The Mighty Wurlitzer

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The New York Times book review section on Sunday includes a write-up of Hugh Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, Wilford’s history of how the Central Intelligence Agency used and funded media and propaganda organizations as part of a domestic and international propaganda campaign against (and, to an extent, in emulation of) the Soviet Union:

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.

Among those who participated (willingly) in CIA sponsored activities Wilford names were Gloria Steinem, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. (No one else is named in the review.) Steinem defended her involvement to the Washington Post as “liberal, nonviolent and honorable.” The CIA had a particular fondness for non-Stalinist Leftists, such as labor leaders and liberal intellectuals. It was a time “when the alliance between cold-war anti-Communism and liberal idealism still appeared natural and right,” the Times piece quotes Wilford as writing.

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).

4:12 pm on January 20, 2008