Controlling the message

CIA infiltrated Cold War-era literary scene in America


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The Central Intelligence Agency is part of America’s national security system, carrying an acronym linked to spies, dirty tricks, assassinations and violent regime changes throughout diverse regions such as Iran, Guatemala and Chile.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/02/2017 (2117 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Central Intelligence Agency is part of America’s national security system, carrying an acronym linked to spies, dirty tricks, assassinations and violent regime changes throughout diverse regions such as Iran, Guatemala and Chile.

Joel Whitney, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based co-founder and editor-at-large of Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics, constructs a compelling tapestry depicting members of America’s intellectual elite collaborating with this paranoid agency during the Cold War, confirming why novelists like John Le Carré were never short of grist for their spy mills.

He characterizes his book as being, “by necessity, a group biography, reconstructed from splintered histories of the time,” featuring literary figures colluding directly with the agency or with organizations funded by it and producing cultural propaganda throughout the Cold War era.

Henry Allen / The Washington Post files Author Joel Whitney singles out the Paris Review’s Peter Matthiessen as a literary figure with links to the CIA.

Readers will recognize the process as one where an illusory emphasis on freedom of the press in the U.S. engaged in a cultural war against an equally illusory promotion of a so-called worker’s paradise in the former U.S.S.R.

Shadowy relationships — some willing, some subtly coerced — are revealed as conspiracies whereby American foreign policy and American culture were portrayed in positive ways to counter the threat of leftist criticism. This was done by influencing reviews of books from authors worldwide, or by rewriting potentially damaging news for national newspapers.

Whitney has written for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and his book bristles with primary sources, interviews and copious notes, creating a scholarly window through which readers see an agency swaying a host of writers, editors and literary magazines, purposely blurring the lines between literature, news and cultural propaganda.

Although fraught with splintered chronologies, this exposé uncovers several agency-funded companies like the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which publicly promoted literary freedom but, according to Whitney, was designed to fund publications that would “promote an anti-communist ideology” while fudging news events of the day.

The book’s primary focus is on one magazine in particular, The Paris Review, launched with CIA support in 1953 when McCarthyism, the Korean War and a stare-down with a nuclear adversary created a Cold War that became the dominant news issue for several decades.

James Baldwin

Influential literary figures such as George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, instrumental in the founding and subsequent success of the magazine, are singled out as long-rumoured yet consistent deniers of personal links to the CIA, and now are shown to have played the kind of roles which prompted the book’s title.

Whitney tells readers his book is not meant to heap “moral condemnation” on the literary community, but rather to discover whether this former Cold War ideology, “favoring paranoid intervention into the media over adherence to democratic principles” still remains. He also references Carl Bernstein’s 1977 cover story in Rolling Stone that “exposed the depth of the domestic side of the undemocratic marriage of U.S. media and spying,” during the U.S.S.R.’s occupation of Afghanistan.

Whitney explains how the cultural war was waged alongside the threat of nuclear annihilation, and identifies two approaches taken by the agency to counter any perceived Communist threat.

One approach featured the creation of literary magazines promoting American and European writers and cultural freedom — what Whitney calls a “push-back against anti-Americanism” — while the other one engaged in assassinations and blatant censorship that toppled left-leaning governments around the world.

Disclosing how these two approaches intermingled, Whitney takes readers across a false divide between the promotion of culture and anti-communism, which allowed unwarranted spying on leftist writers such as Ernest Hemingway, as well as James Baldwin, who became an ardent civil rights literary spokesman.

The CIA spied on leftist writers such as Ernest Hemingway (above) and James Baldwin (top).

Whitney covers a long list of diverse, well-known CIA dirty tricks that were made palatable for America’s readership by linking them to the struggle against communism. These include deadly interventions on behalf of capitalist enterprises such as the United Fruit Growers’ banana plantations in Guatemala and a direct role in Che Guevara’s killing in Bolivia.

With its dark history of “undermining democracy in the name of fighting communism,” Whitney reminds us that the CIA continues to pursue real and imagined enemies threatening the nation’s democratic ideals and vibrant capitalism.

Finks is a revelatory book, confirming that the most powerful nation in the world will use any means necessary to prevent what he describes as “robust criticism of the United States.”

It may also prompt readers to draw their own conclusions about the CIA’s role in the recent U.S. presidential election.

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher whose distaste of propaganda struggles with a penchant for spy thrillers.

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