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Playing the CIA's Tune? The New Leader and the Cultural Cold War By: Kenneth A. Osgood
Diplomatic History | Monday, February 24, 2003

Consider, for a moment, three slightly different scenarios.  First, imagine discovering that during the Cold War a reputable liberal publication had been subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts. Would such a revelation make front-page news?  Would it produce anxious soul-searching about whether or not the ideas expressed in the publication had been controlled or tainted by its sponsor?  Would it inspire, years later, rancorous indignation by historians about the cooption of the private sphere by the manipulating hand of the state? Probably not.

Now change one variable.  Imagine that investigations revealed that the reputable liberal publication had been secretly subsidized by the KGB. Conservatives and anti-communists would brand the publication a Communist front and a mouthpiece of the Kremlin.   From the Left rushes a defense: these editors and journalists were not tools of the Kremlin, but genuine liberals, expressing ideas that came honestly from their own hearts and minds.

Change the variable one last time:  the money came from the CIA.  Voila! The situation reverses itself.  On one side, there are furious charges against the CIA.  It corrupted the free marketplace of ideas and tainted the noble ideas of well-intentioned artists.  Or perhaps the writers were not so innocent after all, but witting conspirators of the secret agents of Central Intelligence!  But wait.  On the other side, defenders of the CIA emerge. The agency acted prudently to counter the machinations of a devious and determined ideological enemy, they say. The journalists who received CIA payments were not tools of the American national security apparatus, but free individuals acting on their own volition.

In each of these scenarios, the significant question is: "Who paid the piper?"  For in at least two of them, state sponsorship appears tantamount to state control, something which offends liberal-democratic sensibilities. Yet in none of the scenarios is it necessarily clear whether in fact the state exerted editorial or creative influence over the content of the publication. Judgments about the freedom of the paper tell us more about the political orientation of the one doing the judging than they do about the relationship between the hypothetical sponsor and patron.  The scenarios thus also illustrate the politicized nature of Cold War history debates; where one sits often determines what one sees.

So has recent scholarship on the "cultural cold war" ventured into politicized controversies rooted in an earlier era.  In the mid 1960s, tremendous outrage greeted revelations that the CIA had secretly sponsored the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) -- the purportedly private organization that spearheaded the cultural crusade of artists and writers from the Non-Communist Left.  The issue has resurfaced in recent years with the publication of Frances Stonor Saunders's "The Cultural Cold War," a detailed and indignant account of CIA sponsorship of the CCF as well as other cultural, artistic, and literary ventures. Her book elicited lively debate in the book review pages of leading publications, with the agency's defenders and detractors levying their assessments.  Then, as now, the debate centered on the dichotomy of "freedom" versus "control."  Did the CIA act as a mere patron of the arts, or did it "call the tune"? 1

Saunders weighs heavily on the side of control.  Her book -- published in the UK under the more provocative title "Who Paid the Piper?" represents a blustering attack on the CIA for its intervention in the world of ideas and artistic expression, an intervention she believes corrupted the integrity of the artists and writers, stifled free debate, and subverted democratic processes.  Yet her argument about CIA control is made a priori, based more on ideological conviction than empirical data. While her book is exhaustively researched, it provides little concrete evidence of CIA editorial interference.  And so too have both Saunders' critics and supporters relied on abstract argumentation to substantiate their positions in the "freedom vs. control" debate. 2

Thus Hugh Wilford's detailed case study of the New Leader's role in the cultural cold war is a most welcome contribution to the literature. Playing off Saunders' musical metaphor, Wilford asks if the New Leader (NL), possibly the most stridently anticommunist of all the publications subsidized by the CIA, indeed piped the CIA's tune.  Whereas Saunders portrays the CIA as a grand puppet master pulling the strings of its artistic marionettes, Wilford concludes that, at least as far as his case study was concerned,  the relationship was "more reminiscent of that between a cultural patron and a somewhat temperamental artist." (31)

To begin with, Wilford notes that it is ridiculous to claim that the CIA dictated the New Leader's message, since the paper had been stridently anti-communist since its founding in the 1920s -- long before the creation of the CIA.  It began as an anticommunist organ of the Socialist party that routinely denounced the Soviet Union, and it gradually shifted rightward to become "the leading political organ of the American 'Non-Communist Left.'" (18)  Wilford traces the New Leader's increasingly virulent anti-communist stance to the Russian Revolution when the guiding voice of the paper, Sol Levitas, fled the Soviet Union in 1923. Levitas was a Russian social democrat (Menshevik), who eventually became executive editor and brought his determined anti-Bolshevism to the New Leader's editorial slant.  He secured contributions from such anticommunist intellectuals as David Dallin, Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Melvin J. Laskey, Irving Kristol, and others -- many of whom would later assume places of prominence as participants in the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Saunders casts aspersions on the argument that the CIA was "simply helping people say what they would have said anyway," but Wilford's research lends credence to this oft-cited defense of the agency's cultural cold war.  After all, the New Leader's message had been the same for decades.  From its inception, Wilford writes, "its editorial voice was remarkably consistent, even monotonous. Soviet society was totalitarian; Stalin was an imperialist; and Communism everywhere was controlled by the Kremlin."  (24)

