Little on Dunst, 'Madness in Cold War America'

Alexander Dunst
John Little

Alexander Dunst. Madness in Cold War America. New York: Routledge, 2016. 184 pp. $145.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-95124-2.

Reviewed by John Little (American University) Published on H-Disability (October, 2017) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison

Rarely is a monograph published at precisely the right moment, but Alexander Dunst’s Madness in Cold War America could not have arrived at a more appropriate time, when competing ideological groups in the United States are repeatedly denigrating one another with epithets of mental illness. Using the conflict between capitalism and communism as backdrop, Dunst argues that the "culture of madness in the United States can be understood only in the context of the Cold War” (p. 1). His analysis of political events, social movements, films, and literature produces a complicated picture of how schizophrenia and paranoia were internalized in US politics and culture from the 1950s through the 1980s.

In his first chapter, “The Pathologies of Dissent: Constructing the Cold War Psyche,” Dunst traces how “psychopathology left behind the walls of the insane asylum to enter middle America” (p. 16). No longer was madness a strictly medical issue; it had become politicized. Dunst outlines the ways in which mental health was circumscribed in the same way as gender and sexuality. Acceptable behavior was deemed normal, but anything outside defined parameters was labeled paranoia.

To elaborate how paranoia played into politics, Dunst analyzes the writings of historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-70) and applies them to political events throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His examination of US Embassy Charge d'Affaires George Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” sent from Moscow to the US State Department, reveals how politics was medicalized and how that medicalization was, in turn, internalized. As Dunst puts it, “In the burgeoning Cold War of the late 1940s and early ’50s, America’s politics of madness was transformed into a core element of intellectual culture” (p. 27). Paranoia, in due course, became an accepted part of mainstream US culture.

This is not to say that there was no attempt to treat people who had a form mental illness, as Dunst details in his second chapter about radical psychiatry, which “stood at the intersection of so many postwar developments that it can only be seen as a quintessentially Sixties phenomenon” (p. 62). One of Dunst’s many strengths is that he moves through these intersections so easily, highlighting issues of race, gender, sexuality, politics, culture, and media. While readers may wish for more on particular lines of inquiry, it is hard to fault Dunst’s navigation of these issues, from feminist critiques of pop psychology to the separation of doctors and caretakers from ex-patients, all of whom demanded better mental healthcare.

In his next chapter, Dunst moves from these complicated issues to focus almost exclusively on the writings of Philip K. Dick (1928-82). Although he mentions numerous other authors, including Jack Kerouac (1922-69), Allen Ginsburg (1926-97), and William Burroughs (1914-97), all of whom address madness in some form or another, the focus of Dunst’s analysis remains on Dick. Dick makes an excellent choice for examining US counterculture and ideas of madness, not only because he was so prolific, publishing over forty novels from the 1950s to 1981, but also because nearly all of his novels address mental health in one form or another. At first, it seems that this chapter is less connected to the larger Cold War narrative that Dunst seems to address, but the paranoia and schizophrenia he associates with madness in the US cannot exist independently of the political and social movements of the 1950s–80s. Thus, Dick, like his contemporaries, “maintains no clear distinction between conspiracy theory and paranoia” (p. 99).

The fifth chapter addresses this link between paranoia and conspiracy theory as Dunst asks important questions about how conspiracy theories are understood and used as “paranoid narratives” (p. 114). He analyzes conspiracy films and their prominence in Cold War America, discussing the main problems with conspiracy culture. Ultimately, films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and events like the assassination of John F Kennedy become inextricably linked, with paranoid narratives embedding connections into American society, but without the distinction between coincidence and foresight. Dunst concludes that “conspiracy culture splinters from a clearly identifiable structure into a basic sub-atomic particle of US society and remains with us today, long after the Cold War ended” (p. 138).

This type of madness is carried over into the sixth and final chapter, which Dunst begins by addressing the contradictory attitude toward mental illness related to art. Madness has been used simultaneously to discredit and praise artists, making madness “a condition of his or her power to speak the truth” (p. 143). Dunst’s monograph does not include a full conclusion, however, but draws to a close with an extended quote from literary critic Fredric Jameson that imagines “a Utopia of misfits and oddballs” (p. 165).

This monograph is not an easy read, nor should it be. Dunst explores very difficult concepts and connections, and he picks his words very carefully and succinctly to create precise meaning. This, however, is not to say that Dunst uses preferred terminology. Although he appropriately defines and defends his use of the term madness very explicitly, there are some phrases that are jarringly ableist. In his first chapter, for instance, he refers to “psychological malfunction,” which somewhat undermines his other statements that seek to validate people with mental illness and their experiences (p. 15). As this language does not always seem to correlate directly to the sources he has reviewed, it is difficult to say what is contextually precise language versus what may be a rare but poor word choice.

His research is vast and diverse, but Dunst is the first person to say that his sources cannot cover all sides of an issue. When describing tranquil, post-World War Two domestic life, he acknowledges that his sources clearly mean white, middle-class, largely heterosexual experience. He has done a good job of finding additional sources in order to provide supplementary examinations, when possible, of madness as experienced by African Americans during the Cold War, which adds much-needed depth and clarity to the subject.

From the perspective of a historian, I would say that Dunst’s work would benefit from use of additional archival materials about the role of madness. I am sure scholars from other disciplines will find other areas of Dunst’s research that would benefit from expanded source material. But, perhaps for that reason, this is an excellent resource for expanding the reader’s own research agenda. Dunst raises numerous questions, but does not go down the path that a historian, or a political scientist, or an anthropologist, sociologist, or literary theorist might expect. There are so many avenues of exploration; scholars from a variety of disciplines will take Dunst’s book as a starting point for further research. This is particularly true for disability studies, which is inherently interdisciplinary.

One of my few criticism's of Dunst's themes concerns one of those potential areas for examination: I would like to have seen greater analysis of bipolar disorder (“mania”) in Dunst’s work. In his first chapter, he highlighted how it is too often excluded, which raised my hopes of seeing further analysis, or analysis equal to that allotted schizophrenia and paranoia. Unfortunately, some potentially illuminating questions were left unexplored. How did bipolar disorder play out in Cold War America? In what ways do we see great societal changes that fit his definition of mania? As a potential example, the perception of Russia in the minds of many Americans has undergone a shift since the end of the Cold War, and arguably a dramatic shift since 2016. But which issues presented these same extremes during the Cold War? Perhaps an investigation of the media’s role in reflecting or reshaping public opinion during events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, or the Soviet launch of Sputnik would have provided Dunst with the material to analyze mania more explicitly in this monograph.

Regardless of the Cold War topics he covers, Dunst’s ideas could not be more relevant in 2017, with “madness” terminology in use by the Left and the Right to advance paranoid narratives. Madness in Cold War America will undoubtedly be beneficial to scholars and graduate students interested in the psychiatric, political, and cultural impact of mental illness, both past and present.

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Citation: John Little. Review of Dunst, Alexander, Madness in Cold War America. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. October, 2017. URL:

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