When the CIA Was the NEA

When the CIA Was the NEA

In June 1948 George Kennan, director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, drafted National Security Directive NSC-10/2.


In June 1948 George Kennan, director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, drafted National Security Directive NSC-10/2. It set up an Office of Policy Coordination that would direct covert government operations “so planned and executed that any U.S. government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons, and that if uncovered the U.S. government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” A Psychological Warfare Workshop was set up within the OPC; Howard Hunt, later to continue his vocation as one of the Watergate plumbers, directed it. Among Hunt’s assets was CIA agent Carleton Alsop, working undercover at Paramount Studios. Shortly after George Orwell died in 1950, Hunt sent Alsop to acquire the film rights to Animal Farm from Orwell’s widow, Sonia. It was Hunt who chose Louis de Rochemont to produce the feature animation. (Given the clandestine CIA control, how appropriate that de Rochemont, under whom Hunt had worked on the March of Time newsreel documentaries, had already made a film about secret identity, Lost Boundaries, in which a black doctor’s decision to pass as white is blamed on the hostility he encounters not in the white community but among blacks.)

For the CIA to finance and distribute Animal Farm, however, something had to be done about the ending. In Orwell’s anti-Stalinist original, the pigs who overthrow the farmer ruling class end up mingling with their former oppressors. As pigs and farmers toast one another in the farm house, “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” The CIA solved this problem of the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and Communism by eliminating the farmers from the final scene. In the added-on CIA finale, when the barnyard animals attack the new ruling class (the sort of invitation to revolt that the agency would soon issue, and fail to support, in Hungary), capitalist exploiters are as invisible on the screen as was the CIA behind the camera.

Hollywood’s Animal Farm is not only an instance of how, for the first two decades of the cold war, the CIA served as the American “Ministry of Culture”–to use Kennan’s own approving Orwellian label. It is also a parable for the trajectory of the “Non-Communist Left,” the agency’s term for the group of anti-Stalinist intellectuals it singled out as its witting and unwitting secret agents for the cultural cold war. When left anti-Stalinists like Melvin Lasky, Irving Kristol, Leslie Fiedler, Dwight Macdonald, Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone opposed both the Soviet and US imperial camps in the late thirties or exposed the nature of the Soviet system during World War II, they were a beleaguered minority; their comrades were (as Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia famously described) murdered in Spain. But as the hot war against Nazism metamorphosed into the cold war against Communism, and as they chose the side of the United States, they embraced a worldview and mode of operations organized around apocalyptic, embattled anti-Communism.

The Cultural Cold War sometimes gives way to the tendency to dismiss the anti-Stalinist left as in effect “premature anti-Communists,” as if (like the “premature antifascists” stigmatized by the US state security apparatus during the thirties Popular Front and World War II) their early prescience should speak against them, as if they were bringing no big news either about the Soviet domestic terror or the role of international Communism–as if, to take one example from The Cultural Cold War, everyone acknowledged that the Rosenbergs were guilty, and the only issue was whether they should be executed. But the problem lay not in the left anti-Stalinists’ early recognition of the character of the Soviet system but rather in their trading in of pariah status to act as the organic intellectuals of the national security state. Whereas only a tiny number (on the vanguard-party model) actually took orders or distributed money from the CIA, a lot more were fairly witting fellow travelers.

Domestic politics had become “boring,” former-socialist-become-sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset noted in 1960 in the last chapter of his Political Man (quoting something a Swedish newspaper editor had told him), because “the fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution have been solved.” “Ideology and passion may no longer be necessary to sustain the class struggle within stable and affluent democracies,” Lipset went on, “but they are clearly needed in the international effort to develop free political and economic institutions in the rest of the world.” Lipset was announcing not “the end of ideology” (title of his chapter and of Daniel Bell’s 1960 book) but its transfer to the fight against Communism.

“Ideology and passion” required material support, however, and as The Cultural Cold War shows in telling detail, the CIA supplied it. Occupied Berlin, Melvin Lasky complained in 1947, was like a nineteenth-century frontier town–“Indians on the horizon, and you’ve simply got to have that rifle handy” or “your scalp is gone.” But whereas a “frontier-town was full of Indian-fighters,” Lasky complained, Berlin lacked them. Changing his metaphor from the gun to the Bible and imagining converting the primitives rather than killing them, he explained that the cold war battleground required a hard-hitting cultural journal to combat European anti-Americanism. In his words, “It would be foolish to expect to wean a primitive savage away from his conviction in mysterious jungle-herbs simply by the dissemination of modern scientific medical information.” The result of Lasky’s memo to military governor Gen. Lucius Clay was Der Monat, financed first through Marshall Plan “confidential funds” and then by the CIA. Two years later the intelligence agency set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom and assigned operative Michael Josselson to run it. With CIA financing, the CCF in turn sponsored Preuves, Encounter (Josselson called it “our greatest asset”) and a series of journals around the world. Within the United States, CIA agent Robie Macauley edited the literary magazine Kenyon Review. Laundering its money through small CIA-created nonprofits, especially the Farfield Foundation, and cooperating with the giant Ford and Rockefeller outfits, the CIA sent black jazz artists abroad to put a false front on the state of race relations at home. To communicate the vibrancy of an American high culture inflected away from politically committed left-wing art, it sponsored European appearances of the Boston Symphony, festivals of modern music and exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism. Supplementing the motion-picture industry’s own blacklist, the CIA also mimicked the House Un-American Activities Committee fantasy about the Hollywood left by working undercover to put the government message onscreen. Although The Cultural Cold War does not have an adequate footnote apparatus (citations typically lack page numbers) and sometimes suffers from a gossipy tone, honor to the author for the material she has gathered and the way she has put the story together.

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?

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.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy