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’.

The main vehicle for all of this was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, ‘run by CIA agent Michael Josselson from 1950 till 1967’. My first encounter (pun unintended) with the Congress was through The God that Failed, a compendium of confessions by well-known former Communists (and/or sympathisers) that included Gide, Silone and Koestler; it was edited by Richard Crossman and the Congress distributed it. Carefully negotiating my way through a maze of booksellers’ wares laid out on the pavement alongside Ezbekieh Gardens in Cairo in late 1957, I was brought up short by a large pile of TGTFs stacked in front of one of the vociferous peddlers. His attention perhaps caught by my Western suit and non-Egyptian appearance, he called out to me shrilly: ‘Hey, Mister, you want dirty book? Five piastres only.’ In those days five piastres would buy at least three falafels. I stopped to pick up one of the little paperback volumes and, leafing through it, said contemptuously: ‘Five piastres for this?’ ‘No,’ came the quick reply, ‘take them all for five piastres.’ I ended up with a copy for half a piastre, and realised when speaking with my father about the publisher, Franklin Publications, that the enterprise had something to do with the US Embassy, which was dumping untold numbers of gratis copies all over Cairo. I had eluded the grasp of one rapacious merchant, only to fall prey to another. The book struck me as tedious, certainly not dirty in any obvious way, and massively self-important. In those unpolitical days of mine, I had no idea what I had really bought: a fruit of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and one of its many subsidiaries.

A few years later, when I got my first job at Columbia University in 1963, I met many of Saunders’s cast of characters at social events on Morningside Heights: Diana and Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald – all of them brilliant, feisty, friendly and endlessly voluble. Some of their hangers-on were third-rate intellectual goons like Arnold Beichmann (former Communist, rabid anti-Communist, now an aged relic of the Hoover Institution). No one then called them the New York intellectuals, as they have since become, and no one, except the dashing and iconoclastic Fred Dupee (who had their number quite early on), even hinted to me that the Congress for Cultural Freedom was in effect a part of the CIA. I published my first literary and philosophical essays in the Partisan and Kenyon Reviews (corresponding in the latter case with Robie Macauley, who, Saunders says, was a CIA agent pure and simple), and generally felt OK about a world that seemed concerned with ideas and high Modernism, even though it is now obvious that it was only tangentially concerned with those things.

When the revelations about Encounter came, they were almost immediately overtaken by the 1968 student revolution at Columbia, the anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, all of which seemed to matter a great deal more. For my part, I found that, with the exception of a few people like Chomsky and the late Eqbal Ahmad, no one in ‘the movement’ wanted anything to do with me or my interest in violations of Palestinian rights as a result of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Martin Peretz and Michael Walzer wrote their ‘Israel Is Not Vietnam’ article, Ramparts was closed, and soon the American ‘Left’, with Walzer and Irving Howe leading the vociferously pro-Israel shift, turned sharply to the right, and from there to neo-liberalism. (Saunders doesn’t consider the role played in Cold War politics by Israel’s post-1967 supporters: a pity since it explains many of the shifts and retractions she comments on.) Several faculty members (including Daniel Bell and Peter Gay) left Columbia because of the student uprising and the generally benign faculty response to it, while the Congress for Cultural Freedom sputtered on for I don’t know how long. Most of the ‘liberal anti-Communists’ of the Fifties and Sixties soon became neo-conservatives and Reaganites, principal among them Sidney Hook and the egregious Irving Kristol, whose role in Saunders’s narrative is positively Rasputinlike; even Partisan Review, famously Trotskyite in its origins, joined the neo-cons in the Eighties.

Saunders’s account of Partisan and its editor, the insufferably pretentious William Phillips – in a chapter she calls ‘Cultural Nato’ – is devastating. Far from being independent, PR was on the CIA payroll via front organisations like the Farfield Foundation. Before that, it had been carried financially by none other than Henry Luce (the owner/editor of Time-Life), whose ideological position was quite the opposite of Partisan’s at the time; in return for this largesse PR apparently restrained itself and said nothing about big corporations. Later Allen Dulles (CIA chief and brother of the more famous John Foster) kept the magazine afloat, and even got it tax-exempt status. And as the tide changed in the Reagan period, Phillips, perpetually in command, changed accordingly. As Sidney Hook said of his pal, ‘Phillips will go to any lengths to get help for PR.’

