Intelluectuals Undercover

Article excerpt

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. By Frances Stonor Saunders. New York: The New Press, 1999. Pp. 509. $29.95.

I once worked for the CIA-sort of Just out of college and idealistic, but unwilling to face the rigors of the Peace Corps-it was the early '60s-I spent two years teaching English and American studies in Hong Kong, in a program sponsored by the Asia Foundation, which was later revealed to be a CIA front. Frances Stonor Saunders recounts in The Cultural Cold War: "a huge programme of grants to students and youth associations ... was inaugurated... in 1950. Responding to CIA guidance, these organizations were at the cutting edge of a campaign of propaganda and penetration designed to draw the sting from left-wing political movements." There I was, benighted me, on the cutting edge of a propaganda campaign and not even knowing it. But many older and more experienced heads, much wiser in the ways of the world, were, by Stonor Saunders's account, in the same stealth boat.

When I tell people that I was once a CIA operative, I mean to get a laugh and always do: a reaction largely to the ludicrousness of my doing anything dangerous or keeping anything secret, but one also reflecting the popular perception that there is something quasi-comic about the agency itself, a certain Inspector Clouseauerie that attaches to many of its efforts. No doubt the CIA has engaged in many serious, even many sinister activities, but its record includes so many harebrained schemes, so many spectacular failures, so much sheer ineptitude-think Aldridge Ames-that the agency comes across like Keystone Kops with Uzis, armed and dangerous. Or, as Walter Goodman recently characterized another of its ventures: "Eric Ambler as adapted by the Three Stooges." (The choice of name for my specific program, Youth in Asia-you have to say it aloud-reflects a curious ambiguity: the work of a tin-eared bureaucrat or a sardonic prankster?)

Stonor Saunders doesn't see the comic side; she views the CIA very seriously indeed, and very censoriously, even though she chronicles some of the agency's most benign, or at least innocuous, activities, like funding orchestra tours and underwriting conferences. Still, certain antic aspects of its undertakings in the cultural field, quixotic and bumbling, keep breaking the surface of her book, inadvertently, I suspect. The opening paragraph sets out concisely the scope of her subject:

During the height of the Cold War, the US government committed vast resources to a secret programme of cultural propaganda in western Europe. A central feature of this programme was to advance the claim that it did not exist. It was managed, in great secrecy, by America's espionage arm, the Central Intelligence Agency. The centrepiece of this covert campaign was the Congress for Cultural Freedom... [which] at its peak ... had offices in thirty-five countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over twenty prestige magazines, held art exhibitions, owned a news and features service, organized high-profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances. Its mission was to nudge the intelligentsia of western Europe away from its lingering fascination with Marxism and Communism towards a view more accommodating of `the American way'.

The following four-hundred-plus pages elaborate this paragraph in extraordinary detail; one can hardly imagine a more comprehensive overview of the subject being undertaken, although specific elements, in more specialized studies, could profitably be examined-sometimes have. But The Cultural Cold War is more than a history; it is a homily, rather like those Elizabethan moralized historical exempla that were intended to teach important civic lessons, like the impiety of rebelling against a Tudor. In her homiletic mode, Stonor Saunders disapproves routinely, tsk-tsks a lot, passes sniffing judgments on a past that fails to measure up to her presentist criteria. …