books Literary Agents
How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers
Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who defected to the West in 1951, was struck by the ostentatiousness of American cultural programs: “You could smell big money from a mile away.” The era’s finest little magazines, titles like Partisan Review and The Paris Review, published enduring fiction, poetry, and essays. The writings of Clement Greenberg and Lionel Trilling set the high-water mark for art and literary criticism. Richard Wright wrote the mournful poem that would provide the title for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 best-seller, Between the World and Me. The artists who waged the radical political battles of the 1930s emerged in the 1950s as cultural institutions, achieving a prominence—even a celebrity—that has eluded subsequent generations.
Plenty of observers, however, suspected that the free market of ideas had been corrupted. World tours, fancy conferences, prestigious bylines and book contracts were bestowed on artists who hewed to political positions favored by the establishment, rather than on the most talented. In 1966, The New York Times confirmed suspicions that the CIA was pumping money into “civil society” organizations: unions, international organizations of students and women, groups of artists and intellectuals. The agency had produced the popular cartoon version of George Orwell’s anticommunist classic Animal Farm in 1954. It flew the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a European tour in 1952, to counter prejudices of the United States as uncultured and unsophisticated. It promoted the work of abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock because their artistic style would have been considered degenerate in both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The propriety of such largesse, both for the CIA and its beneficiaries, has been hotly debated ever since. Jason Epstein, the celebrated book editor, was quick to point out that CIA involvement undermined the very conditions for free thought, in which “doubts about established orthodoxies” were supposed to be “taken to be the beginning of all inquiry.” But Gloria Steinem, who worked with the CIA in the 1950s and ’60s, “was happy to find some liberals in government in those days,” arguing that the agency was “nonviolent and honorable.” Milosz, too, agreed that the “liberal conspiracy,” as he called it, “was necessary and justified.” It was, he allowed, “the sole counterweight to the propaganda on which the Soviets expended astronomical sums.”
Today’s intellectuals approach their labors in a very different set of circumstances. The struggle for academic patronage and the strained conditions of nearly all media properties have led to fewer jobs and fewer venues for substantial writing; the possibility of leading a public-facing life of the mind now seems vanishingly small, which only heightens nostalgia for the golden age of the 1950s. Yet the shadow of the CIA lurks behind the achievements of that time. The free play of ideas—the very thing that was supposed to distinguish the United States from the Soviet Union in the first place—turned out to be, at least in part, a carefully constructed illusion. What if the prominence of midcentury intellectuals, the sense that they were engaged in important political and artistic projects, is inseparable from the fact that they were useful to America’s Cold War empire?
Joel Whitney’s Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers insists that past glory and present disappointment are inextricably linked. He wants to show that the distinction some make between a “good,” literary CIA and a “bad” one that toppled leftists and subverted democracy around the globe is an artificial one. Whitney argues that the government “weaponized” culture and helped create a compromised media that still serves, “in part, to encourage support for our interventions.” The term he uses in the title—“finks”—implies that the book’s subjects are disreputable actors, complicit in the crimes of the agency that supported their work.
The CIA still stonewalls efforts to understand its history, but journalists and scholars have been able to stitch together interviews and papers of the people and organizations that the agency supported to generate a picture of its activities. In this sense, Whitney picks up the investigative gauntlet thrown by the British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders with the publication of her book Who Paid the Piper? in 1999. As Saunders demonstrated, the CIA didn’t simply hand out money—it actively managed the organizations it supported. What’s more, she showed, many people who feigned ignorance were aware of the connection.
Saunders’s stance reflected the cultural mood of the late 1990s: With the breakup of the Soviet Union, it became easier both to acknowledge the dark side of American power and to see the Cold War as a pretext for U.S. actions rather than the cause of those actions. Later historians, such as Hugh Wilford in The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, have examined the varied reasons why groups and individuals agreed to work with CIA fronts. While Finks is more global than Saunders’s book, devoting more attention to the CIA’s influence from India to Latin America, it represents a return to her mode of exposing hypocritical alliances rather than explaining their historical motivations.
