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When the CIA Was the NEA | The Nation

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When the CIA Was the NEA

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Cold war triumphalists like the German journalist Josef Joffe, who dismissed The Cultural Cold War in the New York Times Book Review, justify CIA secrecy by the historical context--the Communist threat on the one hand, the absence of public subsidies for the arts on the other. "History confirmed the verdict when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989," concludes Joffe. Would he excuse the Strategic Defense Initiative by the same survival-of-the-fittest logic? What would he say about the CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala and Iran, about the millions of dead and disappeared from Latin America to Southeast Asia, who can be laid, in the struggle against what was imagined to be a Soviet-directed international Communist monolith, at the American door?

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Michael P. Rogin
Michael P. Rogin, author of The Intellectuals and McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, The Movie (California) and other works, is...

Since Joffe admires Encounter as a journal of culture and politics, and approves of modern art, he wants to distinguish the cultural front from other CIA operations. To be sure, although the Encounter office manager came from the clandestine wing of the British Foreign Office, and although the CIA and British intelligence shared the salaries of the magazine's two co-editors, CCF executive director Josselson rarely had to intervene in daily editorial matters, and he did not always get his way. Along with the fundamental meeting of minds in the Encounter community, there was also a constant quarreling that often put Josselson on the less stridently anti-Communist side. (Josselson organized a clemency petition for the Rosenbergs, for example, whereas Encounter's first issue published Leslie Fiedler's diatribe that the Communist couple was so taken over by ideological kitsch that there was nothing left of them to kill.) Minimizing the CIA's role in Encounter because the journal's editors were not simply following orders, however, diverts attention from the large, pernicious consequences of having a clandestine government agency act as the Ministry of Culture.

There was, first, the secret subsidy of one set of intellectual orientations over others in the name of the free marketplace of ideas. There was, second, the construction of a cross-Atlantic ambience that pulled initially suspicious British intellectuals into the American orbit and, with many Encounter contributors joining the Harold Wilson government, would contribute to Labour Party support for the American war in Vietnam. There was, third, the poisonous atmosphere of basic intellectual mistrust: As suspicions surfaced, those making the accusations of CIA support were themselves investigated in an effort to discredit them, and it was impossible to distinguish definitively between the manipulators and the manipulated. And there was, finally, in the name of the autonomy of culture from politics that was said to distinguish the United States from the Soviet Union, the use of fine art as a political weapon.

The CIA justified its covert support for serious culture as the alternative to withdrawing from the field, once Michigan Congressman George Dondero attacked a State Department exhibition by declaring that "all modern art is Communistic." (Would that it were so.) By the same token, the non-Communist left preferred an elite state security apparatus to what it now saw as the "populist" Joe McCarthy, who was (in their view) aiding the Soviet Union by attacking the national security state; among his targets were CIA agents themselves. (The Manchurian Candidate, with its depiction of a senator modeled on McCarthy as an unwitting Communist tool, would soon put that view onscreen.) Frank Wisner, the agent who had earlier laundered pro-Nazis so they could be used in the cultural cold war, tried to stop the American Committee for Cultural Freedom from taking the position that the Wisconsin Senator threatened the cultural freedom it was supposed to be defending. Wisner worried that a split over McCarthy would shatter the organization, and so it did.

Neither Dondero nor McCarthy was actually a populist, in fact, since neither spoke for a mobilized popular constituency. But just as so-called populist anti-Communism served to justify secret government operations as the more effective and responsible alternative, so CIA intervention on the cultural front helped legitimize in response a suspicion of modernism on the part of self-proclaimed left populists (whose popular constituency for their cultural politics was no greater than was McCarthy's or Dondero's). Saunders has some pretty foolish condemnations of Abstract Expressionism as painting "for the Cold War." She implies that an Ad Reinhardt canvas should be elevated above a Mark Rothko because Reinhardt joined the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. (At the same time, she prudently avoids attacking the black musicians who were also secretly funded by the CIA.) Nonetheless, although it does not discredit the art itself, the CIA did put its resources behind a view of the politics of Abstract Expressionism that is shared by left populists (although they replace the CIA plus sign with a minus sign). As cold war intellectuals were attacking the Communist politicization of art, the easy CIA slippage between culture as aesthetic expression and as political weapon generated, in symbiotic revenge, left political-loyalty tests for creative work.

And what of Michael Josselson? As a sign of the power of cultural freedom, the executive director of the CCF began to shift his loyalties from his secret government employer to the organization it was paying him to run. But Josselson proved unable to emancipate the CCF from CIA financing. Failing also to shift the Congress away from its cold war raison d'être, he was beginning to find the New York Review of Books more exciting than Encounter. By 1967 Josselson was, he wrote, ashamed "of remaining an American citizen in the face of the war in Vietnam." Nonetheless, he had continued to lie to close friends like editor Stephen Spender as the CIA connection was being exposed by the New York Times and Ramparts magazine. When this spy was forced to resign by the CCF Assembly, the national security bureaucracy and its network of foundations left him out in the cold. For with the exposure of CIA secret influence and with the divisions over the war in Vietnam, the utility of the non-Communist left in the cultural cold war had come to an end. When some of the same faces resurfaced a decade later, first in the Committee on the Present Danger (the group of intellectuals and politicians instrumental in heating up the cold war) and then in the Reagan regime, they would speak as neoconservatives. And in keeping with the privatization of American politics, the organic intellectuals of the right turn in public life and thought receive open foundation and think-tank subsidies rather than secret government support. So far as we and most of them know.

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