Robert Fulford's column about the CIA's covert cultural sponsorship

(The National Post, April 25, 2000)

Those who give money to culture usually can't be prevented from celebrating themselves. Corporations love seeing their names printed, as big as possible, on the posters of the shows they partly back. Even du Maurier, which is being pushed out of the sponsorship business by a meddlesome government's anti-tobacco legislation, is still waving frantically for attention at World Stage, the international theatre festival in Toronto: Its brand name appeared in bigger type on the program for The Far Side of the Moon than the name of Robert Lepage, who merely conceived, directed, co-wrote and performed that wonderfully clever and wonderfully touching one-man show.

While staring at the Lepage program during intermission the other night, and brooding for the 100th time on arrogant typographical exhibitionism, I thought about an occasion when a somewhat more famous sponsor took precisely the opposite approach -- total secrecy. From 1950 to the late 1970s, the Central Intelligence Agency covertly spent many millions of dollars spreading American art and American ideas while hiding behind a front organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CIA practiced stealth subsidy.

That project was clownish in some ways -- and totally undemocratic. In theory it was a terrible idea. But what didn't work in theory worked in practice. It left unwitting readers of CIA publications with highly conflicted feelings. I, for one, sternly disapprove of the whole idea but also remain permanently grateful for it.

Its most famous product, Encounter magazine, was dazzling, easily the best intellectual journal in English at the time and better than anything published since. Every month, leafing through its elegantly designed pages, you could find writers such as Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden, Mary McCarthy and James Baldwin. It was Encounter, more than anything else, that created the public reputation of Isaiah Berlin. The magazine never felt like the work of a committee, though from the start there were shadowy figures in the background, breathing down the necks of the original co-editors, Irving Kristol and Stephen Spender. On one notable occasion the bosses in Paris vetoed a negative article on America by Dwight Macdonald. The Congress for Cultural Freedom believed in all freedoms except the freedom to criticize the United States.

It began in the early years of the Cold War, when many European intellectuals admired the Soviet Union more than the United States. In Paris, even in Stalinist days, it was considered eccentric to be passionately anti-communist; if you were also pro-American, you were considered an outright loon. In England, things weren't all that different. A soon-to-be-famous journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, said that the New Statesman magazine had somehow established "the proposition that to be intelligent is to be Left, whereas almost the exact opposite is true."

Muggeridge urged the Americans to get into high-level propaganda. The CIA set up the Congress in Paris and began funnelling clandestine money toward it. Officially, something like 170 foundations donated money; in fact, they were all conduits for CIA funds, many set up for that reason alone. In England the foreign office furtively contributed modest sums, sometimes as bank notes in plain brown envelopes delivered to the office and sometimes as grants laundered through four bank accounts before they finally arrived in the pocket of Spender -- who maintained to his dying breath that he never, ever knew the CIA was his undercover boss.

The agency backed not only Encounter in England but also its cousins: Der Monat in Germany, Preuves in France, Tempo Presente in Italy and some lesser-known journals. It paid for the translation or publication of roughly 1,000 books, and one year spent $750,000 (US) sending the Metropolitan Opera on a European tour. It promoted the exhibitions that established New York abstract expressionist painting as the major art style of the post-1950 period. It was much like the British Council or (later) the Canada Council, except that it had to pretend it wasn't.

The secrecy wasn't primarily to fool the public. Europeans viewed much of this activity with a certain skepticism, knowing that it was backed by American foundations; they probably wouldn't have greatly changed their views had they known that American taxpayers rather than American capitalists were paying the bills. The people who had to be kept in the dark were members of the U.S. Congress. The CIA had privately decided to fight communism by backing the anti-communist Left. The intellectuals who turned up at CIA-sponsored conferences and appeared in CIA-sponsored magazines were usually democratic socialists. That could never have been explained to Senator Joseph McCarthy and his sympathizers. But the CIA, its budget a black hole, was the one agency that never had to explain anything.

Eventually, a member of Congress began to expose the program. In 1964 Congressman Wright Patman, analyzing tax-free foundations, discovered that some were mainly mail drops. Journalists finally picked up on this a couple of years later, and by 1967 the secret was out. In the 1970s the CIA abandoned culture entirely (so far as we know). Melvin J. Lasky, who had started the whole program in 1950 and co-edited Encounter from 1958, kept the magazine flickeringly alive till 1991. When it died, hardly anyone mourned; the real Encounter had been gone a long time.

The story is still not entirely known (the CIA seldom obeys the Freedom of Information Act) but over the years it has emerged slowly from the shadows.

The most thorough history has recently appeared: Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta), by Frances Stonor Saunders. Aside from offering a vigorously researched account of these remarkable events, she delivers great lashings of gossip, some of which may fall into the too-good-to-be-true category. She tells us, for instance, that the CIA acquired the right to make George Orwell's Animal Farm into a film by promising his widow an introduction to Clark Gable.

When the source of the money became known, Spender resigned as co-editor of Encounter. Years later I asked him about it. He said he had no objection to U.S. government backing; it was the secrecy he objected to.

A socialite intellectual who was once described as a minor poet but a major luncher, Spender was being typically innocent and typically evasive. He must have known as well as anyone that without secrecy, it could never have happened.

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