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The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America

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January 20, 2008

The New York Times Book Review


How the CIA Played America.

By Hugh Wilford.

Illustrated. 342 pp. Harvard University Press. $27.95.

This is a book whose content somewhat contradicts its title. “Mighty Wurlitzer” was the metaphor Frank Wisner, the first chief of political warfare for the Central Intelligence Agency, used to describe the C.I.A.’s “array of front organizations.” They were, he said, “capable of playing any propaganda tune he desired.” But Wisner rather exaggerated what he was able to do, as one learns from this remarkably detailed and researched book by Hugh Wilford, a British scholar now at California State University, Long Beach. For these organizations were not exactly “front organizations” as the term was understood by the Communist Information Bureau, or Cominform, the model that the young C.I.A. was trying to match.

The Kremlin had set up the Cominform in the early years of the cold war to coordinate the activities of scores of Communist-controlled professional, artistic and intellectual groups, and the C.I.A. decided to create or influence its own array of organizations and publications among intellectuals, labor organizations and citizen groups. But the leaders of just about all of these groups had minds of their own, and most of the organizations had been established independently of the C.I.A. For example, the small magazines Partisan Review and The New Leader, which, Wilford says, received C.I.A. funds in one way or another, owed nothing to the agency, either in their founding or in their operations. The idea of “fronts” hardly applies to them.

There were indeed fronts directly established by the C.I.A. for a particular goal, and the story Wilford tells of them in “The Mighty Wurlitzer” is fascinating, involving a surprising collection of well-known figures in American life. Consider the Independent Service for Information, set up at Harvard specifically for the purpose of getting some young anti-Communist Americans to attend a huge youth festival being organized by the Communists in Vienna in 1959. This was one of a series of events in which the Soviet Union promoted its versions of peace and progress, as contrasted with the cold-war policies of the capitalist United States.

A youthful Gloria Steinem had just spent a year and half in India, where, we are told, she befriended Indira Gandhi and the widow of the “revolutionary humanist” M. N. Roy, and had met a researcher who seems to have been a C.I.A. agent or contact. Attractive and progressive, Steinem was hired to run the I.S.I. and to recruit knowledgeable young Americans who could debate effectively with the Communist organizers of the festival, defending the United States against Communist criticism of segregation and other American failings.

Conservative student leaders certainly could have been found for this purpose, but they did not interest the C.I.A. or the I.S.I.: socialists and others on the non-Communist left had greater appeal because they would be more effective in reaching out to the European students who attended such festivals. One of those who went to Vienna was Zbigniew Brzezinski, then a Harvard graduate student; one of those who agonized over the offer of free transportation was Michael Harrington of the Young People’s Socialist League. The offer was withdrawn, according to Harrington, when he insisted that he had to be free to criticize capitalism and Communism equally.

The C.I.A.’s connections to the I.S.I. and a host of other organizations and publications was exposed in a storm of magazine and newspaper articles in 1967, and just about everything that had once been secret became public. Steinem stood up bravely: “I was happy to find some liberals in government in those days who were farsighted and cared enough to get Americans of all political views to the festival,” she told The New York Times. And to The Washington Post she said: “In my experience the agency was completely different from its image: it was liberal, nonviolent and honorable.”

Steinem was a “witting” participant. Many others dependent on C.I.A. backing were “unwitting” (the terms, it seems, were in common use in the agency), because the money they accepted was channeled through existing foundations or through organizations ostensibly set up by wealthy individuals. Generally, it appeared that the funds were independent of the government. (The sums seem remarkably small for the most part, though I have not factored in inflation.)

Whereas the C.I.A. created the I.S.I. for a specific purpose, its relationship to the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the subject of an important chapter on American trade unions, was utterly different. The labor organizations had existed before the C.I.A. and had long been fighting Communists on their own — in American unions as well as in international trade union organizations. During the cold war they found common cause with the agency in battling Communist influence in foreign unions. But they had their own exceptionally qualified officials to conduct their foreign activities. In the A.F.L., probably the most important was Jay Lovestone, described by Wilford as “a particularly fanatical and ruthless anti-Communist.”

