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Post-World War II Propaganda Art Essay

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2021

Understandably, the proliferating research οf Cold War political and intellectual culture focuses on how different sorts οf cultural representations contributed to sustaining patriotic feelings during the period, in creating both national identity and a spirited non-conformism, individuality, and the “counterculture” οf the West. And yet the study οf cultural representations comes, as do all research paradigms, with certain constraints. First, the “culture concept” itself has been recently criticized as a static, even objectifying, tool which often cannot convey lived experience or behavior nor account for ambivalent personal feelings οf trauma, loss, confusion, and humiliation. (LaCapra, 1985) Second, many researchers in the field tend to concentrate on the cultural results rather than on the cultural practices οf the Cold War era, to investigate the activities οf prominent cultural agents rather than to look at unknown, ordinary cultural practitioners. A sustained questioning οf the aims, methods, and epistemologies employed by both main political regimes through their cultural politics during the Cold War is both inevitable and necessary. Yet we must ask if the continued sharpening οf this analytic scalpel limits our ability to perceive or to make sense οf the effects οf state construed narratives (and other cultural representations) on ordinary people’s lives and self-perceptions.

The key idea οf recent collective, cultural, and personal memory studies is that memory can no longer be seen as reflection, as a transparent record οf the past, but should be understood as essentially performative. Not only it is never morally or pragmatically neutral, but it can come into existence “at a given time and place through specific kinds οf memorial activity.” (Wood, 1999) The “specific kinds οf memorial activity” exemplified by the above quotes are, indeed, very special. The members οf two educational communities, Russian (university and school teachers οf Ekaterinburg and the Sverdlovskaya region) and American (professors οf Bates College, Maine and other institutions οf higher education in New England), when presented with previously collected memories οf people οf both countries and the artifacts οf the period (e.g., children’s books, caricatures, films, etc.), found themselves enormously moved by this previously, totally unimagined opportunity to share their thoughts with former enemies. This method, among other things, makes it possible to access the imaginative and emotional investments Russians and Americans have been making in one another. They belong to strikingly different cultures, assuming, οf course, that we may speak at all about American and Russian cultures per se. Cultures are neither monolithic nor static; they contain many strands. And it is exactly this process οf incorporation and hybridization οf trends and influences that makes the results οf such cross-cultural encounters so unpredictable. Yet surely on both sides, American and Russian fantasies οf each other are massively mediated by their special shared history οf the Cold War, however many other countries were involved (and perhaps none were untouched). What I’m suggesting is that the Cold War may have spawned an incredible mythology that still defines identities, albeit very differently, on both sides, and that this is worth looking at itself, for its metanarratives might be quite discernible.

To remember is always to establish one’s relationship to the past. My project is thus concerned with remembering as moral practice. According to one οf the major proponents οf such an approach, it means to understand memory “not as neutral representation, more or less accurate, οf the past, but as a claim or a set οf claims, more or less firm, more or less justified, more or less appropriate, about it. Both remembering and forgetting may be claims, motivated acts οf some sort.” Remembering, as moral practice, means that recollections do not reflect a preexisting truth or ethics, but that they create the conditions for the emergence and reception οf truth and ethics. It means that until recollections have been spoken about, their ethical implications cannot be known. For instance, by virtue οf the predominantly discursive nature οf nuclear reality, one could expect that the personal recollections οf the period are only replicas οf the dominant images and cultural narratives along with the ethics they imply. Yet it is memories’ relation to lived historical experience that constitutes their specificity (Radstone, 2000) and makes their ethical dimension a great deal more complicated. This experience, recalled and recorded, on the one hand, can bear traces οf counter-histories, yet on another hand, can be shaped by very different stories and images and filled with omissions, confusions, selections, displacements, some οf which are caused by unconscious processes and some οf which are related to “the dialogic moment οf their telling.”

The central questions are the following: Given the performative perspective predominant in memory discourse, how might we think about the intellectual as an ethical subject in relation to Cold War discourse? What is dead and what is alive in the ethical experience οf the Cold War? To what extent were intellectuals οf both countries susceptible to the influence οf the dominant images and cultural narratives, some οf which pictured the whole world as “a moral landscape”? Should intellectuals help certain dispositions οf power promote representations οf the past, or rather should they oppose the social marginalization οf “from the bottom-up” memories? This set οf questions are explored with reference to the works οf Hannah Arendt and Seyla Benhabib who developed the ethical theory οf the “concrete other.” In the works οf those who were most sensitive to the complexities οf action and moral reflection in human life (in the light οf the tragic experiences οf the 20th century), it was shown that philosophy, in order to be capable οf satisfactorily pursuing its aim οf understanding human existence, should no longer be written in the way its tradition insisted on: the deductive relation οf universal and particular. The idea οf “the unity οf theory and practice,” on which Marxist philosophy famously insisted, reflects the essence οf theoretical analysis not only in Marx but in Plato, Hobbes, and Hegel’s understanding: theoretical science provides an accurate description οf the “true essence” οf the just society, human nature, from which various prescriptions for action are derived. Thus imperfect reality is brought into accord with what Nature or History demands (Villa, 1999). The “law οf history” or the “law οf nature,” as Jean-François Lyotard has impressively shown, provide a metanarrative with which totalitarian regimes attempt to bring reality into accord. Still politicians and decision-makers legitimately try “to realize in practice” the ideas that are held in theory.

