Once upon a time, the Central Intelligence Agency was a near-omnipotent, immaculately stealthy organization of serious-minded men who stood watch over the West—or so, at any rate, it was portrayed in the novels and films through which most Americans received (and continue to receive) their idea of what the CIA once was and did. In the popular British spy stories that Ian Fleming published between 1953 and 1964, Felix Leiter, James Bond’s opposite number in Washington, is invariably drawn as a stalwart, resourceful colleague. In Fleming’s sensational pages, moreover, the cold war itself is presented not as a meaningless skirmish between interchangeably shabby mid-level functionaries but as a noble battle between good and evil.
Nowadays, of course, the CIA is usually portrayed in a different light—and not just because of the recent public disclosure that its agents may have tortured suspected Islamic terrorists in order to obtain information from them. For a long time now it has been widely assumed, even by some whose ideology might otherwise incline them to approve of its activities, that the CIA is at once unscrupulous and incompetent, a faceless bureaucracy of bunglers and malefactors.
What caused this change in image? The answer to that question could fill a book. But one of the most interesting and least understood aspects of the transformation is the role played by the revelations made in 1967 and afterward that, for the previous two decades, the CIA had been secretly funding a large number of organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), whose purpose, in whole or part, was to oppose the spread of Soviet influence in the West.
These revelations helped persuade a generation of left-wing intellectuals that the CIA was evil and that all who benefited from its largess were thereby tainted. In due course, this conviction led to such exercises in absurdity as Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, a 1984 book arguing that Abstract Expressionist painting was in some meaningful sense a right-wing movement because its practitioners had been touted by CIA-supported front groups as symbols of American freedom of expression.1
A fair amount has been written in recent years about the complex relationship between the agency and those front groups, most of it tendentious in the extreme. Not so The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, a new book by Hugh Wilford, an associate professor of history at California State University.2 For an academic exercise, The Mighty Wurlitzer offers a surprisingly neutral account.
The title of Wilford’s book is a CIA-coined metaphor for the agency’s presumed ability to mold public opinion by “playing” its many fronts like a giant theater organ. But Wilford argues that the CIA’s ability to exert control over the organizations it funded was—to put it mildly—imperfect:
The example of the U.S. front groups created in the early years of the cold war suggests that such operations do not necessarily entail cynical manipulation and passive obedience. . . . Moreover, the CIA could not always dictate how the money it secretly disbursed was spent, with left-wing literati sometimes purloining it for purposes that had little or nothing to do with the superpower conflict.
Even a casual reading of the evidence adduced in The Mighty Wurlitzer points to the truth of this statement. An earlier and highly biased book on the CIA’s cultural activities, by Frances Stonor Saunders, was titled Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. Wilford begs to differ with its premise, and he does so persuasively: “The CIA might have tried to call the tune,” he writes, “but the piper did not always play it, nor the audience dance to it.”
In contrast to most previous discussions of the CIA’s front-group operations, which have tended to concentrate narrowly on culture and the arts, The Mighty Wurlitzer covers a much wider range of activities. Wilford is especially good, for example, on the agency’s dealings with sympathetic American journalists like the political columnist Joseph Alsop and Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who served as publisher of the New York Times from 1935 to 1961. For culture-minded readers, however, the most interesting section will likely be the fourth and fifth chapters, in which Wilford explores the various ways in which the CIA backed anti-Communist artists and intellectuals.
Much of this support was funneled through the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). Its best-remembered undertaking was Encounter, a staunchly anti-Communist literary magazine, published in London, that was founded by Irving Kristol and Stephen Spender and later edited by Melvin J. Lasky. The CCF also collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art to send exhibitions of contemporary American paintings to Europe, stepping in to fill the financial gap when right-wing American Congressmen campaigned to block the State Department from sponsoring such exhibitions on the grounds that they propagated the work of left-wing artists who constituted (in the words of one lawmaker) a “pen-and-brush phalanx of the Communist conspiracy.”
No less intriguing is Wilford’s discussion of the agency’s ventures into the manipulation of middlebrow culture. In addition to providing most of the funding for an animated film version of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist fable, the CIA planted an operative inside Paramount Pictures. “In one letter,” Wilford writes, “he reports having excised a gag involving ‘the manhandling of Muslim women,’ which might have had ‘potentially disastrous results in the Muslim world,’ from a Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin comedy, Money from Home. Another operative worked directly with the writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz to shape the film version of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American—or rather, in Mankiewicz’s words, “completely [to] change the anti-American attitude” of the original book.
The CIA was as interested in intellectual discourse as it was in art and literature, at least so long as the intellectuals in question were anti-Communists and so long as they were presentable in liberal company. The agency cut them off when they grew too fervent—as was the case with the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), whose “hard” brand of anti-Communism became an embarrassment to the CCF, its parent organization. It was for this reason that such well-known ex-Communists as James Burnham and Sidney Hook became disillusioned with the CIA and its covert activities, concluding that the agency was unwilling to wage a true Kulturkampf against Soviet Communism and that they themselves “had a much better understanding of the cold war enemy than [did] the U.S. government, claiming what almost amounted to ownership rights to anti-Stalinism.”
