COVERT ARTS FUNDING
Uncovering the CIA’s Funding of American Literary Journals
Author Joel Whitney in conversation with Rob Spillman / Nov 15, 2016
“It’s long been known in the publishing world that in the 1950s, the CIA was involved in founding the influential literary magazine, the Paris Review. My wife, Elissa Schappell, was senior editor of the Paris Review under George Plimpton in the ’90s, so I saw firsthand his charismatic charm, and it was hard to imagine this liberal lion anywhere near the CIA. Yet Peter Matthiessen, one of the other founders, was employed by the agency, which was formed after World War II to counter worldwide Soviet influence. Its focus was not just political influence, but cultural influence, so-called “soft power,” which the Soviets were successfully wielding, winning hearts and minds of Western cultural elites. The CIA also funded the first American abstract expressionist exhibit in Europe, the Boston Symphony’s first European tour, and dozens of cultural magazines.
What is less clear is the extent of Matthiessen’s CIA work, and the extent to which the other Paris Review founders — Plimpton, Doc Humes, Terry Southern, and William Styron — knew of Matthiessen’s connection to the agency and whether or not decisions about the magazine’s contents were influenced by the CIA. Joel Whitney’s Finks delves deep into this murky world. Using extensive research of primary sources, including never-before-seen correspondence, Whitney raises difficult moral questions that still resonate today.”
Rob Spillman: Before we jump into specifics, can you give us a short primer on how the CIA was formed?
Joel Whitney: Its formation came out of anti-fascist thinking during World War II. The Nazis had spies — so the Allies needed them too. As the war came to a close, the practice of spying and what it accomplished was seen as monumental. But the Americans didn’t really know how to do it. There were spies during the Revolutionary War, but in terms of modern “spy-craft,” the Americans were playing catch-up when they formed the OSS wartime intelligence agency. Those agents were often portrayed as swashbuckling can-do types who presided over decisive but unsung war events. After that war, some of the OSS guys became professors at Ivy League Universities. Some of my main characters, like Peter Matthiessen, were recruited by these professors in an environment that called for a new patriotic spying agency.
The CIA was created hastily; the language and wording for its founding documents were pretty reactionary, as a response to fears about what the Soviets were doing. The more liberal guys who were part of the brain trust that formed the CIA saw that the Soviets in Berlin were getting masses of people from other sectors to come over for their symphonies and films. They saw that culture itself was becoming a weapon, and they wanted a kind of Ministry of Culture too. They felt the only way they could get this paid for was through the CIA’s black budget. This was because in the McCarthy era — like the Tea Party era — the less sophisticated reactionaries who represented small states, small towns, and so on, were very suspicious of culture, of the avant-garde, the little intellectual magazines, and of intellectuals themselves. They were fairly anti-intellectual, so how could they fund culture safely if not through the unaccountable budgets of the CIA?
Radio War Nerd – “Finks”: CIA, Paris Review & Cultural Cold War
RS: But if we look at World War II as a whole, the covert operations, the sabotage, infiltrating behind German lines and blowing stuff up… You could say that this is just a necessary part of any conflict. The book seems interested in what Matthiessen calls “the ugly stuff” and those who claim they were only involved in the cultural aspects of the war. Is the truth somewhere in the middle?
JW: In writing the book, I wanted to see if the cultural propaganda and sponsorship were ever done in service of those ugly things. A lot of times, I would find new magazines cropping up right after blowback about some terrible event the covert ops side had perpetrated. In terms of the folks I’m critical of, their legacies hinge on claims of good intention and fear. I looked at the structure of the CIA and saw that the funding of culture — whether through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, like the CIA’s magazines, or the Free Europe Committee, which funded radio stations and book publishing wings, or any number of other fronts — almost always came from the covert ops side of the agency. So, structurally, it was the same CIA that Matthiessen was calling “ugly,” the same side he worked for.
A good bit of this story is in Immy Humes’s film, DOC, about her father, Doc Humes, who had a nervous collapse in the 1960s worrying about the CIA, the Kennedy Assassination, and other affairs of state. In the middle of Humes’s breakdown, Matthiessen confessed that he had been an undercover agent when the Paris Review launched. He’s on record describing some of what he did, then he wipes it all away by saying he joined before the “ugly stuff” started. But that’s counterfactual given the dates of his tenure with the CIA. I think Matthiessen deliberately blurred those. He was a counterintelligence officer while launching the Paris Review and likely somewhat ashamed of it. He was probably spying on his friends. He was trained in a chain of command that had James Jesus Angleton at the top. And Angleton later became the head of counterintelligence. He and others who worked with CIA Director Allen Dulles were very much a part of the ugly stuff right from the get-go.
They were buying off elections in Italy — for decades. They were sending vulnerable refugees back to spy. These refugees may have joined out of a sincere desire to get rid of the communists but they were misled about their chances of success, and their possible choices. Many of them were killed. But Matthiessen may not have known much about it when he signed up. He was young, and that’s a fair defense, but the book is an attempt to say there were great magazines out there, but what was it in service of? Correcting the anti-Americanism that resulted from the failed (and even the successful) covert ops? Was it just altruistic funding for its own sake? Obviously the answer is a bit of both. By the CIA’s telling, it was almost totally altruistic. It was the “good CIA.” But it’s more complicated than that, and a much better story for such complexity.
