The Bear and the Dragon: Representations of Communism in Early Sixties American Culture

By Hendershot, Cyndy | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Bear and the Dragon: Representations of Communism in Early Sixties American Culture


Hendershot, Cyndy, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


By the early 1960s, American attitudes toward the Soviet Union began to alter. Instead of the Soviets being represented in the entertainment media as an inhuman threat, as was the case in early 1950s propaganda films such as Invasion USA, a process of looking at the Soviets, both government and people, in a more favorable light emerged. With this shift in perception in the United States, images of China as demonic Red force began to supplant postwar images of a brutal and monstrous Russia. As a result of examining government propaganda films, television shows, Hollywood films, and sociological studies, in this essay I explore the crucial shift in anti-Communist sentiment from a stance that demonized the Soviets to one that made China the most frightening of Cold War threats.

In the early Sixties, the foreign policies of both the Khrushchev and Kennedy administrations began to promote friendlier relations between the two superpowers. Indeed, American Military History, a textbook published by the Center of Military History, the period of the early Sixties is portrayed as a time of reconciliation between the two superpowers. Kennedy's policy of flexible response brought about a lessening of the threat of nuclear war by stressing "the need for ready non-nuclear forces as a deterrent to limited war" ("Global Pressures"). And at the same time, United States' military policy was seeking to lessen the threat of nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers, many Americans were beginning to view the Russian people not as monstrous drones of a totalitarian system, but as human beings very much like themselves.

During this time period, Irving R. Levine's Main Street, USSR became a best-selling book that painted a picture of the Soviet Union not as some fantastic mythical land, but as a place of real people with recognizably human lives and struggles. Levine, who worked for NBC in Moscow for four years, was the first accredited US correspondent to operate in the Soviet Union. He captured a huge audience for Main Street, U.S.S.R., because of the inside information the book provided about life in the Soviet Union.

Levine's study presents a humanizing vision of both the Russian people and the Soviet government and does so in several important ways. Thus, for example, the book points out the hatred of war that was then the dominant element in collective social psyche of the Soviet Union. Levine comments that

the fear of war, and especially the propaganda that tries to convince Russians that capitalistic nations have aggressive intentions, motivates Russians to ask Western visitors, "Why do you want war?" or "Are you for peace?" (14)

Levine's text emphasizes the intense fear of war that was then felt by a country that had suffered truly catastrophic loss of life in both World War I and World War II, a fear that had led to an absence of nuclear culture in the country, an absence underscored by the fact that civil defense drills and visible air-raid shelter signs, commonplaces of postwar US life, were absent in Russia because the Soviet government feared

that near-hysteria might be created among a populace which has known war as intimately and tragically as Russia's if alarms were given simply to conform with external propaganda. (168)

Levine further humanized Russians by emphasizing that the average Russian did not hate the American people. His book discusses a radio commentator who explained to him that

of course we feel friendly toward the American people. Neither our radio nor our newspapers have any complaint against the American people. It is only the American ruling circles whom we attack for seeking war. (72)

Yet in the midst of a train of developments through which political policy and sociological studies were gradually furthering a more humane Western Cold War attitude toward the Russians, a crisis suddenly erupted that severely tested this new attitude. …

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