U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Wars on Ahimsa: The Culture Wars, the Cold War, and Gandhism in the 1980s

The Wars on Ahimsa: The Culture Wars, the Cold War, and Gandhism in the 1980s

by Matthew D. Linton

Dedicated followers of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line were treated to discussions of topical political and cultural controversies by leading intellectuals, cultural figures, and politicians for over thirty years. Many must have been struck by the unusual choice of debate when in 1983, Buckley was joined by Commentary columnist Richard Grenier and University of Chicago professor Lloyd Irving Rudolph to debate “Was Gandhi for Real?” The proximate cause of the debate was Grenier’s scathing review of Richard Attenborough’s critically acclaimed 1982 film “Gandhi” – as well as attacks on the historical Gandhi – in the March 1983 issue of Commentary. While Grenier’s criticisms of the film can be seen as the heretical views of a solitary reviewer, debates over the historical Gandhi are best understood as a battle in the Culture Wars defending the superiority – and efficacy – of Western values against a perceived, non-Western threat. The struggle over Gandhi also demonstrates how intertwined the Culture Wars were with the ongoing Cold War. Gandhism was not only dangerous because it undermined Western values, but because it preached a romantic pacifism that could imperil American readiness to oppose communism.

Grenier’s review of “Gandhi” is a puzzling document. He begins by highlighting the shortcomings of Attenborough’s idealized depiction of Gandhi as well as the ways it may have been influenced by the partial funding of the project by the Indian government.[1] Attenborough’s Gandhi is “cleansed of anything too embarrassingly Hindu” and avoided far too many of Gandhi’s misdeeds like his sleeping with “pretty teenage followers” to test his vow of chastity and his patriarchal relationship with his wife and children.[2] From this sparse foundation of film criticism (totaling barely two pages), Grenier aims to set the record straight by exposing Gandhi’s many flaws and uncovering the “Gandhi nobody knows.” The rest of the article is a parade of calumnies against Gandhi’s character, his movement, and his nonviolent philosophy. Grenier highlights Gandhi’s indifference to racism against South African blacks while campaigning for Indian rights there at the turn of the 20th century and also toward non-Hindus in India, he depicts Gandhi as friendly with Hitler and unconcerned with Nazism even as he decried British crimes against India, and he dwells at length on Gandhi’s scatological concerns and prohibitions against sex.[3] What is peculiar about Grenier’s criticisms – aside from their overstatement – is that they were hardly unknown in 1983. In fact, most of Grenier’s information about the historical Gandhi seems to have been culled from the writings of three of Gandhi’s most trenchant critics Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, and Robert Payne.[4] Furthermore, most of these appraisals, like Payne’s The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi, had been widely read and debated for decades.[5]

So, why was it so important to Grenier to tear down the Gandhi myth in 1983 and, furthermore, why did Buckley deem it a topic of sufficient concern to devote an entire episode of his popular show to the controversy? The impression given both by the review of the film “Gandhi” and by the Firing Line episode on the controversy is that Gandhi’s persona and philosophy were deemed credible threats to Western geopolitical and moral supremacy in a time of continued ideological struggle against the USSR abroad and a resurgent pacifist left at home. Grenier and Buckley both argue that Gandhi’s success was largely due not to his methods, but the high mindedness of his British adversaries.[6] Ignoring the successes of Danish nonviolent resistance to Nazism as well as the burgeoning Polish Solidarity movement, neither conservative saw nonviolence – in any form – as an efficacious mode to oppose totalitarian regimes. To Grenier and Buckley, Gandhi was successful in opposing British colonialism largely because they allowed him to win. Americans who embraced ahimsa (nonviolence) or satyagraha (truth-force or principled nonviolent resistance) as a credible means to oppose the Soviet Union or as an instrument of American foreign policy could imperil the West in the Cold War. Just as Gandhi urged the British and the Jews to lay down their arms against Nazism, so would American Gandhians surrender themselves to the communist menace.

The urgency and violence Grenier brings to tearing down the Gandhi myth was also due in no small part to the success of Attenborough’s film and its reception by both Hollywood and lay audiences. Grenier and Buckley both speak ominously of a “pacifist trend” in Hollywood.[7] Grenier, though he readily admits to not reading all of Gandhi’s writings on nonviolence, goes one step further in reducing Gandhi’s ahimsa to “our old European friend: pacifism.”[8] Like pacifism in Europe, ahimsa could not articulate a positive philosophy once the immediate threat of British colonization was removed. The lack of a coherent vision of an independent India – owing in large part to Gandhi’s incompetence as a politician – in Grenier’s estimation precipitated a bloody civil war between Muslims and Hindus resulting in up to a million deaths and the eventual partition of India.[9]