RS: That’s the milieu I grew up in. I was born in Berlin in ’64, where my parents came on Fulbright scholarships as musicians. We spent ten years there, where the arts were heavily subsidized. Berlin was 200 miles inside Communist territory but a cultural mecca. The opera, the symphony, all that. I doubt my parents had any idea where any of the money was coming from. My first memory is of my father being booed on stage because he was playing some incredibly obnoxious avant-garde piece at the Modern Art Museum in Berlin, doing John Cage stuff. They were blessedly unaware. But what about having a “purely cultural literary magazine” like the Paris Review?
JW: I don’t believe the Paris Review was doing that. It was honoring something very political, which was the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, a cultural alliance. It was basically saying, indirectly, that the West is best. When it started to bring in people of color very late, it was trying to do it in an instrumental way. The “West is the best” argument comes through just in the number of interviews they published. They interviewed Europeans and Americans who they put in abelles lettrist context. They basically were politicizing the apoliticization of art. They made it seem apolitical, and did so very effectively. They’re not hiding anything now, and Lorin Stein is a great editor with an astonishing ear. Their staff is always sharp, and they seem to cover politics more robustly now.
But through the 1960s there were so many political trends they ignored, pretending to be focused on craft and art for art’s sake. You see that in the MFA programs today when they call it “creative nonfiction” as opposed to just reporting. There’s a de-emphasis on historical truth. You see that across all the CIA aesthetics that they championed. Abstract expressionism was depoliticized against the backdrop of social realism. You have new criticism, which was almost rabidly not interested in historical or the post-colonial context. The Paris Review pretended they didn’t do politics. But they were being political when they engaged in cultural politics that made the Russians look bad, like when the Russians forced Pasternak to refuse the Nobel Prize. They were hot on the trail for an interview with him, which was, of course, political. If it looks apolitical, that doesn’t necessarily make it so.
RS: As you said, a lot of the recruiting was happening at Yale and other Ivy Leagues. The whole Paris Review crew had this patrician entitlement. They were all white males of privilege who would just decamp to Italy for a month to play tennis and hang out. You get this early 1950’s version of the Lawrence of Arabia types, swashbuckling and charming. I remember playing tennis with Plimpton when he was doing benefits out in the Hamptons. He could just charm that entire crowd so well. He would beat me by the slimmest of margins, no matter how well I played. If I played atrociously, he would play atrociously plus a little bit. If I played brilliantly, he would play brilliantly plus a little bit more. He would never make you look bad, but he would always beat you. He was in his sixties at the time. It was maddening and charming. Do you think he, in his heart of hearts, knew?
JW: Matthiessen called Plimpton’s skill a kind of “social genius.” When he was a younger writer trying to get his scoop, interview, friendship, and book blurb from Ernest Hemingway, Plimpton knew how to lose. The famous story is that he was training for one of his boxing matches when he was interviewing Hemingway, and Hemingway used that pretext to deck Plimpton over a question he didn’t like. And Plimpton boasted later in print that he got Hemingway to stop wailing on him with flattery, asking how he got his hands up so fast to deck him. His chief social genius, to put it in Matthiessen’s terms, was flattery and humor. In 1966, Humes wanted Plimpton to come clean about Matthiessen’s service. In response, Plimpton offered Humes a place to stay when he was having his break down. He did the outwardly generous thing, in keeping with the role this all put him in, but I think you can hear some of the angst, even in those letters back to Humes, about the awkward position he was put in. What Humes didn’t know was that Plimpton was taking money from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
So Matthiessen was involved with the CIA on the covert ops/counterintel side, and Plimpton on the cultural propaganda front. I think Plimpton knew Matthiessen wasn’t the only one and that there were probably other people in his circle with more direct ties. He was the son of a diplomat to the UN who had to lie, who was tricked into lying by proxy along with his boss Adlai Stevenson during the Bay of Pigs invasion. What you see in Plimpton is someone who understands what it feels like to be very close to power, to have to do ugly things, but not necessarily to like them, to know what the burden is of other people’s secrets and other people’s secrecy. That’s a common thing when you read CIA books and family memoirs. Scott Johnson wrote a CIA family memoir that was shortlisted for the National Book Award a couple years ago. He was bureau chief at Newsweek as his dad was returning to the CIA from retirement to fight the war on terror. They stayed across from each other in facing hotels, and he had to carry this burden too. He waited until he was of a certain age to write this memoir. It was gripping because it shows what the contradictions are like.
RS: I wonder about the legacy of this. The CIA gave the blueprint to the FBI in the ’60s for COINTELPRO, in what they were doing with American Indian activists and the Black Power movement. There are links to the FBI fire-bombing Barney Rosset’s office for doing the iconic Che Guevara cover. Your book begs the question of whether ramifications of this mindset are in the distant past.
JW: There are two ways to answer that. The first is more optimistic and relates to the issue of funding. I’m in favor of public and government funding of the arts, and I’m in favor of public journalism like the BBC. It’s not always done well, but it needs to be done well. That gets into concerns about the separation of funders and editorial staff. Editors should be treated as experts who are fully professionalized craftspeople who know how to do their job and only need money to do it, without the moneyed interests meddling. It’s harder for me to get mad about Abstract Expressionist painting exhibitions in Europe or jazz tours with Louis Armstrong than it is to think about journalism polluted by secrecy. Secrecy does corrupt in that context.
