The Cultural Cold War

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Reading THE CULTURAL COLD WAR: THE CIA AND THE WORLD OF ARTS AND LETTERS by Frances Stoner Saunders was like getting a middle-of-the-night wake-up call. Even though I was aware that the CIA had secretly funded magazines like “Encounter” and organizations like “The Congress for Cultural Freedom” during the cold war, I had no idea this was just the tip of the propaganda iceberg.

Saunders, a British TV producer and journalist, has published a 509-page book that is one of the most shocking and important exposes ever written about the nefarious workings of the CIA. Saunders believed at first that she would be aided by the Freedom of Information Act. “It is certainly the case that many previously classified government documents have been released under this Act, but retrieving documentation from the CIA is another matter,” she writes. “My initial request to them in 1992 has yet to be answered. A subsequent application was acknowledged, though I was warned that the total cost for supplying the records would be in the region of $30,000. However, the CIA’s Information and Privacy Coordinator went on to explain that the chances of my application being successfully processed were virtually nil. The Freedom of Information Act is much vaunted by British historians, who indeed face greater challenges in researching material relating to the defense of the realm. But its application, at least as far as the CIA is concerned, is lamentable.”

Fortunately, Saunders was able to mine other government and private sources to find the documentation she needed. She was also able to interview many of those who were involved in the elaborate undercover operation masterminded and bankrolled by the CIA for decades after WW II. The object was to “nudge the intelligentsia of western Europe away from its lingering fascination with Marxism and Communism toward a view more accommodating of ‘the American Way.’”

The “nudging” took the form of magazine and book publishing subsidies, the creation of front charitable groups to launder the money, the sponsorship of museums, galleries and radio stations, the formation of news services and high-profile international conferences. The CIA also “rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances” (a case in point being the Iron Curtain tours by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington).
This isn’t to say Armstrong and Ellington knew that the money for their tours came from the CIA. The CIA was too clever for that; it hid the truth by ordering the State Department to sign the checks. Armstrong and Ellington, like the many other artists, scientists and historian in the West who benefitted from the CIA’s largesse, were unwitting participants in the covert cold war.

The CIA’s motive in sending black musicians on tour was to counter the Left’s attack on the USA for being a racist society. That attack was propaganda in the CIA’s eyes, aimed at the West by intellectuals in the service of communist ideology. The West was supposed to be superior in the way it allowed jazz musicians to play what they wanted. Artists and writers had the same freedom: they could throw paint around as they saw fit, write without regard to a party line.

But as Saunders shows, “our” side wasn’t truly superior–-neither politically nor morally. The CIA manipulated major artists and writers like Clement Greenberg, Jackson Pollack, Arthur Koestler, Robert Lowell, Andre Malraux, George Orwell and many others. The CIA also had its “man in Hollywood,” a snoop who checked every script for leftist ideology before it was put into production. And so on, down through just about every level of intellectual life in the West: Big Brother was not only watching but running the show. As the author states, “The democratic process which western Cold Warriors rushed to legitimize was undermined by its own lack of candor. The freedom it purveyed was compromised, unfree in the sense that it was anchored to the contradictory imperative of the necessary lie.

“The context of the Cold War...was one where you operated under the sign of total fealty to an idea. The ends justified the means, even if they included lying (directly or by omission) to one’s colleagues; ethics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s state of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another, in the hope of achieving a particular result.”