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The CIA and the Intellectuals

Once there was a Communist rally in Union Square. The police came to break it up and soon the officers had begun to use their clubs. One protester objected that he was not a Communist but an anti-Communist. “I don’t care what kind of Communist you are,” the officer replied and continued to beat him.

I don’t recall just when in the 1950s I began to suspect that the CIA together with the State Department, the Ford Foundation, and similar institutions had turned anti-Stalinism into a flourishing sub-profession for a number of former radicals and other left-wing intellectuals who were then and are still my friends in New York. No doubt the evidence was all around me well before I began to piece it together or before it popped into my head, as such discoveries do, that organized anti-Communism had become as much an industry within New York’s intellectual life as Communism itself had been a decade or so earlier, and that it involved many of the same personnel. An important difference, however, was that the new enterprise was far more luxuriously financed than its predecessor had been, involving branch operations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, together with subsidized publications in all these places, to say nothing of conferences and seminars on such a scale and in so many countries and with so much air travel to and fro that even the Ford Foundation, which was ostensibly paying for much of this activity, could hardly be assumed to be paying for it all.

THAT NO VISIBLE government agency was involved, except now and then the State Department, suggested that there had to be an invisible one. The invisible agency that we all began to hear about in the early Fifties was the CIA. The conclusion was, or should have been, obvious, but for those who, like myself, were not let in on the secret there was little more we could do than speculate, often irritably, when the spokesmen for American democracy departed each spring for Paris, Bombay, or Tokyo.

What most irritated us, beside the fact that we were not invited, was that the government seemed to be running an underground gravy train whose first-class compartments were not always occupied by first-class passengers: the CIA and the Ford Foundation, among other agencies, had set up and were financing an apparatus of intellectuals selected for their correct cold-war positions, as an alternative to what one might call a free intellectual market where ideology was presumed to count for less than individual talent and achievement, and where doubts about established orthodoxies were taken to be the beginning of all inquiry. In the recent controversy over the CIA’s involvement with the intellectuals, this point seems not to have been made: that it was not a matter of buying off and subverting individual writers and scholars, but of setting up an arbitrary and factitious system of values by which academic personnel were advanced, magazine editors appointed, and scholars subsidized and published, not necessarily on their merits, though these were sometimes considerable, but because of their allegiances. The fault of the CIA was not that it corrupted the innocent but that it tried, in collusion with a group of insiders, to corner a free market. Given the illustrious bankers and lawyers1 who ran the CIA and the big foundations, the tactics should have surprised no one, and after a while they didn’t. One sighed to discover still another well-heeled racket emerging from the thickets of American public and corporate life, this time, alas, landing on one’s own doorstep.

Yet this puts it too simply, for the individuals involved (many intellectuals, of course, were not involved at all or even aware of what was going on) were not nearly so homogeneous as this account suggests, nor were the degrees of involvement or the particular attitudes toward the conspiracy all of a piece. To understand the New York intellectual world of the time (the term is unfortunate but unavoidable: it was more than New York and more or less than intellectual and it was never quite a world) one would have had to experience it directly or, failing that, must await the future Proust of Manhattan’s Upper West Side where most of its activity took place.

IN THE 1950s intellectual life in New York was far more hermetic than it is now. It centered on the overlapping and often interchangeable worlds of Partisan Review and Commentary, many of whose members had met as students during the Depression in the city colleges of New York. As students most of them had rejected New Deal liberalism in favor of one or another form of radical Marxism. All of them rejected, or came to reject, Stalinism. The intellectual atmosphere in which they came of age was highly polemicized. Its intensity lasted well into the Fifties and has hardly begun to dissipate even now. Partisan Review was radical (or had once been), literary, Marxist, cosmopolitan, avant-garde, Trotskyite, middle-aged, bohemian. Commentary, in the early Fifties, was assimilationist, though not assimilated, anti-Stalinist to the point of rejecting radicalism altogether, and thus involved in a search for ways to accommodate itself to the prevailing system of American values which then, as to a greater degree now, were predicated on an expanding economy based on rising profits and the ideology of the Cold War. This is not to say that Partisan‘s residual radicalism was not unmixed with complacency or that Commentary‘s assimilationism excluded sharp criticism of American society, nor does it mean that the writers and editors associated with either magazine were mutually antagonistic. They were friends who spoke a common language, and if they differed, the differences were kept pretty much within the family. Nor was this comradeship so narrow that it did not extend to the New Leader, which carried Commentary‘s position to the Right until it blended with the line taken by Time, Fortune, and even The Reader’s Digest or to Dissent, which was to take a position to the Left of Partisan and anticipated much of the intensified radical tone which was to emerge in the Sixties.

This comradeship had many sources, among them the Marxist and Jewish origins of many of its members, which created an atmosphere so warm and moist that it swiftly seduced even the assortment of WASPS, Negroes, Irishmen, and others who came near it. More important was the common and sometimes obsessive hatred of Stalinism which the present generation of radicals finds so hard to understand, though the emotional content of this hatred may not be so very different from their own feelings toward those intellectuals who were or seemed to be conspiring with the CIA. For the intellectuals of the Fifties Stalin had not only purged and tortured his former comrades, killed millions of Russians, signed the pact with Hitler, and suppressed the writers and artists. He had also done something which directly affected their own lives, much as the CIA and the State Department have not only burned the crops and villages and people of Vietnam, but have also brought so much anguish into the lives of so many young people today. What Stalin did to the generation of intellectuals who came of age between the Thirties and Fifties was to betray the idealism and innocence of their youth. By perverting revolutionary Marxism, he cheated them, as it were, in their very souls. That they should have devoted the rest of their energies to retribution was hardly surprising.

