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The CIA and the Intellectuals

That the CIA, sensing an advantageous breeding ground for some of its own delusions in the sophisticated rationalizations of which some of these cold warriors were capable, had begun to move in at this point, or even earlier, is of small importance. What really mattered was a question of intellectual principle, an attitude toward history and toward one’s own country and, most important, toward the life of the intellect itself. Was McCarthyism a price worth paying for a polemical victory in the war with Communism? Was not Kristol’s form of anti-Communism (at one point in his essay he seemed to say that Stalin, Goering, and Hiss were comparable monsters) likely to deaden the mind and feelings, so that when the war in Vietnam fell into our laps some of us would have grown too rigid to feel the stupidity and arrogance from which it evolved and which continues to sustain it?

AMERICA GAVE US more to worry about then than McCarthyism, as it gives us more to worry about today than Vietnam. The hysteria of the early Fifties and the killing that goes on today are not isolated and discrete symptoms but aspects of a larger sickness whose signs became unmistakable as the Fifties wore on. Toward the end of the decade it became clear to many of us that the evils of Stalinism did not guarantee a corresponding virtue in one’s own country (Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, which was published originally in Commentary at the end of the decade, put the case most clearly). There was both more and less to defend here at home than we may once have thought. By the Sixties, a defense of America became no simple thing, and as this perplexity became more oppressive the coherence of the intellectual community began at last to give way.

For the sake of convenience let us say that from the original harmony two factions emerged. Except at their extremes they were never quite separate in all respects, and they embraced, in the complex spaces between them, a range of subtly articulated commitments and personalities whose ambiguity makes them impossible to classify. Because of the present atmosphere and the dim but not unimaginable possibility that a Whittaker Chambers of the Left may yet emerge—as well as the impossibility of meaningful classification, given the complex personalities and events with which I must deal—I prefer not to identify these factions by the individuals who may have comprised them. I shall leave this to the future Proust whom I have already imagined and who may, for all I know, be at work even now. Instead I shall take a different risk and attempt to describe these factions categorically. To do so will involve much oversimplification and perhaps a degree of harshness toward the faction which I shall call the Right, whose convictions I do not share, as well as some benevolence toward the other side.

Yet the terms Left and Right are themselves misleading, for the split did not arise primarily from arguments over socialism, over who should control the engines of the economy or how the wealth should be distributed. The issue was deeper. It had to do not with who controlled and benefited from the exploitation of the land and the people, but with the very fact of exploitation itself. The facts are clearer now than they were ten years ago. Then it surprised us to find that the country seemed to have fallen into a frenzy of self-destruction, tearing its cities apart, fouling its landscapes, poisoning the streams and skies, trivializing the education of its children, and not for substantial human happiness, which could never have been advanced by these tactics, but for higher profits and rapidly increased economic growth. Profits and growth were values which almost no one at the time questioned, yet they took precedence over the more traditional values of personal privacy, individual achievement, and meaningful work. What we were experiencing was the familiar philistine expansionism (of which the Vietnamese are only the latest victims), this time attached to a formidable technology whose alarming possibilities were as yet unclear, but which was even then depressingly out of human scale and growing larger and more autonomous every day. Nor did this expansion seem to do much good in the one area where its mischief might have been excused. The poor by contrast with the new prosperity were relatively worse off than ever, not only in America but throughout the world, and it had begun to seem, in spite of the rhetoric which the spokesmen for the future Kennedy administration must even then have been preparing, that the situation of the poor could only worsen as the middle class grunted its way upward, as the federal bureaucracies grew more elaborate, and as the pursuit of money and power became openly America’s main, if not its only, business.

It was bad enough that this should be happening at home. That for the sake of limiting Communist expansion, of which by the end of the decade there was considerably less evidence than we had been led to expect, the United States should try to impose its national obsessions on the rest of the world seemed positively sinister. What the poorer countries needed was not anti-Communist ideology, but ways to overcome their poverty. Yet this was what the United States, for all its aid programs, seemed unable or unwilling to provide. Instead we seemed to be supporting reactionary regimes all over the world. The contrast between wealth in America and poverty elsewhere seemed to many of us the real source of whatever was poisoning the world. The real trouble was not any longer Stalinism, and it had begun to seem that it probably wasn’t Communism either.

TO THE OPPOSING FACTION—let us call it, with the necessary reservations, the faction of the Right—these views seemed at best infantile and self-righteous, based on a naive grasp of human nature which ignored the hard facts of practical life and political power. At worst they smelled of subversion, of revolution perhaps, and thus potentially of the same romantic Jacobinism whose most recent expression was, of course, Stalinism. For the Right, too, there were serious defects within the American system, but they were not problems of substance—problems within the national will, so to speak—but of technical maladjustment. It was only a matter of gathering the right statistics, of finding and using the right levers for the machine to operate smoothly, for the skies to clear, the streams to freshen, and some day for a Negro to become president of AT&T.

