The City of God Against the Communists
Conspiracy, the CIA, and the pro-capitalist "left"
The goal of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s funding of journals, writers, and artists was to shift the left within America itself away from class analysis and criticism of the United States towards an anti-communist, pro-American leftism…
I don’t have a head for conspiracy, and I often envy those who do.
Maybe it’s better said that I have no heart for it, either. I’d rather trust than fear, and I find it quite exhausting to have “hidden motives” or to not say or do exactly what you mean to do. I’m honest to a fault (though I do prefer to think that honesty is never truly a fault), and I tend to forget that lying is a thing people do.
Of course, conspiracy isn’t only about lying. Its Latin root meant agreement and unity, people who “breathed together,” and only later took on a sense of malicious plotting. In that oldest sense, conspiracy referred to a decision to agree on something others didn’t agree on, to insist together with others that something was true.
In the beginning of Here Be Monsters, describing an ill-fated date with a man who claimed to be a bat, I wrote:
This finally all got a little too weird for me. “I... I don’t know how to have sex with a bat,” I said. I had that weird dizzy feeling in my head, the way you feel when you realize you’ve been talking to a conspiracy theorist or a religious fanatic. I don’t know exactly what that feeling is, but it’s like an internal alarm, or a mental shutdown, something telling you to get out of there.
That “feeling,” I think, is the sense that you’re being invited to conspire, to agree with a crafted reality that is different from the reality you already know and trust. The sense of alarm I feel in such moments, or the way my mind quickly closes off, is then some inner acknowledgment that something crucial to my own understanding of the world will be lost if I accept the terms of their reality.
Of course, I lost nothing by declining to believe that man was really a bat. However, there are other times that I could probably benefit from a bit more head and heart for conspiracy.
Almost two decades ago, I read a strange book that I’ve never really known what to do with. I borrowed it from the Seattle Library, read it twice, returned it, and tried really hard to put it out of my mind. Unfortunately, it never actually left my mind, and comes back to haunt me at the strangest times.
That book was Who Paid The Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders. It’s quite a hefty work (over 500 pages), and the author’s writing style is quite dry, which made the book a really brutal read. Yet I read it twice, primarily because I struggled so much with my refusal to acknowledge conspiracy that I’d remembered nothing by the end of the first reading.
Who Paid The Piper is about the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a funding institution set up in West Berlin in 1950. From its founding until 1978, the CCF (and its later incarnation, the International Association for Cultural Freedom) hosted international conferences and provided financial support to leftist artists, writers, intellectuals, journals, and groups in Europe, Africa, and both Americas.
Sounds great, of course, except for one thing:
“The Congress for Cultural Freedom is widely considered one of the CIA’s most daring and effective Cold War covert operations. It published literary and political journals such as Encounter, hosted dozens of conferences bringing together some of the most eminent Western thinkers, end even did what it could to help intellectuals behind the Iron Curtain. Somehow this organization of scholars and artists — egotistical, free-thinking, and even anti-American in their politics — managed to reach out from its Paris headquarters to demonstrate that Communism, despite its blandishments, was a deadly foe of art and thought.”
That quote isn’t from Who Paid the Piper, by the way, but rather from an official history found on the CIA’s own website. You can find a lot there about it, and many articles elsewhere, enough to be feel pretty clear that there was a conspiracy here.
But what exactly was that conspiracy? That’s where things get a bit difficult. If you’ve not heard of any of this before, and if like me you’ve no heart nor head for this stuff, go make yourself a cup of tea or lean against a tree for a bit. It helps, trust me.
The Congress for Cultural Freedoms’s goal was to build an anti-communist “left,” or what they often referred to as “liberal anti-communism.” The CIA’s stated justification for creating the CCF was that the Soviets were also funding intellectuals and artists, and thus the United States needed a strong counter to these financing efforts in order to keep the “West” from going communist.
There was a problem, though. Communist-aligned organizations knew where their funding was coming from, since communism is openly conspiratorial. The core principle of communism is that workers everywhere are essentially kin, since they all share the same material conditions and struggles against the capitalist class. Thus, Communist solidarity means financially supporting Communists everywhere, and “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
On the other hand, very few of those who benefited from CIA money through the CCF knew where it was coming from. In fact, this was by design, as Thomas W. Braden, one of its early architects, openly admitted in the Saturday Evening Post:
By 1953 we were operating or influencing international organizations in every field where Communist fronts had previously seized ground, and in some where they had not even begun to operate. The money we spent was very little by Soviet standards. But that was reflected in the first rule of our operational plan: "Limit the money to amounts private organizations can credibly spend." The other rules were equally obvious: “Use legitimate, existing organizations; disguise the extent of American interest: protect the integrity of the organization by not requiring it to support every aspect of official American policy.”
The list of activities, artists, writers, and groups funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom is quite terrifying. They funded scores of literary journals, funded the work and organized the exhibitions of painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, promoted Julia Child (who was herself a spy with the CIA’s predecessor, the OSS), produced a film version of Orwell’s Animal Farm with an alternative ending, and even funded a popular travel guide company, Fodor’s, as a front organization for their agents’ work:
It was not unusual for the C.I.A. to use artists, writers, journalists, musicians and others for their own gain during the Cold War—both covertly and overtly. Three years after George Orwell’s death, a film version of Animal Farm was released in 1954. It was a fairly faithful rendition of the book, but instead of Orwell’s finale, in which both the humans and pigs are left in egregious light, the film removed the humans, leaving only the dirty pigs, i.e., the fascists. The silent producer of the film was, in fact, the CIA, and it was none other than E. Howard Hunt who visited Orwell’s widow to successfully wrest the rights from her so they could make the more overtly anti-Soviet version.
The agency saw in the abstract art of modern artists like Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko a kind of very American assertive individualism and so promoted their work abroad, often funding exhibitions. The CIA first funded the Paris Review, and one of its founding editors, the novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen, was a spy. Jazz greats Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong, among others, were sent around various parts of the planet on CIA-funded tours. Sometimes the artists knew the U.S. government was paying for it. Other times, as in the case of Nina Simone, who was sent on a 1961 tour of Nigeria underwritten by the agency, the performer had no clue.1