How the CIA Funded & Supported Literary Magazines Worldwide While Waging Cultural War Against Communism

Over the course of this tumul­tuous year, new CIA direc­tor Mike Pom­peo has repeat­ed­ly indi­cat­ed that he would move the Agency in a “more aggres­sive direc­tion.” In response, at least one per­son took on the guise of for­mer Chilean pres­i­dent Sal­vador Allende and joked, incred­u­lous­ly, “more aggres­sive”? In 1973, the reac­tionary forces of Gen­er­al Augus­to Pinochet over­threw Allende, the first elect­ed Marx­ist leader in Latin Amer­i­ca. Pinochet then pro­ceed­ed to insti­tute a bru­tal 17-year dic­ta­tor­ship char­ac­ter­ized by mass tor­ture, impris­on­ment, and exe­cu­tion. The Agency may not have orches­trat­ed the coup direct­ly but it did at least sup­port it mate­ri­al­ly and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly under the orders of Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon, on a day known to many, post-2001, as “the oth­er 9/11.”

The Chilean coup is one of many CIA inter­ven­tions into the affairs of Latin Amer­i­ca and the for­mer Euro­pean colonies in Africa and Asia after World War II. It is by now well known that the Agency “occa­sion­al­ly under­mined democ­ra­cies for the sake of fight­ing com­mu­nism,” as Mary von Aue writes at Vice, through­out the Cold War years. But years before some of its most aggres­sive ini­tia­tives, the CIA “devel­oped sev­er­al guis­es to throw mon­ey at young, bur­geon­ing writ­ers, cre­at­ing a cul­tur­al pro­pa­gan­da strat­e­gy with lit­er­ary out­posts around the world, from Lebanon to Ugan­da, India to Latin Amer­i­ca.” The Agency didn’t invent the post-war lit­er­ary move­ments that first spread through the pages of mag­a­zines like The Par­ti­san Review and The Paris Review in the 1950s. But it fund­ed, orga­nized, and curat­ed them, with the full knowl­edge of edi­tors like Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthiessen, him­self a CIA agent.

The Agency waged a cold cul­ture war against inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nism using many of the peo­ple who might seem most sym­pa­thet­ic to it. Revealed in 1967 by for­mer agent Tom Braden in the pages of the Sat­ur­day Evening Post, the strat­e­gy involved secret­ly divert­ing funds to what the Agency called “civ­il soci­ety” groups. The focal point of the strat­e­gy was the CCF, or “Con­gress for Cul­tur­al Free­dom,” which recruit­ed lib­er­al and left­ist writ­ers and edi­tors, often­times unwit­ting­ly, to “guar­an­tee that anti-Com­mu­nist ideas were not voiced only by reac­tionary speak­ers,” writes Patrick Iber at The Awl. As Braden con­tend­ed in his exposé, in “much of Europe in the 1950s, social­ists, peo­ple who called them­selves ‘left’—the very peo­ple whom many Amer­i­cans thought no bet­ter than Communists—were about the only peo­ple who gave a damn about fight­ing Com­mu­nism.”

No doubt some lit­er­ary schol­ars would find this claim ten­den­tious, but it became agency doc­trine not only because the CIA saw fund­ing and pro­mot­ing writ­ers like James Bald­win, Gabriel Gar­cia Márquez, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hem­ing­way as a con­ve­nient means to an end, but also because many of the pro­gram’s founders were them­selves lit­er­ary schol­ars. The CIA began as a World War II spy agency called the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices (OSS). After the war, says Guer­ni­ca mag­a­zine edi­tor Joel Whit­ney in an inter­view with Bomb, “some of the OSS guys became pro­fes­sors at Ivy League Uni­ver­si­ties,” where they recruit­ed peo­ple like Matthiessen.

The more lib­er­al guys who were part of the brain trust that formed the CIA saw that the Sovi­ets in Berlin were get­ting mass­es of peo­ple from oth­er sec­tors to come over for their sym­phonies and films. They saw that cul­ture itself was becom­ing a weapon, and they want­ed a kind of Min­istry of Cul­ture too. They felt the only way they could get this paid for was through the CIA’s black bud­get. 

McCarthy-ism reigned at the time, and “the less sophis­ti­cat­ed reac­tionar­ies,” says Whit­ney, “who rep­re­sent­ed small states, small towns, and so on, were very sus­pi­cious of cul­ture, of the avant-garde, the lit­tle intel­lec­tu­al mag­a­zines, and of intel­lec­tu­als them­selves.” But Ivy League agents who fan­cied them­selves tastemak­ers saw things very dif­fer­ent­ly.

