Some 60 million people perished in World War II. Before the embers of that terrible conflagration could cool, a new conflict loomed. Joseph Stalin’s Russia was imposing a cruel dictatorship on the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe and threatening Western Europe by subversion and force of arms. By 1949, the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons in its arsenal. In the event of a clash between the superpowers, many millions more would die.
The United States and its allies began to check Soviet expansionism by following George Kennan’s prescription for containment: The “application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” One such shifting political point involved student politics. Here in the United States, student politics had seldom been important. But in some of the embattled countries of Europe, very different traditions prevailed, and student politics were at the center of events.
The Kremlin was ready and quick to exert influence in this arena. Its operatives seized effective control of various international student organizations, set up chapters in the satellite states, and tried to draw in young people from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere around the world. As in other aspects of the Cold War conflict, the United States sought to counter. Veterans of the Office of Strategic Services—our wartime intelligence body, incorporated by 1947 into the fledgling CIA—began to channel funds to (and influence) the international activities of American student groups, preeminently the National Student Association (NSA). The funding and controlling continued into the 1960s, until the operation was blown in a spectacular leak—the first of its kind—in an exposé published in Ramparts magazine.
Here, Karen M. Paget tells the story of the CIA’s relationship with the National Student Association. As she notes in her preface, she has a personal—and bitter—connection to the subject. Her ex-husband served on the National Student Association’s staff. They were both among those who knew about the CIA link and had been sworn to secrecy about it. Even after the Ramparts disclosure, she writes, “we kept quiet, cowed by the threat of prison terms if we divulged information.” Decades later, Paget ceased being quiet and has now written a detailed history, drawn from extensive excavation of declassified documents supplemented by interviews with participants.
What kind of picture emerges? The story of the CIA’s tie to the National Student Association has been told before, beginning, of course, with the Ramparts exposure. Paget’s contribution, as she sees it, is to revise our understanding of what exactly it entailed. Though the operation has long been thought of as a CIA conduit to fund anti-Communist forces around the world, the agency was engaged in much more than the mere transmission of money. The CIA, Paget writes, “did not merely subsidize the NSA with a few travel grants,” as the conventional narrative would have it. Rather, it “ran an operation, global in scope, which disguised and protected the hand of the U.S. government—the very definition of covert action.”
Through a painstaking combing of documents, Paget succeeds in demonstrating that the CIA exercised a good deal more direction over the NSA than has commonly been believed. In addition to control of the organization’s purse strings, it also was deeply involved in the selection of personnel and the formulation of its foreign policy planks. In and around the organization were three categories of people with varying degrees of engagement: the “unwitting,” who did not know that they were pawns in someone else’s game; the “witting” (like the author and her then-husband); and the CIA masters moving the pieces around the board.
The mechanism by which the machine functioned was a CIA-created body called the International Student Relations Seminar, which offered a six-week summer course to students interested in foreign policy. While in session, the CIA surreptitiously conducted background security checks, after which politically or personally undesirable candidates were weeded out and others, deemed sufficiently loyal and smart, were inducted into the “witting” category and positioned within the NSA.
The political agenda that these inductees were instructed to follow had nothing in common with the strident anticommunism of the 1950s. Quite the contrary. The CIA, in those years, was inhabited by a now-extinct breed of Cold War liberals. As the agency sought to make inroads in the contest with Moscow, it pressed the NSA to assume positions, such as support for Algerian independence, that were often at odds with America’s allies—and sometimes in contradiction to the policies of the United States government. Increasingly, as Paget shows, the CIA was forced to deal with a paradox: “The more the NSA distanced itself from official U.S. foreign policy, the more it earned respect among overseas students.” This tension was never resolved: It broke out into the open as the Vietnam war heated up, and it played a part in the program’s eventual undoing.