This remark illustrates Wilford’s somewhat cool attitude toward what many saw, with some legitimacy, as a worldwide conflict between tyranny and freedom. Lovestone had been the leader of the American Communist Party until he was expelled by Stalin himself. Clearly he knew a great deal about Soviet Communism and would not brook any interference or accept any guidance from C.I.A. officials, who in those early days were often from Ivy League colleges. Lovestone called them “fizz kids.” Of course Lovestone was not dependent on C.I.A. money — the A.F.L. had its own resources. But the C.I.A. was eager to support an organization like the A.F.L. in its anti-Communist work. Similarly with Walter and Victor Reuther in the C.I.O.

“Newly available evidence,“ Wilford concludes, “shows that the old imagery of puppet masters and marionettes fails utterly to capture the complexities of partnership between the Lovestoneites of the A.F.L. and the ‘fizz kids’ of the C.I.A.” This will hardly be surprising to the knowledgeable. And Wilford explains that the C.I.A.’s involvement with the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an influential cold-war association of writers and scholars dominated by New York intellectuals, was very much the same story.

Even when C.I.A. control was greatest, many American anti-Communists saw themselves not as doing the agency’s bidding but as pursuing common ends — contesting Communist influence among intellectuals, trade unionists, blacks, women’s groups, student groups and the like. There seem to be few cases where the C.I.A. wanted a group to do things that its leaders did not want to do. Rather, the issue that created conflict was generally the C.I.A. insistence on hiding its involvement — concealing the source of money and swearing “witting” leaders to secrecy, with penalties if they revealed what they knew (though there seem to be no cases, at least in this book, where any penalties were imposed).

After the C.I.A.’s activities were exposed, there were few who said they had been used, though rather more who said they were sorry to have kept the C.I.A. connection secret. Norman Thomas is one who, according to Wilford, expressed regret. Along with Victor Reuther, Allard Lowenstein and Bayard Rustin, Thomas was involved with the C.I.A.-sponsored Committee on Free Elections in the Dominican Republic, which lent “international credibility to a 1966 ballot effectively rigged against the socialist former president, Juan Bosch.” This is one of those passages that lead a reader to wonder if Wilford has fully grasped the nature of the conflict between socialists and Communists at that time.

After all, Thomas and Rustin were socialists; there must have been other reasons than Bosch’s socialism that caused them to oppose him.

Thomas was an acquaintance of Allen Dulles, the director of central intelligence, and could call on him when there was a financial emergency. Likewise, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a former member of the O.S.S., the predecessor to the C.I.A., personally knew senior officers of the agency and would brief them on cultural developments he was aware of. He frequently saw Frank Wisner, the manager of the Mighty Wurlitzer, “on the Georgetown dinner party circuit,” and they would commiserate about the debates New York intellectuals insisted on having over McCarthyism, which the C.I.A. found unhelpful. It was a time, as Wilford writes, “when the alliance between cold-war anti-Communism and liberal idealism still appeared natural and right.” That alliance explains much that current readers may find surprising in this book. It explains as well the outrage many writers have expressed about the C.I.A. connection over the past few decades.

There is a great deal to be learned from this book. Wilford has consulted an astonishing number of scholarly and popular accounts, along with the papers and records of some of the central participants and organizations. He’s done a remarkable job of research. If, on occasion, he doesn’t appear in full command of the story, I would trace that to his inability to see the degree to which the Communists were pariahs to the anti-Stalinist left. So, when he writes that “much of the American left had rejected the Dewey commission’s finding that Trotsky was innocent of the charges leveled against him by Stalin,” one wonders just what “left” he could possibly have in mind. I suspect it is those who were Communist-influenced or sympathetic to the Soviet Union. There aren’t many such slips, however. Wilford has mastered an enormously complex tale in almost every detail.

Nathan Glazer, a professor emeritus of sociology and education at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of “From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter With the American City.”

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