America’s Big Chill A new book connects unexpected dots for a reinvigorated look at the Cold War

Citizenship in Cold War America: The National Security State and the Possibilities of Dissent

Andrea Friedman (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014) 288 pages with notes, index, bibliography and photographs

The 1950s languish in popular memory as a decade of mass, and mandatory, conformity. Middle-class, male American breadwinners headed for the suburbs, clad in grey flannel suits. Under the eerie shadow of a mushroom cloud, children learned to duck and cover. And Rosie, no longer riveting, began to smother her offspring with a surfeit of misdirected maternal love. Meanwhile, those with more radical affiliations or unorthodox identities were subjected to a battery of federal investigations, security checks, and ritualized performances of loyalty, in response to which they either named names or took the Fifth. Few resisted. As standard versions of the early Cold War have it, the Red Scare scared. Taught to fear communism and to equate it with everything “un-American,” U.S. citizens dutifully accepted the proposition that security required a diminution of liberty. This zero-sum logic persisted throughout the Cold War and beyond. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, aggressive advocates of “Homeland Security” reiterated the claim that warding off future terrorist acts could be achieved only by circumscribing citizens’ rights and denying that certain suspect categories of person possessed any rights at all.

Andrea Friedman’s engagingly provocative new book upends conventional wisdom in multiple ways. Citizenship in Cold War America offers a re-visioning of the late 1940s and 1950s as far less quiescent years than conventional wisdom portrays them. Friedman takes aim at the shibboleth of a “Cold War Consensus:” shorthand for the contract that (apparently) bound postwar U.S. citizens to their increasingly powerful state as it grew more expansive abroad and intrusive at home, grounded in a shared conviction that the dictates of national security trumped individual liberties. The notion that Americans were variously seduced by affluence and alarmed by anti-communist demagoguery into abandonment of progressive political causes has enjoyed widespread acceptance. For decades, a scholarly consensus about popular consensus prevailed. As a result, “containment”—the watchword of American grand strategy aimed at halting, and ultimately reversing, the rising tide of global communism—came to serve as a metaphorical catch-all for myriad processes of straightjacketing that marked the early Cold War era.

Friedman is certainly not the first author to propose that domestic containment failed to repress every strain of “deviance” or rebellion that conservatives hoped to stifle under the banner of anti-communism. As the title of an influential collection of essays edited by Joanne Meyerowitz some twenty years ago, Not June Cleaver, suggests, not all Americans did like Ike. Nor were they content to leave it to Beaver. However, few book-length studies have challenged the myth of consensus as inventively as Friedman does here.

Her argument is more nuanced than a simple assertion that political repression, in seeking to stifle dissent, engendered resistance … Friedman’s more novel point is that the specific content of Cold War politics, not just counterproductively blunt force, gave dissenters some room for maneuver.

Friedman’s central claim is that, in unintended ways, Cold War politics opened space for various individuals and groups to challenge truncated notions of U.S. citizenship. Her argument is more nuanced than a simple assertion that political repression, in seeking to stifle dissent, engendered resistance—as heavy-handed applications of power are apt to do. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the state’s disciplinary hand was certainly far from gentle. Secret procedures and public performances inaugurated in the name of national security—FBI investigations, HUAC hearings, mandatory loyalty oaths and so on—generated a good deal of personal insecurity. But Friedman’s more novel point is that the specific content of Cold War politics, not just counterproductively blunt force, gave dissenters some room for maneuver.

In other words, political leaders could not ceaselessly invoke security as the primary object of policy—at home and abroad—without provoking questions about what security actually meant. Who got secured, how, and against what or whom? Similarly, to position the United States as “leader of the free world,” a hegemonic claim championed by both Republicans and Democrats, was to invite scrutiny of America’s entitlement to this mantle. The gap between Washington’s declaratory posture and marginalized residents’ experience of “unfreedom”—discrimination, violence, and exclusion—was the space in which dissent expanded and found expression.

