How the CIA Tricked
The World's Best Writers
As the Cold War started to heat up, the Central Intelligence Agency began recruiting a network of bright, upper-class Ivy League seniors to man the ramparts on the agency's cultural war against the Soviet Union. It wasn't difficult to enlist this squad of brilliant, motivated Cold Warriors all too eager to confront the dark forces of Soviet repression by showcasing the superiority and diversity Western cultural endeavors.
The CIA developed several ways to throw tons of money at young, burgeoning writers, and creating a vast cultural propaganda empire of literary magazines around the world, from Europe to Lebanon to Africa to India to Latin America. This was done through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-Soviet arts advocacy group underwritten by the CIA.
The CCF also toured leading Symphony Orchestras around Europe and funded abstract expressionist art exhibitions.
As his central case study, Whitney looks in depth at the history of The Paris Review, a prestigious quarterly literary magazine founded in Paris in 1953 by George Plimpton, Harold L. Humes and Peter Matthiessen. All three were talented and accomplished writers, who would each attain success and acclaim.
Matthiessen was recruited as an undercover CIA agent by an academic advisor at Yale, Plimpton says he learned about this arrangement later, while Humes claimed to have known nothing until decades later. Although it was so easy for them to keep their heads above water, they should all have had suspicions.
As described by Whitney, such highbrow magazines were devised as part of a larger government initiative to shout up U.S. culture during the Cold War. As he puts it,
Many policymakers felt that Western Europeans were being softened to the horror of Communism thanks to towering Soviet and Russian cultural achievements. Americans, in a word, needed to become boosters of their high culture.
When the CIA wasn't endowing would-be cultural combatants, they were keeping a wary watch on them. Editor Peter Matthiessen was tasked with spying on American expats living in the French capital, while black American author and civil-rights figure James Baldwin was routinely monitored.The CIA also engaged in more direct interventions. When the Soviet Union tried to suppress Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which took an independent stance on the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the author had the book published in translation in Italy. But the CIA managed to secure a microfilm of the manuscript and also facilitated its publication in English. It also smuggled back the book in the original Russian to the Soviet Union.
The Agency purchased thousands of copies of Doctor Zhivago to put it on best-seller lists and lobbied for the author to receive the Nobel Prize. But the CIA merely complicated the author's precarious situation at home and when Pasternak finally won the Nobel, his Soviet persecutors presented it as proof of his collusion with the West (though he had never consented to any of it). Facing pressure and threats at home, Pasternak declined the prize.
Even George Orwell, one of the 20th century's savviest political writers and outspoken antiauthoritarians, found himself the punchline of a bad CIA joke when the 1954 film adaptation of Animal Farm was revised to serve the Cold War agenda. Where Orwell's story ends on a melancholic idea that the capitalists (the humans) and communists (the animals) were ideologically indistinguishable from each other, the movie made the animals seem the clear villains, flattening Orwell's original satire into plain ol' pro-capitalist, pro-U.S. propaganda.
CIA fronts also underwrote Hollywood films that were censored and rewritten to prune out seemingly anti-U.S. themes - - - the legendary director John Ford proved a willing collaborator, requesting government propaganda booklets in order to better express the CIA's cultural mission of "militant liberty."
James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hemingway all served varying levels of utility to Uncle Sam. (Not that the CIA's interest were only in letters: Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were also were also championed by the Agency.) One of the most unlikely targets was Pablo Neruda.
. . .in an acrobatic feat, the CIA's campaign to discredit Neruda did not preclude it from using his work to gain the trust and readership of Latin Americans.
If the story of the CIA's involvement in the publication is already well-known, many other incidents in Whitney's narrative will come as surprises, few of them entirely agreeable.
But in the end, the plan seems to have backfired inasmuch as many of the principals, Matthiessen included, drifted leftward and became fierce critics of their sponsors and the government behind them.