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Cold War Frost

December 15, 2009

Nikita Khrushchev, 28 June 1963, photo by Peter Heinz Junge.

Frost, in his later years.

On October 15, 1962 United States intelligence discovered that Nikita Khrushchev, at the invitation of Fidel Castro, had built ballistic missile sites in Cuba. It was a fact the Soviet premier had somehow neglected to mention to Robert Frost during their ninety-minute conference, which took place some six weeks earlier in Gagra, Georgia, a Russian resort on the Black Sea. Their conversation was to have been on the theme—or so Frost had hoped beforehand—of a new and “magnanimous” rivalry between the two superpowers. The eighty-eight year old poet had traveled to the U.S.S.R. under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State as part of a program of cultural exchange, and, as his talk about “magnanimous rivalry” suggested, he apparently had high ambitions that the New Frontier/Khrushchev era might be one characterized by what, in his inaugural poem for John F. Kennedy, he had called a “golden age of poetry and power.”

Kennedy had himself issued the invitation to his literary friend and political booster to go to Russia. But he was considerably more than chagrined at the results when the aging Frost addressed reporters sent to greet him on his return at New York’s Idlewild Airport. Khrushchev, Frost announced, had claimed Americans “were too liberal to fight.” So much for magnanimity.

President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara in an EXCOMM meeting, October 1962.

Some weeks later, in October, Frost spoke at the Library of Congress. This was during the crucible days of the missile crisis itself and, under the circumstances, he had the good grace, if that is what it was, to concede that Khrushchev had said nothing about liberals and fighting; the sentiment and the words had been Frost’s all along (as any careful reader of him might have suspected). But the concession came too late. Frost was never invited to the Kennedy White House again. It was a lesson about the limits of an analogy Frost once drew between poetry and warfare. Many years earlier, in 1923, he had said that a poet’s words were nothing “unless they amount[ed] to deeds, as in ultimatums or battle cries.” But his kind of play never met that standard, nor should it have. And when things really did come to ultimatums and battle cries in October 1962 Frost duly stepped aside. William Pritchard understands the meaning of the episode: “The final lesson appeared to be that poetry and power went together only in poems, and that to prophesy—as Frost had done—a golden age, and then try to help bring it about, was a course fraught with peril.”

Frost’s brief moment on the stage with Khrushchev and Kennedy didn’t mark an aberration of the role he set himself as commentator on the Cold War so much as it marked an exaggeration of it. And the episode points up a kind of paradox both in Frost’s general literary personality and in his response to the new dynamics of the Cold War. Let us say that there is, on the one hand, the publicly-approved Robert Frost, the one who participates in the official culture of the Cold War as Kennedy’s supporter, as a speaker at Kennedy’s inaugural, and as cultural emissary to the U.S.S.R. Then there is the other Frost, the one much harder to hold captive to the purposes of tact and sound policy; this one is mischievous, at times a little cynical and bleak, and almost always uncontainable. This is the Robert Frost who appeared so much to Kennedy’s embarrassment at Idlewild Airport. And he is, in other moods, attuned to certain counter-cultural energies at play in the early years of the Cold War that would later more forcefully emerge in writers like Norman Mailer and Thomas Pynchon. His later poetry is at odds with itself, at least with regard to the Cold War.

This makes Frost particularly interesting, I should think, to scholars of American culture in the post-war years. The paradox in Frost’s literary personality to which I allude will be familiar to students of his work, which often presents, on the surface, a very reassuring aspect, but which, under scrutiny, may seem very strange and insubordinate—rather like the years of the 1950s themselves, which are, after all, the period in question here. Frost, it is true, participated in the Cold War arena in a quasi-official capacity, and he often sounded the notes of national piety required by an occasion such as the inauguration of a president. But his example had all along suggested that the place of the poet and of poetry was much more properly outside institutional politics and constitutional piety. That example was soon enough to be taken to new extremes by a younger generation of writers. And it ultimately made Frost himself much less useful to Kennedy’s purposes than Kennedy had apparently hoped.

JFK, photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, White House Press Office, 1961.

Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered as Frost sat nearby on the podium, issued a challenge familiar to Americans in those days. Speaking of the military rivalry between the U.S.S.R. and the United States, he says: “Let both sides seem to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.” Notwithstanding his inadvertently candid phrasing—”Let both nations seem to invoke the wonders of science”—JFK’s call is the familiar Biblical one to beat swords into ploughshares. Americans often heard that call made in the 1950s and early 1960s in support of continued high-level funding for military research and development. The hope was that the new technologies, particular nuclear technologies, would “spin-off” into civilian and benevolent channels. A historian of the period, Michael Sherry, points out that such promises were offered first in the advertising of the World War II era, which insisted that “war-born ingenuity would yield wondrous civilian devices.” One might view this sort of claim cynically (many have) as a ruse to ensure the continued growth of what Dwight Eisenhower famously called the “military-industrial complex“: “Let both sides seem to invoke the wonders of science” indeed.

Such claims were in any case an indication that American culture was becoming, for the first time, more or less permanently militarized. In the 1940s and 1950s, Americans, Sherry suggests, were constantly reminded of the connection between militarization and national prosperity and affluence “in advertising, government pronouncements, paeans to science, magazines, and science fiction. No youngster reading Popular Mechanics could miss it, and it suffuses material culture—in cars with rocketlike grills and space-age fins or bicycles resembling jet fighters in miniature.” Americans were invited to look forward to an earthly paradise achieved through the miracle of nuclear energy. “Atoms for Peace” was the slogan. The purposes of peace and of war-making, we were assured, could be served simultaneously without contradiction. Robert Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago, promised that nuclear energy would “`usher in a new day of peace and plenty’ and develop `the most backward places of the earth.'” The Nation (perhaps wryly) proposed that atomic bombs be used to dig canals and “generally to tidy up the awkward parts of the world.” Among statements like these, Kennedy’s remarks in the inaugural about the “wonders of science” are hardly striking; they are very much the official line. The effect of all this propaganda, as Sherry suggests, was to encourage Americans “not only to tolerate the militarized state but to embrace it as the source of wonders in their daily lives, focussing only `incidentally’ on its military dimensions. The swords, if not beaten into ploughshares, would at least generate them.”

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, as they left the Court House after being found guilty. Photo by Roger Higgins, 1951.

Frost was fond of troubling the distinction many Cold War liberals wanted to draw between peaceful and martial technologies, and fond of satirizing the idea that science might be harnessed to serve merely “national” aims by its political overseers. He says in a 1959 essay on “The Future of Man” that “the challenge of science to government takes the form of asking What will you do with our latest? Will you use it as a weapon or a tool or both? If you ignore it, we shall go elsewhere with it and try it on your rivals. If you suppress it, we will do the same.” The implication, inevitably, is that science is in certain respects its own “nation” whose loyalty is always to be doubted. It is a disturbing idea. Anyway it must have been disturbing to Americans who felt somehow reassured when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in 1953 for having passed along atomic secrets to the Soviets.

Of course, Frost is not indifferent to the question of personal loyalty. In “The Future of Man” he is talking not about the disloyalty of particular scientists, or of those involved in espionage; he is talking about the dubious loyalty of the institution of science itself—a more problematic thing. His remarks, I suspect, evoke something of the ambivalence with which many Americans regarded the scientific establishment that had grown up among them so impressively from the seeds first planted in the deserts of New Mexico during the Manhattan Project, which had pioneered the new alliance, characteristic of post-war American life, between government, the military, and major research universities. Frost’s unsettling claim is that the scientific enterprise is itself naturally insubordinate. “We become an organized society,” he says in “The Future of Man,” “only as we tell off some of our number to be law-givers and law-enforcers, a blend of general and lawyer, to hold fast the line and turn the rest of us loose for scientists, philosophers, and poets to make the break-through, the revolution, if we can for refreshment. Science is the most formidable in challenge but philosophy has been formidable too. Philosophers have had to be given hemlock and burned at the stake.”

Jacob Jordaens, "Der gefesselte Prometheus," ca. 1640.