As the book’s title suggests, contested understandings of citizenship lay at the center of these struggles over rights and recognition. Here, Friedman follows other scholars who have explored citizenship as a multifaceted status that, despite implying political equality, has proven consonant with wildly uneven levels of personal, social, and economic security. While all U.S. citizens are putatively equal, some are undoubtedly “more equal than others.” But since citizenship holds at least the prospect (if not a guarantee) of state protection, it represents an aspirational badge of belonging: a status worth fighting for. As Friedman demonstrates, “alien” claimants to citizenship—or those seeking fuller acknowledgement of their citizenship rights—encountered a battery of official and unofficial tests of fitness. Race, gender, and sexuality played key roles in shaping empowered citizens’ perceptions of others’ eligibility for inclusion. And these judgments were all the more stringent as the national security state busily endeavored to remove or exclude “un-Americans.”

Friedman’s five deeply-researched chapters explore various contests over citizenship that were intimately bound up with early Cold War debates about security, identity, and entitlement. In different ways, her protagonists posed profound (often ongoing and unresolved) questions about whose vulnerability mattered most to the U.S. state. Who deserved protection from what? The first chapter explores the rise of “psychological” notions of citizenship that acquired normative status during the early Cold War. As political theorists, social scientists, and penitent former CPUSA members rushed to account for what drew individuals to communism, an idée fixe emerged that communists were, above all else, psychologically aberrant. These powerful opinion-formers were adamant that most of those who joined the party did so primarily for non-political reasons, whatever surface allure Marxism might hold for a certain kind of idealist. Alienated individuals, the products of unloving homes, victims of social ostracism, sexual “inverts”—these were the types, according to contemporary wisdom, who found themselves drawn to the false promises of communism to provide an inclusive, egalitarian community. No wonder, then, that saddled with such an array of pejorative identity traits, communists should have struck so many Americans as unfit for citizenship.

In the chapters that follow, Friedman retrieves a range of more or less forgotten “citizenship stories” to illustrate her thesis about the potential for immanent critique opened by Washington’s claims to free world leadership. Chapter two focuses on Ellen Raphael Boxhornova Knauff, a European “war bride” who, for several years after she arrived in the United States in 1948, lived under the shadow of deportation as an alleged “security threat.” But the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to divulge the basis on which she had been identified as such. This Kafkaesque predicament, coupled with Knauff’s attractive looks and political smarts, helped anchor a persuasive narrative about her entitlement to citizenship—despite insinuations of a communist-connected past and a name that hinted at her complex ethno-national and marital history. (Born to wealthy Jewish parents in Germany, Ellen had married a Czech, divorced, fled to London, and met her husband—a naturalized U.S. citizen—in occupied postwar Germany.) By the time Ellen Raphael Boxhornova Knauff Hartley was finally granted citizenship in 1963, she was no longer Knauff’s spouse but, as her further elongated name hinted, re-married to another American. Yet a citizen she became.

Friedman follows Knauff’s little-recalled story with an incisive reading of a rather better remembered one: that of Annie Lee Moss. An African-American Pentagon employee, Moss made headline news in 1954 when she appeared in the televised hearings of Senator McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, summoned because of her alleged Communist Party membership. Presenting herself as a beaten down, barely literate woman too unlettered even to recognize Karl Marx’s name, Moss was quickly adopted by Ed Murrow and other critics of McCarthy as a hapless token of the senator’s reckless excess. In their telling, Moss appeared a “poor little woman” whose identity had been mistaken for another Annie Lee Moss, the communist. Friedman offers a more complex account. Asking whether Moss was really a party member is, she proposes, a reductive line of inquiry. In all probability, Moss had joined the Party, perhaps fleetingly. But whatever her dues-paying affiliation may or may not have been, she was a vigorous civic activist, involved with an array of neighborhood associations—a far cry from the disoriented, unassuming woman who presented herself before the cameras. That public performance is what makes Moss interesting to Friedman, who frames this story as illustrative of struggles over “economic citizenship:” the entitlement of structurally subordinate citizens to earn a decent living. In order to keep her Pentagon job, Moss had to garner sympathy. To do so, she played dumb in ways that pandered to racist stereotypes, encouraging white laughter at her hammed-up black buffoonery. This act of imposture obscured the real, activist Annie Moss. (And in that sense, Friedman points out, hers was a case of mistaken identity.) But the pantomime of innocent “deservingness” attracted powerful champions, whose espousal of her cause helped Moss retain her job.

