Friday, May 7, 2010

Things I've learned -- 60s pulp edition

One of the pleasures of popular art is the glimpse it provides into the attitudes of the times. Sometimes this pleasure comes from the naivete of earlier times. More often, though, the experience is just the opposite -- you discover that the attitudes of previous generations were complex, surprisingly modern and often at odds with the conventional view of the era.

I recently read a couple of pulp novels from the Sixties that fell into the second category. One was The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep by Lawrence Block (discussed here). The other was The Ambushers, the sixth book in the Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton.

Matt Helm was a counter espionage agent specializing in wet work, closer to a John LeCarre hero than to James Bond. The books were well reviewed (Anthony Boucher, writing, I believe, in the New York Times, said "Donald Hamilton has brought to the spy novel the authentic hard realism of Dashiell Hammett; and his stories are as compelling, and probably as close to the sordid truth of espionage, as any now being told."), they were extremely popular and they were sturdy enough to survive a god-awful series of in-name-only adaptations starring Dean Martin.

If you picked up a copy of the Ambushers in 1963 and turned to the first page, you'd find the narrator slipping into a Latin American country carrying a rifle with a high powered scope. The rebel leader he has been sent to kill may have had it coming, but it's not obvious that target was any worse than the leader the U.S. supported (later in the story, Helm is glad to hear that the latter has also been assassinated though his superiors most certainly are not).

The Russians in the Ambushers are sometimes enemies and sometimes allies, depending on the circumstances. The American agents generally hold the high moral ground but it's a distinction that can be rather thin and the protagonist has learned not to dwell on it too much. Everyone's hands are dirty.

As in many stories of the period, the threat nuclear war here comes not from either of the superpowers but from a third party. In this case, a Nazi war criminal who, not surprisingly, would like to see Russia and America destroy each other.

You will often hear the attitudes implicit in this story associated with the late Sixties and early Seventies, usually attributed to the escalation of the war and and the rise of a politicized youth culture, but this was 1963. It was early in the war and even the oldest of the boomers were still in high school.

If you surveyed the pop culture of the time you would find other evidence that a radical shift in the way we looked at the cold war took place in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Nuclear war was no longer likely to be depicted as a Pearl Harbor-style attack but rather as either a horrible mistake (Failsafe -- novel 1962, film 1964) or the work of a madman (Red Alert -- 1958/Strangelove* -- 1963) or the terrorist scheme of a third party (too numerous to mention). Anti-communist agents could be as morally compromised as the enemy (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold -- 1963). A sympathetic Russian was so acceptable that by 1964, you could have a loyal and openly communist Russian agent as a co-star in a popular spy show (albeit a Russian played by the Scottish David McCallum).

I've wondered if this shift was a reaction the Cuban Missile Crisis. Talking to those who were around at the time, I get the impression that for all the paranoia and anxiety and civil defense drills, the concept of nuclear war was never truly real to most people until 1962.

Good researchers in sociology or political could probably provide a rigorous answer to the question of what exactly drove the shift. I'd be interested in seeing what they came up with and if they need another topic after that, I have a whole shelf Gold Medal paperbacks for them to check out.

(You can watch Dr. Strangelove online here)

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