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 was, in one way or another, a witness to the theory that the world was torn between communism and democracy, and anything in between was treason. That such an ideology was a grotesque abstraction from the realities of world politics is just now becoming clear. History will show that the origins and the conduct of the Cold War were infinitely complex; there are dirty hands all around the table. But the CIA’s primary effort, both at home and abroad, was to perpetuate that ideology. And it did so not by the show of tyranny but by the exploitation of freedom.
THE ILLUSION OF DISSENT was maintained: the CIA supported socialist cold warriors, fascist cold warriors, black and white cold warriors. The catholicity and flexibility of CIA operations were major advantages. But it was a sham pluralism and it was utterly corrupting. The CIA allowed Americans to work and travel abroad only because it had infiltrated their organizations and could manipulate them at will. They used the harmless ones for a show of magnanimity and sanitized the dangerous ones. Administrations (as Robert Kennedy said this week) approved of the whole procedure. And twenty years’ worth of Americans were taught that to lie was the highest morality.
Much of the wave of anti-CIA feeling which followed the recent Ramparts article was sincere enough, but probably for the wrong reason. There is a widespread opinion that the main difficulty was the CIA’S meddling in internal affairs. The problem is jurisdictional: spies at home work for the FBI, those abroad for the CIA. This kind of reasoning is not likely to lead to the kind of structural reforms that could change the role of intelligence services in the US government. Today the CIA is nothing more than a huge, international agency of subversion that corrupts foreigners and Americans with equal insensitivity. It is far from the “intelligence gathering and evaluating” operation its founders envisaged.
It is not hard to see how the young of this generation can be appalled. Their rage against the hypocrisy of the “system” is the only appropriate reaction to the facts of the Fifties. But it is more difficult to believe that things will now change. In recent weeks there have been meetings of NSA officials with foundation officials to discuss the possibility of private grants to keep the organization alive. But it will not do much good to replace the CIA with funds from Ford or Rockefeller. The demands and pressures from the huge corporate foundations are little different from the CIA’S. The “partnership” of corporations and foundations with the government has produced a similarity of perceptions. Even if that were not the case, the NSA is a democratic mutant, a perversion of the rhetoric of the open society. It was built on the values of careerism, status, elitism, and manipulation. It ought to be disbanded at once. The only future for a free union of students lies in democratic organization, and it must rise from the campuses, not from a consortium of foundations in New York.
The CIA corrupted students were all too willing to be corrupted. The Agency enticed them with implied promises of importance and power, with the opportunity for golden careers. All they had to pay was their independence. But in so paying they also lost their identity. Their experience parallels that of the foreign officials who sell their independence to the US for aid, or trade, or bases, or paper alliances, or whatever. What the NSA-CIA story made clear is that democracy at home and abroad is pre-empted by the operations of a trained, articulate, cohesive, liberal elite, financed and directed by the US government. The possibility for opposition based on fundamental disagreement and active resistance is precluded first by the penetration and finally by the control of seemingly independent organizations.
The CIA and all its allies, then, have been eminently successful. Congressional committees to watch the CIA’S activities will be more than complaisant; they will be enthusiastic. In fact, the ideology of the CIA is now the overwhelming consensus philosophy. “We used to make a distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us,”‘ an ex-student leader said sadly this week. “Then we found out that it’s all ‘us.”‘
March 23, 1967