Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (Louis Menand)

Louis Menand's comprehensive The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War discusses American and Western European culture in the years after World War II through the middle of the Vietnam War. 

Menand’s work dives into the economic, technological, cultural, political, and social evolutions over a rough twenty-five year period, focusing on key personalities that helped drive or lead the massive amounts of change that took place over the start of the Baby Boom era up through 1970. America’s role in the world was more than just the leader in economic might; it exported substantial amounts of culture globally as well. Art, music, literary works, movies, and even political thinking were chief American exports. Menand ties a bow on much of the work in showing how segments of these cultural institutions were underwritten by the CIA as part of the government’s work against communism.

I enjoyed the book although I found it meandering at times. The author occasionally dove very deep into the weeds on topics that he seemed either more knowledgeable or more passionate about, and I felt that those moments took focus away from the overarching themes of the book about American cultural influence in the post-World War II era. I would have appreciated seeing some additional content on the CIA’s subversion of cultural and philosophical institutions during these years or some references to other material I could read on the subject. That said, The Free World is a wide-ranging, comprehensive book that really reinforces the importance of art, ideas, and culture in the world.