The element of secrecy made it almost inevitable that the CIA was the agency that funded the arts that included journalism because literary magazines have journalists and essayists writing [for them], and critics are sometimes journalists. That legacy is problematic because in the early to mid ’60s, when issues were exposed by magazines like Ramparts or being criticized by magazines like Rosset’s Evergreen, the CIA reacted to protect its secrecy because it was worried about prosecution or public shame. The CIA flinched, and that flinch resulted in programs that had an impact. Operation CHAOS in the ’60s was a media penetration program to spy on media in the US and de-emphasize and actually break up the anti-Vietnam War student newspaper and left newspaper movement.
It seems when something like that is called out, it goes into hiding for a little while and comes back stronger. About ten years after CHAOS was in full effect, we saw Operation Mockingbird, which was the complete takeover of the American media (addressed by the Church Committee hearings). It’s scary to think that might be our legacy insofar as the FBI and the CIA are concerned. In Latin America in particular, the FBI had jurisdiction during World War II. When the CIA was formed and the FBI realized there was a little bit of an overreach, all the FBI desks flipped to the CIA. Some of the domestic spying that the FBI did probably equally informed the CIA, and vice versa. During Operation CHAOS, the CIA tried to de-emphasize its role as domestic spies by outsourcing it to FBI. Now it can be done (for example) through private consulting companies in Iraq. The big question was how bold were you willing to be to tell the truth? It was clear the guys who were paying for it, who had a clear foreign policy agenda, a clear anti-Stalinist agenda, were chilling and outright censoring all the time.
The story [of the cultural Cold War] was broken by Frances Stonor Saunders, looking at Western Europe. For me, it was important to look at Latin America, at India. The developing world became more critical in the late ’50s, after the Bandung Conference in 1955, and then certainly in the ’60s as the New Left emerged, as African American civil rights movements were starting to synergize with Black Power movements, Black arts movements, and Negritude movements in Africa. That became a new source of fear. What you see is that money is often quietly, and not so quietly, encouraging its recipients to obsess over the same things. It was dirty money and wasn’t used as openly as it should have been.
If we know the government is funding the arts or journalism, then it behooves us to put structures in place that allow for them to be fearless — “fearless reporting,” as Mother Jones calls it. I hope this book can help people learn when to distrust some mass reproduced meme or idea that they’re getting across media or social media. Even if they really believe what they’re representing or re-tweeting, there’s an element of propaganda to everything we say. Sometimes it’s treated like, Oh, that’s a Russian meme, so we shouldn’t believe it! An automatic reaction that points back to the Cold War — blame the Russians. We’re seeing that now, even on stuff that is not disputed in its context, but rather disputed in its sourcing. It’s insane that you can discredit something corrupt that your candidate did because the person who leaked it might think Putin is cool or whatever.
RS: Sure. You just get systems that protect the lie and become more elaborate. I’m thinking of Santiago, Chile. They have two Nobel laureates in poetry there: Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. Neruda of course was alive when the Allende government was in control. He died days after the CIA-sponsored coup that put Pinochet in power. They tried to erase Neruda’s legacy with the help of the CIA. He was very openly leftist. They put Gabriela Mistral up as the antidote. She’s a wonderful poet who predated Neruda. She’s on the 5,000 peso note, which is like the equivalent of the dollar bill. Her statues are found everywhere in Santiago. They tried to make her like Susan B. Anthony, a Mother of Us All kind of thing. When I was there, her long-time lover’s letters finally came out, twenty years after her death. Turns out she was queer. The right-wing paper freaked out.
JW: “Let’s bring back Neruda!”
RS: Yeah, but it was this lie from ’73 that had been built up and still exists. Mistral was put forward as this weird hetero antidote to Neruda, who was portrayed as a hypersexual leftist. It calcified.
JW: Neruda’s bones have been dug up over the past couple of years to see if he was poisoned, because he supposedly died of something like stomach cancer. He was in a hospital later used by Pinochet to poison his enemies, including a guy that the CIA propped up — Eduardo Frei. Neruda’s family is divided on what happened. That’s the legacy on culture — and on social memory — of a coup that the CIA sponsored. We need to contend with this so that we can figure out how to do what some of these other countries have done, which is a truth and reconciliation process where we realize we weren’t always good. We did awful things. We did it through the military, and through culture. I think what we need here is the most adversarial and fearless media we can muster, a media that pushes back against both parties, not just the more frightening one.
RS: We are in a frightening moment because we’re faced with such overtly fascist sensibilities. Liberals are put in this weird position of going: Yes, America still is great. But then we’re like wait a minute: We’ve done a lot of really dirty, awful things the last fifty years.
JW: We saw it again and again in the Cold War. If there are only two sides to an issue, and one is clearly able to be painted as bad, then a candidate or a movement is in some ways de-incentivized to actually appreciate nuance, to perfect their message and policy. All they really have to do is spout against the ape on the other side of the aisle.