Whitney, like many of his subjects, is co-founder of a literary magazine (Guernica), and he’s the author of an intricate essay, published in Salon in 2012, on how the renowned Paris Review was implicated in the CIA’s program of cultural manipulation. The novelist Peter Matthiessen started the magazine in 1953 with Harold “Doc” Humes, a writer who grew paranoid after overdosing on LSD that Timothy Leary gave him in 1965. In 1977, The New York Times revealed that Matthiessen had been working for the CIA when The Paris Review was founded, and that the magazine had served as part of his cover. He later explained that when he was recruited, “the CIA was brand new, and they were not yet into political assassinations or the other ugly stuff that came later.” But he still insisted that he’d broken his CIA ties after a few years, and that The Paris Review had no further connection to the U.S. government.
Whitney’s investigations in The Paris Review’s archives, however, tell a different story. The magazine remains the great white whale of Finks: Whitney is ever chasing it, searching for its traces in the twilight depths of Cold War espionage. To achieve this, Whitney attempts to link The Paris Review to the central cog in the CIA’s Cold War propaganda machine: the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CCF was founded in 1950 as a home for anticommunist intellectuals who wanted to combat the influence of European communists, fellow travelers, and neutralists. CIA dollars and personnel made it possible, even as the CCF quickly expanded into a global organization that operated magazines, conferences, and art galleries from Asia to South America.
At its height in the ’50s and ’60s, the CCF sponsored sophisticated, cosmopolitan magazines such as Preuves in France, Hiwar in Egypt, Quest in India, Mundo Nuevo in Spain and Latin America, and Encounter in London. Mundo Nuevo was especially influential, publishing leftist writers of the generation of the “boom” in Latin American letters (like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez) alongside international authors like Susan Sontag and Harold Pinter. Still, the CIA felt free to nix articles and exercise prior review. “Brand America’s sales team,” writes Whitney, “thought little of fostering cultural freedom through routine acts of censorship.”
The Paris Review, however, was not part of the CCF. Unlike the CCF magazines, which were generally both political and literary, The Paris Review remained theoretically “apolitical.” But Whitney shows that the CIA’s cultural Cold War helped to shape its content just the same. One of The Paris Review’s editors, Nelson Aldrich Jr., discovered that a government agency had purchased 460 copies of one issue and taken out ten subscriptions. “As far as possible, this information should remain secret,” he cautioned his colleagues. The CCF effectively subsidized many little magazines simply by being a large and regular purchaser.
But its influence didn’t end there. The Paris Review is famous for its in-depth interviews with authors; the CCF paid to syndicate those interviews in its own suite of magazines. This it would only do, of course, if the interview subject was prominent and didn’t conflict with Cold War imperatives. The CCF, Whitney shows, paid higher fees for pieces with elements of anti-Soviet propaganda, like the magazine’s interview with the Russian novelist Boris Pasternak. The CCF also steered The Paris Review toward interview subjects it wanted for its own magazines. George Plimpton, editor of The Paris Review for more than 50 years, revealed in private letters that he knew about the CCF’s connections to the CIA before they were made public. This fits with reporting by Richard Cummings in The American Conservative that Plimpton was an “agent of influence” for the CIA.
The CIA subverted the essential task of an intellectual: to cast a critical eye on orthodoxy and received wisdom.
Through such relationships, the CIA wielded undue influence on the literary landscape. Whitney makes a compelling case, for instance, that the CIA reinforced the literary prestige of white men in American letters. If other nations believed that race relations in America were poor, the agency feared, it would damage our ability to lead the “free” world. So the CIA sponsored African American voices only if their critique of U.S. society wasn’t too sweeping. And even writers it did support, like Richard Wright, found that the CIA was spying on them at the same time. “I lift my hand to fight communism,” Wright wrote, “and I find that the hand of the Western world is sticking knives into my back.” Ex-Communist Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, attended some CCF events; he was the only black writer featured in The Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” series until the 1980s.
