Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.

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Agent Provocateur

[This is a, well, provocation of some sort, posted earlier on Tumblr, and recommended for those interested in my fiction.]

I always forget to self-promote (it’s because I am so virtuous!)! What I should have said about that MFA=CIA thing everybody was talking about yesterday is the following:

I have this story I just can’t seem to get published anywhere; it’s called “Agent Provocateur,” which I also nominate as the title for an eventual story collection of mine, and it has to do with possible secret-agency manipulation of both intellectual life and “random” violence, though in a quasi-magical register of definite uncertainty (really I consider it a fairy tale).  I do occasionally worry that my subject matter puts people off, because I have not quite managed to sufficiently aestheticize away the propositional quality of fringe-political materials à la my hero, Don DeLillo.  There is a danger of being thought of as “just some crank on the Internet.”  I am not just some crank on the Internet, though; I have been “involved with literature” in various official capacities (scholar, teacher, reviewer, writer) for almost a decade now, and I believe this if nothing else gives me a fairly objective sense of my work’s quality, which is significant.  (Oh yes, I’m arrogant; I’m not one of your Kafkan writer-saints, alas, though they have my undying respect.)  Moreover, I hold whatever political attitudes may have escaped my Pyrrhonism very lightly.  I have also studied the old CIA stylebook well enough to handle fringe-political materials in a way so seemingly de-politicized that you could read my work to your grandmother, even as I hope it also gives her bad dreams later.  (Surface difficulty in literature is highly overrated, I say even though I am an admirer of Joyce; keep the surface placid, better to conceal your shark.)  Anyway, I’ve been blaming the apparent unpublishability of this piece on its almost novella-sized length (about 11,000 words), but now I know that it must be the CIA suppressing it through the diffusion of their flattening ideology through the culture of creative writing.  I’ve actually come close to self-publishing “Agent Provocateur” as an e-book; I suspect I could probably even sell a few.  I am not so down on self-publishing as a lot of people are—the gatekeepers were never so great—but I have a personal horror of it as my day-job (adjunct professor, we who live like Dickensian orphans according to the press, with an eye toward more long-term options) depends partly on my participation in economies of prestige related to publication.  But what the hell, I’ll paste in the first few pages below to whet the old readerly appetite.  A note for any literal-minded reader who might happen by: my first-person narrator is not meant to be admirable, so you really mustn’t attribute his vices (misogyny, totalitarian sympathies, etc.) to the author.  In the biz, you know, we speak of irony.  At least that’s what James Jesus Angleton told me to say.  Here you go, and I hope you enjoy:

“Agent Provocateur”

She was a risk, but that’s what I’ve been drawn to lately.  Nothing in her look or demeanor suggested desperation, dissatisfaction, recklessness, craziness, or nihilism: all the things I am supposed to seek.  No, she positively lounged in the rickety wooden café chair, her trim legs primly crossed, sleek in black tights and ending in leather half-boots with a pointed toe and a stylish cuff turned down at the ankle.  Anyone who dresses like that has not yet surrendered.  She propped a book—how quaint!—between her little belly and the edge of the table while she waited for her tea to steep; a garish hibiscus red-pink wisped and reeled into the steaming water.  The kind of people I was instructed to target drank black, black coffee, the kind you have to chew through.

I was sitting in my usual seat, a barstool at one of the high tables that ringed the periphery of the café.  The place was empty just then, in the lull between the after-lunch and the after-dinner crowds, and anyway it was the first eighty-degree day of the year, so most of the college kids were out tossing around frisbees or lolling in the grass.  The weather made it especially important that I man the dim café with its pale sea-green walls, because I, a low-level long-shot craftsman of chaos, hunted types who scorned the frisbee and cursed the sun.

Before she came in, I busied myself with disdaining the art on the walls: muddy ’90s-revival acrylic paintings of mystical Jungian themes and New Age or else Goth iconography.  Women with earth-mother hips and green dreadlocks birthing radiant and monstrous thoughts from their foreheads.  White owls communing with shipwrecked sailors, naked and skinless, all sinew and fascia, under a scarlet sky.  Hazily serene orbs amid graffiti-style swirls, Fibonacci spirals, screaming skeletons, Lovecraftian tentacular horrors, Gigeresque bodily architecture.  What a lot of shit, I was thinking; don’t these kids know that when there are no jobs to be had, no money to be made, wars breaking out, revolutionaries plotting, countries rising and countries falling, then it’s time to take to the stylos?  To choose the bullet over the ballot, the church over the spirit, religion over mysticism, politics over ethics?  To murder the moonshine, as the man said?  I would get nowhere with the painter of these pictures, I was sure of that.  I almost felt inspired to go home and paint clean diagonal lines, red and silver and black, sharp enough to cut.

But then she came in and, in an almost empty room, sat at one of the low middle tables nearest to mine.  Her hair in its tight ponytail and her pursed little lips were not promising.  Surely, this was a dreamy girl on her way to grad school—projected dissertation: Hearts and Sleeves: The Dialectic of Fashion and Inwardness in Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Bowen—or, failing that, librarian school.  But she did sit close.  She must want something, and a person capable of wanting anything is just a wind-up toy.  All you have to do is set it in motion and point it where you like; if you so desire, you can make it walk right off the edge of the table.  Maybe she just wanted me (I reflected on the palpable hunger of single girls in their late twenties, as well as the hiply counter-hip chic of my tatty gray jacket and East Berlin prolie shoes, the perhaps enticing wisps of premature white at my cadaverous temples).  I could turn that to my advantage as well.

She effectively sat beneath me, but she had no computer, which enabled her to hide more thoroughly.  I could not pluck her name over her shoulder from a social networking site or email display, and I could not learn it from scanning the other names on the wireless network that showed up on my own screen.  The old-fashioned way, then.  I squinted over her shoulder—bare and a little fleshly (round hillocks rising on either side of her purple camisole strap) and goose-stippled in the cool dim air—to find out what she was reading: not a fashionably modern lady author at all, but the prose of T. S. Eliot.  The prose, mind you—We are living at present in a kind of doldrums between opposing winds of doctrine, in a period in which one political philosophy has lost its cogency for behaviour, though it is still the only one in which public speech can be framed, that sort of thing—and not flattering fictions about just how rich with loam are our inner lives if we would only pay attention to them.

 To be continued…

[If you want to read the rest, feel free to email me at the address on my ABOUT page and I’ll send it to you.]