle age feel driven to make a claim for a role in the history of our times. Lingeman quotes Raymond Chandler as saying “The story of our time is not the war nor atomic energy but the marriage of an idealist to a gangster and how their home life and children turned out.” Well, that may be the story, but Lingeman is interested in why it is the story, what lies beneath. In it he unearths an allegory for the subjective feelings and experience of his younger self that connect to the larger events of the period, the events we call history. We come to understand that the way we remember and construct the history that has occurred in the time in which we have lived is different in important ways than how we consider the history of the world before we were born, that the history of our times has a special meaning and urgency, and that it becomes a grounding of great importance as we grow older. As life comes to seem more and more to be a dream, it is a way we know we have been a part of our times, it is a way we know we have lived.

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