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The Propaganda of Freedom

JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the Cultural Cold War

“That so many fine minds could have cheapened freedom by over-praising it, turning it into a reductionist propaganda mantra, is one measure of the intellectual cost of the Cold War.”


"Art and Politics: A Permanent Dissonance" by Robert Bellafiore, (Fusion, April 2024).

(Extended version here)

“Horowitz’s purpose, through his musical analysis and a broader history of the CCF and cultural exchange during the Cold War, is by no means to defend the Soviet Union. Rather, he seeks to protect both art and freedom from their cheapening by the conflation of ‘the necessary prerogatives of the democratic citizen with the sources and purposes of artistic creation.’ . . . “The tensions between artist and audience, and between artist and government, didn’t resolve themselves when the Cold War ended. What makes The Propaganda of Freedom more than just a compelling history is its illustration that these tensions will mark every free society, including ours today. For any American who is discouraged by the vulgarity and frivolity of contemporary culture and wishes for something better, the book raises difficult questions. Is there a way for the government to support art without corrupting it? And if not, how can we ensure that art still remains vital to our public life?”

Brian Diemert, Choice (The Association of College and Research Libraries), May 2024. 

"Going beyond studies that focus on the CIA's covert funding of cultural enterprises during the Cold War, cultural historianJoseph Horowitz examines how ideas of cultural freedom became entwined with the concept of political freedom. . . . How the arts, state funding, private patronage, and ideology fit together underlie Horowitz's discussion. Highly recommended for undergraduates, professionals, general readers."



The perils of equating notions of freedom with artistic vitality – and lessons for today


Eloquently extolled by President John F. Kennedy, the idea that only “free artists” in free societies can produce great art became a bedrock of America’s cultural Cold War. But this dogma defied centuries of historical evidence--to say nothing of achievements within the Soviet Union. 


Joseph Horowitz writes: “That so many fine minds could have cheapened freedom by over-praising it, turning it into a reductionist propaganda mantra, is one measure of the intellectual cost of the Cold War.” 


In a post-pandemic Afterword, Horowitz assesses the Kennedy Administration’s arts advocacy initiatives and their pertinence to today’s fraught American national identity. He writes: “We are witnessing an erosion of the arts far beyond the arts challenge that worried President Kennedy. . . . The mistrust of federal arts subsidies I today encounter – even within the arts community itself -- is partly a residue, however unnoticed, of the propaganda of freedom.”


Horowitz shows how the efforts of the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom were

distorted by an anti-totalitarian “psychology of exile” traceable to its secretary general, the displaced Russian aristocrat/composer Nicolas Nabokov, and to Nabokov’s hero Igor Stravinsky.


In counterpoint, he investigates personal, social, and political factors that actually shape the creative act. He here focuses on Stravinsky, who in Los Angeles experienced a “freedom not to matter,” and Dmitri Shostakovich, who was both victim and beneficiary of Soviet cultural policies. He also takes a fresh look at cultural exchange and explores paradoxical similarities and differences framing the popularization of classical music in the Soviet Union and the United States. 


In closing, Horowitz calls for “greatly increased government support [of the arts] at every level” and writes: “That the Kennedy White House failed to recognize the place of the arts in Soviet Russia says something not just about the Cold War, but about the United States, then and now. . . The United States won the Cold War. The cultural Cold War did not yield a victor.”


Challenging long-entrenched myths, The Propaganda of Freedom newly explores the tangled

relationship between the ideology of freedom and ideals of cultural achievement.

Advance Praise

The Propaganda of Freedom is a wholly absorbing indictment of the CIA’s Congress of Cultural Freedom as supremely misconceived -- something of a mirror image, in fact, of post-war Stalinist Russia.  In that sense they deserved each other.   


--John Beyrle, former US Ambassador to Russia (2008-2012)



Joseph Horowitz’s thesis that an ideology of “freedom” made it impossible for leading American intellectuals to recognize the cultural achievements of Soviet artists during the Cold War is compelling and convincing -- even for readers unversed in the cultural or musical history of the twentieth century. In fact, all too often American foreign policy is based on the false premise that promoting “individual freedom” must remain at the heart of the nation’s efforts to exert influence abroad. 


The Propaganda of Freedom raises important questions not only about the efficacy of US foreign policy, but also about the relationship between culture and democracy, even about the nature of democracy itself -- questions extremely pertinent in a world where populist political movements have called into question democratic norms that once seemed unassailable.


Above all, it is the author’s extrapolation of a “fetishization of freedom’’ that makes this work so vital. Horowitz writes: “That so many fine minds could have cheapened freedom by over-praising it, turning it into a reductionist propaganda mantra, is one measure of the intellectual cost of the Cold War.” His book serves as a warning that the American tendency towards political and cultural unilateralism is not only naïve, but dangerous.

--David Woolner, Resident Historian, the Roosevelt Institute; author of The Last One Hundred Days: FDR at War and at Peace 


This exceptional revisionist study, by one of the leading cultural historians and public intellectuals of the last four decades, completely upends our understanding of the cultural Cold War and of JFK’s role as a national arts advocate. 

--Richard Aldous, author of Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian 


Joseph Horowitz’s fascinating study presents fresh perspectives on old arguments – including JFK’s idea that culture only exists where freedom exists. It also serves as a warning as we precipitate a new and dangerous Cold War.

--Elizabeth Wilson, author of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered


The Propaganda of Freedom dramatically changes our understanding of a fascinating chapter in twentieth century cultural history. 


– Vladimir Feltsman 

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