Socrates notwithstanding, then, scientists have always made the most dangerous heretics. So, why shouldn’t science itself be regarded as constitutionally heretical and disloyal? In the nineteenth century science had inexorably eroded religious and moral institutions. Why shouldn’t it threaten civil and political institutions in the twentieth? Frost has Science mischievously say to Eisenhower’s apprehensive Middle America: “It seems a shame to come on you with our new novelties when you are hardly up around after what Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley did to you last century.” The point is unmistakable, at least in its implications: Science is an a-moral business which can’t be trusted to lend itself reliably to political and civic aims. Under the circumstances, it is no surprise that some Americans felt uneasy about the optimism of those in government who encouraged them to embrace the new culture of atomic science, and to stake their security and prosperity on it. “Atoms for Peace”? Frost knew that any such program was treacherous, not because of the Rosenbergs, but because of the Promethean nature of the scientific enterprise itself.

Science often represents itself as a preeminently rational enterprise. But what if, especially when militarized, science proves to contain within itself tendencies of the most irrational and volatile sort? What sort of “national security” could be founded on a basis like that? These are the questions Frost implicitly asks in his more counter-cultural moods. Consider a sonnet Frost wrote about the atomic bomb titled “Bursting Rapture,” collected first in his 1947 volume Steeple Bush. This book appeared early in the Cold War, one year after Winston Churchill had delivered his “iron curtain” speech with Harry Truman in the audience, two years before the U.S.S.R. detonated its first atomic bomb. The United States had renewed testing of atomic weapons in the summer of 1946, detonating two bombs in July at Bikini Atoll. The threat of what Frost called “a new Holocaust” was lively, even if it had not yet taken sharp focus in the context of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Already at this date the newly constituted United Nations had created the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission to study and, it was hoped, control the proliferation of nuclear technologies. These developments, then, provide the background for “Bursting Rapture.”

Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

I went to a physician to complain,
The time had been when anyone could turn
To farming for a simple way to earn;
But now ’twas there as elsewhere, any gain
Was made by getting science on the brain;
There was so much more every day to learn,
The discipline of farming was so stern,
It seemed as if I couldn’t stand the strain.
But the physician’s answer was “There, there,
What you complain of all the nations share.
Their effort is a mounting ecstasy
That when it gets too exquisite to bear
Will find relief in one burst. You shall see.
That’s what a certain bomb was sent to be.”

The sonnet lacks the argumentative focus one expects from Frost. William Pritchard, for one, complains that in its “untroubled move from a trumped-up personal complaint to the assertion that it is one shared by all nations, and that relief is just a burst away as that `certain bomb’ fulfills its mission, there is a failure of taste and of scale.” I will take up the question of taste presently. As for the failure of scale, the confusion of the personal and the national is certainly what characterizes this poem, what makes it difficult to read with assurance. When the physician replies that what the speaker complains of “all the nations share,” it is not clear whether we are to regard the speaker as a “national” rather than a merely “personal” spokesman. Is he speaking for America, even speaking as America, in, let us say, a befuddled agrarian guise? True, it might be that we are meant to understand by the physician’s remark simply that “people of all nations” share the speaker’s complaint. But the idea seems rather to be that the nations themselves, as nations, are involved in the “mounting ecstasy” of science represented by the drive to develop an atomic bomb—in other words, by the nuclear arms race, then in its initial stage. This drive has put an end to the pastoral isolation presumably available in an earlier period, the sort of thing Jeffersonians like Frost had all along hoped to achieve in the United States—a nostalgic theme echoed in other poems of this period from Frost’s life. There are no more “simple ways to earn.” Ploughshares and swords are impossible to distinguish from one another: farming itself had somehow been militarized by being (somehow) made “scientific.” This vague confederacy of science with militarization is something that Frost’s Cold War sonnet can simply take for granted. The disgruntled farmer in “Bursting Rapture” hardly understands how it all happened. But, as American farmers always do, he knows he resents it. This peculiarly agrarian sort of resentment is, after all, hardly unfamiliar in American history and culture. And it is apparently what was sending Americans to the physician complaining about “the strain” of the new world order in 1947, at least as Frost seemed to believe. The nation was having to invent a way of thinking about itself that included both the bomb and the vast military and industrial bureaucracy required to maintain, develop, and manage it. Our self-satisfied, autonomous idyll “down on the farm” was clearly at an end. Something like this idea seems to be involved in the allegory of the perplexed and beleaguered farmer. He is, of course, an American type, and one with which Frost often identified himself in public performances.

