The contrast with the miseries of present day vulgarity is all too obvious. “The impulse to choose a side and press its case with wily elegance” is now gone, obviously. And badly missed—although no one who chose the other side seems to have possessed similar “wily elegance,” notwithstanding the fame, reputation and readership of antiwar and anti-imperialist Leftwing (if not necessarily Communist) novelists, poets, screenwriters and so on hounded for their views and often enough, also their art. In the same issue of T, the hysterically Islamophobic French playboy-philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levi, has a lush photo and a page to talk about his favorite subject, himself. (He no longer highlights his enthusiasm for the US invasion of Iraq.) Perhaps things have not changed quite as much as our aesthete commentator laments.
This brings us to the subject and the book at hand, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers by Joel Whitney. It is doubtful that any survey of the CIA operation in the world of American intellectuals will surpass the treatment of Frances Stonor Sauders’ The Cultural Cold War. Saunders managed to get at sources denied others (including this writer), dig out the evidence of widespread moral corruption, and present it with great lucidity. Modernism existed aplenty, literary to artistic (Henry Luce, after all, called Abstraction Expressionism “Free Market Art”), but played a distinctly minor note to the larger “propaganda exercise.” It is safe to say that the propaganda doled out by the CIA to labor leaders for use across Europe and Latin America was itself of minor significance compared to the generous accompanying paychecks. But the process worked rather differently among the prose masters that Whitney describes in Finks.
The Congress for Cultural Freedom and its counterpart American Committee for Cultural Freedom served, Whitney usefully explains, as a master PR campaign, mainly European and American, for the intellectuals who operated within it. First class air flights, four star restaurants and five star hotels were the least of the benefits. Any writer, almost any writer, wants to attend a Manhattan cocktail party with trade publishers rushing to offer generous advances, and probable reviewers in the New York Times and other prestige venues meandering about, waiting for the handouts on the hot authors. Chicago’s Nelson Algren, a holdout who dubbed iconic critic Lionel Trilling “Lionel Thrillingly,” was naturally viewed as a sorehead, as were others who demurred. Opponents of the Cold War, pro-Russian or not, were excluded on principle and likely to be attacked on principle–and in personal terms.
Joel Whitney is most interested in the High Lit, Euro side of the adventure. Encounter magazine was the gem, figures like Isaiah Berlin the precious human resources of the Agency, endlessly denying CIA ties, meanwhile quietly and gratefully accepting the benefits. Poet Stephen Spender may be best remembered politically for going after John Berger, who failed on aesthetic as well as political grounds to be a loyal supporter of the West. A Painter for Our Time, Berger’s novel, was as much as withdrawn after initial publication and awaited a calmer decade to be welcomed as a major work (and Berger as a major writer).
Now and then clients rebelled. Dwight Macdonald, who rose to literary heights thanks in part to quiet Establishment assistance, faced censorship for repeatedly going over the line. The Free Europe Committee characteristically “screened” articles to be published in the French language Combate, among other subsidized magazines. Fidel Castro’s revolution naturally brought propaganda to a new height and propelled client George Plimpton into great uneasiness with his idol, Ernest Hemingway. Papa liked Fidel, and Plimpton, a free spirit by his own definition, went into a veritable frenzy. Unlike Robert Lowell, early on hawkish to an extreme and one of the CCF’s favorite clients, Plimpton did not have a nervous breakdown.
The CIA’s favorites had cheerfully endorsed the overthrow of the elected Arbenz in Guatemala, in 1954, with all the enthusiasm that they cursed the Russian invasion of Hungarian in 1956. How to reconcile the implied contradiction, amped up with the slaughter of some 400,000 peasants by the Guatemalan military paid and trained by the US over the next decade? Mostly by changing the subject, a technique pursued unsuccessfully by the ACCF, which dissolved amidst internal crisis in 1957. The CCF itself managed, largely thanks to maneuvers by godfather Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to persist, with CIA funding intact, until 1979, under the change title of the “International Association for Cultural Freedom.” Peter Matthiessen, another major client, himself successfully changed the subject by engaging Native American history. Might he still have been doing a bit of Agency work, here and there, until his last days? He would not, the author tells us, respond to queries, perhaps out of shame—or discretion.
Whitney’s coda, “Afghanistan,” does not quite measure up, no doubt because so much had changed since the 1967 revelations in Ramparts magazine that the old literary panache could never be reconstructed. He points to Freedom House, the sturdy Cold War operation and its partner, the National Endowment for Democracy, and to the long list of pass-throughs (that is, convenient intelligence agency fronts) for American writers, think tank intellectuals and others eager to press the US cause in Afghanistan against the Russians. Whitney ends by coming back to the origins of the CIA and the craziness with which global resistance against the Russians was pursued, as if the age old conflict of Empire vs Empire had not been largely recuperated with new ideological clothes. By now, actually long since, the true scholars of Empire have known better.
But of course they do not wish to say so, and the recent passing of New York Review of Books founder Robert Silvers, which might have marked a more fitting final note on an era, instead reminds us of how the Cold War basics go on and on. A militant intellectual journal in the days of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the New York Review reverted, soon enough, to hawkish liberalism in defense of empire, a defense that extends across all history, naturally enough because history culminates in The West and in the powers of the leading intellectuals to explain all. We are reminded, in the New York Times obit, that Silvers was a CIA client in his early days, but perhaps unwittingly (what with the furor of controversy and charges in the early 1960s, hardly likely). He came back home, and there his intellectual legacy remains. A fitting coda after all.