The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters
Intelligence in Recent Public Literature
By Frances Stonor Saunders. New York: The New Press, 2000. 509 pages.
Reviewed by Thomas M. Troy, Jr.
If The Cultural Cold War had been published in the 1960s or 1970s, it most likely would have caused a sensation and been a best seller. It would have provoked anguished editorials in major Western newspapers and a barrage of “we-told-you-so” items in the communist-controlled media. Published at the turn of the century, however, the book is something of a curiosity.1 It contains a long cry of moral outrage over the fact that the CIA committed “vast resources to a secret program of cultural propaganda in western Europe.”2 At the same time, the author, an independent filmmaker and novelist, has produced a well-written account of a basically unfamiliar story with a cast of many larger-than-life characters who played roles in the Cold War.
To over-simplify the historical background: In the late 1940s, Washington did not take it for granted that the people in Western Europe would support democratic governments and that their states would effectively oppose the Soviet Union and support the United States. To help promote democracy and to oppose the Soviet Union and West European communist parties, the CIA supported members of the non-communist left, including many intellectuals. Because the CIA’s activities were clandestine, only a few of the beneficiaries were witting of the Agency’s support, although a large number suspected Agency involvement.
Frances Saunders evidently was dismayed and shocked! shocked! to learn there was gambling in the back room of Rick’s café. She finds the Agency’s activities to be reprehensible and morally repugnant and believes that the CIA’s “deception” actually undermined intellectual freedom. She rejects the “blank check” line of defense offered by some people that the Agency “simply helped people to say what they would have said anyway.”3 She reminds readers that the CIA overthrew governments, was responsible for the Bay of Pigs operation and the Phoenix Program, spied on American citizens, harassed democratically elected foreign leaders, and plotted assassinations. The CIA denied these activities before Congress and, “in the process, elevated the art of lying to new heights.”4 Ms. Saunders vents her spleen mainly in her introduction, but in the text she repeatedly returns to the theme that the CIA injured the cause of intellectual freedom by clandestinely supporting (oh, irony of ironies!) champions of intellectual freedom. Not adverse to using clichés, Saunders refers to the CIA at various times as a “wilderness of mirrors,” an “invisible government,” and a “rogue elephant.”
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