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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.