As for those gifted rebels around PR, like Mary McCarthy, they don’t look so good seen through Saunders’s unsentimental eyes. Here is McCarthy writing to Hannah Arendt about a lavishly subsidised event in Venice in July 1960 (others in attendance were Moravia, Iris Murdoch and Herbert Read):

The main event, from the point of view of sheer scandal, was a series of furious clashes between Mr Shils and William [Phillips], on the subject of mass culture, naturally. I swear Shils is Dr Pangloss reborn and without Dr Pangloss’s charm and innocence. I said so, in almost as many words, when I got into the fight myself. Another feature of the Congress was [Robert] Oppenheimer, who took me out to dinner and is, I discovered, completely and perhaps even dangerously mad. Paranoid megalomania and sense of divine mission ... [Oppenheimer] turned to Nicholas Nabokoff [sic]... and said the Congress was being run ‘without love’. After he had repeated this several times, I remarked that I thought the word ‘love’ should be reserved for the relation between the sexes ... George Kennan was there and gave a very good and stirring closing address (which ought to have crushed Mr Shils and all his Luciferian camp for ever) but the rumour was that he was crazy too, though only partly crazy.

Today the American Left is pretty much in tatters. A few small weeklies or monthlies such as the Nation or the Progressive can still be called left-wing, but the contemporary cultural climate in the United States is dominated by the corporate-government nexus, which no longer lurks in shadowy organisations or behind the front foundations that Saunders inventories with compelling tenacity. Everything is now quite open, sanitised and corporatised: what the CIA did covertly forty years ago is done openly by the Moral Majority, Pat Robertson and the National Rifle Association, and even they are only a very tiny part of an immense, palpitating hulk of profligate, ideologically discolouring squid.

In the first years after World War Two there were principals who pulled strings, drafted intellectuals, passed the money, organised conferences and trips – men like Josselson, Lasky, Tom Braden (later a TV personality), Denis de Rougemont, Cord Meyer, John Hunt, Nicolas Nabokov (a minor composer, Vladimir’s cousin) – and dozens of willing operatives, engaged, as Braden saw it, in the battle against ‘ignoramuses, or, to put it more politely, people who just don’t understand’. An impressive apparatus of former World War Two intelligence officers like the afore-mentioned Macauley, Arthur Schlesinger, Cass Canfield, Malcolm Muggeridge, Victor Rothschild played along happily, according to Saunders, who interviewed many of them for her book. There were also the ambiguously situated onlookers (maybe participants too?) like Isaiah Berlin and one or two others, in addition to some of the people now gathered around the New York Review of Books. What is remarkable about the list of names she spools out is not only their number and even distinction (Robert Lowell, Jackson Pollock, Spender), but how little the revelations of their being subsidised by the CIA affected their prestige. Huge sums were spent setting up radio stations, concerts, travelling exhibitions, academic and intellectual conferences. Stravinsky, Samuel Barber, Arthur Honegger, among others, participated. Prizes and awards were distributed, only occasionally earning the well-deserved anger of mavericks like Pierre Boulez, who denounced Nabokov and his fellow conspirators with healthy insults about their dishonesty and mediocrity.

Saunders estimates that $200 million were spent in the effort, wherever possible, to buy intellectual support for the US, to get critical voices to soften their attacks on the US and its policies, to promote the country’s values and, simultaneously, vilify those of the Soviet Union. She quotes Senator William Fulbright:

The effect of the anti-Communist ideology was to spare us the task of taking cognisance of the specific facts of specific situations. Our ‘faith’ liberated us, like the believers of old, from the requirements of empirical thinking ... Like medieval theologians, we had a philosophy that explained everything to us in advance, and everything that did not fit could be readily identified as a fraud or a lie or an illusion.

The ‘perniciousness’ of anti-Communist orthodoxy, Fulbright went on, ‘arises not from any patent falsehood but from its distortion and simplification of reality, from its universalisation and its elevation to the status of a revealed truth’. Another exception was the late Andrew Kopkind, whom she also quotes, a first-rate radical journalist and intellectual whose ‘deeper sense of moral disillusionment’ had to do, he said, with the fact that

the distance between the rhetoric of the open society and the reality of control was greater than anyone thought ... Everyone who went abroad for an American organisation was, in one way or another, a witness to the theory that the world was torn between Communism and democracy, and anything in between was treason. The illusion of dissent was maintained: the CIA supported socialist cold warriors, Fascist cold warriors, black and white cold warriors. The catholicity and flexibility of CIA operations were major advantages. But it was a sham pluralism and it was utterly corrupting.

Evidence for the devastating correctness of this view is found in Saunders’s chapters on the Rosenberg case and the emergence of Senator McCarthy. Men and women who knew better, or who could at least have encouraged dissent from the hysteria of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, simply went along with the whole thing, became incensed onlookers (like Leslie Fiedler), or just kept quiet as their friends were tarred and feathered, ostracised and sacked from their jobs.

Saunders is very good on the connections between the Wasp establishment (a sort of consortium) and the CIA, and on how important, socially prominent businessmen, lawyers, academics, theologians and philanthropists lent their names and institutions to a massive underhand operation, involving shady payments to agents and (perhaps) unwitting American stooges all over the world. To American readers this is a relatively familiar story, first mapped out by C. Wright Mills and Vance Packard, then in books like Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins, Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest about the making of the Vietnam catastrophe, more recently in biographies of Reinhold Niebuhr, McGeorge and William Bundy, John McCloy and George Kennan, among others.

