Hey, Mister, you want dirty book?

Edward Said

  • Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders
    Granta, 509 pp, £20.00, July 1999, ISBN 1 86207 029 6

E.P. Thompson called it the ‘Natopolitan’ world: that is, not just Nato plus all the Cold War military and political institutions that were integral to it, but also a mentality whose web extended over a lot more activity and thought, even in the minds of individuals, than anyone at the time had suspected. Of course there were the revelations in the mid-Sixties about Encounter and the CIA, and later in the US and Britain a stream of disclosures about covert counter-insurgency in every form, from secretly underwritten academic research to assassinations and mass killings. Yet it still gives me an eerie feeling to read about people like George Orwell, Stephen Spender and Raymond Aron, to say nothing of less admirable characters of the Melvin Lasky stripe, taking part in surreptitiously subsidised anti-Communist ventures – magazines, symphony orchestras, art exhibitions – or in the setting up of foundations in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ against Soviet totalitarianism.

One of the rare dissenters, Charles Burton Marshall, is quoted here as saying that this bizarre operation to ‘counter Communism’ by trying ‘to break down ... doctrinaire thought patterns’ and anti-American attitudes throughout the world was ‘just about as totalitarian as one can get’. Marshall belonged to an Orwellian US Government agency called the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) and his kind of common-sense voice, commenting on the enterprise from within, isn’t ever heard from again. On the other hand, Frances Stonor Saunders’s gripping book is stuffed with names of individuals, organisations and publications, whose sleazy history she gives in painstaking detail.

Unfortunately, not all of her information is fully accurate or complete. It is, for example, careless to place the artist Frank Stella in a travelling delegation of grown men when he would have been about ten years old, and to quote from books without supplying page numbers or publication history. The chapter on CIA infiltration of the art world is riddled with howlers (that John Hay Whitney had his ‘own’ museum is one among several mistakes of this sort), but the gist of her argument about Abstract Expressionism and its uses as propaganda is correct, if not wholly original.

Who Paid the Piper? is even so a major work of investigative history, an extremely valuable contribution to the all-important post-World War Two record. The dispiriting truth it reveals, or confirms, is that few of ‘our’ major intellectual and cultural figures resisted the blandishments of the CIA, whether in the form of cushy foreign jaunts, under the table subsidies – Partisan Review, Commentary, Sewanee Review, Kenyon Review were its beneficiaries, in addition to Encounter, and all its French, German, Italian and even Arabic and Indian offshoots – or contracts for organisations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Ford Foundation, which seemed at first to exist for scarcely any purpose other than to further US foreign policy and provide cover for the CIA’s machinations. Ford’s present reputation and munificence in Asia, Africa and Latin America are still tainted by this highly political history.

Saunders sets out her themes very ably in the introduction, which situates the covert projection of US policy objectives in the context of the Marshall Plan, the postwar reconstruction of Europe (especially Germany) in competition with the Soviet Union, and the creation of a massive apparatus of cultural propaganda, one of whose main purposes ‘was to advance the claim that it did not exist’.

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