American Nightmare: Images of Brainwashing, Thought Control, and Terror in Soviet Russia

By Smith, David A. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2010 | Go to article overview

American Nightmare: Images of Brainwashing, Thought Control, and Terror in Soviet Russia


Smith, David A., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Winner of the William M. Jones Best Graduate Student Paper Award at the 2010 American Culture Association Conference

Like the white dog before the phonograph, they hear only the "master's voice."

(George Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct,"

1947: (574)

During the earliest and most frigid years of the Cold War, 1947-53, the overwhelming majority of America's media and public opinion promoted the idea that Soviet society was something close to a complete "dystopia." Life in the land of Stalin was said to be fraught with terror, stifling conformity, mental and physical regimentation, and, for many, slavery and extermination. For Americans, no charges concerning the "cradle to grave" control over Soviet citizens seemed too outlandish or horrifying to be believed. In fact, by 1947, the thought of being made subject to the "ghoulish" rule of the Kremlin had become the American nightmare.

The obsessive "better dead than Red" mentality which pervaded this era is a curious phenomenon. The United States emerged victorious from the World War II with half the gross national product of the planet, an enormous newly built military establishment, and a public prepared for a period of sustained economic expansion. What cause could there be for concern in such happy circumstance? Where was the setting for an "age of anxiety," an intense fear and loathing for its recent wartime ally? To be sure, some of the ghastly tales concerning life in the USSR had considerable foundation in fact, but why were such stories so pervasive, so sensationalized, and (except on the political left) so completely one-sided?

Previous studies of American anti-Soviet sentiment have focused primarily on American perceptions and fears concerning the Soviet external threat or on hostility toward domestic communism (the amount of material on McCarthyism alone could fill a small library). This article will take a somewhat different approach by examining Americans' most commonly held perception of day-to-day life in the USSR: that modern methods of thought control and terror had transformed the Russian people into an enslaved mob of subservient, dull, and militaristic robots. To present this dominant image of life in Stalin's Russia and to demonstrate its pervasiveness, the author will draw on mass-circulation periodicals, movies, television programs, popular literature, widely read writings of professionals in various fields, the statements of those who influenced domestic opinion and foreign policy, and public opinion polls. These sources reveal identifiable "nightmare" themes that help explain America's pervasive anticommunism during the early postwar period. Most notably, evidence suggests that Americans were generally much less optimistic about the future of their own society than many scholars have assumed,1 and that the nation's obsessive, paranoiac anti-Soviet imagery was in large part a product of domestic problems and anxieties that preoccupied the American people in the late 1940s.

Historical Background

Before the onset of the Cold War, American attitudes toward Soviet Russia ranged from intense hostility, especially following the 1917 Revolution and Stalin's purges of the 1930s, to a cautiously friendly "marriage of convenience" during World War II. Both traditional American culture and contemporary social tensions were crucial in fanning the flames of the early antiSoviet sentiment. Individualism, regarded as the most basic of American values- along with the accompanying concern for civil liberties and property rights- was disdained by the Reds in Moscow who emphasized collective rather than individual action. Still, as Robin Fillmore writes in her recent dissertation, Transforming the "Enemy", "the Soviet Union did not emerge from World War II as a ready-made enemy of the United States. The wartime ally was reconstructed over a period of years .... As a symbol for the Soviet regime, war-time Stalin was [initially] reconstructed as a 'good guy' in the fight against Hitler" (10). …

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