To many people (myself included) Niebuhr, for instance, was a serious theologian, a great preacher, a powerful intellectual presence. Certainly compared to Billy Graham, who unofficially took over from him as the senior theological figure and consultant to Presidents, Niebuhr was somebody of genuine gravity. Yet, according to Saunders, he was an ‘honorary patron of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and a Cold War “realist” ’. He believed in the importance of a ‘calculated balance of power’ and in foreign policy as ‘the exclusive responsibility of an élite authority’. He contributed greatly to the force of the proposition, advanced by Whittaker Chambers, that the future would be decided ‘between the two great camps of men – those who reject and those who worship God’. And, as Saunders adds, he ‘served up liberal helpings of theology to Time-Life readers, winning Sidney Hook’s approval for successfully reviving the doctrine of original sin as a political tool, and making “God an instrument of national policy” ’. This capacity to reduce ‘the complexity of world relations to a struggle between the powers of light and darkness meant that the rhetoric of American foreign policy had come to rest on distinctions which resisted the processes of logic or rationality.’ Robert McNamara’s various attempts to apologise for his role in the Vietnam War should qualify him for the list of offenders, not least because his self-serving, self-promoting message – ‘it was all an honest mistake’ – needs to be regularly trotted out and mocked for the drivel that it is.

Saunders catches precisely the sublime confidence of former preppies and Ivy Leaguers who thought they were entitled to rule the world, and whose ideas (if that’s what they are) still pound excitedly through Madeleine Albright’s feverish speeches about American indispensability and supremacy. But she should have gone into greater detail about the appearance of the ‘three-worlds’ concept, which was an essential part of the story she tells; more might have been made of the struggle between East and West over influential post-colonial countries like Ghana, Egypt, Indonesia and India. CIA tactics of the kind Saunders describes were often employed well beyond Europe, creating the ‘Third World’ and, with it, the tiers-mondisme which in time became associated with a kultur-kampf when V.S. Naipaul, Pascal Bruckner (The Tears of the White Man), Conor Cruise O’Brien and others withdrew their earlier support for national liberation movements and what was once the Non-Aligned Movement.

The other subject she doesn’t fully broach is directly entailed by what she digs up about the complicity between power and intellectuals. For a time during the Fifties and Sixties, entire disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, area studies and political science, as well as innocuous fields like languages and comparative literature, were heavily infiltrated by the American Government for geopolitical ends. Today the part played by ‘policy intellectuals’ and those who use them – the various Washington think-tanks, Political Action Committees and the military-industrial complex – has reopened the question of how free individual researchers, even those protected by university tenure, really are. In the softer academic fields of cultural studies, literature, ethnic research, feminism, the tension between advocacy and what used to be called the ‘liberal humanities’ is quite fierce.

No one now can confidently say where the humanities begin and end, and where interest-created fields of knowledge pick them up or overlap with them. I tried to deal with these issues when I studied Orientalism twenty-five years ago. Reading Saunders took me back into the problems I confronted then and rekindled my interest in them, as all around me in the university, large corporations, mega-donors like Bill Gates and his kind, as well as the defence industries, openly buy up professors’ time (they can be hired for research into smart weapons, for example, or Islamic terrorism). Is there any role, or any possibility of a role in the post-Cold War era of globalisation for what Foucault and Chomsky, each in their different ways, called intellectual resistance and even freedom?

The prospects are not very encouraging, if the muddy past churned up by Who Paid the Piper? is anything to go on. I find it invigorating that Saunders, who is in her thirties, has taken up the challenges all over again, and if she doesn’t really say what ought to be done now, the energy and determination of her research, to say nothing of the scepticism that nurtured it, are important signs of stirring intellectual restlessness and even of a kind of incitement, which is what is needed most of all.

Fin-de-siècle globalisation is, however, a stickier, more encompassing element for the intellectual to function in than the Cold War. For the individual critical consciousness the pursuit of freedom is rather like Yeats’s ‘struggle of the fly in marmalade’, a daunting, perhaps impossible aspiration, especially for those humanists or literary intellectuals who no longer feel they can retreat to a privileged Arnoldian sanctuary, or take strength from a grand narrative of enlightenment and emancipation. The task is to provide as much material as can be assembled from alternative sources (today’s mainstream media being nearly useless for that purpose) and to apply universal norms of justice to overweening power and unchecked market economics. In this, I think, personal witness and effort must bear a disproportionate share of the work. A growing library on the insidious intellectual abuses of American power is greatly enhanced by Saunders’s excellent book.