Spies With Poems

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May 2000


Spies With Poems

By Robert deNeufville


The Cultural Cold War

By Frances Stonor Saunders
New Press

Click on the title to buy the book
Although his Hartford neighbors never knew it, my grandfather Lawrence de Neufville worked for the better part of two decades as a spy. Among other things, he helped oversee a vast cultural propaganda campaign in Western Europe for the CIA. When Frances Stonor Saunders contacted him for this fascinating new book, he was amused to think his cover would finally be blown, more than 40 years after he left the Agency. "I guess the old boys here in town will get a bit of a surprise," he said.

The linchpin of this effort, from 1950 until its link to the CIA was exposed in 1967, was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Through the Congress and parallel organizations, the CIA secretly underwrote international conferences, art expositions, music festivals, and more than 20 magazines, including the highly respected Encounter, which was edited originally by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol. The CIA campaign was so extensive that, at its height, it would not be wrong to say that the agency acted as a secret ministry of culture. Nearly every prominent Western intellectual in the early years of the Cold War was, wittingly or unwittingly, involved with some CIA-backed program. Among those most notably implicated were historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., French social theorist Raymond Aron, novelist and essayist Arthur Koestler, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. According to a U.S. government oversight committee, by the mid-'60s almost half the grants given out by various philanthropies---including some by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations---involved some CIA money.

The campaign was designed to bolster Western Europe against the ideological encroachment of Soviet Communism. Specifically, and in an apparent irony, the CIA wanted to highlight the way the American system protected the right of the individual "to hold and express opinions ... different from those of his rulers." CIA planners had realized that the key battle of the Cold War---and indeed the battle whose loss ultimately spelled the end of Soviet power in 1991---was not merely for physical control of Europe but for the hearts and minds of Europeans.

Saunders glosses over the hard question of whether or not it made practical sense or was ethically right to secretly finance intellectual and cultural activity. Instead, she is content to assume that the CIA campaign was sinister and anti-democratic, compromising the very values it championed. This is the easy answer, especially in light of the more serious perversions of the Cold War. But it's one that sits somewhat uneasily with the complex story she tells.

It is clear from Saunders' history, for example, that one of the real, unstated goals of the program was simply to support cultural activity in general, both for aesthetic reasons and out of the belief that it was the most compelling evidence of American freedom. This faith in culture had something to do with the fact that the CIA had grown out of Allied intelligence during World War II, which had offered a way for the best-educated recruits to contribute to the war effort while largely avoiding the front lines. The first American spies of the Cold War were thus drawn from the brightest minds of their generation, the so-called "cultural elite." In fact, a surprising number of the first spies were also accomplished poets and scholars. These included a number recruited after the war by John Crowe Ransom, the founder of the prestigious Kenyon Review.

It should not be surprising, then, that Encounter was, among other things, a cultural magazine of the first rank, which ran stories and essays by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, W.H. Auden, Arnold Toynbee, and Isaiah Berlin. The CIA likewise financed an enormous number of excellent books that might not otherwise have been published, and even, in one particularly bizarre episode, airdropped translations of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets into Russia. Perhaps most strikingly, the CIA took an early interest in Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, realizing before most art critics that its vibrant creativity put the repressed painting of socialist realism to shame.

There is moreover no evidence that the program was used to influence the U.S. political process or to push the particular agenda of those in power. On the contrary, the program was primarily aimed at swaying members of the non-communist left---swing voters in the contest for European minds. CIA money thus went to back intellectuals and artists who were considerably to the left of even the Kennedy administration---a fact that at one time put the program in danger of being scuttled by McCarthyism.

Nor does the program seem to have much compromised anyone's intellectual freedom, in spite of Saunders' insistence to the contrary. No one was asked to write or sign on to anything he did not believe. Where the CIA did exert its influence it amounted to an unspoken editorial slant more than censorship. Most of those who benefited from the program were not even conscious of having taken CIA money, much less being under any political pressure. When the operation was blown in 1967, the Partisan Review was able to publish an open letter condemning the magazines that had been subsidized as suspect, which was ironic (or perhaps hypocritical) considering that CIA support had kept the Review itself afloat several times when it was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The fact is that the CIA campaign was designed to subsidize ideas, not suppress them. If the program had been run openly it would have raised few eyebrows, but it also would have been much less effective. The architects of the campaign were thus motivated by the elitist, but not wholly unreasonable, fear that the American system might not win on its merits alone. If we are inclined to judge the program harshly now, it is because, as the Cold War wore on, it became clear that the real threat to democracy was not Soviet subversion but our own government's lack of accountability. Still, putting on a Jackson Pollock exhibition seems a harmless enough thing.

Robert de Neufville is a graduate student in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.


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