The CIA's covert cultural war


Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War
By Frances Saunders
Granta, 1999
509 pp., $49.95 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

For an organisation which has spied on citizens, manipulated elections, overthrown governments, supported dictatorships, trained torturers, plotted assassinations and run drugs, it should be no surprise that the CIA also conducted major covert cultural operations.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA established, financed and controlled the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an international collection of anti-communist intellectuals. The CIA financed the CCF's flagship magazine, Encounter, which attracted some of the biggest celebrities of Western liberalism.

The Australian branch of the CCF, the Australian Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), owed its existence to the CIA. James McAuley, the right-wing Catholic poet and founding editor of Quadrant (the ACCF's magazine, which received CIA money from the CCF), worked closely with ASIO in what he called the "struggle against leftist perversion".

As Frances Saunders relates in Who Paid the Piper?, the CIA's job was the ideological and political "containment" of "Soviet totalitarian communism", which targeted not so much Stalin's tanks as independent trade unions, socialists, progressive social movements and Third World liberation struggles. As part of its covert war against the left, winning over the Western intelligentsia to the global rule of US capitalism (or "defending the free world" in CIA-speak) was a task the CIA took seriously.

Officially sanctioned and funded, the CIA in 1950 organised a conference in Berlin of 200 of the world's leading anti-communist intellectuals to form the CCF. Flocking to the CIA-funded "freedom-fest" were novelists (J.T. Farrell, Mary McCarthy, Carson McCullers), actors (Robert Montgomery), poets (T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden), playwrights (Tennessee Williams), philosophers (Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt), former Marxists (Arthur Koestler, James Burnham, Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol — an early Encounter editor) and former pacifists (Bertrand Russell, CCF patron and advocate of nuclear war against the Bolshevik threat).

Universal suspicion of CIA involvement attended the birth of the CCF, except amongst the beneficiaries who, stumbling on the CIA manna from heaven, suspended their critical faculties in their religious adoration of anti-communist "freedom". In adding the CCF to its "Propaganda Assets Inventory" (under the codename QKOPERA), the CIA ensured that it controlled the CCF.

Melvin Lasky (a later Encounter editor) was strongly rumoured to be a CIA agent. CCF executive director Michael Josselson (codename Jonathon F. Saba) was one. CCF general secretary Nicholas Nabokov (composer and cousin of Vladimir), and Encounter editor Stephen Spender were reliably anti-red.

The main pipeline for transmission of CIA funds to the CCF was through dummy "foundations". Millions of dollars were funnelled through the Farfield Foundation. Businesspeople who wanted to help the government lent their names to the foundation to give it plausible cover. Real foundations run by big capitalists (such as Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie) also acted as conduits for CIA dollars.

Most of the money went to Encounter, a joint venture of US and British intelligence, and a "resolutely ideological, anti-communist Cold War vehicle". Intelligence money was received unquestioningly, sometimes in brown envelopes lodged on the CCF desk.

This financial largesse oiled the wheels of an extravagant international conference circuit for the liberal intelligentsia, none of whom stopped to enquire who was really footing the bill for the plush restaurants, lashings of smoked salmon, limousines and first-class airline tickets. No questions were asked about whether secret funding from the bloodied hands of the CIA undermined the very nature of free intellectual enterprise. The gravy train carried no doubters.

The CIA set editorial policy, excluding articles inconvenient to its political agenda. Direct intervention was infrequent, however, because it had its "trusties" in the editorial saddle, and, in any case, the liberal intelligentsia shared the political orthodoxies of capitalism and operated unbidden within the boundaries of acceptable opinion (definitely no socialism).

While the CCF constantly lectured socialists about state control of the arts in the Soviet Union, capital and the state (the CIA and its business allies) in the West colluded to manipulate "free" culture there.

In 1952, for example, the CIA financed a "Masterpieces of the 20th Century" extravaganza of modernism in Paris. Stravinsky, Copland, Schoenberg, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which became the CCF house band, touring the globe) played the music that Stalin dismissed as "bourgeois decadence". Meanwhile, down at the wharves, the CIA was mobilising strike-busting goons to break a union ban on shipments of NATO arms at the Marseilles docks.

The CIA had other financial fingers in the cultural pie. It subsidised authors and their publishers to promote what the CIA called "the most important weapons of strategic propaganda" (books, to you and me). T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" was translated at CIA expense and air-dropped into the Soviet Union.

The CIA was also active in financing and promoting abstract expressionism ("free enterprise painting"!), many painters of this school (including Jackson Pollock, then painting "Blue Poles") being members of the CCF. Art thrives on freedom, the CCF proclaimed. And on CIA dollars, too, they forgot to add.

Hollywood was easily parcelled up for the CIA. Films were big business and the major movie houses welcomed the "guardians of [capitalist] freedom" with open arms. Paramount, for example, housed an undercover CIA agent who guided movie directors along the appropriate ideological lines.

The 1951 film version of George Orwell's Animal Farm was financed by the CIA, which also advised on the screenplay and arranged favourable reviews of the film version of Orwell's 1984. Both of Orwell's texts were congenial to the anti-communist political agenda (as indeed was Orwell himself, once handing over a list of 125 suspected "fellow-travellers" to a secret arm of the British Foreign Office).

By the late 1960s, the CIA's cultural operations were an open secret and when the new left magazine Ramparts documented the funding pipelines in 1967, the CCF chickens came home to roost.

Whilst Koestler was unrepentant ("a storm in a teacup") and Yehudi Menuhin sang the praises of the CIA, protestations of outraged innocence from the rest of the Encounter/CCF crowd filled the air. Their wounded sensibilities, however, would have sounded less hollow if any of them had shown anything other than an attitude of not wanting to know, or refusing to know, about the CIA backing.

That the CIA should have run a covert cultural operation during the Cold War is damning but not surprising. That the state worked in harmony with capital to set up the secret funding infrastructure and the above-ground "cover" should also not be surprising. That the conservative anti-communist intelligentsia should have actively collaborated with a CIA operation won't raise many eyebrows.

Some may, however, find it surprising that most of the liberal intelligentsia should have been complicit with the spies and anti-democrats of the CIA, however "unwittingly". But, as the fling with the CIA showed, the liberal intelligentsia were marked by their acceptance of capitalist power, a willful blindness to the role of the state in protecting that power, an uninquisitive embrace of anti-communist ideology, a veneration of individualism and a liking for the material perquisites of power.

Saunders' breezy, pop-art style and her forced literary flourishes often grate, but her book contains an abundance of juicy nuggets which, if held up to the light of class analysis, show that the liberal intelligentsia never understood that cultural and political "freedom" take on a class colouring in a class society. Or perhaps they did know, but were too implicated by their affair with the CIA to admit it.