There are still many people—perhaps the majority of the politically sophisticated—who can rationalize CIA’s involvement with private organizations as a necessary nastiness of democracy, and even a responsibility of patriotism. It all began in the early days of the cold war. Anti-communist “democrats” kicked the reds out of the Democratic Party, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the American Veterans Committee. They formed the Americans for Democratic Action and the Liberal Party (in New York) as alternatives to communism for the Left. The National Student Association (NSA) served the same function.
Then the CIA moved in to oversee the students’ foreign operations. It set up an anti-communist world student council, devised strategies for attacking the periodic pro-communist “youth festivals,” and in the meantime gathered information on tomorrow’s foreign cabinet ministers (and opposition leaders) for the CIA’s files. But for the most part the foreign activities were inept or insignificant, and their return for American “security” practically nonexistent. What was more important was what the habit of complicity did for American politics. Generations of students were trained in international relations “seminars” conducted each summer by NSA alumni and CIA agents (the two were often synonymous). Those who learned their lessons well were then maneuvered into the top places in the student organization at the annual conference. They were offered power, money, deferment from military service, and the certainty of high status if they accepted the values of pragmatism, presentability, and the cold war. They would all have golden careers, and they all accepted. They were spies who came in for the gold.
Once complicit, they found to their surprise that the CIA was not the dirty right-wing bomb-planting, wine-poisoning, coup-staging operation they expected. At least their CIA was clean; all during the Fifties it was, as one “witting” student said, “a haven from McCarthyism.” The “agency’s” policies were often quite opposed to official State Department policy. The CIA pushed an opening to the left in Italy while the official line was all for closing. CIA operatives worked for anti-colonialists in Africa (they once promoted Patrice Lumumba, of all people) while State was supporting the colonial powers. Administrations in Washington smiled on Latin-American dictators while the CIA plotted their assassination.
Of course, there was another CIA that the liberal students, the intellectuals (in the Congress for Cultural Freedom, among other groups) and the leftwing labor leaders never saw. It was busy overthrowing Arbenz in Guatemala and Mossadegh in Iran, discrediting (and occasionally bumping off) independent labor officials in Latin America, buying off editors, courts, and governments here and there, and supporting right-wing groups discreetly isolated from the liberals’ playthings. But the American Left—the wise and witting ones—had a feeling that there was a friend in the Bureau of Public Roads (the CIA cover building) in Langley, Virginia.
The effect of all this was to destroy all options for independent positions on foreign policy in the US. Everyone who went abroad for an American organization …