One can also view Grenier’s assessment of Gandhi’s life and philosophy as a proxy through which to criticize Gandhi’s most famous American adherent, Martin Luther King Jr., and the nonviolent dimensions of the Civil Rights Movement. On the Firing Line, it is from a discussion of King’s adoption of Gandhian nonviolence that Grenier segues to the importance of high-minded adversaries to successful nonviolent resistance.[10] American Southerners despite their brutality toward civil rights activists were ultimately closer to their civilized British brethren than the “totalitarian” insanity of Nazism or communism. For Buckley and Grenier, though Western values could oppress, they were flexible enough to accommodate outside challenges without undue bloodshed. After all, as Buckley says in response to Lloyd Rudolph’s challenge that Gandhi was a figure around which both Hindus and Muslims’ rallied, if John F. Kennedy had gone to Birmingham the violence against Civil Rights activists would have stopped.[11]

Debates over Gandhi during the 1980s shed little light on his life or thought, but they do show an anxious conservatism warding off a perceived pacifist threat to Cold War goals while trying to reshape the historical narrative of nonviolent protest by discrediting one of its most formidable practitioners. The battles over Gandhi show how intimately Cold War aims of democratic victory were intertwined with Culture Wars attempts to build a hegemonic historical narrative of 20th century domestic and international politics. To win the Cold War, conservatives needed to win the domestic war over American values. A loss of Western values could imperil the international war against communism. Similarly, a political victory against communism abroad with a loss of Western democratic values at home – be it to Gandhism or Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition – would render international victories meaningless.


[1] Richard Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows.” Commentary (March, 1983): 60.

[2] Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows,” 60.

[3] Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows,” 64-65 ,68-69 ,69-70.

[4] A fact which Grenier recognizes by his frequent citation of Naipaul and Payne and a point which Lloyd Rudolph points out on Firing Line.

[5] Pierre Stephen Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi (London: Bodley Head, 1969).

[6] Richard Grenier and Lloyd Irving Rudolph, “Was Gandhi For Real?” on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line (1983): (min. 13).

[7] Firing Line (min. 52).

[8] Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows,” 65.

[9] Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows,” 66.

[10] Firing Line (min. 11-13).

[11] Firing Line (min. 34).

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a very fascinating post. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Gandhi, and the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience, would become part of the Culture Wars of the 1980s. Nor am I surprised that they would link this to the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, considering the links between Gandhi’s movement and King’s on ideological and tactical grounds. And there are some obvious echoes between the examination of Gandhi’s personal life and that of Martin Luther King.

    I wonder if there was any sort of response from the Left in the USA over this particular skirmish of the Culture Wars? After all, this is also at the same time as the nuclear freeze movement in America and Western Europe, so that had to be in the minds of Buckley and others as they debated the issue of Gandhi’s nonviolence. Above all, I find this a fascinating read because it appears conservatives viewed everything through a Cold War lens in the 1980s. I’ve been working on a project about civil rights memory formation in the National Review, and the issues I surveyed from the 1980s almost all had a Cold War concern that was paramount to everything else.

    One last thing: this was an excellent read, partly because it examines intellectual history through how intellectuals and partisans viewed a particular film on a historical figure. In some ways, it’s an intersection of popular culture, intellectual history, and partisan debate that happened many, many times in the 20th century.

  2. Robert, thank you for your comment. While there wasn’t a unified response to Grenier’s review from the “Left”, there were various criticisms of the review from Gandhi experts and the film community. Most responses concerning the historical Gandhi censored Grenier for conflating fact and fiction. Gandhi was not as saintly as Attenborough portrayed him in the film, but dwelling only on his faults provided at least as distorted a picture – if not more so – of Gandhi. Grenier’s review blatantly disregards all of the positive literature on Gandhi, only voicing the opinions of his critics. The film community took issue both with Grenier’s criticism of Attenborough’s receiving funds from the Indian government and confusing “Gandhi” was a documentary film. Attenborough long struggled to raise the money to make Gandhi and taking Indian money became a means to finally realize his vision. Furthermore, Attenborough did not shy away from depicting India negatively in showing the chaos that ensued after Indian independence. Attenborough was also explicit that “Gandhi” was not a documentary film. It was an epic film that sought to show the basic outlines of Gandhi’s beliefs and his historical importance. This epic style would, of course, leave out important points (particularly to those already familiar with Gandhi), but this was a necessary cost of providing a satisfying narrative.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article and I hope you find it useful for your own work.

    -MDL

  3. Thanks for this piece, Matthew! I remember reading that review at the time it was written. Though I was never a subscriber to Commentary, in high school and early on in college, I’d read it fairly regularly in the library, in effect to see what the other side was thinking. Grenier’s review of Gandhi, which came out while I was in college, was, in fact, the very end of this practice. I found the review so appalling in tone and content, and so utterly unedifying, that I simply stopped casually picking Commentary up. I’ve occasionally sought out individual articles since then (especially, of course, as primary sources for my work). But Grenier’s little Culture War fussilade ended my days as a regular, if hostile, reader.

