Dancing to the CIA's Tune

Reviewed by Michael Kazin
Sunday, January 27, 2008


How the CIA Played America

By Hugh Wilford

Harvard Univ. Press. 342 pp. $27.95

What do Richard Wright, Gloria Steinem, Henry Kissinger, George Meany, Nina Simone and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. have in common?

Answer: Directly or indirectly, they all took money from the Central Intelligence Agency during the early years of the Cold War.

If nothing else, this little quiz illuminates a side of history overshadowed by familiar tales about the CIA's plots to overthrow governments and its cocksure reports about non-existent WMDs. In the 1950s and early '60s, U.S. policymakers feared that the Soviet Union and its allies were appealing quite effectively to large numbers of people in Europe and the Third World. The war for the hearts and minds of humanity thus ranked nearly as high as the race to build better missiles and a mightier economy. No part of the government seemed better equipped to lead the propaganda offensive than the CIA. What other agency was stuffed with as many Ivy League graduates who, supposedly, knew as much about literature and the arts as they did about bugging a room and preparing a cigar that would explode in Fidel Castro's face?

As Hugh Wilford explains in this brisk yet thorough narrative, the CIA took for its model one of the enemy's more successful tactics: the creation and funding of front organizations. Communists had set up the International Labor Defense and the World Peace Congress, so the agency spent millions on organizations with such virtuous names as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Independent Research Service and the Free Trade Union Committee. An architect of the plan, veteran spymaster Frank Wisner, was fond of comparing it to a huge organ, "a mighty Wurlitzer" that, as Wilford puts it, would be "capable of playing any propaganda tune he desired." Few of the rank-and-file Americans active in these groups suspected that CIA officials were meeting routinely with their leaders and paying most of the bills.

Wilford devotes a good deal of energy to uncovering internal conflicts among the CIA's witting and unwitting beneficiaries. Jay Lovestone, the agency's main conduit to organized labor, was a former leader of the American Communist Party who sought to deny funds to fellow unionists such as the Reuther brothers, Walter and Victor, whom he judged too soft on the totalitarian threat. Writers and artists indulged in endless squabbles and fits of temperament, frustrating CIA officials who tried to control them. A South American tour by Robert Lowell had to be cut short, Wilford recounts, when the poet "threw away the pills for his manic depression, stripped naked, and mounted an equestrian statue in one of the main squares of Buenos Aires, declaring himself to be 'Caesar of Argentina' and his [CIA] minder one of his generals."

Wilford, who was educated in Britain and teaches history at California State University Long Beach, is hardly the first author to tell such tales. But no one has written a more comprehensive or sophisticated account of the pro-American fronts from their creation in the late 1940s to the investigative report 20 years later in Ramparts magazine that first exposed the CIA's cultural offensive and left people such as Steinem with a bit of explaining to do. At age 25 in 1959, Steinem took part in a CIA-funded effort to disrupt a communist youth festival in Vienna. Other participants in that effort included a youthful Zbigniew Brzezinski and future Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, who unfurled a protest banner from a building overlooking the festival's closing ceremonies, then made their getaway over a plank to an adjoining rooftop and melted into the night. Pincus has said he paid his own way to Austria and was unaware of the CIA's involvement at the time, while Steinem has said that, in her experience, the CIA "was completely different from its image; it was liberal, nonviolent, and honorable."

Aside from an irritating habit of sprinkling his paragraphs with acronyms, Wilford writes with smoothness and wit. The book's title is intended to be ironic: Frank Wisner's musical metaphor was both grandiose and inaccurate. Few of the CIA fronts reliably behaved as the agency desired. Many of the subsidized individuals and groups had a moderately leftist inclination; they were determined to fight communism in their own ways and resisted direction from above.

In the late 1950s, for example, Richard Wright was eager to counter the Soviet propaganda effort at international gatherings of black intellectuals and artists. His own unhappy stint in the Communist Party during the 1930s had turned him into a fierce anti-communist. But he came to believe that the American Society for African Culture, a black front group that the CIA secretly funded, was not a trustworthy friend of the newly independent nations and people on the mother continent. "I lift my hand to fight Communism and I find that the hand of the Western world is sticking knives into my back," Wright complained shortly before his death in 1960.

In the end, the agency's elaborate program operated more like a creaky karaoke machine than a majestic cathedral organ. Its American clients were glad to sing along -- but in their own key, often substituting their own lyrics. Even at the height of the Cold War, our government discovered it couldn't "play" unruly, pluralistic, opinionated citizens raised on the First Amendment as if they were a disciplined Stalinist cadre. That should be a welcome conclusion. *

Michael Kazin's most recent book is "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." He teaches U.S. history at Georgetown University.

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