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The Cold War, the CIA, and the Literati

Dusty Sklar
March 20, 2017

by Dusty Sklar

RIGHT AFTER World War II ended, another war started. It was a cultural Cold War against communism, a mostly covert operation that paradoxically used our most eloquent exemplars of intellectual freedom, some wittingly, others unwittingly, as instruments of our government, and it was secretly paid for by the Central Intelligence Agency. Using front organizations and philanthropic foundations, the CIA arranged conferences, congresses, art exhibitions, and concerts around the world, and even started some twenty magazines.

The CIA itself was founded in 1947, with the purpose of protecting the world from the spread of communism. Besides its spying activity, it funded cultural institutions and awards in the name of freedom of expression. Many of those anointed were former radicals and leftist intellectuals whose belief in Marxism and communism had been permanently destroyed by news of Stalinist totalitarianism. Many of them had dissented from the Establishment and questioned the powerful in the past; now, even when they didn’t know it themselves, they could be hired to do combat in the cultural Cold War.

As Arthur Schlesinger observed, the CIA’s influence was not “always, or often, reactionary and sinister. In my experience, its leadership was politically enlightened and sophisticated.” With that perception in place, it was understandable that intellectuals who felt betrayed by communism would choose to cast a benevolent eye on the spying establishment, despite its reputation as being a ruthlessly interventionist force for American Cold War power.

The hidden weapon in the CIA’s Cold War struggle was the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), founded in West Berlin in 1950 in response to a series of cultural congresses that had been orchestrated by the USSR, including the 1948 World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw, Poland, the 1949 Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York, and the 1950 creation of the World Peace Council, which issued the Stockholm Appeal, a call to ban nuclear weapons, worldwide. Funded largely by the CIA for seventeen years, CCF had offices in thirty-five countries and a declared purpose of proving that liberal democracy and the intellectual freedom that it represented was more compatible with high culture than communism -- a view not widely held in Western Europe among intellectuals, who often saw America as a philistine wasteland with no culture beyond comic books and cowboy movies.

Those who attended the founding conference included Irving Kristol, John Dewey, James Burnham, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Bertrand Russell, Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, Melvin J. Lasky, Tennessee Williams, and Sidney Hook. According to the CIA’s own online library, “By a lucky stroke, the conference opened just a day after North Korea invaded the South. This coincidence lent unexpected timeliness and urgency to the conference’s message: that some of the best minds of the West -- representing a wide range of disciplines and political viewpoints -- were willing to defy the still-influential opinion that Communism was more congenial to culture than was bourgeois democracy.”

A few of the journals that CCF subsidized, including Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, New Leader, and Encounter, criticized Marxism, communism, and revolutionary politics, and apologized for, or simply ignored, American examples of imperialism. These journals succeeded in publishing some of the leading voices of intellectual freedom, many of whom were sophisticates of the Eastern seaboard and the Ivy League -- people like Schlesinger, who later recalled: “We all felt that democratic socialism was the most effective bulwark against totalitarianism. This became an undercurrent -- or even undercover-- theme in American foreign policy during the period.”

Who better to fight the communists than former communists? And what better use of propaganda than to encourage people to move in the direction they deemed desirable for reasons they believed to be their own? The CCF sought to convince the international Western intelligentsia to break with communist fronts and fellow-traveling groups and to persuade them to devise arguments and theories aimed at those people who made government policy. Nicholas Nabokov, composer and writer and first cousin of Vladimir, became Secretary General of CCF in 1951 and stayed for more than fifteen years. He wrote of the organization: “There were no modern precedents, no models in the Western world. No one before had tried to mobilize intellectuals and artists on a worldwide scale in order to fight an ideological war against oppressors of the mind. . . .To lead the rational, ice-cold, determinedly intellectual war against Stalinism without falling into the easy Manichean trap of holy righteousness seemed essential to me, especially at a time when in America that ideological war was getting histrionically hysterical and crusaderishly paranoiac.”

In 1966, amid growing dissent over the Vietnam War, the New York Times ran a series of five articles that unveiled many of the CIA’s secret activities, including its cultural organizing, which extended to numerous liberal groups and labor leaders. Ramparts magazine then took the investigation onto college campuses and student organizations. “Exactly how many of the Congress’s leaders were actually deceived about the CIA’s subvention of their organization’s activities is something we shall probably never know,” wrote Hilton Kramer in a 1990 edition of the New Centurion. “. . . How many would have been bothered by the CIA connection, had they known, is another question to which we have no answer. They were, after all, voluntarily serving the interests of the Western democracies in their fierce conflict with the deadliest and most powerful international tyranny known to modern history. The crucial point is, however, that the CIA role was concealed, and when that fact came to light in the dark days of the Vietnam War, the ensuing scandal had the effect of shattering whatever prestige the Congress still retained.”

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Her most recent article for us was about antisemitism in populist history.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.