The Cultural Cold War

by Frances Stonor Saunders

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War is a historical monograph, not a fictional narrative, and thus the “characters” involved are real historical actors. Specifically, the book focuses on the efforts of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to cultivate close relationships with both American and European intellectuals during the height of the Cold War. Thus, these intellectuals, and the agencies within which they operated, form the historical actors and centerpiece of Saunders’s focus.

The CIA invested tremendous amounts of resources into conducting a cultural propaganda campaign in Europe during the Cold War. Critical to this task was the creation of a tight-knit, effective group of left-wing intellectuals who could produce a rich anti-Communist discourse, including activities such as the organization of conferences and seminars, the publication of journals, the conducting of public talks and interviews, and the promotion of televised and radio broadcasts. As Saunders himself describes, because the process drew

on an extensive, highly influential network of intelligence personnel, political strategists, the corporate establishment, and the old school ties of the Ivy League universities, the incipient CIA started, from 1947, to build a "consortium" whose double task it was to inoculate the world against the contagion of Communism, and to ease the passage of American foreign policy interests abroad. (page 1-2)

The participants of this anti-Communist, pro-America campaign acted primarily within the newly created Congress for Cultural Freedom, which changed its name in 1967 to become the International Association for Cultural Freedom. The name change was necessary, because as the CIA began to branch its intelligence operations further into the European heartland, it required the active participation of European intellectuals just as much as American ones. Specifically, these people included respected academics and politicians such as American politician Eleanor Roosevelt, the American philosopher Sidney Hook, the American historian Arthur Schlesinger, the Italian novelist Ignazzio Silone, the Hungarian-British journalist Arthur Koestler, the Russian-British social theorist Isaiah Berlin, and the French philosopher Raymond Aron.

This international character of the organization’s participants permitted American liberal, anti-Communist sentimentalities to resonate more effectively with a foreign audience. Eventually, the International Association for Cultural Freedom pulled in audiences by incorporating public performances, such as those by American folksingers and actors, as well as by inspiring participation by the French and Italian labor movements. All of these actors—individual intellectuals, focus groups, performers, and otherwise—who supported the CIA mission in Europe, can be considered the “characters” of Saunders’s piece.

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