RS: Today the arts are struggling for funding. Increasingly, a lot of magazines, particularly literary magazines, are privately funded, including the Paris Review. It’s a non-profit. Tin House is backed by a single person — Win McCormack, a huge DNC fundraiser. He’s on the platform committee, super liberal. If, let’s say, he was actually an ardent Trump supporter and just funded all sorts of really crazy, insane things that I had trouble with, but he gave me carte blanche…
interview with Larry Bensky, KPFA-Berkeley 2/22/2019
JW: If the question is: What do we do? That’s broad, ongoing, and unanswerable. Your first duty, if you want the magazine to remain free, would be to criticize that person, and kill that person’s darlings. Maybe that’s a little reflexive, but if I know my money has a certain provenance, I want to go after the politics of that provenance. It’s a little immature and maybe self-destructive, but that’s the only way you really know that you’re free and not being quietly, gently influenced.
RS: PEN has found, in its surveys, that a good number of writers self-censor. That’s a really hard thing to measure because it’s a self-reporting thing. We know what censorship looks like, but self-censorship is a deeply insidious thing.
JW: That’s just the word. It reminds me of the chill on free speech. Thanks to Snowden, we know what has been done before through agents and operatives like him. Insofar as how we’re spied on, we now know that everything is potentially on the record, If we delete something that we posted on social media, somewhere it lives. It’s terrifying actually. It makes for extreme self-consciousness. I’ve certainly not posted things I believed, not so much because I was afraid of somebody seeing it now or later, but because I was worried about my overly contrarian ways constantly losing me credibility. Pick your battles, kind of thing.
RS: Social media is interesting in that it almost doesn’t allow you to change your opinions sometimes. That is your stated position for all eternity.
JW: Publishing has always had an element of that, but now it’s instant and constant. Insofar as social media is concerned, we’re all public figures now, even for a small audience. Glenn Greenwald and Naomi Klein just had a great conversation over at The Intercept about the ramifications of that. Do we all deserve to have whistleblowers or leakers tap into our stuff to see if our public positions match our private ones and so forth? If we think of ourselves as public figures through social media, then in a way we’re all fair game and privacy goes away completely. We started it by joining up. These are thorny questions that emerged during the Cold War, where culture production became instrumental. Matthiessen was spying on the culturemakers while using culture as a cover; Plimpton was using government funding and creating cultural propaganda; the great Paris Review interviews were used as cultural ambassadorships.
A lot of self-censorship goes back to when people realized that they wouldn’t get funded if they were not anti-Communist. The courage of the New Left was inspiring (even if we don’t always agree with every single thing they said) because it seemed genuine and fearless. Some of those figures we now know were posing as New Left figures, again to spy on their friends. Richard Aoki was eventually uncovered as an FBI informant. He might have actually had a CIA mandate. It continues today with people in the media who might have a foreign policy agenda that’s either in their head, known to them but not to the rest of us, or they just know the consequences of certain viewpoints. Things like the PEN report just go to show that these tricky, secret organizations, networks, and patronage systems are still operating around us. Getting funded is our whole definition of success right now. Publications are thinking: If I can’t do it in a vacuum without funding, then I can’t do it at all. That’s a terrifying thing.”
BATTLE of IDEAS
“In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer interviews Joel Whitney, author and co-founder of Guernica magazine. Whitney’s new book, “Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers,” explores how the CIA influenced acclaimed writers and publications during the Cold War to producea subtly anti-communist material. During the interview, Scheer and Whitney discuss these manipulations and how the CIA controlled major news agencies and respected literary publications such as the Paris Review.
Robert Scheer: Greetings. This is another edition of Scheer Intelligence. I’m Robert Scheer, but the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case it’s Joel Whitney, who’s just written a really terrific book called “Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” And actually, my only disagreement with the book is a little bit with the title. So let me just begin there, and you can lay out the thesis. But it’s the story, of course, about how the CIA secretly funded the Congress [for] Cultural Freedom and lots of other organizations, and got involved right after World War II and continued right through the Cold War, basically manipulating publications and movies, everything else, to so-called “win the battle of ideas” with the Soviets, and ended up in the process adopting some of their more nefarious means. But when you say the CIA tricked the world’s best writers, you’re talking about a pretty sharp group of people, like [George] Plimpton and [William] Styron and all that. Were they really tricked?
Joel Whitney: Well, that’s a great first question. I did an event in Berkeley last week, and actually had a Paris Review magazine veteran come by and ask me essentially that same question. And his reservation was the word “finks” and the word “tricked.” More “finks,” though, which he thought was derogatory as someone who had been at the Paris Review. He, you know, he may have felt that there was some, whether well-intentioned or misinformed, idea of patriotism. And “finks,” of course, as you know when you finish the book, comes from one of my characters. “Tricked” was the word I settled on, “how the CIA tricked the world’s best writers;” it could have been “paid,” it could have been “subsidized,” it could have been “used,” it could have been “collaborated with.”
And I actually envisioned at one point – I couldn’t sell this to my editor – a cover where in sort of lighter shadow behind the word “tricked” would be all those other words going up and down the front of the book. Yeah, I think a lot of the writers had different motives. And actually, some of them, throughout the book, you’ll see – you’ll remember they changed their minds. So some of them were more in favor in the early fifties; by the time the Vietnam War hits, and the CIA’s reputation is a little more tarnished, some of them were less enthralled with the agency and other kinds of anti-communist institutions. So, yeah, it might have been any other verb there besides “tricked.”
