From the February 6, 2008 New York Sun
February 12, 2008
by Ronald Radosh
It has been decades since the late historian Christopher Lasch wrote his famous essay "The Cultural Cold War" in the Nation, which showed that many postwar American intellectuals had accepted funds from the CIA, and argued that they were as compromised as those artists and intellectuals in Europe and those within the Soviet bloc who prospered by accepting KGB sponsorship.
With "The Mighty Wurlitzer" (Harvard University Press, 342 pages, $27.95), Hugh Wilford has given us the first comprehensive and thorough report of how the CIA — modeling its policies on the Comintern's creation of Communist front groups — created their own fronts, with recipients who included not only the white male writers and artists who made up much of the postwar cultural establishment, but women, African-Americans, students, the labor movement, Catholics, and journalists. Unlike most previous writers to tackle the subject, Mr. Wilford undermines rather than bolsters the boast made by CIA man Frank Wisner, who called his agency a "Mighty Wurlitzer," a mass of information and intelligence capable of playing the tunes the rest of the world would dance to.
The old view, that the Agency was composed of "puppet masters" and that its recipients were simple marionettes, is not only inaccurate, but highly misleading. Mr. Wilford carefully shows that in almost all the cases, those funded understood the high stakes of the Cold War with the Soviets. Rather than following CIA orders, most used whatever funds they received to carry on the work they had already started, and often discarded the advice of the Agency handlers. Some might find the recipients of funds surprising. The CIA saw the American labor movement — particularly that sector of it led by George Meany and his foreign policy advisor Jay Lovestone — as a major opportunity. Lovestone, one of the earliest ex-communists, had been one of the first to organize Americans on behalf of anticommunism, and to see that the labor movement should act both at home and abroad in this cause. The Agency saw his value, since Lovestone had established links in Europe with social democrats and unionists who were battling communists and Soviet agents in their midst. With his colleague Irving Brown, Lovestone created the Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC), which won many successes breaking communist-led unions throughout Europe. But the relationship between Lovestone and the Agency was more complex than that of a puppetmaster to his puppets. Lovestone was, as Mr. Wilford puts it, "condescending, even disdainful" of the Agency's ability to wage the fight against the communists. He saw the Agency as new recruits to a struggle he had waged for years, and his answer was simple: take the cash and leave the job of fighting communism to the FTUC.
For a while it worked. But as time passed, the CIA preferred to work through those in the non-communist Left who were not part of Lovestone's apparatus, particularly Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers. A new liberal CIA leadership preferred the militant CIO to George Meany's AFL, and saw them as having more influence among Europe's left-wing labor leadership. So Reuther and his brother got their own funds.
When he turns to the cultural Cold War, and the funding of artists and writers, Mr. Wilford discloses much of the same pattern: The Soviet propaganda apparatus was going full steam in Europe, and the United States needed public activities to counter their effective propaganda. The Agency funded publications, conferences, musical events, and other cultural programs to push communism back in Europe.
One of its fronts, the Fairfield Foundation, funded the work of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a group whose leadership included Sidney Hook and Diana Trilling. The independent-minded intellectuals gave the Agency some trouble. The group broke into conservative and social-democratic sides, as one group (Max Eastman, James Burnham, and others) fought with Hook, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and their supporters over the issue of whether or not to condemn senator Joseph McCarthy. They also fought over what the Agency saw as the need of professionalizing their operations. Arthur Koestler left its ranks when the CIA objected to his desire to have the group engage in fierce political warfare, holding mass rallies in Western Europe and spreading propaganda to the Soviet bloc. The Agency preferred more soft work, stressing cultural contact between American and European intellectuals.
At the end of the book, Mr. Wilford puts in an unfortunate sentence suggesting that "the front group also has in recent years undergone a revival of sorts." His argument is that "ventures such as the Project for the New American Century" have been established to "prosecute the neconservatives' notion of a 'global democratic revolution' in the Middle East," and even more ludicrously, that "Reading Lolita in Tehran," the best-selling book by Azar Nafisi, is somehow part of "the neoconservative project of preparing American opinion for a U.S. invasion of Iran." Thus a powerful feminist account of the Iranian attack on women is attributed, without evidence, to CIA covert activities. The author only harms his own book with such politically motivated cheap shots. When, in 1967, Ramparts magazine exposed much of what the Agency had been funding, the CIA withdrew its support, and the operation fell apart. Some would argue that once the funding became known, the work of those who received payment had been compromised beyond repair. Diana Trilling, for one, simply responded that "I did not believe that to take the support of my government was a dishonorable act," and she added that such an interpretation only became accepted in the 1960s, when the political culture vastly changed. As for the secrecy, Trilling added that she "was willing to live with it because I thought we were doing useful work."
Much the same response was taken by Gloria Steinem who, as a young college graduate, took Agency money to set up an operation to get anti-Communist American youth to travel to Europe, for the purpose of countering the vastly popular Soviet-run World Youth Festivals. Ms. Steinem, by the time her ties with the CIA had been made public, was already an emerging left-wing feminist. Yet she told the press that she was "happy to find some liberals in government … who were farsighted and cared enough to get Americans of all political views to the festival." The CIA, she told the Washington Post, "was liberal, nonviolent and honorable."
The problem recipients like Ms. Steinem, Hook, and Trilling had, however, was not that they took the funds, but that their pledge of secrecy made them look dishonest when the truth came finally out. Mr. Wilford shows for the first time that the late William Phillips, longtime editor of Partisan Review, took money when the journal was in dire need of funding to keep it alive. To his dying day, Phillips denied this, and even threatened to sue those who made such an allegation. Like the others, Phillips did with the money simply what he had always done: edit an independent-minded anti-communist journal of opinion. The Agency funds merely allowed him to continue his work; he did not have to take any orders or directives from them.
Hugh Wilford has written a scholarly, mostly readable, and first-rate book. It is doubtful whether another survey of this subject will ever be necessary. One can differ with his own conclusion that covert funding "stained the reputation" of America and still find the book of immeasurable merit.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."
Home | Learn About Hudson | Hudson Scholars | Find an Expert | Support Hudson | Contact Information | Site Map
Policy Centers | Research Areas | Publications & Op-Eds | Hudson Bookstore
Hudson Institute, Inc. 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202.974.2400 Fax: 202.974.2410 Email the Webmaster
© Copyright 2013 Hudson Institute, Inc.