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Joel Whitney: The CIA’s Cold War Literary Influence

The author of "Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers" discusses how the spy agency used its own form of propaganda to counter criticism.
The author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers discusses how the spy agency used its own form of propaganda through highly respected magazines to counter the rise in communism around the world.
Photo by Beowolf Sheehan

Joel Whitney is a co-founder of the magazine Guernica, a magazine of global arts and politics, and has written for many publications, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. “Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers” describes how the CIA contributed funds to numerous respected magazines during the Cold War, including the Paris Review, to subtly promote anti-communist views. In their conversation, Whitney tells Robert Scheer about the ties the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom had with literary magazines. He talks about the CIA’s attempt during the Cold War to have at least one agent in every major news organization in order to get stories killed if they were too critical or get them to run if they were favorable to the agency. And they discuss the overstatement of the immediate risks and dangers of communist regimes during the Cold War, which, initially, led many people to support the Vietnam War.


Joel Whitney – author, essayist and editor – @joel_whitney

Robert Scheer

Joshua ScheerRebecca Mooney

RS: 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?

JW: 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 stupifyingly 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?

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. And so I’m really happy that we have this book, [Finks:] How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers,” Joel Whitney, available–you get it from OR [Books]/Counterpoint. So thank you.

JW: Thank you.

RS: Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our technical team are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz here at KCRW. Join us again next week.