RS: What I found, and knowing some of these people, they’re a pretty sharp bunch. I mean, this really goes to, I think, more David Halberstam’s idea in “The Best and the Brightest,” his classic work on what happened in Vietnam. That these were the best products of the meritocracy; this was the creme de la creme of Harvard and Yale, and the Yale Review, and all that sort of thing; the brightest minds, the most talented people. And for whatever reason, sometimes for greed but also, you know, they bought into it – what they bought into was basically a stupefyingly simplistic and wrong-headed notion of what was going on in the world. That’s the overwhelming thought I came away with from your book, which is great in detail, great storytelling; you know, whether it’s about Pasternak or whether it’s about Sontag or anybody – I mean, they’re all in there, there’s a lot of really rich detail. But the overwhelming sense that I got from this book was how once again, using Halberstam’s idea of “The Best and the Brightest,” how did this group of people – who certainly were literate and well-traveled and tested well and got great grades at the best schools and studied under the best people – get it so wrong?
Richard Wright, Peter Matthiessen and Max Steele, Notre-Dame, 1953
JW: Yeah, I think the idea of the oversimplification that you described in your question, I think that’s accurate. And I think the sharper ones were further, were more removed from that simplification. And then what you see are several groups in the anti-communist movements, several actual organizations that were sort of recruiting people that were representing the CIA’s slush funds, who are luring people in who have standing internationally, people who can do some soft power work but might, if they know exactly what’s going on, they might be a little too critical of it. So if you start, for instance, in Berlin after World War II, you have a group of people who were familiar with Stalinist methods to the degree that perhaps they were traumatized by them. So those people were sincere, but they weren’t necessarily nuanced in their understanding of maybe how to fight totalitarianism. They thought essentially that the best method was to fight fire with fire. So in a way, these were guys who had a conspiracy theory. Their conspiracy theory went like this: Soviet Russia is penetrating organizations around the world; they had some evidence, Comintern and other organizations. But they had no sense of scale, and I think by the time you have McCarthy discredited in the middle fifties, some of these guys were probably willing to dial back some of their initial fears.
But by then, they’d set this great movement in motion where it was just huge amounts of money that the CIA could offer. And so what I look at, as you remember in the book, is just I look at these little intellectual magazines that were initially recruited to do two things: one, to push back against anti-Americanism. So they wanted to tout and brag about our high culture, because in Western Europe, which was the key battleground, we were known for our pop and low culture; we were known for martial funds, we were known for our tanks. So one can sort of appreciate that. But then it comes with another idea, which is to discredit the Soviet Union as often as can be. And when you see that, how it plays out, you start to see disinformation beginning to spread. And what you see presiding over both sides of that idea is a regime of secrecy, which is problematic when you’re talking about magazines, because you’re talking about secrecy being used to preside over and rule over the free press that we’re supposed to be the champions of.
RS: The reason your book is compelling, and I think people should read it – and let me just be clear right up front, I read it straight through, [laughs], I think I had one breakfast break. But I enjoyed it enormously, because it really makes these characters come alive. And they’re not cardboard characters, whether you’re talking about Irving Kristol, or you’re talking about, you know, Irving Howe or George Plimpton or anybody – there’s whole bunches of them run through the book, and you really are introduced to the cultural life of Paris and London and New York and so forth. But again, I keep getting back to this one question, you know; there’s a thing in the newspaper business, I remember one editor telling me “too good to check.” And maybe when somebody’s writing you an actual check, and you’re getting money and you’re getting first-class airfare, and they’re funding your wonderful magazine, your little magazine, so you don’t have to go to your parents – because most of these people were super rich, and they could just go to their uncle or father or something and get some more money. But still it was now, you know, classy to get it from some secret Fleischmann’s Yeast or something [Laughs], that was a front for the CIA. You know, and so yeah, you’re involved in intrigue and all that, which I guess a lot of writers like to be involved in; but the idea that they drank the Kool-Aid and thought they were saving freedom is the part that I still don’t get.
JW: It does seem like there was a big pivot after World War II, and I think one of the organizations that normalized the idea of secrecy ruling over the media – which is eventually what you end up with in a program like this – was the OSS. A lot of the people, the founding lights of the CIA, came to see that the OSS had done some great work in, as they saw it, thwarting the Nazis during World War II. So a lot of the people who founded the CIA, they understood that if the Soviet communists were using secrecy to penetrate our organizations, instead of thinking of how do we stop the penetration, it seems like it turned into a system of let’s preemptively penetrate our own organizations, just to make sure we can watch them and keep them on the up-and-up. And of course one of the ways that they keep people in line, as you say, was through the money. So in terms of the official magazines that the CIA created and presided over, the British spy who overthrew Mosaddegh, he would have been, in June of 1953 – his name was Christopher Montague Woodhouse – he would have been working on the CIA magazine for London, Encounter.
He would have empowered the two editors, one American, one Brit, Stephen Spender on the British side, Irving Kristol on the American side, both working out of London; one paid through secrecy of the British state, one paid indirectly through the CIA. The spy overseeing this, Woodhouse, he would have then turned in the late summer towards overthrowing the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh. And then later, he’s also feeling so good about this system of, what essentially you have are coups as covert ops and then long-term soft-power propaganda, also on the covert ops side of the CIA and British secret services. So he feels so good about this that he’s later on a contributor to Encounter. So magazines like Encounter, they were created in Paris, they were created in Italy, they were created all over Europe; and then they spread to the Nordic countries, they spread to the Third World. What they did was they involved people at different levels. So the people in the know would be people who were editors and regular contributors, and it would even for them be kind of an open secret.
