The title The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped The Cold War is the only sensationalist thing about John V. Fleming’s unique literary history. Fleming exhumes a handful of bestsellers that laid the mental climate for the Cold War; Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon is the best remembered, but it’s only the start of Fleming’s ambitious book, which digs deep in rediscovering a whole forgotten genre: the personal anti-Communist novel and memoir. “In writing about four books I have naturally had to read some hundreds of others,” Fleming understatedly notes in the introduction. The research shows: Manifestos is erudite and absorbing, a multi-faceted popular history that never overwhelms.
Fleming isn’t precisely apolitical. His four subjects had to break with the intellectual contortions that orthodox party-line Communists used in reconciling the brutal realities of Stalin’s USSR with the utopian ideal it was presumably building to. Their intellectual defection wrought all kinds of intellectual havoc. Koestler’s Darkness and Jan Valtin’s Out Of The Night were published before the U.S. entered World War II, Victor Kravchenko’s I Choose Freedom and Whittaker Chambers’ Witness after. Koestler and Valtin were conveniently forgotten for the duration of America’s alliance with the USSR; Kravchenko and Chambers played to an American public already primed to fear the red menace. Fleming traces the influence of these four books not just on the rightward drift of American popular thought, but on how they changed European liberal thought as well, especially in France. His description of “L’affaire Kravchenko”—Kravchenko’s 1948 lawsuit against his most vigorous Communist French attack dogs—is a highlight, anatomizing how French leftist thought struggled to find a new model of governance while the post-war liberal iron was still hot.
Writing for the first time in his career for a non-academic audience, Fleming proves more than up to the task. Even the most ambitious prose-fiction stylist could be proud of a sentence like “On the darkling plain of spy-versus-spy, it is armies of paranoids that clash by night.” That isn’t an anomaly. The book’s structure can be a mess—the internal chronology of every section is scattered in whatever direction Fleming feels like pursuing at the moment, leading to some unnecessary repetition—and phrases like “useful idiot” bring Fleming dangerously close to the crank portion of the blogosphere obsessing over socialism in DC. But overall, this is popular history at its best, blending literary analysis, excavations of yesterday’s most fascinating news, and measured political judgments.