Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age

Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age

by Alan Nadel, Donald E. Pease

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Alan Nadel provides a unique analysis of the rise of American postmodernism by viewing it as a breakdown in Cold War cultural narratives of containment. These narratives, which embodied an American postwar foreign policy charged with checking the spread of Communism, also operated, Nadel argues, within a wide spectrum of cultural life in the United States to contain atomic secrets, sexual license, gender roles, nuclear energy, and artistic expression. Because these narratives were deployed in films, books, and magazines at a time when American culture was for the first time able to dominate global entertainment and capitalize on global production, containment became one of the most widely disseminated and highly privileged national narratives in history.
Examining a broad sweep of American culture, from the work of George Kennan to Playboy Magazine, from the movies of Doris Day and Walt Disney to those of Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock, from James Bond to Holden Caulfield, Nadel discloses the remarkable pervasiveness of the containment narrative. Drawing subtly on insights provided by contemporary theorists, including Baudrillard, Foucault, Jameson, Sedgwick, Certeau, and Hayden White, he situates the rhetoric of the Cold War within a gendered narrative powered by the unspoken potency of the atom. He then traces the breakdown of this discourse of containment through such events as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, and ties its collapse to the onset of American postmodernism, typified by works such as Catch–22 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.
An important work of cultural criticism, Containment Culture links atomic power with postmodernism and postwar politics, and shows how a multifarious national policy can become part of a nation’s cultural agenda and a source of meaning for its citizenry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822381976
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/20/1995
Series: New Americanists
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Alan Nadel is Professor of Literature at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Read an Excerpt

Containment Culture

American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age

By Alan Nadel

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8197-6



Although some date the beginnings of the cold war to Churchill's iron curtain speech, and others to U.S.-Soviet relations that antedate even World War II, the crucial factor, I would argue, that gives the cold war its unique qualities is the atomic bomb. Whether Gar Alperovitz is correct in asserting that the desire to intimidate Moscow rather than to defeat Japan motivated the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is harder to deny that that act gave the cold war unique characteristics. In assuming (both actively and tacitly) the use of atomic weaponry, the United States created an adversarial relationship that, like atomic energy itself, differed in kind as well as in scope from previous power relationships in any part of the globe.

"The atomic age was opened with a prayer," Paul Boyer writes in By the Bomb's Early Light, his history of America's cultural ascent to its role as the world's first nuclear power (211). Although specifically referring to the chaplain blessing the crew of the Enola Gay as it embarked on the mission that would terminate in the sky over Hiroshima, Boyer is alluding more generally to the narrative that has in Western discourse mandated the fusing of divine power with secular: warfare, particularly as situated in the assumption that God always sides with the winners.

That tautological premise informs much cold war rhetoric and practice, a point I will be developing at length in my discussion of The Ten Commandments. The unprecedented image of atomic energy coupled unnatural and universal destruction with the most natural source of universal power. As early as President Truman's first public statement after the bombing of Hiroshima, nuclear attacks were mutated into divine purification: "If [the Japanese leaders] do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth" (U.S. Dept. of State, International, 8). Atomic power was totalizing and miniscule, secreted and omnipresent, capable of binding or of rendering asunder. It could, in other words, be figured within the same tropic scheme as the Christian Almighty, whose gifts and demands had, even prior to the nation's formal declaration of independence, constructed an important narrative of Euro-American culture. The "American Adam" in this latest covenant thus took possession of the American atom bomb, invoking in the process holy blessings. "Such benedictions," as Boyer notes, "were undoubtedly intended to enfold atomic weapons within America's religious and moral traditions, and, in truth, for some it posed no ethical difficulties: God had given America the secret, and its further development would reflect the divine plan" (211).

Boyer's book, which deals almost exclusively with the impact of the atomic bomb in the first five years after Hiroshima, documents a whole language of awe and terror, apocalypse and utopia, internationalism and xenophobia emerging specifically around atomic weaponry and generally about atomic power. Very shortly after the bomb initially exploded upon American consciousness, however, a national narrative developed to control the fear and responsibility endemic to possessing atomic power. The central motif of that narrative was "containment," in which insecurity was absorbed by internal security, internationalism by global strategy, apocalypse and utopia by a Christian theological mandate, and xenophobia— the fear of the Other—by courtship, the activity in which Otherness is the necessary supplement to seduction, whether that seduction is formal or illicit, voluntary or coerced, hetero- or homosexual, the product of romantic alliance, business transaction, or date rape.

