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Paperback The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters Book

ISBN: 1595589147

ISBN13: 9781595589149

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

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Book Overview

During the Cold War, freedom of expression was vaunted as liberal democracy's most cherished possession--but such freedom was put in service of a hidden agenda. In The Cultural Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders reveals the extraordinary efforts of a secret campaign in which some of the most vocal exponents of intellectual freedom in the West were working for or subsidized by the CIA--whether they knew it or not. Called "the most comprehensive...

Customer Reviews

4 ratings

Exciting history of CIA propagandism in the West

Most people are probably aware that the CIA sponsored a lot of activities, legal and extralegal, in the war against the Communist bloc known as the Cold War. But it is perhaps less well-known to what extent the CIA was involved in sponsoring, bribing and suborning writers, musicians, actors and intellectuals to agitate against the Soviet Union and its allies, as well as communism and Marxism in general. In particular the CIA-run organization "Congress for Cultural Freedom" and its flagship intellectual journal 'Encounter' had a great influence in the West in terms of effective propagandizing for the US point of view. Frances Stonor Saunders, an independent film producer and writer for the New Statesman, has now produced an authoritative modern history of the CIA and the Congress, as well as related organizations, focusing both on the global political dimen. She focuses on the global politics, but also on the individuals involved on all sides, the many prominent writers and intellectuals in the organizations, and what it looked like from the CIA's perspective, for which she makes use of newly declassified documents. She shows convincingly that the "non-Communist Left" was by and large bribed or cajoled by the CIA, in so far as they didn't enthousiastically volunteer, into joining their propaganda front. She also shows that later denials by people such as Stephen Spender and Melvin Lasky of their knowledge of CIA involvement is extremely unrealistic and most likely just another lie. That is not to say that this work is a polemic; far from it, Saunders writes very matter-of-factly and evenhandedly, and has little interest in discussing the merits of various political positions, though she does not fail to comment on the context of the Cold War at times, when she contrasts high-minded phrasery with the rather brutal and cynical realities of Vietnam, CIA activity in Latin America, the Soviet purges, the repression of Hungary, etc. The book is very extensive, making use of various sorts of sources, including interviews with important participants, in which they reflect remarkably often in a rather cynical way on their past activities. It's quite astounding how many famous writers, composers, intellectuals etc., from Nabokov's cousin to Stravinsky and from Russell to Stuart Hampshire, were involved in organized campaigns to attack and discredit their socialist colleagues. For that alone, this book is worth reading, that these crimes are not forgotten.

An Outstanding Historical Analysis

Eric Ehrman's review fully fails to explain the value of this book. First he says there's nothing new here because Simone de Beauvoir wrote a novel that touches on it. If he fails to understand the difference between a novel and history then he can't be taken seriously. He also suggests that the question about why Conor Cruise O'Brien criticized Camus is a "bigger picture." What a mind-bogglingly stupid statement! The point of this book is that after WWII, Western Europe was in danger of falling under the sway of the Soviet Union. Capitalism had been blamed for not only the worldwide depression, but both world wars, and socialism was seen by many as a more respectable alternative. As well, Russia had a respectable cultural heritage, while Americans were seen as gum-chewing cowboys. So keeping Western Europe in the free world was a huge task. If Ehrmann thinks a tiff between O'Brien and Camus is a bigger picture than this...well, words to describe the utter silliness of that escape me. Of course the most important--and famous--policy towards that goal was the Marshall Plan. Keep Europeans from starving after the war, and rebuild their economies, and voila, they're on our side. But there was a cultural war as well, and this is Saunders' focus. The CIA of the time was an intriguing good old boy's club, very much in the manner of the British intelligence service at the time, filled with highly educated, cultured, and well-bred folks (read John Le Carre's novels and you'll get a sense of the type). These people understood that cultural issues were important--as blue-blood Yankees they had been raised with a sense of noblesse oblige, and many of them came from families that had created the great art museums for the very purpose of bringing culture to the masses. (Seems insufferably elitist today, but that's how it was.) Notably, these early CIA folk had to fight against backwoods southern politicians who lacked their insight. While the politicians rejected the use of public funds to support anyone who was marginally to the left of the average southern reactionary, the CIA people recognized that including them in shows touring Europe served the purpose of boosting the U.S. over the Soviet Union. First, avant garde work such as the abstract expressionists (condemned by one politician as being coded maps to such sensitive U.S. sites as Hoover Dam) contrasted well with the restricted formalism of socialist realism, highlighting America's cultural vitality. Second, by including left-leaning artists, it showed (perhaps not entirely truthfully) that America was big enough, strong enough, and free enough to allow dissidents to operate freely, also in strong contrast to the ideological restrictiveness of the Soviet Union. I give the book 4 stars, rather than 5, because the one point where Ehrman is correct is in his criticism of Saunders' prose. She appears to be trying very hard to be an elegant and sophisticated writer, but it simply come

An unmined field

As a reading experience, the narrative is oddly fascinating; as a source of obscure information, the material is richly rewarding; but as a history of the culture wars of the early cold war period, the book is mediocre at best. The narrative succeeds because the author keeps it moving nicely, providing biographical information when needed, but never as a drag. (Turns out that key shapers of early CIA were pedigeed establishment figures, lending weight to view of the Agency as an establishment - and not a populist - response to post-war world.) The intrigues lack the usual blood and guts of CIA operations, but are fascinating nonetheless, as intellectuals battle one another on both sides of the iron curtain. Saunders has done a service by providing information from research on this little known corner of the cold war. (Who among the general readership would otherwise know of the political intrigues that surrounded the promotion of non-representational art!) As a history of the culture war, the book doesn't work nearly as well, mainly because the events unfold without much historical context to illuminate them. For example, we learn very little of why various conferences were scheduled by the CIA's front organization, The Congress fo Cultural Freedom. Were they part of a larger propaganda offensive, perhaps in response to an aggressive Soviet move, or maybe to provide a paid holiday for penniless academics. etc. By and large, the adversarial Soviet Union, a key player in the drama, remains a very shadowy and unanalyzed presense throughout. It's always tricky in a book about the Cold War to adopt a correct distance from the material. In this case, I believe Saunders succeeds admirably given the politically charged subject matter. She's largely non-judgemental toward the leading players, most of whom are none to sympathetic. Just as importantly, she is alert to the ironies of a Congress that preaches artistic freedom, yet whose publications refuse to include material critical of U.S. policy or objectives. In the final analysis, as she indicates on the last page, this was not a contest between virtue and evil, but between competing empires, one of which still stands with all its powers of deception still intact. The author has done a nice job of documenting one of those deceptive operations in action.


From faraway London, Frances Stonor Saunders took on a thorny topic-- CIA's secret underwriting of editors and authors in the US and Europe .In effect, says Saunders,the CIA thought it prudent to bribe name brand writers when the Cold War got under way . Bribery makes great writers; Saunders' list of those who took bribes includes the best poets, novelists and pop writers of the era . But are we to believe that an Englishwoman has the right slant on the CIA? Maybe. On the other hand a secret agency , with secret budgets in the billions ( when a buck was a buck) could create any sort of media, without a single politician or president or magazine, raising a voice against the notion. Did the CIA create publishing firms ? Did it commissions books and articles ? Did it inject itself into the managements and boards of directors of media firms ? We can't tell from Saunders book. But its at least a beginning . Maybe some American will now take on the big job of telling us what the CIA is up to today in the infotainment field . After all, this is all the CIA has to do--management the media . With the cold war over, the CIA can even bribe Russians in the print and broadcasting industries .
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