  4. Thanks for the great post, Matthew. Your thesis, that this Gandhi reception episode in the culture wars, demonstrates how the culture wars and the Cold War were inextricably linked, is certainly plausible. But what I find remarkable about culture wars discourse is how infrequently the debates are framed through a Cold War lens. This is not to say these two historical trajectories are unrelated. Rather, the connections were typically implied, or beneath the surface. In fact, national culture wars debates got much more heated as the Cold War wound down. I would argue that without the Cold War to fight, many Americans were lost as to the national purpose. In this register, Irving Kristol wrote in 1993 that there was no “after the Cold War” for him. “So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos.” In other words, this compelling Gandhi episode in the culture wars is somewhat unique, perhaps because it happened in 1983, when many conservative culture warriors were still Cold Warriors first and foremost.

    • Andrew, thank you for your insightful comment. I have been surprised how little explicit discourse exists between literature on the Cold and Culture Wars despite involving many of the same characters and both being largely about values. I think some of this is because of the types of historians studying the two conflicts. A lot of the Cold War history out there (though by no means all of it) falls under the “diplomatic history” label. Many historians of the Culture Wars are labeled as intellectual, gender, and cultural historians who tend to view the Culture Wars as a domestic conflict despite the presence of international actors in it (“French Theory” is a good book on those international actors). I would be eager to hear of books that overlap Cold and Culture Wars to examine one of the aspects underpinning both struggles: the rise of conservatism, the struggle over democratic values, or the meanings of race in a changing world. Are there any books that do this, besides – in a fragmented way – Rodger’s “Age of Fracture?

  5. The lack of a coherent vision of an independent India – owing in large part to Gandhi’s incompetence as a politician – in Grenier’s estimation precipitated a bloody civil war between Muslims and Hindus resulting in up to a million deaths and the eventual partition of India.

    Bold face mine.

    An interesting comparison might be made to the renewing of the debate Was the Civil War Worth It, what with its 600,000 war dead.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/the-unromantic-slaughter-of-the-civil-war/277051/

    This observer thinks that if the answer is no for the latter–Mr. Lincoln’s America–that goes pretty much double for Gandhi’s India. And more.

  6. Matthew: In my comments above, I was talking about primary source material. In the volumes upon volumes of culture wars primary sources that I’ve read, there’s very little explicit discussion of the Cold War. But you’re talking about historiography. As someone who has written a book about the Cold War, and is almost done writing a book about the culture wars, I think you’re on to something.

    To find historians who link these two historical trajectories, you have to go to the specialized studies. Like Dan Williams’s “God’s Own Party,” which examines the formation of the Christian Right in terms of the Cold War (which was the emphasis in 50s and 60s) and in terms of the culture wars (which became the emphasis by late 70s). On the left side of the spectrum, you might look to a book like Van Gosse, “Rethinking the New Left,” which situates the formation of the New Left in the antiwar movement, at least in part, but which also points to how one of the legacies of New Left cultural successes was the culture wars.

    • Thanks Andrew, I’ll check those books out. I will think some more about primary sources, but few aside from the Gandhi debates leap to mind.

    • My experience navigating Culture Wars discourse has turned up the same observation as Andrew: There is very little overlap.

      Now, as to whether there *should be* more overlap, I’m not sure. My study tells me, very broadly, that Cold War discourse discourse became, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, an adjunct to other subsequent crises—the Vietnam War, 70s energy crisis, and the Iran hostage crisis—until Reagan. Then it again became explicit, if trumped up, until late 1989.

      The earliest Culture Wars discourse(s) occurred, of course, in the late 1960s, but slowly ascended to become explicit in the early 1990s.

      Does this mean they are unconnected? No. But what are the common threads? I’d say that war, diversity, and globalization are possibilities.

      As Andrew indicated above with Kristol, there existed a common war-like mentality (must have a winner, the other side must be annihilated, good v. evil).

      On diversity, the Cold War considered that anathema. Some Cold Warriors tolerated pluralism, but not deeper engagements with difference such as come out in multiculturalism and diversity. That kind of engagement would undermine American character, said the conservatives.

      Globalization seems, to me at least, to be a tactical Cold War strategy concocted in the 1960s to undermine Soviet-style economic communism (have I read this somewhere—Hobsbawm?). But the Culture Wars discourse about globalization doesn’t really seem to begin until the 1990s, and reactions come from the Left and Right. Still, there seems to be some overlap—with reactions and fears about Gandhi perhaps being a proxy for fears about globalization and diversity.

