Culture and Imperialism

A version of this first appeared in The National.

During the Cold War there was an attempt by both major powers to instrumentalise art as a means of ideological domination. The artistic landscape was fraught with political landmines. Artists had to navigate this terrain with caution. Some became willing instruments of policy, some were coerced into it, some made expedient compromises—but many were snared unwittingly.

The eastern bloc’s means of control were explicit, hence better known. They were exemplified in the persecution, fear, and exile suffered by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mendelstam, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. They have also been fictionalized in popular films like Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.

Less known however are the means that the ‘free world’ used to engineer a favourable intellectual climate. Decidedly more tolerant of dissent than its eastern counterpart, the west developed a system of rewards and exclusion to amplify favourable voices and marginalise critical ones.

This vast apparatus was orchestrated and conducted by the analytical wing of the CIA, which in its halcyon days relied on Ivy League recruits, often with backgrounds in the humanities. Erudite and urbane, these recruits were seen as the ideal candidates to erode the seductive appeal of Soviet communism. They could counteract it through a strong anti-communist line that emphasized the western ideals of freedom and openness.

finks_cvfFinks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers is Joel Whitney’s riveting account of the CIA’s machinations to enlist some of the world’s leading writers in this ideological contest. Part literary history, part investigative journalism, the book unravels hitherto unknown details about the CIA’s vast cultural offensive.

Whitney’s story pivots around The Paris Review, a highly regarded literary publications best know for its series of interviews with literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, and Vladimir Nabokov, and fiction and poetry from the likes of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, V.S. Naipaul and Philip Roth.

But in 1953 when it was launched, one of The Paris Review’s three co-founders, the novelist Peter Mathiessen, was working for the CIA and using the magazine as cover. George Plimpton, the Review’s other co-founder, was also aware that the magazine’s benefactor, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), was heavily funded the by the CIA. The CCF sustained The Paris Review by mass purchasing its copies, syndicating its content, and paying extra for material that aligned with Cold War imperatives. The CCF also tried to influence the magazine editorially. This despite the fact that the Paris Review wasn’t even part of the large stable of magazine’s that CCF directly funded and controlled.

The CIA also engaged in more direct interventions. When the Soviet Union tried to suppress Boris Pasternak’s now classic Doctor Zhivago, the author had the book published in translation in Italy. But the CIA managed to secure a microfilm of the manuscript and had the book translated into English. Its bigger coup however was in getting copies of the book in the original Russian smuggled back into the Soviet Union. The CIA purchased thousands of copies of Zhivago to put it on bestseller lists and lobbied for the author to receive the Nobel Prize. Being less than subtle in its actions, however, the CIA merely complicated the author’s already precarious situation at home; and when Pasternak finally won the Nobel, for his Soviet persecutors it was proof of his collusion with the west (though the author had never consented to any of it). Facing pressure and threats at home, Pasternak declined the prize.

But if CIA lobbying could help secure a Nobel, it could also help deny it.

In 1964, after rumours spread that the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was being considered for a Nobel, the CIA-funded CCF kicked into action to deny him the prize. Few doubted Neruda’s poetic genius: his work appealed to lay and literary audiences alike. But the fraught history of US interventions in Latin America had turned Neruda not just into an anti-imperialist, but also into an admirer of anti-American strongmen. Neruda wrote odes not just to Stalin and Fidel Castro, but also to Fulgencio Batista, the dictator that Castro would later overthrow. This put Neruda beyond the pale for staunchly anti-communist CCF. They lobbied hard against Neruda and the 1964 prize instead went to Jean-Paul Sartre (who also declined it).

These and many other literary anecdotes make Finks a thoroughly enjoyable read. The book is most compelling as a work of literary history. Its understanding of the intersection between art and politics is subtle and dimensional. The storytelling is gripping with a sense of drama. The sections on Garcia Marquez’s literary fortunes, Robert Lowell’s travails in Argentina and Hemingway’s life in Cuba are particularly good.

There is also a good account of the CIA’s efforts to suborn and censor the film industry. In its first foray into film production, the CIA had induced George Orwell’s widow into selling the rights to Animal Farm by promising to introduce her to her idol, Clark Gable. But the animated film that the CIA produced based on Orwell’s book subverted its message by changing the ending in which the capitalists and communists blur into one. E. Howard Hunt, the CIA agent who oversaw the production, later justified this as being necessary for “tweak[ing] the anti-Communist message”. In other instances the CIA placed individuals at studios to censor films in line with Cold War politics.

Whitney holds up a mirror to the presumptions of a political system that could preach freedom to the world while tolerating racial injustice at home and authoritarianism abroad. At the peak of the Cold War, in 1953, the US government’s foreign cultural programmes employed 13,000 people and spent $129 million on these initiatives—all of this while it was overthrowing governments from Guatemala to Iran.

But while the book is richly detailed with a wealth of primary sources, the book is less compelling as investigative journalism. It overstates its case, making inferences that aren’t always warranted by the evidence presented. Though Whitney presents indisputable evidence that the CCF favoured authors who would adopt a strongly anti-communist line, his claims of censorship rest on shaky grounds. Whitney shows for example that a sharp polemic against the US by Dwight MacDonald was declined by Encounter, the CCF’s flagship publication, but the essay was subsequently published in Twentieth Century, a magazine with links to the CCF. James Baldwin was able to use CCF publications to write not just strong condemnations of American racism but also to report critically on the CCF’s own dysfunction (his sharp rebuke to William Faulkner’s nativism would earn him Mathiessen’s disparaging reference as a “polemic” writer).

Whitney’s analysis grants insufficient agency to individuals. Arthur Koestler, Jayaprakash Narayan or Ignazio Silone did not need CCF patronage to take a tough line against communism. Nor for that matter was CCF reducible to its CIA funding: after all, it was an initiative led by Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and Jacques Maritian—hardly evangelists for American power; and it wasn’t operating in a vacuum: the Soviets had been investing in cultural warfare since 1925. So it is doubtful that someone like Narayan was “carr[ying] water for US anticommunism” just because of his CCF affiliation. Indeed a more compelling case can be made that it was the writers that tricked the CIA, getting it to underwrite their social democratic ideas in the age of McCarthyism.

The book also hews to leftwing mythology when it comes to history. Take Afghanistan. According to Whitney the Soviets invaded the country “after the United States lured them there” (by funding Islamist insurgents). As a matter of fact, extant Soviet records show that the Politburo authorized the invasion only to pre-empt the implosion of Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet PDPA government whose infighting had culminated in the prime minster having the president arrested and killed. The insurgency had started almost a year before the invasion (mainly in response to the PDPA’s murder spree which saw between 27,000-50,000 Afghans executed under its rule). And Soviet military presence in Afghanistan predated the July 1979 CIA authorisation; the invasion came later. The terrors that Afghans faced were real, they weren’t a CIA creation; and the insurgency was popular, regardless of American interest.

These demurrals aside, the book is a timely reminder of the distorting effect of power on artistic endeavors. As Whitney notes, this is particularly ironic when the values being promoted are freedom of expression and individual liberty. As the paradigm has shifted from the Cold War to the ‘war on terror’, with a greater emphasis on “information dominance”, the need to remain on guard against new attempts at manipulation remains urgent. There have already been such cases of manipulation, Whitney writes, with the CIA’s laundering of history in films such as Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Meanwhile Russians are perfecting new forms of “hybrid warfare” in which disinformation plays a more explicit role. The book is a reminder that we can’t afford to be exclusive in our sympathies—or scepticisms—and we must always maintain a sense of proportion. Because the conditions for intellectual freedom are as important as the ideas that they nurture.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

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