Not all Friedman’s subjects were such successful petitioners as Knauff and Moss, however. The fourth chapter of Citizenship in Cold War America takes up a systematically disregarded aspect of U.S. history: namely, Puerto Ricans’ anomalous “semi-citizenship.” Since 1898, the islands’ residents had been caught in a perpetual state of betwixity—belonging to the United States without belonging in it. Here, Friedman situates her analysis at the point where the Cold War’s east-west and north-south axes intersected. Mobilizing both within and beyond the U.S., Puerto Rican nationalists pressed claims for independence in the larger context of postwar decolonization struggles. Their strategy encompassed a bid to secure international recognition at the United Nations, where demands for (and definitions of) self-determination were hotly contested in the 1950s. But nationalist tactics also included “propaganda of the deed” conducted in the United States. And no deed was more attention-grabbing than when members of Puerto Rico’s Nationalist Party peppered the floor of the House of Representatives with gunshots in 1954. Lolita Lebrón and her colleagues failed to achieve the desired political outcome. However, their campaign helped raise consciousness about Puerto Ricans’ impossible status. In Friedman’s words, “their struggles revealed that in these years Puerto Rico was the inclusive exclusion, the prototypical state of exception, a place were U.S. citizens were denied the rights of citizenship even as they were declared ‘part of the independence of the United States.’”

At first glance, Friedman’s cast of characters may seem eclectic, her chapters “only loosely related,” as she herself concedes. But one of the book’s pleasures lies in discovery of the increasingly intricate connections that bind them together.

How “slow violence” works to sustain structural disadvantage is a theme that bridges the fourth and fifth chapters. Shifting from the corrosive impact of U.S. imperialism on Puerto Rico, Friedman makes an unexpected leap to comic books. Her focus is on psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who achieved national prominence in the 1950s as a tireless campaigner against the degrading impact of comics on American youth. In other recent authors’ hands, Wertham appears a fanatical social conservative whose obsession with the sexually sadistic content of comic books looks either risible or dubious (if not both). Friedman’s protagonist bears scant resemblance to this caricature. The Wertham she brings to life was a passionate advocate of social justice, deeply troubled by the misogyny and racism that suffused comics’ artistic conventions and formulaic plots. Influenced by Frankfurt School philosophy, Wertham was hardly a crypto-McCarthyite book burner, though he has been remembered for, and pilloried as, an advocated of comics’ censorship. But his fundamental concern was with how the most damaging aspects of consumer capitalism—its fetish of violence, glorification of brute strength, and contempt for perceived underlings—degraded young Americans, particularly those whose socio-economic circumstances were most precarious. As interpreted by Friedman, Wertham’s campaigns were rooted in a particular conception of security: one that twinned equality with dignity. Their absence constituted a form of violence against youthful citizens that endangered social wellbeing as a whole.

At first glance, Friedman’s cast of characters may seem eclectic, her chapters “only loosely related,” as she herself concedes. But one of the book’s pleasures lies in discovery of the increasingly intricate connections that bind them together. Thus, for example, Wertham’s work in defense of arraigned Puerto Rican “delinquents” registers with particular force after Friedman’s discussion of Lolita Lebrón and Puerto Rican nationalism. Friedman’s skill in populating her chapters with not only intriguing protagonists but a full cast of supporting characters results in an engrossingly textured account of the early Cold War. Freeing the era from the straightjacket of conformity to which it has been confined by hindsight and historiography, Citizenship in Cold War America reveals a society more fractious than anxious. Without minimizing the politically repressive aspects of these years, Friedman demonstrates how adroitly some marginalized individuals and groups were able to maneuver for firmer ground within protected circles of citizenship. But gains were also sometimes fragile, tenuous, and temporary. Citizenship is nothing if not a contingent category, as Friedman makes clear. And as the cases of Ellen Knauff and Annie Lee Moss also show, success could hinge on the petitioner’s willingness and ability to appear unthreatening to conservative norms, whether as a devoted wife or a hard-working woman, just trying to earn her way in the world.

Scholars of the early Cold War will find much novel material here, empirical and interpretive. But the book should also resonate with a wider audience of academic and non-academic readers alike. Friedman’s highly original interpretation of the early Cold War broaches a wider inquiry into the paradoxical workings of the “national security state.” Debates over the meanings, practices and contractions of security are as pertinent to our age as to the late 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, the terms of engagement are often, alas, uncannily close.