If containment thus names a foreign and domestic policy, it also names the rhetorical strategy that functioned to foreclose dissent, preempt dialogue, and preclude contradiction. The United States, empowered by the binding energy of the universe, was to become the universal container. As the peaceful applications of atomic energy would expand, vie with, and ultimately reinforce its complementary martial uses, huge containment domes would identify atomic energy plants on the American landscape at the same time that sundry military and economic initiatives would identify global strategies of containment. As Donald Pease has noted, American cold war foreign policy is marked by a complex narrative of Other and Same.


Started under President Truman as a form of financial aid to stabilize non-Soviet-bloc countries in the economically shaky period of recovery from the destruction caused by World War II, the ideas behind containment were first publicly introduced in Truman's address to a joint session of Congress, March 12, 1947, that requested financial aid for Greece, aid deemed "imperative if Greece is to survive as a free nation," (3) and for Turkey because the "future of Turkey is clearly no less important to the freedom-loving peoples of the world than the future of Greece" (5). Truman also requested authority to dispense American personnel to supervise the use of the appropriated money and to train "selected Greek and Turkish personnel" (8). The principle behind this program was the explicit belief that "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures" (8).

If, in Truman's speech, "democracy" was an important aspect of narrative governing American foreign aid, it was a questionable description of the exemplary cases. Turkey especially, many believed, was hardly a fit example then—any more than it is now—of a "democracy." One of the skeptics, in fact, was George Kennan, director of Secretary of State George Marshall's policy planning staff. Kennan's 1947 essay, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," published anonymously in Foreign Affairs, introduced the word containment and articulated the philosophical underpinnings of American foreign policy for nearly half a century to follow. Whether this essay crucially influenced American policy or whether it merely articulated an already extant consensus in the Truman administration, it nevertheless focuses most sharply America's understanding of its cold war role.

It does so by juxtaposing two kinds of narrative. The first assembles background material in order to construct a profile of the Soviet mentality, and the second projects scenarios of American response to that mentality. Kennan's narrative of "democracy" is thus steeped in the conventions of psychological realism. Implicitly equating the body politic with the human body, Kennan undertakes to delineate the "political personality" of that body–a difficult task of "psychological analysis"—so that Soviet conduct could "be understood and effectively countered" (566). This unquestioned need to counter the Soviets motivates Kennan's analysis, one that shows this political analysand to be full of contradictions: flexible and intransigent, impetuous but patient; monomaniacal and monolithic but filled with enough hidden rivalries and disagreements to doom it; committed to ideology above pragmatics but also using ideology as a mere excuse for practical actions; part of the long-term political landscape but also likely to collapse with the first transition of power.

Kennan's subject, in other words, is not only hostile but also so clearly schizoid that Kennan's metaphor—the "political personality of Soviet power" (571)—cannot control its disparate properties. For Kennan the power therefore changes from a "personality" to a "fluid": "Basically the [Soviet] antagonism remains. It is postulated. And from it flow many of the phenomena which we find disturbing in the Kremlin's conduct of foreign policy: the secretiveness, the lack of frankness, the duplicity, the wary suspiciousness, and the basic unfriendliness of purpose" (572; emphasis added). These paranoic characteristics run with fluidity from their schizoid source and, "like the postulate from which they flow, are basic to the internal nature of Soviet power" (572). The "internal nature" becomes in Kennan's rhetoric a source of essential fluids and Soviet aggression a form of incontinence: "Its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power. But if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them" (575).

With incontinence the implicit problem, Kennan recommends we not try to change the essential nature of the fluid, but rather to limit its flow with "a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies" (575; emphasis added). Linking this prolonged policy to a projection of Soviet economic impotence (578), Kennan's rhetoric suggests that the fluid's fearful nature is its seminal quality and that containing the flow long enough will make Soviet impotence apparent or cause a mutation. In the eventual ascent of new leaders, Kennan suggests, "strange consequences could flow for the Communist Party" (579).

But the United States must do more than prevent Soviet flow by "entering with reasonable confidence upon a policy of firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world" (Kennan, 581); it must also make the source of that flow "appear sterile and quixotic" (581), not by counterforce, but by counterexample. The impression of American potency—decisiveness, power, spiritual vitality—a matter of internal as well as external affairs, will further the interests of containment by making the Soviets look less potent and attractive, and thus by depriving them of partners, of receptors for their seminal flow, with the goal being "to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate ... and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or gradual mellowing of Soviet power. [For the Kremlin cannot] face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another ..." (582).

These increased strains, attempts to frustrate by containing the flow, suggest less the tactics of a twentieth-century statesman than those of Aristophanes' Lysistrata. They do not constitute the foundations of a foreign policy so much as they do the motivations for a national narrative, a point implicit in Kennan's closing paragraphs:

Thus the decision will really fall in large measure in this country itself. The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the over-all worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.

Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin's challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with its implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear. (582)

Although this national narrative rather consistently informs cold war thinking—even, arguably, through the 1980s—the specific actions impelled by this narrative were from the outset subject to debate. As John Lewis Gaddis points out, "there has developed a kind of cottage industry among Cold War scholars devoted to elucidating 'what Kennan really meant to say'" (26). Gaddis himself, noting consistent distinctions between policy and implementation, delineates in Strategies of Containment the ways successive administrations acted in accordance with their understandings of the policy. These included the expansion of economic support, a series of military treaties, a global rather than a merely European perspective, a network of covert actions, and active military interventions that either supported or suppressed sundry insurgencies.

Although I cannot here summarize Gaddis's superb work, one aspect of his approach is important to note. Rather than presume that the national narrative of containment required or caused specific acts, Gaddis examines the actions of an administration so as to reconstruct that administration's interpretation of the national narrative. In so doing, he demonstrates that under the common name of containment we have generated numerous, often contradictory or mutually exclusive, stories, each grounding its authority in the claim that it is part of the same story. Without that story, none of the narratives would have the authority to generate the actions committed in its name; at the same time the claim to a common narrative renders the narrative itself incoherent.

Although it is neither Gaddis's thesis nor goal, one could argue that the evidence and analysis in Strategies of Containment demonstrate that the "strategic," as Michel de Certeau says on the scale of contemporary history in general, is "transformed, as if defeated by its own success," so that "what was represented as a matrix-form of history [becomes] a mobile infinity of tactics" (de Certeau, Practice, 41). Strategies of Containment thus constitutes the narrative of a narrative, a narrative that neither generates events nor results from their sum; rather it is a narrative completely divorced from its constituent events, a free-floating signifier designating an infinity of possible referents.


We can see the varied and conflicting interpretations of the United States' responsibility to contain nuclear power even in the earliest post-Hiroshima discussions of the problem. In an essay for Collier's, written almost immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima, Philip Wylie begins by noting the confusions—not only ethical and emotional but also temporal and historical—that the explosion impelled:

All of us who have given real thought and careful imagination to an "Atomic Age" have made one common blunder: We have assumed that it would be the hope and horror of future persons; we never dreamed that we, ourselves, would be asked by the newspapers and magazines for which we work to sit down and write, "Here it is. We must now do thus and so." And in that all-too-real circumstance, I feel a sense of shock that mingles with elation over having lived, myself, to see the day. It is a great day. (18)

This opening paragraph, intended to situate Wylie and his readers in the atomic age, is full of dual, even contradictory, suggestions. "Real thought and careful imagination" have yielded a "common blunder": they have misplaced the thinkers and imaginers historically in relation to the object of their thought and imagination. But that historical misplacement has evidently obscured another vagueness—that the atomic age was thought of and continues to be thought of as both hope and horror. The explosion that brings the thinkers into the "now" of the atomic age does nothing to clarify the event of their arrival, an event that remains mediated by contradictory emotions, experienced by an imaginary group of people.

The paragraph attempts, as well, to unify the contradictions by classifying them as responses to a single experience. All who had given thought and imagination participated in a common blunder, just as the future persons all implicitly share in both the hope and the horror. If that is so, then these imaginary future people differ greatly from Wylie's contemporaries. As its military use—the only use that enables Wylie to assert that the atomic age has arrived—makes absolutely clear, for some persons, the initiation (or detonation) of the atomic age was a meaningful hope, while for others it was, no doubt, significantly horrific. Those who died in the explosion, of course, were not the people Wylie had in mind, as they could be neither future nor present persons, but rather past persons, and thus exempt from the common blunder of assessing the immediate impact of the atomic age.


Excerpted from Containment Culture by Alan Nadel. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Appearance, Containment, and Atomic Power
2. History, Science, and Hiroshima
3. Rhetoric, Sanity, and the Cold War: The Significance of Holden Caulfield's Testimony
4. God's Law and the Wide Screen: The Ten Commandments as Cold War “Epic”
5. Lady and (or) the Tramp: Sexual Containment and the Domestic Playboy
6. The Invasion of Postmodernism: The Catch-22 of the Bay of Pigs and Liberty Valance
7. The Rules for Free Speech: Speech Act Theory and the Free Speech Movement
8. My Country Too: Time, Place, and African American Identity in the Work of John A. Williams
9. Race, Rights, Gender, and Personal Narrative: The Archaeology of “Self” in Meridian
10. Failed Cultural Narratives: America in the Postwar Era and the Story of Democracy

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