Along the way to that end, Paget introduces us to a cast of Americans familiar to us today from other roles. One of the more notable witting student leaders was Gloria Steinem. The feminist icon, then just a bright recent graduate of Smith College, was an enthusiastic supporter of, and participant in, the covert action. Paget details her activities in Vienna in 1959, where she played a prominent role in the agency’s campaign to undermine the Soviet-sponsored World Youth Festival. Joining her there, among other young anti-Communists, was Zbigniew Brzezinski, the future national security adviser, and Walter Pincus, then a cub reporter, today a decidedly liberal national-security correspondent for the Washington Post.
By the early 1960s, CIA manipulation of the NSA increasingly ran into difficulties. Unwitting conservatives were clashing with unwitting liberals within the organization, in a battle for control that neither side could win, given that the CIA/American policy toward Fidel Castro’s Cuba was a major source of discord. So, increasingly, was Vietnam. Paget tells the story of the endgame in close detail. The internal divisions that fractured the NSA also helped erode the ethos of secrecy among the witting. Quite haplessly, the CIA believed that it could ride out the storm and prevent any damaging leaks. They were wrong. The Ramparts article appeared in March 1967, and a huge quantity of something unmentionable hit the fan.
In light of the intense embarrassment and political damage caused by the Ramparts disclosure, what is the balance sheet? Paget’s verdict is starkly negative. She acknowledges that, in its early years, the program had reasonable-sounding goals: “to deny the Soviets a monopoly position among the world’s students, to build goodwill with foreign students, and to win adherents to democratic values.” But as time wore on, she complains, a liberal student group became an “arm of a covert government organization” and a “straightforward operation to thwart Soviet influence at home and abroad grew, multiplied, and divided like a vast spider plant,” as the NSA was dragooned into espionage.
It is undeniably true that the CIA link to the NSA—and a number of other domestic and foreign organizations—continued well past the point of usefulness, especially when weighed against the ever-present (and virtually inevitable) risk of exposure. The agency’s blunder is not all that difficult to comprehend. Americans who lived through World War II and the terrors of the early Cold War were eager to aid their government in the fight against totalitarianism. If that entailed cooperating with the CIA, there was no shame in that.
By the early 1960s, that patriotic attitude, at least in some elite quarters, had begun to evanesce. In its place came an ever-more corrosive self-criticism. Thanks to a mixture of bureaucratic inertia and ideological blindness, the CIA continued on its merry way without realizing that America’s domestic political order was shaking beneath its feet. The result was the Ramparts disaster.
CIA astigmatism should be condemned. But Paget extends her indictment quite a bit further. She wants readers to be shocked and appalled by the CIA’s “crusade against communism.” Thus, when the agency shunted aside students who were “advocates of cooperation with the Soviet Union,” she complains that they were perpetrating a “witch hunt” in search of “political heresy.” The witting student leaders cooperated because they “hated communism and trusted the CIA,” and to them, in their naïveté, “good and evil seemed self-evident.” She intones darkly that “intelligence gathering and espionage—despite subsequent CIA denials—were integral to [the program’s] nature” and involved illicit and underhanded behavior.
Paget offers a prime example of such behavior: When young Americans, including Gloria Steinem, traveled to the World Youth Festival in Vienna on the CIA dime, they engaged in what she labels “dirty tricks.” These entailed printing literature and lapel pins that, although “written in the festival idiom of ‘peace and friendship,’ ” nevertheless “contained anticommunist messages.” They also arranged for planes trailing banners reading “Free Hungary” to be flown over the city.
Brzezinski and Pincus together unfurled an enormous banner bearing the word “freedom,” draping it between two buildings. This was a dirty trick, indeed. Think of it! A banner bearing the word “freedom.” Shocking. Appalling.
There are more such preposterous judgments scattered throughout the book. That is its most serious, but not its only, flaw. Patriotic Betrayal advertises itself as having the “aura of a John le Carré novel.” That is a mischaracterization. The subject of intelligence is intrinsically fascinating; but reading Karen Paget as she traces the comings and goings of dozens upon dozens of long-forgotten student activists (the book comes equipped with a guide to its extensive “cast of characters”) is only slightly more invigorating than reading the white pages of a telephone book.
This article originally appeared in the April 6 – April 13, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 29 issue of the Weekly Standard.