But the troubling thing about the sonnet is what it implies about the nature of the newly militarized scientific establishment, with its “mounting ecstasy” toward a “bursting rapture.” The metaphor is of course sexual. The drive to achieve and use The Bomb is imagined to be a kind of frenzy, an orgy apparently un-amenable to reason. This seems to be a way of saying that science is a passionate, irrational endeavor, no matter what the reassuring propagandists of the Atomic Energy Commission would have us believe: they, in their naive ecstasy, simply don’t know what they are up to. In “Kitty Hawk,” another poem deeply invested in the Cold War, Frost suggestively speaks of science as the “penetration” of matter by mind. His figure is at once sexual and agricultural: “Spirit enters flesh / And for what it’s worth / Charges into earth / In birth after birth.” This is the master-figure of “Kitty Hawk” and it binds together several ideas: “God’s own descent into flesh,” as when He conceived a son; the Wright brothers’ great experiment, which is an epitome of what Frost suggestively calls “the science zest / To materialize / By on-penetration / Into earth and skies”; and the entire masculine project (as Frost puts it) to “master Nature.”

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smoking a cigar that is merely a cigar, 1914.

It’s the latter two ideas, about science and masculinity, that concern me here. Later in the poem, Frost admonishes any skeptical readers of “Kitty Hawk”: “Don’t discount our powers,” he says, “We have made a pass / At the infinite, / Made it, as it were, / Rationally ours.” The metaphor is of amorous conquest: that’s what the phrase “making a pass” means in colloquial American speech. The sexualized language in which “Kitty Hawk” is written constantly (and approvingly) insists that men, American men, are now involved in a kind of happy rape of the material world. They are out to possess it, to dominate it, to bring it under cultivation, to know its most secret recesses “by on-penetration into earth and skies.” This sexualized enterprise of scientific inquiry is a variety of what psychoanalysts call “epistemophilia,” which Freud recognized, in his famous case-study of the “Rat-Man,” as a displacement of erotic energy into the love of knowledge. Freud regarded this displacement as an essentially healthy sublimation, and “Kitty Hawk” apparently takes much the same view. It invokes the “wonders of science” of which Kennedy would speak in his inaugural address, not the “terrors.” “Kitty Hawk” is in fact very much in the Kennedy style of a vigorously masculine national optimism.

“Bursting Rapture” is another thing altogether, which is what sets it apart from “Kitty Hawk” as a poem about the American post-war cult of science. It suggests that a climax will be achieved, that the arc of “ecstasy” will be consummated, only when science, through the instrument of warring nations, releases itself in an orgy of destructive energy, having “penetrated” nature even to the heart of the atom itself. We might as well spell it out, since this is what Frost is talking about in “Bursting Rapture”: the lust for nuclear fission and what Americans call “screwing” are near of kin. (Inevitably I think of Thomas Pynchon‘s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, with its elaborate allegory about rocketry and male erections.) Perhaps this is what William Pritchard has in mind when he speaks of the poem’s “failure of taste.” No doubt he speaks for many readers. In any case, so much for the West’s healthy sublimation of erotic energies in the pursuit of knowledge. The citadel of Reason on which the nuclear Cold War state must rely for its security—Science—is in fact deeply irrational in its motives and ambitions. The “little death” of the Elizabethans becomes a catastrophically satisfying holocaust: “That’s what a certain bomb was sent to be.”

Movie poster, "Dr. Strangelove," 1964.

Frost is already working the idea Terry Southern would develop so unforgettably in his screenplay for Stanley Kubrick‘s Cold War farce Dr. Strangelove. This is hardly the way Truman and the generals talked about The Bomb in 1947, hardly what the Atomic Energy Commission wanted to convey. And it is hardly what sensible Americans wanted to think of themselves as involved in bringing about. No wonder if they went to the physician to complain about “the strain” that was startling them out of their “pastoral” slumber. In “Bursting Rapture,” Frost made the diagnosis long before Norman Mailer did in an essay on the 1964 Republican National Convention, collected in his 1966 volume Cannibals and Christians. “Yes,” Mailer writes, “our country was fearful, half-mad, inauthentic. It needed a purge. It had a liberal Establishment obeisant to committees, foundations, and science—the liberal did not understand that the center of science was as nihilistic as a psychopath’s sense of God.” Without, it is true, Mailer’s brooding intensity, Frost is nonetheless working toward the same repudiation of the Cold War liberal’s bland, unquestioning faith in the new scientific “Establishment.”