      I realize I’m not backing up the themes outlined above with historiography. But I hope it conveys something of the common messages that arise in survey books like Patterson’s *Grand Expectations* and *Restless Giant*, as well as Carroll’s *It Seemed Like Nothing Happened*, Schulman’s *The Seventies*—as well as in books like Rodger’s *Age of Fracture*, Ferguson et al in *The Shock of the Global*, and Killen’s *1973 Nervous Breakdown*. Even later books on the Cold War and its culture, like Whitfield’s *Culture of the Cold War*, as evident in this review, only focus on commonality of a war-like mentality—the desire to continue the Culture Wars on a Cold War terrain.

      Anyway, this is a fascinating discussion. Thanks to Matthew Linton for helping draw out the discussion about these potential and real commonalities. – TLq

      • Tim, thank you for the comment. I think much of your comment rests on a particular understanding of the Cold War as the direct confrontation between the world’s two global powers: the US and the Soviet Union. New scholarship by the likes of Odd Arne Westad and others, however, has started to reconceptualize the Cold War by looking at the indirect global conflict between the US and Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s in the global south showing how the conflict continued to dominate the international scene long after detante. Obviously this new global Cold War did not make as direct an impression on American domestic life as did the fearful days of the 1950s or early 1960s, yet I think its impact continued to be felt for many of the reasons you and Andrew listed above: a narrowing of acceptable political values, a common warlike mentality, and concern about globalization and its impact at home (deindustrailization, frustration with foreign products infiltrating American markets lead to, among other things, anti-Japanese sentiment, etc.). If the recent trend of extending the temporal dimensions of the Cold War into the 1980s continues it seems necessary to examine how it intersected with the other major American conflict of that decade.

        Another interesting idea, which touches on your comment, would be to look at the origins of the Culture Wars in the Cold War. The two conflicts seem to share a similar vocabulary and mindset – as well as many characters. I would be fascinated to hear about how the Cold War shaped a movement like poststructuralism or the canon debates.

        Briefly, another common ground of the Cold and Culture Wars, and relating to another recent post on this blog, are debates about neoliberalism and its impact at home and abroad (I’m thinking particularly of Latin America). Though I am by no means an expert on neoliberalism, there seemed to be lively debate both domestically among Culture Warriors and abroad among Cold Warriors about its short and long term impact. Maybe Ben Alpers or others have more to say about neoliberalism in the Culture Wars, but I think it is a domain worth exploring.

  7. Gah! I feel like Kristen Wiig’s “surprise lady” on SNL.

    For those who might be interested in thinking about how the Cold War shaped the canon debates, two words:

    Stay tuned.

    That’s about as specific as I care to be about my dissertation plan at this point, in this forum. Just how I roll, at least for now.

  8. Colleen Doody’s new book, Detroit’s Cold War: The Origins of Postwar Conservativism (Illinois, 2012) might be of some relevance here, although I haven’t got to read it yet.

  9. Interesting post. I haven’t read the comments that carefully but I don’t think anyone has raised the cautionary note that I’m about to.

    Namely: what pacifist movement in the U.S. in the early ’80s? The mass movement on the war/peace front was the Nuclear Freeze movement, but while calling for freeze and reduction in the US nuclear arsenal, it was hardly pacifist in the Gandhian sense. (Nor was the Catholic bishops’ open 1983 letter on nuclear weapons pacifist, if memory serves.) I would suggest that virtually no one on the broad US left in the 80s thought that the way to deal to deal w the Soviet Union was through Gandhian non-violent resistance. There have always been a small group of true pacifists in the US but always a v small group, and I don’t think this changed in the early 80s. As someone who lived through the period (was in my mid-20s in 1983), this aspect of the post’s argument doesn’t ring true to me. That’s not to say Buckley and Grenier didn’t think that parts of the left were pacifist — they might well have — but they were, for the most part, wrong about that.

    • LFC,

      I think your observation is largely correct. While there were sporadic pacifist moments surrounding cultural moments like the Attenborough “Gandhi” film, there was no sustained, popular pacifist movement. One of the elements that drew me to writing the article was how seriously Grenier and Buckley took the threat of pacifism and to the extraordinary lengths they went to discredit nonviolence. I think the decision to go nuclear on a perceived – but nonexistent – pacifist threat shows something about the conservative mind in the early 1980s (a period traditionally associated with conservative ascendence and confidence), but I am hesitant to extrapolate too much based on a single case study.

      • Your last point re the conservative mind in the early 80s suggests possible continuities w earlier incarnations of the conservative movement(s) — though I’m not knowledgeable enough about the history of US conservatism to know how the pt might be developed.
        I wonder, btw, whether Buckley/Grenier read Gene Sharp and were assuming his views were more influential than they were (I haven’t read Sharp, but just looked at the Wikipedia entry on him).

  10. P.s. Somewhat (but perhaps not totally) off-topic: I recently ran across Peter Mandler’s bk on Margaret Mead: here.

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