Meanwhile the major problem was not within the national will but in the minds and hearts, we were told, of Asians and Africans who must be saved from Communism and thus not lose their chance to shop or live in the great emporium which America was building for the world—though how they were to afford the bargains was hard to understand. For this faction the ghost of Stalin, already an ember in his obscure grave, was still more present than the flesh and blood of America’s increasingly arrogant and aggrandizing recklessness, an expansionism which, from the point of view of ordinary human satisfaction, had come to seem, by the early Sixties, compulsive, obsessed, and even insane, and which had begun to sicken not only large numbers of Americans, particularly the young, but countless others throughout the world.

In despair over these errant friends of the Right one would sometimes imagine a caricature of their motives, in which, for them, the climactic event in American history, the proof of God’s Providence, the sufficient justification for the sins of the fathers, was their own arrival, from the sidewalks of New York and Chicago, to tenured positions in respected universities, to distinguished lectureships and invitations to dine and dance at the White House. From this it is easy to see how there would follow a conviction that the forces of darkness were associated with any attempt to change or criticize the American system radically. Thus there was justice in a holy war against the Anabaptists and other Romantics of the Left, and meaning in the claim that all opposing ideologies are null, that ideology had given way at last to truth.

I would marvel and be puzzled that my friends on the Right who held such positions as these did not acknowledge, and so must not have felt, that split between one’s private sense of order and the enlarging chaos and ugliness of American life, that split which made it so easy and so alarming to know how Jefferson must have trembled for his country when he considered that God is just. Is it possible that the distinction which I am trying to make between these opposing caricatures of Left and Right comes down at last not to a question of principle but to a way of feeling? Is it a flaw in me to be too quickly irritated by what may be perfectly correctable faults in the world if only I am patient? Is it their weakness to be complacent in the face of faults with which we have lived long enough? These are questions of nuance and shading. Yet there remains the ferocity of that anti-Stalinism which seemed once to supply a defense of McCarthyism, and there is still the war in Asia, which one of my friends once defended on the ground that this was the only way to save our intellectual friends in Bombay and Delhi, otherwise they would surely be purged in a Communist avalanche. But no one has laid a hand on any Indian intellectual that I know of and we still kill families in Vietnam. Perhaps it is no more than a question of feeling, but then perhaps everything else is too.

BUT WHAT OF THE CIA and what of the gravy train which at this very instant is taking on passengers and leaving others off? It should be clear by now that whatever the role of the CIA it was probably less that of the chief culprit than of an accessory after the fact. The faction on the Right which I have attempted to describe did not need to be bought off. It needed only to be supported in what it was convinced was a virtuous and necessary enterprise. That it could travel in style while defending the interests of mankind was so much to the good, but its members would probably have sustained their convictions even had they been operating out of a cellar on Bleecker Street. Or would they have? Weren’t there at least some for whom the official limousines, the lectureships, the grants, and other allowances gave proof in the Calvinist sense of the predestined rightness of their choice?

Wasn’t having succeeded in this society not only innocent enough but a sign of some larger harmony amongst oneself, the nation, and the universe as a whole? There is a kind of smugness which comes from having achieved or otherwise acquired the signs of success to which. I would guess, not even St. Francis or Thoreau or Allen Ginsberg, in the privacy of their minds, can have been entirely immune. Yet undoubtedly there are those who are more susceptible than others to the flattery bestowed by the possession of wordly goods and honors, and who will therefore argue that the society which supplies them must be just, that furthermore it is only a matter of time before these benefits will flow out to all the world if only the world can be patient and follow the correct behavior. Not surprisingly, it was to my friends of this general persuasion that the CIA and the other institutions with which it worked gave the greatest support, often without their certain knowledge of where the support was coming from. No doubt this puts it crudely and perhaps unfairly. Yet I am certain that Allen Ginsberg paid his own way to India, that Philip Rahv and Irving Howe, to name only two, never went anywhere, and that neither the CIA nor the Ford Foundation nor the State Department has helped support the demonstrations at Berkeley. It was, to use a term favored by the intellectuals of the Fifties, the all rightniks who did most of the expensive traveling.3

There was, in other words, a genuine community of interest and conviction between the entrepreneurs of American cold war diplomacy and those intellectuals who, to put it bluntly, were hired to perform tasks which often turned out to be a form of public relations in support of American cold war policies.

That there may have been innocence on the side of some employees and patriotically inspired guile on the side of the employers is another matter. Certainly there were many intellectuals, writers, and scholars, especially among the Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans, who had no idea what they were getting into but who were nonetheless susceptible to the enchantment of American money, as hardly anyone on earth, and particularly from its poorer precincts, would not have been. Though many of these would surely have been disturbed to know that the funds came from the CIA and not from what appeared to be legitimate sources, there were probably others who would have argued that a dollar is a dollar no matter where it comes from. That such questions seldom arose, at least in the Fifties, must have to do with the fact that only a handful were attached to the secret apparatus directly and thus in a position to know the true source of the funds. Furthermore, many of the projects supported by the consortium—which is how one might as well refer to the combination, partly secret, partly overt, of the legitimate foundations, the CIA, and the State Department—were sufficiently distinguished and useful, whatever their auspices, so that one did not, in spite of the rumors that increasingly circulated, want to see them destroyed. Not only was it important to keep the magazines, the seminars, the ballets, and so forth going, but, at least in the Fifties it could also have been argued that American interests were not—or did not seem to be—as questionable as they have since become.