So one person I interviewed was a guy named Nelson Aldrich, and he collaborated first – well, he worked for, I should say, first with the Paris Review. The Paris Review was not one of those magazines created by the CIA, or if it was, it was sort of indirectly used. It was used as Peter Matthiessen, the writer who was one of its founders, as his cover in Paris in the early fifties. But then he says he resigned from the CIA and there was no connection. Well, later on, George Plimpton, the famous writer and man about New York, was the public face of the Paris Review through its formative years and for many decades; he found a way to get CIA money through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, its cultural propaganda front. So that’s a second tie. Later on in my research, I found a third tie through a founding managing editor. So you have such a vast network of money for culture that in one organization, one magazine that’s sort of only a tangential CIA asset or friend, you can find three big separate ties.
RS: I’m glad I got this chance to talk to you, because the book reads the way you talk. It’s not vindictive, it’s not smearing people, it’s not doing what they did, actually. What these folks did in the name of anti-communism was they were perfectly happy, thrilled, to sail out and destroy their buddies, their college classmates, to smear them, smear intellectuals that they respected. That’s really what happened. You know, you’re using your power, your clout. And there’s an analogy right now, I think, with this whole discussion of fake news. These people were actually doing fake news. They were being paid by a government agency, the CIA, cooperating, following instructions, and sometimes censoring articles, editing them and so forth, so they’re part of an official government propaganda regime that continues right up through Vietnam and everything else.
And so they become a caricature of the whole, you know, democratic experiment, which is certainly not what the Founders had in mind. And they get very vindictive towards people who disagree with the narrative. And the reason I began the way I did, asking you – the irony here is the people who objected to their official narrative turned out to be, quite early on, right. So for example, you mentioned Nelson Aldrich, and you have him placed as one of those people who knew what was going on. Well, I knew Nelson Aldrich as a guy I would chat with at Elaine’s in New York for years. And by that point, of the sixties, he knew it was all bogus. He was not a supporter of the Vietnam War. And in fact he wrote a very good book about the elite and how out of touch they are, the economic elite, and so forth. And I found him quite supportive of Ramparts, you know; I couldn’t get any money from him, from his wealthy relatives, but nonetheless he seemed like a –
JW: [Laughs] Gotta try.
RS: And you mentioned another person, you know; one point where, I don’t know, I was a little unhappy with, you mentioned Frances Fitzgerald, the famous writer of “Fire In the Lake” and “Wild Blue Yonder,” great journalist; and her father was a well-known, you know, deputy head of the whole CIA, Desmond Fitzgerald. But the fact is, Frances Fitzgerald also – she’d studied with Zbigniew Brzezinski, she’d gone to the best Ivy League schools – but the fact is, very early on, she embraced an opposite view. She saw that the Vietnam War was bogus, it was a fiction, and the claims made were wrong. And she wrote a devastating book on it very early on. So it just seemed to me, the crowd you’re describing, I’m not going to minimize the damage they did, because they stifled debate; they prevented a good discussion from taking place that would have avoided Vietnam. OK? It would have avoided the confrontation with Cuba. It would have avoided the overthrow of Mossadegh, you know, and we go down the whole list. So I’m not minimizing the destructive, you know, impact that they had and the stupefying, really, the ignorance of the debate. And I’ll just give two examples of that, you know, but I want to get back to how quickly some people, at least, escaped this net, including William Styron and others.
But two villains that really emerged in their world were Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. And it’s interesting, because both of those people, particularly Bertrand Russell, had impeccable anti-communist credentials. Bertrand Russell, you know, had famously attacked communism as an evil, and anti-intellectual and stifling of thought; and certainly Sartre had shown a considerable independence. But yet because they teamed up to do something called the Vietnam War Crimes Commission, and they challenged America in a very fundamental way on what it was doing, not only in Vietnam, elsewhere – this same crowd, the ones that were still influential, went out to destroy Sartre and Russell.
So what I want to get across is it’s not minor what they did; your book exposes the fundamental distortion of American politics during the post-Cold War period, which is where all the stupidity came from. My only question – and it makes for a great read, and it really reveals a lot. I look at the current situation where we don’t even have a good communist enemy, because the communists that are in power are the ones we’re trading with in [China] now. So we’re inventing Russia as a reborn communist power or enemy, and we have this whole campaign now as if, you know, now Putin is the evil empire. And so there is a current echo in sort of how easy it is to manipulate people.
JW: Yeah. Well, just on the first point you made about the meanness or the lack of meanness in the book, that was something I wanted to be very conscientious about when I went through edits with my editor. There’s a great scholar and writer at UC Berkeley who said something that I saw quoted recently: “Be tough on the institutions, and be soft on the people.” And that was reinforced again and again when I saw some of the collaborators with these cultural fronts of the CIA changing their minds, learning from things like Vietnam. And seeing them change their minds actually gave me a lot of hope, because you know, you can be on the payroll; you can be someone who’s an operator; you can be someone who thinks of the world as a good side and a bad side, and therefore whatever we do represents the good side. And then you can wake up from that.