In view of this, there is peculiar irony in the citation inscribed on the honorary degree conferred on Frost by Oxford University in 1957. He had traveled to Great Britain under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State as a kind of cultural ambassador. The immediate occasion was an exhibition of his works at the U.S. Embassy in London. But the whole affair was a part of the State Department’s effort to relax the strain in relations with Britain that had arisen when the U.K., with France, invaded Egypt the previous fall to secure the Suez Canal. The invasion collapsed when the Soviet Union threatened to intervene. In fact, the U.S. and the U.N. had opposed the invasion precisely because they feared it would augment Soviet prestige in the Near East. In accepting the State Department’s invitation to play his small part in making repairs, Frost wrote: “If my country believes I can be of any use in reminding the British people of our own warm affection and strong friendship, why, of course I’ll go.” Then, taking up a ready Cold War metaphor to show he understood, Frost concluded: “I don’t want to be an unguided missile, however; don’t spare me. Tell me where you want me to go and when.” The Oxford degree itself formed no official part of the mission. But the authors of the citation—the original is in Latin—seemed to understand the meaning of the Frost’s visit: “Amid the clash of arms and the mounting terror of our new instruments of war, his poetry, with its echoes of Virgilian serenity, has brought, and will continue to bring, unfailing consolation to a suffering world.” Well, “Bursting Rapture” more or less explodes the idea of “Virgilian serenity” in a nuclear age. Frost wasn’t in the atomic “consolation” business, State Department portfolio notwithstanding. The physician’s “There, there” in “Bursting Rapture” is hardly bracing.

Frost would continue to trouble our Virgilian serenity for some time to come, as in “The Objection to Being Stepped On,” collected first in In the Clearing (1962), his last volume:

Toy "Atomic Energy Lab," ca. late 1950s / early 1960s.

At the end of the row
I stepped on the toe
Of an unemployed hoe.
It rose in offence
And struck me a blow
In the seat of my sense.
It wasn’t to blame
But I called it a name.
And I must say it dealt
Me a blow that I felt
Like malice prepense.
You may call me a fool,
But was there a rule
The weapon should be
Turned into a tool?
And what do we see?
The first tool I step on
Turned into a weapon.

The agricultural metaphor spoofs (again) the Biblical injunction to turn swords into ploughshares. But there is more to the poem than that. The farmer who speaks in the poem—I assume the speaker is a farmer—expresses the bewilderment of a agrarian-minded people as yet unused to the challenges of the troubling techno-scientific establishment that had arisen in the first decade of the Cold War.

To them it apparently seemed a protean, dangerously unpredictable force, represented here in the person of a hoe—that most familiar, ancient, and trustworthy of implements—actually capable of “malice prepense.” The vexing thing is that the only way to control this force is to “employ” it, since, as Frost says in “The Future of Man,” it will neither be ignored nor suppressed. But employ it to what end, and how, given that its loyalties seem so inevitably and naturally divided between Mars and Ceres? So much for talk about harnessing the atom. So much for newspaper cartoons depicting a benevolent goddess opening a locked chest marked “ATOMIC ENERGY,” or toy science kits marketed to boys. So much for consolation. The leaders of the military-industrial establishment, in their scientific boosterism, simply protested too much. It is salutary to find Frost treating their claims with skepticism. All the same, the Oxford degree cited above wasn’t altogether off the mark in its congratulation. It was simply partial, attending, as it does, only to Frost’s official profile in the Cold War years. Nobody is given a degree for being mischievous about the bomb. And Frost’s mischief was easy enough to ignore, at least until he met the reporters at Idlewild Airport in 1962 fresh from a chat with Khrushchev. The fact remains that Frost had always been an “unguided missile,” or in any case a loose cannon on the ship of the Cold War state, which may explain why he once declined an invitation, originating with President Eisenhower, to write an essay on “American life” for the U.S. Information Agency.

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