Wilford further concludes from a content reading of the New Leader that the publication was no mouthpiece for Cold War officialdom.  In fact, far from merely reflecting official attitudes toward communism in the Cold War, the paper helped to shape them.  During WWII, the NL was virtually alone in sticking to its anticommunist guns, and with the end of the war it continued to blast "Munich-applied-to-Moscow" before the government itself solidified its Cold War policies.  (22) The NL's writers also helped refine and popularize the concepts of Red Fascism and totalitarianism that played such a central part in Cold War discourse, and their work was praised by such foreign policy heavyweights as George F. Kennan and Allen Dulles.  Wilford thus asserts that the intellectuals associated with the New Leader should be credited with contributing to the growth of a "Cold War consciousness" in the United States. (19)

To further substantiate his argument that the publication was not "a mere functionary" of its secretive patron, Wilford draws attention to archival evidence of tension between the New Leader and the CIA highlights several areas of conflict. (17)  In the first place, there was the money.  And there was never enough for Levitas, who begged his handlers so insistently that they became increasingly irritated with his groveling.  In addition, the CIA found the die-hard anticommunism of the New Leader a bit too strident for its taste.  It wanted to spin a more positive message about the cultural achievements of the West, while Levitas felt that other agency beneficiaries were soft-peddling the Communists.

Here Wilford's argument is not as convincing as it is elsewhere, for the tensions he unearths seem relatively insignificant.  The picture that emerges does support his view that the New Leader acted on its own accord, but it remains to be demonstrated whether the NL's relationship with the CIA "was characterized as much by conflict as by cooperation," as Wilford ultimately concludes. (34)  There was tension, yes, but not that much tension.  Both outfits shared similar goals, and each profited in its own way from their cooperation.

Wilford is able to flush out only a new few details concerning the nature of the CIA-New Leader relationship, and, as a result, we know very little about the CIA-side of things.  This is a shortcoming of the article, but an understandable one.  Still one would like to know more precisely when the agency began subsidizing the New Leader, and under what circumstances payments began.  We are told that Tom Braden recalled Levitas "pleading" for money, and that agency subsidies flowed to the NL in the 1950s, but we don't know who approached who first, or how, or why. (30)

We know from Saunders and others that the individuals and institutions subsidized by the CIA were part of a broad campaign of psychological warfare that enlisted culture as one of many weapons to win the battle of hearts and minds.  CIA operatives valued their private network of writers and artisans because of the belief that the most effective kind of propaganda was the kind where "the subject moves in the direction you desire for reasons which he believes to be his own."3 

Taking this logic at face value, Saunders concludes that recipients of agency subsidies must have been co-opted because that was what the CIA intended.  Wilford effectively demonstrates that, at least as far as the New Leader is concerned, this was simply not the case.  As he points out, the relationship was more like an alliance, involving negotiation and contestation.  It was neither entirely freedom nor entirely control, but somewhere in the gray zone in between.

Because much of Wilford's argument is devoted to demonstrating the New Leader's independent anticommunist stance and influence, we don't hear much about the publication's liberalism.  Wilford tells us that the paper linked its anticommunist stance with advocacy of liberal causes at home, but he provides precious little detail about its reform agenda. What, specifically, did it call for?  Did it forcefully advocate a range of liberal causes, or did it quietly promote a few?  Was its "leftist" perspective drowned in a sea of anticommunist denunciation, or did it contribute in a meaningful way to discussions of issues other than communism and the Cold War?  All of this is not to chide Wilford for not writing "what I would have written," but to point to questions that merit at least some additional exploration.  Since the New Leader was subsidized for its position on the "Non Communist Left," a bit more analysis of these issues seems pertinent, especially considering current debates about the extent to which reformers, such as civil rights leaders, were able to use the Cold War atmosphere to further their causes. 4

Such a perspective would further blur the polarized lines of debate about the cultural cold war.  As distasteful as the concept of the CIA acting as a "Ministry of Culture" may seem, it did help preserve liberal voices in the stultifying Cold War atmosphere which helped silence so many forms of dissent.  And, given what we know about the atrocious nature of all communist regimes, might not the state's help in preserving liberal, non-communist expression have been at least a little desirable?  Now, if only it had been the NEA. If only.


1.  Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: The New Press, 2000).  For an interesting discussion of this debate, see Scott Lucas "Beyond Freedom, Beyond Control: Approaches to Culture and the State-Private Network in the Cold War," in Hans Krabbendam and Giles Scott-Smith (eds.), Boundaries of Freedom: U.S. Cultural Intervention and Western Europe in the 1950s (London: Frank Cass, forthcoming).  I would like to thank Scott Lucas for providing me with an early version of this article.

2.  Saunders believes the CIA exerted tight political control over the intellectual agenda of the writers and artists it subsidized, but she provides only one example of outright censorship (that of an article submitted by Dwight MacDonald attacking American mass culture and materialism) and she shows that the CIA intervened to remove Melvin Lasky and Arthur Koestler from their official positions in the CCF's leadership.

3. Saunders, Cultural Cold War, 4.

4.  See for example Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

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