You mentioned Sartre; he was absolutely attacked by one of the CIA’s magazines, and his magazine was seen as a threat, and the French magazine Preuves, based out of Paris, was in some ways an answer to Sartre’s magazine and his attempts to deal, to treat the United States the way it should be treated. When it was going against its values, he would call them out on that. Neruda, Pablo Neruda, the poet, was another one who suffered severe reputational damage by this cultural front of the CIA, the Congress for Cultural Freedom. When they found out, some of these operators found out that he was up for the Nobel in ‘63, they wrote a quiet, sort of secret white paper about him, and they made some links to Stalinism through his Stalin [Peace] Prize. And it was, of course, the year that Stalin had died that he took it. And they also made up some stuff that I think was, you know, viciously untrue, that he was in on the attempt to murder Trotsky.
So this is reputational damage that then is doubled later by the CIA’s actual overthrow of his friend in Chile, Salvador Allende. So what I see is if someone’s being physically harmed by the CIA, that’s one thing that we’ve accounted for in a lot of historical books and political books; if someone’s being reputationally damaged by CIA propaganda, you see that in some of the academic books that look at the so-called cultural Cold War. But I wanted to remove the wall between those two areas and show that both of those things happened in a context where a lot of people were just made terrified by the fact that you had evil on one side and a fighting-fire-with-fire mentality on so-called, quote unquote, our side.
RS: [omission] We’re back with Joel Whitney, and the book is called “Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers.” So, Joel, let me ask you a question that I was about to ask when we took our break. I’m going to talk a little bit about the CIA, because the [sub]title of your book is “how the CIA tricked the world’s best writers.” And there we get into a pretty sinister cast of characters. And I just want to bring up one who shows up a lot, because I know something about him from my own Freedom of Information files, because I was the editor of Ramparts and I was involved in some of this stuff. And that’s James Jesus Angleton. And I am the proud possessor of a record in which J. Edgar Hoover, at one point after all the Ramparts stuff, exonerated me and said he’s going to close the Scheer case – I was the last, well, not the last, but I was the editor of Ramparts at a critical moment. And he had investigated me at the behest of the CIA and, largely, James Jesus Angleton.
And he said, there’s no there there; this guy likes to have a good time, he wants to meet women, he wants to have good meals [Laughter], but the fact is we’ve been investigating him for, I don’t know what it was, five years around the clock and there’s no there there. OK. And James Jesus Angleton, and others in the CIA, denounced him! And said, you can’t do this. You know, and so forth; I wasn’t the only one they wanted to go after. But you know, these guys were playing hardball. And they wouldn’t mind, when you traveled to another country – because I found myself getting harassed in different countries. I was in jail briefly in Mexico and I was in jail briefly in Lithuania, you know, and other places, Algeria and so forth; I didn’t want to get paranoid about it, but they had a reach worldwide where they could make your life really rough, or end it, for that matter. So what about James Jesus Angleton? What have you learned about this guy?
JW: Well, he was part of this post-OSS group that understood how important spying and covert ops had been in World War II. And from there, he makes all kinds of terrible mistakes. He and his group believed essentially that they needed to do better propaganda than the Soviets did, and one of the ways that they thought they could do it better was to do it subtly and, you could say, secretly. So when this program is threatened with exposure in ‘64, ‘65, ‘66 and ‘67 through various sources like Ramparts and The New York Times, this privilege of secrecy that they enjoyed was not something that they were willing to give up. So you have something that is described as relatively benign, this funding of culture through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a funding of student movements through the National Student Association, the funding of labor unions that would be less communist-influenced than the communist-dominated ones that they presumed were out there. These were seen as benign answers. They were reactions to Soviet penetration. So secrecy is a key to making them work. So even if you want to make the argument that, for instance, the Congress for Cultural Freedom never censored its magazines – which I think has been severely disproved; they did censor. Even if you wanted to say that they published all sorts of great writers – which clearly they did; that was part of the subtlety of it and part of the brilliance of it, and part of the soft-power charm of it.
Even if you wanted to say all that, when the secrecy is exposed by honest accounting in the media, the fourth estate, the adversarial media of American bragging around the world, they are so attached to their secrecy, and so upset, the CIA group led by people like Angleton, that they commit something that is about as anti-American as anything in our system. Which is: more secrecy, more media penetration to the point of penetrating, first, the anti-Vietnam War press; second, the student, the college student newspapers and press; the alternative, so-called, press.
Which essentially is a license to do what they did later. So that first thing I described, where Ramparts was penetrated, leads to Operation CHAOS, presumably; that leads to Operation Mockingbird in the seventies. By the time we have Carl Bernstein reporting on Operation Mockingbird, and John Crewdson reporting on its international equivalent in the New York Times – Bernstein in Rolling Stone – you essentially see the CIA trying to have at least one agent at every major news and media organization it can do in the world. And Crewdson reporting in the Times at the end of 1977 essentially says that they had one agent or contract agent at a newspaper in every world capital on Earth. That’s astonishing. They could get stories killed or get stories to run that portrayed the CIA’s views in a favorable way, or kill them if they did not.
