Sunday, February 3, 2008

In his review of Hugh Wilford's The Mighty Wurlitzer (Book World, Jan. 27), Michael Kazin gets it at least three-quarters right. The CIA in the Cold War did indeed create a mighty clandestine web, recruiting American and foreign writers to produce propaganda aimed at destabilizing many of the official and unofficial institutions in the communist orbit. But in its founding years, the U.S. Information Agency demonstrated repeatedly that it, too, could play the game and, on occasion, play it better.

The USIA, like the CIA, planted columns abroad written under pseudonyms. I wrote two for the USIA, one, as Paul L. Ford, on foreign affairs, the other, as Benjamin E. West, on developments in what Ronald Reagan would one day call "the Evil Empire."

Both columns became popular overseas, as did columns by other unheralded USIA operatives who focused on topics ranging from economics to all forms of American culture. Ford's columns, for example, appeared on page 1 of the Times of India, next to those of Walter Lippmann. West was particularly popular in Western Europe because of his accurate predictions of things to come behind the Iron Curtain.

In the mid-'50s, the CIA in Paris approached Lowell Bennett, the U.S. Embassy's press attache, requesting that he prevail on the USIA to stop distributing Ford. Why? Because French editors weren't publishing the CIA's similar column, but it might have a chance with Ford's out of the way. Bennett, of course, said no.

I had no idea how popular I had become until one 1955 evening in Hof, Germany, hard by the borders of East Germany and Czechoslovakia, I was surrounded by a group of West German reporters eager to interview "Herr Vest." The local AmericaHaus had tipped off the press that I was in town.

I was there tracking the efforts by East Germany to construct a wall separating East from West Germany from the Balkans to the Baltic, and, because I was under instructions to avoid personal publicity, I asked the reporters to extend me a professional courtesy: Don't mention me or my job. All nodded in eager agreement.

Next day, however, there it was, as big as could be in one paper: The noted communist fighter Benjamin West was in Hof, preparing to cross over into Czechoslovakia on one of his famous secret missions.

I went from columnizing to producing books on the failings of communism in China. From my office in the U.S. consulate general in Hong Kong, I commissioned books from anti-communist China experts and published them in collaboration with university presses and under the imprints of five "publishing houses" I created. Two of the books are still for sale on the Internet.

All this, remember, when the USIA's work, unlike the CIA's, was always supposed to be transparent.


Chevy Chase, Md.

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