WITH THE SIXTIES, however, there developed a prevailing uneasiness and, as the war in Vietnam grew more outrageous, mounting disgust. True, the overseas magazines which the consortium continues to support, now chiefly through overt agencies, still have their distinguished moments, particularly in their literary departments.4 Yet one despairs to recall in their political pages so much sighing over the situation in Poland and so little said about the Latin American dictatorships supported by the United States, or about the Negro problem, or the protests throughout the world over our war in Vietnam. The depressing fact is that the cadre of intellectuals who had been arbitrarily placed in high journalistic and other cultural positions by means of United States funds, were never, as a result of this sponsorship, to be quite free. What limited them was nothing so simple as coercion, though coercion at some levels may have been involved, but something more like the inevitable relations between employer and employee in which the wishes of the former become implicit in the acts of the latter.

Of the employers—that is, those who belonged to the secret apparatus directly—many were perhaps no worse than careerists who, understandably if not commendably, preferred their romantic work to the academic or commercial opportunities that awaited them in the conventional economy of the free world. The motives of other insiders may have been more idealistic, though in retrospect the innocence which can have sustained such idealism must be painful to contemplate. But whatever their motives, their behavior produced an effect that cut even deeper than the tendentiousness of their political commitments. In joining a secret apparatus, these insiders left themselves no choice but to lie to their colleagues—their friends—about questions of the greatest personal importance, that is: Who has hired me and what are his interests? Organizations ostensibly devoted to cultural freedom and the pursuit of truth were thus based upon lies. To understand the pathos of this situation one must think back to the days of the Communist fronts and their atmosphere of betrayal, in which the interests of the apparatus came routinely to supersede personal loyalty, simple candor, and ordinary honor. For some of these employees, the discovery that they had all along been working for the CIA, had been lied to by their friends and colleagues, and thus were tricked into deceiving others, must be truly unbearable, particularly for those who may have had similar experiences a generation earlier in connection with Communism.

By the Sixties most beneficiaries of the consortium had come to suspect, if not necessarily to acknowledge even to themselves, that the bankers and lawyers, the Dulleses and McCloys and their representatives, who set up and operated the consortium, were not moved by a disinterested love of the intellect or by deep aesthetic convictions: they were interested instead in protecting and extending American power. It had at last become clear how bad a bargain the intellectuals had made, that it could never have been in the interest of art or literature, of serious speculation of any kind, or even of humanity itself, for them to serve the will of any nation. Many of them by this time had begun to make other arrangements for themselves. Most of them will probably be gone by the time the CIA acts on the recent proposal that hereafter it carry on its cultural programs in the open. As distressing as the secrecy may have been, it had, after all, been necessary, given the limited amount of reality which even the best men can bear.

THE SITUATION in the Fifties, with its secrecy, with its promise of eventual betrayal and the recriminations that were to follow, seems to have been somewhat analogous to that of the scientists who went to Roosevelt with their plan for the bomb in the noble hope of destroying Hitler before he destroyed us. Who can say that they should never have gone ahead? But who does not now wish that they had never begun? Yet it now seems to have been inevitable and the damage can’t be undone. Perhaps there is a necessary trap in human affairs by which the intellect, no matter how pure the will, must always, in the end, find itself at the disposal of more highly organized powers, if not consistently then long enough to regret the affiliation.

Of the two intellectual factions which I have tried to describe, one is now haunted by the darkness of the present moment in America. Yet there are still others who remain champions of empire and busy themselves with plans for the year 2000 of its rule, predictably subsidized in their labors by the large foundations and the government agencies. What they seem to be doing is projecting, through elaborately computed analyses, an American future which will include a minimum of our present chaos and despair and which, perhaps incidentally, will have no place for Marx’s messianic idea that to make the world right we have to make something new out of the old order. Caught up in fantasies of the efficiency of American business and forgetting that this efficiency, such as it is, is mainly directed at making profits, at no matter what cost to rational social arrangements and useful production, these thinkers seem to feel that within the present structure of American society there can be found the principles as well as the will from which to construct the future happiness of mankind. There are of course many, and not in America alone, who will now disagree with them. Dimly one begins to feel the old arguments taking shape again between these proponents of a bright future based on American power and good will—these men whose pragmatic pretensions now seem more quixotic than ever—and those others who have reason to fear such power and doubt its good will, and who seem, at the moment, to occupy positions not merely to their left but to surround them on all sides.

Letters

The End of the Affair June 1, 1967

  1. 3

    On two occasions I did some myself.

  2. 4

    Some of these projects, particularly in the underdeveloped areas, seem genuinely to support legitimate local interests, often against US policy. On the other hand, one must assume that such independence is tolerated by headquarters with the understanding that the funds can always be cut off when the radical movements get out of hand and that in the meantime it does no harm to know what the local intellectuals are thinking about.

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