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JFK’s Cold War Cultural Dogma — and Where It Came From

During the cultural Cold War, President John F. Kennedy delivered eloquent speeches claiming that only “free societies” fostered great creative art. But no one scanning centuries of Western literature and music could possibly believe that. Among countless counter-examples was the Soviet Union at that very moment. Its film-makers included Tarkovsky, its poets Akhmatova, its novelists Solzhenitsyn, its composers Shostakovich — all of whom were acclaimed in the West as of 1963, the year of Kennedy’s most ambitious cultural pronouncements.

A crucial intellectual source of this curious Cold War dogma was a minor Russian-born composer exiled in the US: Nicolas Nabokov, General Secretary of the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. His link to the Kennedy White house was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose once influential book The Vital Center (1949) supported an equation between a citizen’s freedom of speech and an artist’s freedom of expression. But artists can suffer from “too much freedom” – a condition of rootlessness such as afflicted Igor Stravinsky in Los Angeles, or Aaron Copland when he complained that American composers were “working in a vacuum.”

All this is the subject matter of my book-in-progress Cold War Quartet: JFK, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and the Culture Warrior – the first outcome of which is a long article published this weekend in the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can read it here. For an excerpt, read on:

“It was Nabokov’s longtime association with Arthur Schlesinger that brought him into contact with the Kennedys. Doubtless, as General Secretary of the CCF, his activities would not in any event have gone wholly unnoticed in the Oval Office. But it was Schlesinger, as special advisor to the President, who facilitated a direct relationship. Nabokov was first received at the White House in 1961 during a visit to fund-raise for CCF programs; the First Lady gave him a tour. At Schlesinger’s suggestion, Nabokov compiled for Mrs. Kennedy a list of cultural personalities worthy of White House notice. A year later, thanks to Schlesinger, Nabokov helped to plan a White House dinner honoring Stravinsky’s 80th birthday. In the Green Room, Nabokov observed Kennedy asking Stravinsky what he thought of the leading Soviet composers. Stravinsky, Nabokov later recalled, ‘turned to the president, in his most courtly manner, and replied: “Mr. President, I have left Russia since 1914 and have so far not been in the Soviet Union. I have not studied or heard many of the works of these composers. I have therefore no valid opinion.” And the president looked at me over Stravinsky’s shoulder and smiled approvingly.’

“Stravinsky, to his chagrin, had been conspicuously preceded at the White House by Pablo Casals. Nothing like this had occurred under Dwight Eisenhower. A declared outsider to high culture, Eisenhower had called ‘freedom of the arts’ a ‘basic freedom,’ versus using artists as ‘tools of the state’ – but without JFK’s patina of erudition and experience. At the Kennedys’ Camelot, Jackie’s high-cultural aspirations were tangible, and her husband made the arts a pronounced American cause. No less than the Russia hands Bohlen and Kennan, the White House doubtless deferred to Nabokov’s expert understanding of Soviet musical life. In fact, Kennedy’s core arts manifestos were drafted by Schlesinger. This connects the dots. In The Vital Center (1949), Schlesinger had reframed liberal democratic politics in terms of a fierce individualism, rejecting the collectivism of the Soviet-based cultural front. High culture, concomitantly, was an elite exercise in art for art’s sake. Nabokov, the authority on Soviet culture, furnished empirical proof that, absent unfettered individualism, the creative act was nullified. Surely Nabokov was, in effect, the source of the President’s elaborated views on ‘free societies’ as a necessary precondition for high creative achievement, and of his blunt dismissal of political art.

“Nabokov found the Kennedys a little gauche and likened the First Lady’s idea of hostessing to a mixture of Dior, Chanel, Saint-Lauren, and Broadway. In settings more intellectual than the White House, however, he was the proverbial life of the party. His conversational aplomb is on full display in Tony Palmer’s superb 2008 Stravinsky documentary, as he elegantly frames the composer’s ‘inherent quality of irony’: ‘Stravinsky on one side was a hedonist, enjoying all the pleasure of life — loving to eat, good wine, and for a very long time pretty girls. On the other side, he was a rigorously ritualistic and religious person — like ancient people are.’ He is also observed sipping Scotch with Stravinsky while conversing in four languages.

“Nicolas Nabokov seemed the very embodiment of cosmopolitan charm. But his worldliness can be read as a destabilizing rootlessness.”


  1. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    Kudos once again to Mr. Horowitz reacting to JFK’s canard.

    And Joe is right: paradoxically (or is it a paradox really?) too much freedom may stifle or hinder

    the creative act. His point about Stravinsky’s lack of inspiration while in USA is well-taken.

    Conversely, Shostakovich’s anguish-laden yet humanity-filled music offers, along with much of Prokofiev,

    offer effective counter examples. It is a particular CULTURE peculiar to a specific area which underpins great art

    and is responsible for its genesis.

    Rachmaninoff once stated emphatically that his music is Russian because he is Russian and so it must be.

  2. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    I just rapidly skimmed through JH’s long article concerning mostly Nabokov and Shostakovich.

    My antipathy for the former’s antipathy to Shostakovich’s music is somewhat diluted by a blind spot

    toward the Leningrad Symphony. Mr. Horowitz does well to relate the emotion and power experienced

    by those “fortunate” enough to hear it in the context of the war. I, like other Shostakovich lovers,

    armed only with the music itself, cannot admire it as pure music.

    All of which dose not dim my love of Symphonies I, IV, V, VI (especially) and X, my personal favorites.

    On another note, JH and I were/are on the same page when he ended his piece with the following:

    Stravinsky, in Moscow, said: “A man has one birthplace, one fatherland, one country — he can have only one country — and the place of his birth is the most important factor in his life.”

    In a riposte to his blog, I had made a strikingly similar observation in reference to Rachmaninoff.

  3. Kathleen Hulser says

    fascinating essay and related article which leave the old polarities of freedom/constraint and capitalism/communism in the dust. Indeed we have moved well beyond those simple binaries so beloved of Cold Warriors, even in an age of resurgent John Birchers and cultural barbarians of the GOP. I have always wondered if we have an “historical ear” that echoes the notion of the historical eye which perceives things differently at different epochs. Horowitz’s guided listening through key works of the Cold War period on both sides of the iron curtain provides evidence for the power of context to influence how we hear a piece of music.

  4. Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio says

    Ms. Hulser,

    I too went to graduate school. And thus had to assimilate the overuse of tired terms such as “binaries” and

    “context” (perhaps the most hackneyed of all). But this “cultural barbarian of the GOP,” one whose reach

    includes Italian and French literature, the Art of both glorious cultures (and great Western Music obviously) takes

    umbrage to your pigeonholing of the party. Can we not appreciate the cogency of Horowitz’s complex article

    without resorting to political partisanship?!

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