Hannah Arendt is among those who oppose this mimetic understanding οf the relation between the universal and the particular. She argues that such logic reduces judgment to “the activity οf subsuming particulars under theoretically derived universals…to a deductive exercise in which pre-given truth or theoretically derived standards are applied to ‘the realm οf human affairs’.” Firstly, she opposes the Hegelian philosophy οf history. In her account οf the history οf the twentieth century in The Origins οf Totalitarianism she refuses to see any dialectical continuity with the past in favor οf a radically new approach. This new approach, in the words οf Seyla Benhabib, is to “break the chain οf narrative continuity, to shatter chronology as the natural structure οf narrative, to stress fragmentariness, historical dead ends, failures and ruptures.” Secondly, Arendt shows that the modern rise οf the social, and the instrumentalization οf existence that accompanies it, imposes a number οf constraints on free action. Arendt states, “It is decisive that society, on all levels, excludes the possibility οf action, which formerly was excluded from the household. Instead, society expects from each οf its members a certain kind οf behavior, imposing numerable and various rules, all οf which tend to “normalize” its members, to make them behave, to exclude spontaneous action or outstanding achievement.” At the level οf global development, Arendt’s observation is important because it draws our attention to the possibility οf a future world that she describes as a world deprived οf individual human dignity, a world in which “masses οf people are continuously rendered superfluous.” It is not only totalitarianism that can lead to such a condition; other social and political tendencies can produce this condition as well, as has become obvious today as the forces οf globalization and the internalization οf financial markets and trade has led many governments to liberalize their markets, to deregulate the rules governing business, to cut social spending and to rationalize social services. Having lost its traditional protective support from the government, labor has been weakened in favor οf capital. And as a result, more and more people, although still living in the world where labor is praised as the very essence οf being human, are unable to find any permanent occupation. At the same time, one cannot overstate the significance οf the growing presence οf elements οf totalitarian reality (surveillance, invasive security measures at the expense οf privacy and civil rights, etc.) that are coming to define everyday life in those countries whose ideologists, in 1960s and 1970s, took pains to depict Soviet totalitarianism as the antithesis to their own democracies.

Thirdly, Arendt distinguished between three kinds οf human activity: “work” (activities that produce artificial objects out οf natural materials); “labor” (activities that satisfy biological needs); and “action” (activities that establish or change personal relationships without accompanying tangible benefits). She was opposed to an understanding οf action in instrumental terms. What makes action meaningful rather then purposeful are the fundamental “plurality” οf actors and the interdependency οf their “conflicting wills and intentions.” By defining action as “a disclosure οf the acting and speaking agent,” she also emphasizes the significance οf story telling in the quest for personal and communal identity. According to Arendt, the “who” is revealed in the narratives people tell οf themselves and others. Personal identity is thus, firstly, always achieved intersubjectively, or interpersonally. It is largely through discourse that we achieve a sense οf individuated selves with particular attributes. Arendt emphasizes that the humanist notion οf autonomous self-created subjectivity has come to an end: “nobody is the author or producer οf his own life story…Somebody began it and is its subject in the twofold sense οf the word, namely, its actor and sufferer, but nobody is its author.” Moreover, she believes that storytelling not only helps people to make sense οf their lives but prompts them to humanize the world they inhabit. In her own words:

The world “remains ‘inhuman’ in a very literal sense unless it is constantly talked about by human beings. For the world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become human just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object οf discourse…We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking οf it, and in the course οf speaking οf it we learn to be human.

Arendt’s idea that storytelling is the means by which people make sense οf their lives and the lives οf others signals the recent shift in the social sciences and humanities toward a new understanding οf narrative as not only a time-tested qualitative methodology but as a fundamental concept, both as a construct and as an idea applied to human life. Those whose specialized task has been to grasp the ways in which certain texts lend meaning and value to human life include Cavell, Bahktin, Ricoeur, Bruner, MacIntyre, Habermas, Benhabib, Shafer, and Carr, among others. Taken together their works mark the emergence οf a new trans-disciplinary analytic, central to which is the narrative model οf identity. When people recount their histories, they are not just reporting history. They are also constructing meaning out οf those lives past and present, projecting onto the stories a consistent image οf the narrator and, in many cases, justifying their own lives. But what if some narrative practices are truly mistaken or misguided? What if the frame stories that some persons consider vital for their own stories are wrong? Moreover, in what way could we speak οf these stories as “wrong”? Would these stories be wrong in the sense that they are “untrue” or would they be wrong in the sense that they don’t work well for making sense οf people’s lives? The philosophical issues οf normativity and universality, applied to everyday life, have lead many people in my country to ask themselves: in comparison with “people in the West” are we, indeed, broken, damaged, and spoiled by the pitiless regime?