The evidence that investigative journalists like Whitney and Saunders have amassed should leave no doubt that the so-called “free market of ideas,” which the CIA claimed to be protecting, was distorted and undermined by the agency’s own activities. The CIA’s cultural apparatus gave intellectuals a way to advance professionally, as long as they rejected radicalism and embraced the necessity of U.S. power in the Cold War. The CIA did not create those opinions, but it amplified them and helped give its warriors the sense of being engaged in a world-historic struggle.
Still, Whitney and other critics of the CIA too often aim to portray the agency and those who worked with it as a single entity acting with a unified purpose. The reality was much messier. Even the term “finks” has an unexpected history.
Whitney picks up the word “finks” from a letter from the novelist and editor Keith Botsford to the sociologist Daniel Bell, both associates of the CCF. For years, Botsford had been trying to convince the CCF to retire Cuadernos, an anticommunist magazine it ran in Latin America. “It was a fink magazine,” he wrote to Bell, meaning that it drew from reactionary thinkers and produced poor quality work. (Jorge Ibargüengoitia, the Mexican satirist, once joked that Cuadernos was so bad that it must have been invented by communists to discredit their own opposition.) Michael Josselson, the CIA’s principal agent for the CCF, fought Botsford’s plan to spike the magazine. But Josselson’s deputy—who swore to Botsford that he wasn’t CIA, when of course he was—backed Botsford. Botsford thought that he’d been played by the CIA’s “finks,” embodied by Josselson. But the “CIA” was on both sides of the debate.
Weaponizing culture, it turned out, was a tricky business. Even Cuadernos criticized the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. The magazine the CCF founded after Cuadernos’s demise in 1965, Mundo Nuevo, criticized the war in Vietnam. Though the magazines still had strategic purposes, the straightforward defense of U.S. intervention was not among them. It is difficult, in fact, to say just who the “finks” are in all of this. If the test of finkdom is collaboration with state spies, then the CIA’s Communist opponents were finks, too.
Whitney sounds a powerful warning about the dangerous interaction between the national security state and the work of writers and journalists. But the precise experience of the cultural Cold War is unlikely to be repeated. A global ideological conflict, cast in civilizational terms, made the work of intellectuals worth subsidizing. Today’s intellectuals are no longer needed as chits in a great power conflict, and our nostalgia for the Cold War generation’s prestige seems increasingly misplaced: An era of heroic thinkers now looks instead like a grubby assortment of operatives, writers who appeared to challenge the establishment without actually being dangerous to it. Jason Epstein was right. The CIA created conditions that subverted the essential task of an intellectual: to cast a critical eye on orthodoxy and received wisdom.
Today the state maintains its capacity to influence political thinking, but the frontiers have shifted. Freedom is now defended less in little magazines than on social media. In 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development was caught nurturing a Cuban version of Twitter—a logical extension of the CIA’s work in the ’50s and ’60s. And as Edward Snowden’s revelations demonstrate, the promotion of freedom through open communications remains uncomfortably intertwined with the potential for surveillance. What’s more, the vehicles we employ for personal speech are not only subject to electronic censorship and propagandistic manipulation by governments: They are also corporate properties. While social media can facilitate the circulation of ideas and the defense of free thought, they also depend on profit-chasing and maximizing saleable engagement. In such a highly mediated and monitored system, the line between participation and unwitting collaboration can be difficult to discern.
Cold War intellectuals didn’t always realize the function they performed as “finks,” as accessories to power in systems they would have preferred not to validate. Today the specific configuration of state interference may have changed, but we remain subject to forces that shape our opinions and the boundaries of our thinking in ways we cannot see clearly. How will we recognize it in ourselves if we, too, are finks?