PRINT Summer 2000


Frances Stonor Saunders

AS CONSPIRACIES GO, this one featured a most unlikely concatenation of players and aims. A few years after its founding in 1947, the CIA began a campaign to promote international “cultural initiatives” in complex, covert association with the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an organization of intellectuals, writers, scientists, and artists established by anti-Stalinist, social-democratic Americans and Europeans in the Berlin of 1950. The CCF aimed to mobilize the energies of the “Non-Communist Left” and to meet head-on the worldwide challenge of the Cominform, the Soviet cultural organization. From the start the CIA was the CCF’s major financial backer and was able to arrange for at least one and maybe more of its operatives to join the highest level of CCF administration; remarkably, most CCF participants seem to have had no knowledge of these involvements.

The CCF was a serious enterprise. More than 200 notable thinkers attended its inaugural convocation, which concluded with a sweeping, exhortatory manifesto delivered by Arthur Koestler to a crowd of 15,000. Such significant personages as Benedetto Croce, John Dewey, Karl Jaspers, Jacques Maritain, and Bertrand Russell were made honorary presidents. The CCF supported influential magazines throughout the world, including Preuves in France, Tempo Presente in Italy, Forum in Austria, Quadrant in Australia, Quest in India, and, most important, Encounter, the London-based CCF “flagship.” From its Paris headquarters, the CCF set up affiliated committees in other countries and organized conferences and exhibitions that covered art, literature, music, science, technology, and economics in cities as diverse as Bombay, Cairo, Tokyo, Rome, and Khartoum. One such event, “L’Oeuvre du Vingtième Siècle,” staged by the CCF in 1952 in Paris and underwritten by an Agency front called the Farfield Foundation, presented literary symposia and modern art—including works by Kandinsky, Matisse, and Cézanne—drawn from US collections, as well as symphonies, chamber pieces, opera, and ballet by more than sixty twentieth-century US and European composers. The festival was an impressive cultural event—but it also comprised a set of arguments, a show, as one CCF official stated in a confidential memo, of “the cultural solidarity and interdependence of European and American civilization.” As James Johnson Sweeney, curator of the festival’s art section and a former director of MoMA, put it in a press release, the included works were supposed to demonstrate “the desirability for contemporary artists of living and working in an atmosphere of freedom.”

A little over a decade later, everything went bad. Between 1964 and 1967, articles in the New York Times, Ramparts, and the Saturday Evening Post revealed the CIA–CCF connection. The CCF collapsed. Though reborn almost immediately as the International Association for Cultural Freedom, it was a pale reflection of its former self, now solely underwritten by the Ford Foundation.

What did it all mean? In her alternately vivid and disappointing The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders attempts an answer, writing that “cultural freedom does not come cheap. . . . The CIA was to pump tens of millions of dollars into the Congress for Cultural Freedom and related projects. With this kind of commitment, the CIA was in effect acting as America’s Ministry of Culture.” In defense of her thesis, Saunders draws extensively on primary and secondary sources, focusing on the convoluted money trail as it twists through dummy corporations, front men, anonymous donors, and phony fund-raising events aimed at filling the CCF’s coffers. She makes lengthy forays into such topics as McCarthyism, the formation and operation of the CIA, the propaganda work of the Hollywood film industry, and New York cultural politics—from Partisan Review to MoMA to Abstract Expressionism. Yet what seems strangely absent from Saunders’s panoramic history, as if it were a minor detail or something too obvious to require discussion, is the cultural object itself: The complex specifics of the texts, exhibitions, intellectual gatherings, paintings, and performances of the culture war are largely left out of the story. And while there is much to be said for setting the covert-funding record straight, Saunders draws way too direct a line between patronage and the artist’s work. Published in the United Kingdom as Who Paid the Piper?, the book significantly overstates the role of CIA paymasters in calling Cold War–era tunes.

The Cultural Cold War is often anecdotal, driven by incident and personality. Saunders describes the work as “a secret history, insofar as it believes in the relevance of the power of personal relationships, of ‘soft’ linkages and collusions, and the significance of salon diplomacy and boudoir politicking.” At its best, this makes for a vivid read, giving voices to the many characters in her narrative. At its worst, this “secret history” seems to offer up nothing more than melodrama, sensationalism, and scandal that ranges from novelistic description (“Michael sat in silence, his slender, well-manicured fingers drumming on the desk. He looked tired—tired of waiting here this morning, tired from the last two decades of relentless work”) to tabloid-style character sketches: “[He was] by all accounts a sinister figure. Physically ugly, he taunted other men with his homosexuality by tweaking their nipples at staff meetings. He was once arrested for hanging around the public lavatories in Lafayette Park . . .”