RS: Let me point out – yeah, go ahead –
JW: And so Angleton is behind a lot of this, just to sort of circle back to your question, but go ahead.
RS: No, well, but I want to get at – there’s an interesting contradiction here. Because this is not benign. But what happens is, you create an atmosphere in which – and you could have it in a contemporary moment; oh, let’s get rid of Assad in Syria, for example. That sounds like a good liberal thing to do. And yes, there are great human rights violations by this dictator; yes, he kills innocent people. So did Stalin. Yes, yes. So did Khrushchev. OK. We get that. And then you build that up into an argument of, that there’s war going on between obvious good and obvious evil, and any discussion about any gray area is some kind of moral equivalency; it means you’re insensitive, it means you’re saying the same. And the irony here is that – and Angleton was the product of an elite education; actually, he was half Mexican, so maybe that gave him a burden in those circles. But the fact is, he could drink cocktails with the best of them. And what came out of this was an arrogance.
That because you were on the side of the angels, the best and the brightest of Halberstam, it was OK – Robert McNamara famously, you know, one of the Ford company geniuses and so forth – it was OK to kill three and a half million Indochinese, including and in addition to almost 59,000 Americans. Because you had figured this out, you know, and you knew who were the good guys and bad guys. Now, looking back on it, it’s just of course absurd, you know. That you’re in this country that had no way of inflicting damage on us, and that had a thousand years of hostility towards China, and had no real interest in Russia, and it didn’t fit the model at all. And you know, in terms of the specific incidents that you have a chapter on, this Michigan State project, where Stanley Sheinbaum, who you describe as a whistleblower, which he was – you know, I wrote about that before there was a Ramparts. I wrote about it in a report to Robert Hutchins’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Henry Luce was on the board, it was very respectable.
But, because Stanley Sheinbaum, one of the few individuals that I interviewed to do that story, he had seen the horror of it and he was willing to speak out. None of the others were. By the time I got to Stanley, I had gone through almost every professor, everyone had worked for either the CIA – that I knew about – or had worked on this Michigan State project, which was foul from the beginning. You take a guy, Ngo Dinh Diem, who didn’t even share the religion of 90 percent of the people there; you find him in a Catholic monastery in New York and you decide he’s going to be the George Washington of Vietnam [Laughter], and you get into this crazy intervention, right? And then 10 years after you do that, prevent the Geneva accords and everything, in the early sixties – the only reason I knew about that story, I went to the stacks at Berkeley, I wanted to know, what’s this place Vietnam about. And one of the guys involved in this thing had died, and his widow had donated his papers. It was totally accidental. I blew the dust off the papers and I found the evidence of their engineering torture and everything else to keep this guy Diem in power, and fortunately Stanley Sheinbaum was willing to say it. The depressing thing about that, and about why we don’t have more Edward Snowdens and so forth, is none of the other folks talked about it. They all stonewalled me. And they didn’t come clean.
JW: Yeah. It feels very lonely to be a whistleblower.
RS: Well, and what’s interesting about your book is there’s denial – even, you know, Peter Matthiessen – I mean, Matthiessen’s a very good author, very interesting guy and everything. But at the end, he’s still putting down a documentary filmmaker who he had actually told his story to. And they don’t really come clean, as you point out in your book. That’s why your book is so important. Because the story is not well known.
JW: The story is not well known. It gets buried, it gets buried under other things. I mean, the beginning of your question and your comment, I see it now – in my own notes, I call it superpolitics. Where essentially there’s something that’s so evil and so frightening that we have to change how our democratic institutions work, and whether they remain democratic. And so on the first part of your question, yeah, there was this notion that since we’re on the side of the angels we can do a lot of things that we wouldn’t normally do to fight Lucifer. And what you end up with – I think anyone who uses the moral equivalency argument, you know, you can’t compare American crimes to Stalinist crimes – it starts off as true, and the more you use it, the more it’s a shield to make us more Stalin-like. I mean, I don’t compare American history or American foreign policy to anything that Stalin did, except when I do in detail. And people who talk about Vietnam, if you count all of Southeast Asia, some of them like Viet Nguyen, the current Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction for his book The Sympathizer, he talks about it in terms of six million lives lost. Which is getting up into monumental numbers.
RS: The book is “[Finks:] How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers,” by Joel Whitney. And the more I talk about the book, the more I think, yes, they were tricked. Because they – well, it’s not a bad title, because –
JW: [Laughs] I used a soft sell over you, let you talk yourself into it.
RS: Well, no, but the fact of the matter is these were – again I get back to Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” – they were smart people. And yes, I’ve known them; I’ve known them personally, many of them. And they weren’t, you know, they didn’t want terrible things to happen, and a good number of them denounced the previous stuff. And so I guess “tricked” works. But the problem is, it’s not a game in which there are not victims. You know, you claim you’re going to make it a safer world and you make it a far more dangerous world, and you end up with a situation that Martin Luther King in his famous Riverside Church [speech] described, he said, you know, we’re talking about violence; he said my government today is “the [greatest] purveyor of violence in the world” today. And we got to that through a pattern of to stop being critical of our government, to stop thinking about it.”
MODERN ART PRICES EXPLAINED
LEGENDS of the OSS : the ORIGINAL CAPTAIN TRIPS
DOSING the PEACE MOVEMENT