Little evidence exists, however, to suggest that the CIA was ever capable of laying down anything like a party line to its highbrow collaborators. The fact is, as Wilford explains, that “the CIA’s semi-private network was built to a great extent on shared values and involved a surprising amount of self-assertion on the part of the private citizens who belonged to it.” Those who cooperated with the CIA did so not merely because it was in their financial interest to do so but because they believed that the agency was on their side. They needed no prompting to oppose Communism: many of them were themselves ex-Communists, and all of them had seen what Communism could do.
Contrary to the view of many latter-day leftist commentators, the CCF was by no means a politically conservative organization. To the contrary: the longer it lasted, the further to the Left it tilted.3 Nor was the CIA’s own institutional culture in the 50’s and 60’s a conservative one—any more than it is now. From its earliest days, the agency was the preserve of Ivy League-educated liberal internationalists who were more comfortable with labor leaders and abstract painters than with populist politicians. Hence there should have been nothing surprising, let alone shocking, about the CIA’s open-handed patronage of modern art and literature.4
But of course there was.
Which brings us to the question of why any of this should matter. In the long run, was there anything wrong with the CIA’s decision to set up anti-Communist front groups and fund other organizations in order to combat Soviet influence at home and abroad? After all, the Russians were the bad guys in the cold war, and they stopped at nothing in their quest to work their will on the world.
Indeed, the model for the CIA’s “Mighty Wurlitzer” was the hard-Left Popular Front of the 30’s and 40’s, the members of whose constituent organizations were not always aware that they were funded and controlled by agents of the Soviet Union. Were we mistaken to use similar methods to oppose them? Did the end—the collapse of Communism—fail to justify the sometimes dubious means in which the U.S. engaged so as to bring it about?
When it comes to cultural matters, the best answer to this question may have been given by Arnold Beichman. A member of the executive committee of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, Beichman, as The Mighty Wurlitzer tells us, opposed its decision to take the CIA’s money “not so much for moral reasons as because I felt certain that someday the whole tawdry business would be exposed.” In saying this, Beichman was responding to a 1985 letter by Diana Trilling, another ACCF member, who retrospectively justified her decision to look the other way on the following grounds:
I did not believe that to take the support of my government was a dishonorable act. Nobody did at that period—that interpretation is the result of a significant change in our political culture. I never liked the secrecy but was willing to live with it because I thought we were doing useful work.
It is hard to disagree with Mrs. Trilling’s point of view, but it now appears that Beichman may have made the smarter call. For, whatever good came of the activities of the CIA’s front groups, a strong case can be made that it was largely if not entirely canceled out by the loss of credibility resulting from the disclosure that these seemingly independent organizations had been funded by the U.S. government. Unlike the Voice of America, which never pretended to be anything other than a government agency, groups like the CCF and the AFL-CIO were assumed to be acting on their own. This independence was what made them so effective—and what the CIA counted on when it funneled cash to them. But once they were exposed as recipients of agency money, and despite the fact that most their members knew nothing about the source of their funds, their influence dwindled accordingly.
The consequences of this exposure would be far-reaching. In Barcelona, Whit Stillman’s witty, discreetly conservative 1994 film about the romantic adventures of a pair of expatriate American preppies in Europe, we meet a group of cynical young Europeans whose notions about the CIA are diametrically opposed to those of their new friends. One of the Europeans patronizingly explains that “the AFL-CIA [sic] and the American labor unions” had been “sent to Europe to crush progressive unionism . . . with sacks of money and the anti-Communist tactics of Joe McCarthy.” Stillman plays the scene for laughs, but the real joke, as he knows perfectly well, is that the impenetrably self-righteous Europeans, lecturing their naïve American friends about the nefarious activities of the CIA, have hold of a small corner of the truth.
European anti-Americanism is too complex a phenomenon to be explained in a sentence or two. But there can be little doubt that the exposure of the CIA’s front activities did much to fan its flames, and to keep them fanned. By the same token, it seems more than likely that (to cite only one revealing instance) the current hostility of the New York Times toward the CIA has to some degree been exacerbated by the fact that under Arthur Hays Sulzberger, “the Times provided at least ten CIA officers with cover as reporters or clerical staff in its foreign bureaus, while genuine employees of the paper were encouraged to pass on information to the Agency about, for example, potential foreign agents.” Hell hath no fury like a journalist suckered.
Might things have turned out differently had the CIA not been caught filling the cookie jars of its front groups? Perhaps. But it seems as likely that the agency’s exposure was all but inevitable. The embarrassing (if not entirely unflattering) truth is that Americans as a group do not seem to make good conspirators. We are by nature a nation of Daisy Millers, as open and guileless as the idealistic heroine of Henry James’s eponymous 1878 novella, disinclined to cynicism and incapable of keeping secrets. This is why the hard-nosed, who-gets-what style of foreign policy known as “realism” has never been embraced by more than a small minority of Americans—and why sooner or later the CIA was bound to get caught when it started pulling cultural strings in the name of freedom.
1 See Lionel Abel’s “Paint & Politics,” COMMENTARY, July 1984.
2 Harvard, 342 pp., $27.95.
3 See “The Intellectuals & the Cold War” by George Szamuely, COMMENTARY, December 1989.
4 The agency was less generous to avant-garde American musicians. This was presumably because Nicolas Nabokov, the émigré Russian composer (and cousin of Vladimir Nabokov) who doubled as the CCF’s general secretary, was himself a composer of strongly conservative inclination who had no use for non-tonal music.