As well as telling the story of how literature was weaponised during the Cold War, White’s book rattles through a series of biographical studies of a dozen or so authors whose lives were affected by the conflict. For the Western writers, the stories often follow the same pattern of initial enthusiasm for Communism followed by disillusion... White mostly writes in a neutral, functional prose, which is well-suited to deadpan comedy – he is especially funny on Ernest Hemingway’s self-aggrandising attempts to muscle in on the centre of the action whenever possible, and the discrepancies between Hemingway’s accounts of his exploits and the mundane reality – but his style really comes into its own when dealing with more emotionally charged material... It frequently grips like a thriller, even in the sections in which White is dealing with intellectual ideas rather than blackmail and violence. It will serve, too, to remind writers of how lucky they are to live in a free society – and perhaps induce a little nostalgia for the days when people thought they were worth shooting.
Orwell’s story is hardly unfamiliar, and although White retells it with gusto, he has nothing new to say. Similarly well known are the stories of, say, Koestler, a former communist whose book Darkness at Noon (1940) became the defining fictional evocation of Stalin’s Great Terror, or Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) remains a chillingly effective description of life in the gulag...As a study of literary culture during the Cold War, White’s book is a mixed bag. He enjoys biographical gossip, but has surprisingly little to say about what his chosen characters actually wrote. All the same, his book raises some haunting questions. What would you and I have done? After all, few of his characters escaped complicity with their political masters. Under Stalin, in particular, non-cooperation meant an early appointment with a firing squad. And even Orwell, despite his saintly reputation as a teller of truth to power, was happy to prepare a list of cultural figures he considered “unreliable”, among them the historian EH Carr, the actor Charlie Chaplin and the future Labour leader Michael Foot.
Cold Warriors reads like a thriller. Here is Greene peeling leeches off his neck on a jungle ambush with the Gurkhas in Malaya in 1950. Here is McCarthy landing in Saigon with her best Chanel suit to cover the Vietnam War in 1967. She admitted she could “hardly tell a grenade from a pomegranate”. Here is Hemingway in Cuba in the 1940s running his “Crook Factory” of informant card sharks, bartenders and priests (they failed to unmask a single Nazi) and loading his fishing boat with bazookas, machineguns and grenades to hunt U-boats off the Cuban coast (he sank no submarines)... What I will most remember from this ambitious, intelligent, searching history are the words of Isaac Babel recalling the day the Soviet secret police knocked on his door before dawn. Thinking of the manuscripts seized from his desk, all he could say was: “They didn’t let me finish.”