The more interesting, illuminating, and serious story here—driven equally by incident and by personality—turns on the conflicts within and around the CCF. Hard-line anti-Communists of the New York–based American Committee for Cultural Freedom were endlessly at odds with the parent organization in Paris; arguments ensued across many levels and venues of the CCF over the Rosenberg case, McCarthyism, and the position of minority groups in the US. Indeed, Saunders notes that the CIA itself may have engineered the exposure of its CCF connections to get rid of a highly undependable liability.

Does the fact of such “undependability” and internecine conflict suggest that the CCF was in practice an independent organization despite its CIA backing? Saunders offers few examples of direct, coercive CIA involvement in specific CCF activities or arguments, and she doesn’t make clear how background Agency financial pressure translated into any sort of coherent, coordinated control over the CCF’s work. It would certainly have been helpful, for example, if she had at least outlined, if not carefully analyzed, the contents of a few issues of Encounter rather than focusing almost exclusively on its covert financing and administration.

These problems point to a possibility suggested though not seriously followed through by Saunders: CIA intervention was not necessary to the overall functioning of the CCF as a viable Cold War instrument, filled as it was by “right-thinking people [sharing] internalized preconceptions” (to cite Noam Chomsky on US mass media). Moreover, hers is a picture of a culture war essentially driven by American interests. But as historian Giles Scott-Smith argues in a forthcoming work on the CCF (The Politics of Apolitical Culture, Routledge, 2001), “The ideological struggle over possible postwar worlds was not so much a mere extension of US foreign policy goals as a struggle between groups within European society,” a struggle matched in turn within the CCF itself.

Saunders’s position on “Cold War art” is alternately hard to make out and troublesome. She attributes the worldwide success of postwar American painting—and somewhat more cautiously, of abstraction itself—to a systematic program of politically oriented patronage, a thesis at least as old as Eva Cockcroft’s June 1974 Artforum article, “Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War,” which examined MoMA’s CIA connections and its international promotion of the new American painting. The most penetrating account of this subject to date was offered by Serge Guilbaut in his landmark study, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (University of Chicago Press, 1983), in which he argued that the work of New York School painters “coincid[ed] fairly closely” with postwar liberal ideology, which in its turn celebrated “avant-garde dissidence.”

Saunders, for her part, doesn’t address this question with any real seriousness, since she has almost nothing specific to say about painting. Yet, in its fashion, The Cultural Cold War makes claims resembling those of Guilbaut’s, the internal tensions of which have been noted in Michael Leja’s Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s (Yale University Press, 1993). Leja contends that Guilbaut “offers two different explanations for the success of New York School paintings”: that, on the one hand, the artists “adapted their work to the same historical forces that were also producing the ideology of the powerful liberal bourgeois elite,” and that, on the other, “the sheer ambiguity of the paintings opened them to appropriation by those same powerful interests.”

The Cultural Cold War provides similarly differing explanations for the New York School’s success. Saunders argues, first of all, that Abstract Expressionism was “appropriated” by “interested” Cold War players (albeit with at least the tacit complicity and assent of some artists), and that, on the other hand, artists in some vague way “adapted their work”: “In the splurgy, random knot of lines,” she writes, “[Pollock] seemed to be engaged in the act of rediscovering America”; “It was this very stylistic conformity, prescribed by MoMA and the broader social contract of which it was a part, that brought Abstract Expressionism to the verge of kitsch.”

In either case, Saunders winds up presuming exactly what needs to be carefully argued: that there is a more or less tight causal link between the initiatives of powerful elites—the directives and intentions of both institutional and individual players—and the cultural object, its conditions of production, the systems of its display and distribution, its reception, content, and form. Saunders tells a story of “spies and dupes,” of money, mendacity, and manipulation, but the site and stake of the whole operation, “the world of arts and letters,” remains, in this account, terra incognita.


Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. New York: The New Press, 2000, 528 pages.