The Cultural Cold War

by Frances Stonor Saunders

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In revealing how the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other government institutions used culture to support US national policy goals, Frances Stonor Saunders delves into a large number of specific programs that operated from the 1940s–1970s.

In the early years of the Cold War, as leftists found themselves intellectually and morally disconnected from the hardline Stalinist policies, conservative forces rallied to counteract what they saw as the undermining of American values. While some of this activity was played out in the congressional hearings of McCarthyism, more nuanced strategies were also developed. Some of the most ardent supporters were former communists, propelled by their disillusion to challenge the Kremlin’s influence.

One of the key figures she profiles is Sidney Hook, a pragmatist philosopher at New York University, who founded the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. Among his activities was the suppression of European publication of American novels, as those of John Steinbeck, that his group deemed left-wing.

[Hook] was advocating the purging of those expressions of American life which he judged to be in conflict with the government’s “democratic policy” abroad. This was a monumental distortion of the very principles of freedom of expression, irreconcilable with the claims of liberal democracy . . .

Among the overseas CIA-sponsored publications she highlights is England’s Encounter journal, for which the CIA financing was hidden through a series of clandestine transactions, including private donations.

Thus camouflaged, British intelligence passed funds to Encounter from its inception [in 1953].

Saunders finds it disturbing that many of the writers who published there had no idea their work was considered propaganda. While some of the staff were aware of its actual function, others chose to look the other way. Frank Kermode, for example, acknowledged his “vanity” at being chosen as Encounter’s co-editor but felt rather disconcerted at the “mysterious” way it operated.

By the mid-1960s, Saunders shows, there were changes in intellectual and popular opinions She reviews how support for the Vietnam War was eroded. By 1966, even the mainstream New York Times was running articles criticizing the war, including specific reference to CIA activities. No longer content to keep these activities hidden in the government’s “closet,” the Times was among the publications spotlighting numerous activities. One article she quotes referred to “awkward” diplomacy that raised ethical issues.

[M]any persons are convinced that in the CIA a sort of Frankenstein’s monster has been created that no one can fully control . . .

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