But anti-Stalinism was far more than a matter of personal pique. There was also the objective fact, or what seemed then to be the objective fact, of Stalin’s political ambitions in Europe and elsewhere, including the United States. These were the days of the Waldorf Conference, with its squalid attempt by Communists and fellow-travelers at cultural manipulation; of the Korean War and the Berlin Blockade; a time when the lights of Warsaw and Prague, we were told, shone dimly through prison windows. Though Gar Alperovitz and other revisionist historians may be correct to argue that American fears and ambitions had as much to do with the origins of the Cold War as the manipulations of Stalin and Molotov, it would have seemed absurd fifteen years ago to dismiss the threat of Soviet aggression. A European war seemed to us then a distinct and appalling possibility and no one dreamed that anyone but Stalin was likely to start it.

THESE IN ANY CASE were the affections, fears, and resentments which joined and articulated the political intellectuals in New York in the Fifties. The ligaments were strong enough so that for nearly a decade no amount of temperamental difference or difference of emphasis or degree or even of personal feeling could seriously weaken them.

Even Irving Kristol’s famous article on McCarthy and the liberals which appeared in Commentary could be accommodated, though not without raising a distinct bulge or swelling at the far right of the organism. In this essay Kristol was testing an extreme hypothesis. He was trying to blame McCarthyism partly on the weakness and confusion with which such liberal writers as Alan Barth and Henry Steele Commager regarded Stalinism. Because the liberals were not sufficiently aggressive in their pursuit of Stalinists and because they defended the civil liberties of such menacing types as Owen Lattimore, they allowed McCarthy to flourish more or less by default and, what is worse, to identify liberalism and Stalinism as comparable if not indistinguishable heresies. Though Kristol specifically condemned McCarthyism on the usual grounds, he seemed rather more upset by Commager and Barth than by McCarthy and his feckless fellow Committee members. At the time (it was 1952) this article agitated nearly everyone, though it was also said, in Kristol’s defense, that he had done no more than carry the logic of anti-Stalinism to its utmost point, purging it of its last traces of liberal sentimentality. Though the Oder-Neisse Line was still unbreached (and was, of course, to remain so) we were nonetheless at war, so Kristol’s defenders argued. Thus his attack on the liberals was a necessary and practical response, if America was not to be damaged by internal subversion.2 In those days Kristol was thinking of writing a book on Machiavelli. Shortly thereafter he became the first American editor of Encounter and, though it would take years before it burst, the small swelling on the far right had begun to suppurate. If Kristol found it possible to suggest that McCarthy was something of a necessary evil, willing to do a dirty job which respectable citizens lacked the courage or insight to take on, and if he found support for his case from some of his intellectual friends, was there any aspect of America’s fight with Communism which he or they might ultimately find intolerable? It was an interesting question and one still awaits the answer.

  1. 1

    John McCloy, who had been US High Commissioner for Germany, later became chairman of the Ford Foundation. John Foster Dulles and later Dean Rusk went from the presidency of the Rockefeller Foundation to become Secretary of State. When McGeorge Bundy decided to leave the White House, where he had been Special Assistant to the President in Charge of National Security, which meant, among other things, looking after the CIA, McCloy hired him to run the Ford Foundation. McCloy said that after looking high and low he could not find a more suitable man for the job. Bundy’s brother William, who works in the Pentagon, had been with the CIA until 1961. The point here is not to insinuate guilt by association but to suggest that the CIA was not the only agency which might have had the political interests of the United States in mind when it chose to support, or not support, one or another cultural project. To a certain extent the large foundations have always acted as extensions of government. Shepard Stone, who served during World War I as a lieutenant colonel in US Army Intelligence and later with McCloy on the US High Commission for Germany, has been director of International Affairs for the Ford Foundation since 1954. Recently the Ford Foundation undertook to provide major support for the Congress for Cultural Freedom. For years the Congress funneled CIA money into various overseas publications, conferences, and other international cultural enterprises. A year or so ago the connection between the Congress and the CIA became the subject of widespread speculation. At this point the CIA began to withdraw its funds, and Ford, which had always taken an interest in the Congress, began to increase its support. It would be naive to assume that Ford’s main interest had been to preserve its tax exemption, as had been the case with some of the smaller foundations which served as CIA fronts. No doubt the proprietors of the large foundations felt it their duty, as leading citizens, to cooperate with United States foreign policy. That Ford should pick up where the CIA left off must have seemed to its managers only natural. The trouble with all this is not that the foundations conspired darkly with an espionage agency, but that, insofar as the projects they supported were politically motivated, they were not motivated by disinterested literary or scientific criteria. This is not, of course, to say that all the projects undertaken by Ford and Rockefeller which may have advanced US interests were terrible. Some of them were useful. But the principle on which the foundations made their decisions concerning certain cultural projects was sometimes impure, since it mixed political with literary or scholarly considerations.

  2. 2

    By this time many Communists had begun to switch their allegiance. A number of them were already employed by the CIA.

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