The moral economy οf the Cold War occupies a significant place in the generational memories οf those who were active during the period. This moral economy is under-researched, yet at the same time it is impossible simply to apply pre-given ethical norms to people and the moral situations they found themselves in. How then should ethics be seen? My understanding οf Cold War ethics both relies on, and differs from, the one developed by Guy Oakes who, having investigated “the relationship οf national security and civil defense to civil ethics in the early years οf the Cold War,” has impressively demonstrated what kinds οf governmental and institutional strategies were used to create this ethic and what narratives (predominantly the mythology οf home) were employed for it (Oakes, 1994).

Oakes emphasizes four premises οf Cold War ethics that were first formulated in a speech by Harry Truman and eventually found their expression in many Cold War artifacts:

  1. The principle οf optimism (the distinctive American way οf life would survive under any circumstances);
  2. The principle οf personal responsibility (the business οf communal defense should be performed by the general public);
  3. The emphasis on the ethical character οf the American people (“the inner self had to be subjected to strict self-discipline so that doubts and fears could be expelled”);
  4. “Uncompromising commitment to the original principles that defined the American character.”

These principles depended on officially constructed narratives that helped fulfill the objectives οf public defense. For instance, the ethic οf domestic life found its embodiment in the story οf the American family. Yet if Oakes sees Cold War ethics as a means οf manipulating the public, as a particular ideology invented and imposed on people by national security strategists, it important to consider the effect that those state imposed narratives had on the people who worked in state educational institutions and whose task it was to translate and disseminate the official ideology. When seen in this light Cold War ethics includes both a moral code and a particular sensibility that stemmed from a received moral imaginary. My data show that “on both sides” some narrators seem to be torn between the imaginary geography they were supposed to reproduce in their professional activities and the sense οf concrete locality where they lived their everyday lives. To what extent were those state imposed narratives internalized or resisted? In other words, if public propaganda inevitably relied on distorted information, on myths and stories οf self-reliance, what was the moral situation οf school teachers: was ensuring that all the children were prepared to “duck and cover” the only option available?

Uncomfortable questions οf this sort are even more important for the history οf the Cold War in the USSR because, if in America the main mythology on which “emotion management” was based was a mythological narrative οf home and family, its equivalent in USSR was a state imposed narrative that found its embodiment in the system οf military training in school and higher education institutions. The recollections collected from the Russian participants show that the dominant patriotic collective narrative was sustained by means οf military and patriotic education. This education was conducted in locations both inside and outside the school by means οf school curricula, clubs and societies οf revolutionary and labor glory, paramilitary Summer Lighting and Eaglet games, excursions to the scenes οf revolutionary combat and the labor glory οf the Soviet people, Red Scout activities, GTO norms, and paramilitary summer camps. School and university teachers, whatever subjects they taught, were supposed to participate in these methods οf political socialization and character training. In the course οf military games, children were taught to measure levels οf radiation, to locate radiation-flee areas, and to render general assistance to the public during a nuclear crisis. “What were we thinking at that time?,” one οf the participants asks herself. We were supervising how good our pupils are in obeying orders from their officers. Did we think at all that we need good citizens, independent people, not good soldiers?” This juxtaposition οf “good soldiers” and “good citizens, independent people” bears traces οf the narrator’s familiarity with the liberal discourse that became possible only after perestroika. Thus the acts οf recollection seem to foster the participants’ moral reflection on both their past and present lives.

The comparative strategy which this project employs is valuable to American Studies research, both inside the United States and outside, because it helps to avoid the dangers οf parochialism, self-celebratory tendencies, and epistemological insiderism. More specifically, in terms οf my research, the comparative method provides an open, critical, non-sectarian, and cosmopolitan perspective on the study οf the Cold War, and produces a critical-political approach to the ethics οf the period by opposing its dominant stories and by preventing people from participating unreflectively in their reproduction. From the standpoint οf philosophy, this project promises to contribute to the theoretical understanding οf the affective dimension οf ethics, i.e. the way ethical aspirations are enacted in one’s life. Finally, by correlating remembering as a moral practice and transformation as a social practice, this project provides theorists with an opportunity to offer illuminating conceptual tools to agents, tools that render them less defensive in the face οf challenges to norms that they have already incorporated and more sensitive to the partiality that weighs upon cross-cultural relations.


  1. LaCapra, Dominic, History and Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985) 71-94
  2. Oakes, Guy, The Imaginary War. Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  3. Radstone, Susannah, “Working with Memory: an Introduction”, in Susannah Radstone, ed. Memory and Methodology (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2000), 11.
  4. Villa, Dana, Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought οf Hannah Arendt (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999) 80-86.
  5. Wood, Nancy, Vectors οf Memory: Legacies οf Trauma in Postwar Europe (Oxford: Berg, 1999) 2.
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