Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

Cold War: Meanjin under suspicion

A preoccupation with the perceived threat of communism dominated much of the cultural debate in the 1950s. Historian Lynne Strahan has called 'Are you a member of the Communist Party?' the 'question of the decade'. Never as virulent here as in the USA, the mentality of McCarthyism nevertheless insinuated itself into Australian intellectual life with varying effect.

The literary and current affairs journal, Meanjin, based at the University of Melbourne, came into the firing line when its founding editor, C.B. Christesen, was summoned to give evidence before the Royal Commission on Espionage in 1955, along with Nina, his Russian-born wife and founder of Russian language studies in Australia. Christesen was unable to entirely free himself of the taint for years.

In 1959 poet and academic Vincent Buckley sent him a ninepage letter in which he carefully set out his case for labelling Meanjin as 'pro-Communist' and Christesen as 'fellow-travelling', based on a painstaking analysis of the journal's contents. Written in a tone more regretful than denunciatory, Buckley's letter captures the polarisation and moral panic that characterised the era.

Many letters in the Meanjin Archive uniquely illuminate Cold War attitudes as they were experienced by academics and authors.

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