Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Book Note: Cold War Captives

with 2 comments

I’m reading Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape, and Brainwashing, by Susan L. Carruthers (UC Press, 2009). Through a series of fascinating and largely forgotten case studies, the book explores how captivity, both figurative and literal, became a governing trope of the Cold War. Both through government pronouncements and popular culture (Hollywood films, defector memoirs, etc.), Americans were encouraged to think of all of the citizens in the Eastern bloc as living in a permanent state of imprisonment — whether within the gulag or without. Carruthers argues that this emphasis on confinement drew on the long tradition of captivity narratives in American literature, and that ideas of imprisonment or enslavement became prevalent in American popular culture of the Cold War years, whether to describe the plight of suburban housewives trapped in anomie or drug addicts enslaved to substances. Though the book is primarily a work of cultural history, Carruthers also draws on government archives and declassified national security documents to link popular culture to immigration policy, repatriation and refugee initiatives (or lack thereof), and diplomatic history.

I haven’t yet finished the book and don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about it, but I thought I’d flag it for readers of this blog since it may be of interest to anyone who studies incarceration from any perspective. One section that stood out for me was this (pp. 100-1):

Of the Truman administration’s multiple initiatives to discredit Soviet communism, exposure of the gulag occupied the commanding heights. Dramatic ruptures of the Iron Curtain underscored the repressive character of Stalinist states that effectively incarcerated their citizens. But cold war opinion formers were adamant that the inculcation of anticommunist sentiment required more than a figurative appreciation of the eastern bloc as one vast prison. People had to understand that the “Soviet monolith” was “held together by the iron curtain around it and the iron bars within it,” … with thousands of camps containing millions of forced laborers.

Doug Berman, over at Sentencing Law & Policy, has repeatedly asked versions of the question: How can a country that mythologizes itself as the “Land of the Free” stomach an incarceration rate of 1 in 100? After reading Cold War Captives, another version of this question might be: How can a country that for 40+ years defined itself in imagined opposition to a civilization that was thought to be imprisoning all of its citizens now be so sanguine about having the world’s highest incarceration rate by far? To be clear, I’m not comparing the American prison system to the Soviet gulag, but rather noting the irony that imprisonment — which American government officials and cultural tastemakers labored to associate with the “Communist enemy” for decades — has now become such an accepted feature of American life.

Written by sara

May 11, 2010 at 10:12 am

2 Responses

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  1. It’s called projection, and it’s a most reliable indicator of the mental processes of others. The anti-communists who shouted the loudest about the Soviets were always the first to adopt their ideas and practices here in the US, and who argue today that things like habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights are “quaint” holdovers that have no place today.

    John Gear

    May 12, 2010 at 8:59 am

    • I’ve just finished reading/reviewing Carruthers’ text, and I found her to be a strident anti-communist. While a glance at her bibliography suggests years of research, the text itself seems to apologize to McCarthy and other stark anti-communists who made the claim in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s that we didn’t go far enough.

      Dr. David Silverman

      September 16, 2010 at 7:58 pm


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