Whitney’s book, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writ­ers, doc­u­ments the Agency’s whirl­wind of activ­i­ty behind lit­er­ary mag­a­zines like the Lon­don-based Encounter, French Preuves, Ital­ian Tem­po Pre­sente, Aus­tri­an Forum, Aus­tralian Quad­rant, Japan­ese Jiyu, and Latin Amer­i­can Cuader­nos and Mun­do Nue­vo. Many of the CCF’s founders and par­tic­i­pants con­ceived of the enter­prise as “an altru­is­tic fund­ing of cul­ture,” Whit­ney tells von Aue. “But it was actu­al­ly a con­trol of jour­nal­ism, a con­trol of the fourth estate. It was a con­trol of how intel­lec­tu­als thought about the US.”

While we often look at post-war lit­er­a­ture as a bas­tion of anti-colo­nial, anti-estab­lish­ment sen­ti­ment, the pose, we learn from researchers like Iber and Whit­ney, was often care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed by a num­ber of inter­me­di­aries. Does this mean we can no longer enjoy this lit­er­a­ture as the artis­tic cre­ation of sin­gu­lar genius­es? “You want to know the truth about the writ­ers and pub­li­ca­tions you love,” says Whit­ney, “but that shouldn’t mean they’re ruined.” Indeed, the Agency’s cul­tur­al oper­a­tions went far beyond the lit­tle mag­a­zines. The Con­gress of Cul­tur­al Free­doms used jazz musi­cians like Louie Arm­strong, Dave Brubeck, and Dizzy Gille­spie as “good­will ambas­sadors” in con­certs all over the world, and fund­ed exhi­bi­tions of Abstract Expres­sion­ists like Mark Rothko, Jack­son Pol­lack, and Willem de Koon­ing.

The motives behind fund­ing and pro­mot­ing mod­ern art might mys­ti­fy us unless we include the con­text in which such cul­tur­al war­fare devel­oped. After the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion and sub­se­quent Com­mu­nist fer­vor in for­mer Euro­pean colonies, the Agency found that “soft lin­ers,” as Whit­ney puts it, had more anti-Com­mu­nist reach than “hard lin­ers.” Addi­tion­al­ly, Com­mu­nist pro­pa­gan­dists could eas­i­ly point to the U.S.‘s socio-polit­i­cal back­ward­ness and lack of free­dom under Jim Crow. So the CIA co-opt­ed anti-racist writ­ers at home, and could silence artists abroad, as it did in the mid-60s when Louis Arm­strong went behind the Iron Cur­tain and refused to crit­i­cize the South, despite his pre­vi­ous strong civ­il rights state­ments. The post-war world saw thriv­ing free press­es and arts and lit­er­ary cul­tures filled with bold exper­i­men­tal­ism and philo­soph­i­cal and polit­i­cal debate. Know­ing who real­ly con­trolled these con­ver­sa­tions offers us an entire­ly new way to view the direc­tions they inevitably seemed to take.

via The Awl

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Par­ti­san Review Now Free Online: Read All 70 Years of the Pre­em­i­nent Lit­er­ary Jour­nal (1934–2003)

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Louis Arm­strong Plays His­toric Cold War Con­certs in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

Read the CIA’s Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al: A Time­less, Kafkaesque Guide to Sub­vert­ing Any Orga­ni­za­tion with “Pur­pose­ful Stu­pid­i­ty” (1944)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • geoff says:

    I would­n’t mind so much if the CIA took up pro­mot­ing the arts again. They picked some win­ners and it seems, inad­ver­tent­ly, to be one of their more suc­cess­ful endeav­ors. Some kind of gov­ern­men­tal inter­est in cul­ture might not be such a bad thing these days… depend­ing on what got sup­port­ed and why I sup­pose.

  • Ben Redmond says:

    Maybe the CIA is sup­port­ing some of the flood of satir­i­cal car­toons about the Trump admin­is­tra­tion we see in the news­pa­pers.

  • Frank Boyett says:

    The Allies and the Nazis bat­tled for the soul of the Mex­i­can press in much the same way dur­ing World War II.

  • MortyB says:

    “Against” com­mu­nism? LOL!!! The CIA is the agency that is the New World Order’s wet dream, and com­mu­nism is the goal via “democ­ra­cy”.
    The New World Order
    The Mil­i­tary Indus­tri­al Com­plex (See Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er’s farewell address where this term was coined, cir­ca Jan­u­ary 1961)
    The Glob­al­ists
    The Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions
    The Unit­ed Nations
    The World Bank
    The Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund
    The Fed­er­al Reserve Bank
    The Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank
    .….all of the groups are the peo­ple who active­ly & secret­ly work to con­trol Human­i­ty on earth. Pro­pa­gan­da, Cli­mate Change, Hol­ly­wood, Media, .…all tools to con­trol Thought, and thus Human­i­ty.

    George H.W. Bush = Bill Clin­ton = George W. Bush = Hillary Clin­ton = Mitch McConnell = Diane Fein­stein = Har­ry Reid = John McCain = Chuck Schumer = Paul Ryan.
    Same League: The New World Order League;
    Dif­fer­ent Teams: Red Team vs Blue Team;
    The League ALWAYS WINS!!!

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