When the CIA’s connections to the Paris Review and two dozen other magazines were revealed in 1966, the backlash was swift but uneven. Some publications crumbled, taking their editors down with them, while other publishers and writers emerged relatively unscathed, chalking it up to youthful indiscretion or else defending the CIA as a “nonviolent and honorable” force for good. But in an illuminating new book Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, writer Joel Whitney debunks the myth of a once-moral intelligence agency, revealing an extensive list of writers involved in transforming America’s image in countries we destabilized with coups, assassinations, and other all-American interventions.
The CIA developed several guises to throw money at young, burgeoning writers, creating a cultural propaganda strategy with literary outposts around the world, from Lebanon to Uganda, India to Latin America. The same agency that occasionally undermined democracies for the sake of fighting Communism also launched the Congress for Cultural Freedoms (CCF). The CCF built editorial strategies for each of these literary outposts, allowing them to control the conversation in countries where readers might otherwise resist the American perspective. The Paris Review, whose co-founder Peter Matthiessen was a CIA agent, would sell its commissioned interviews to the magazine’s counterparts in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. Mundo Nuevo was created to offer a moderate-left perspective to earn trust among Latin American readers, effectively muting more radical perspectives during the Cuban Revolution. Sometimes the agency would provide editors with funding and content; other times it would work directly with writers to shape the discourse. Through these acts, the CCF weaponized the era’s most progressive intellectuals as the American answer to the Soviet spin machine.
While the CIA’s involvement in anti-Communist propaganda has been long known, the extent of its influence—particularly in the early careers of the left’s most beloved writers—is shocking. Whitney, the co-founder and editor at large of the literary magazine Guernica, spent four years digging through archives, yielding an exhaustive list—James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hemingway all served varying levels of utility to Uncle Sam. (Not that the CIA’s interest were only in letters: Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were also championed by arms of the agency.)
But don’t let that ruin Love in the Time of Cholera. Whitney explains with methodical clarity how each writer became a tool for the CIA. This nuance not only salvages many of the classics from being junked as solely propaganda, but it serves as a cautionary tale for those trying to navigate today’s “post-truth” media landscape. In an era where Facebook algorithms dictate the national discourse, even the most well-meaning journalist is prone to stories that distract on behalf of the US government.
“It was often a way to change the subject from the civil rights fight at home,” Whitney said of the CIA’s content strategy during the Cold War. We can easily draw parallels to today, where the nation’s most dire issues are rarely our viral subjects. With Donald Trump’s presidency just weeks away, Finks arrives at a crucial time, exposing the political machinery that can affect which stories are shared and which are silenced.
Photo courtesy of OR Books
VICE: So why did you have to ruin all my favorite authors?
Joel Whitney: You want to know the truth about the writers and publications you love and what their aims might have been, but that shouldn’t mean they’re ruined. For somebody like Richard Wright or James Baldwin or even Peter Matthiessen, I feel like there were a lot of people who joined or participated through professors. They were in their early 20s, and when you’re young and your professors have national reputations, you take their attention seriously. I was a little bit more interested in where people ended up once the truth was known.
And the excuses varied. You mentioned Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s advice that “when you write, it’s you who informs the publication.” If that’s true, why did the CIA work with so many left-leaning Latin American authors, whose writing would give voice and credibility to the idea of autonomy in the region? Can we measure how successful the CIA really was in working with these artists?
That’s the thing about secrecy: Without any public discussion about what the actual goals were, there was no accountability, and you could keep moving the target. They found that with the early magazines of Latin America—the first one was Cuadernos [del Congreso por la Libertad de la Cultura]—they had their politics too much on their sleeve, and they weren’t getting the readers they wanted. Cuadernos could speak to the hardliners who were already convinced that the US did some good stuff in Latin America. It helped prop up the rich, and it helped knock down purportedly Communist-influenced leftists who often turned out not to have much communism in their leftism. But during the Cuban Revolution, we see a shifting target. Rather than enabling hardliners, “soft-liners” could reach more people.
Basically, they enacted something that I had stumbled into as an idea behind Guernica‘s political coverage, which is somebody needs to referee, at all times it seems, a debate between the anti-war progressive left and the interventionist left. I was always curious why the interventionist left always was heard and the anti-war progressive left always seemed like it was marginalized.
“The CIA’s influence in publishing was on the covert ops side, and it was done as propaganda. It was a control of how intellectuals thought about the US.”
So the CCF published writers who were just left enough to win an audience’s trust?
The way that they went about it was to use a cultural leftist like Garcia Márquez with their creative work and put their names on the cover in a sort of Trojan Horse style, so that they had a hand in the conversation during the Cuban Revolution. There was something democratic behind that, but there was also something unaccountable and not so democratic about it.
For example, the scholar Patrick Iber pointed out a moment where Emir Rodríguez Monegal admitted that he published an anti-Vietnam war op-ed just to reestablish the idea that it wasn’t a CIA instrument. It gets super complicated, but that’s where I got interested. Because once I got to that level of complexity I kind of had to throw out my maybe sweet naïve tendency to sort of morally judge all that stuff. After a while, I was just sort of more interested when people changed their mind or when people had a breakdown or when somebody was so instrumentalized and weaponized that they realized it and it crushed them for a moment.
When the CIA’s connections to the Paris Review and other publications were revealed, the backlash was starkly uneven. The Beirut-based Hiwar—as well as the life and career of its editor Tawfiq Sayigh— were destroyed. Why was the Paris Review left unscathed?
Your question just points to a central aim of the book. I think a lot of the writing that deals with this issue never looks at it next to all the coups and assassinations and interventions that made Americans so unpopular. Once Hiwar and other magazines were exposed, they were folded into all the interventions that people hate in the postcolonial world.
The CIA’s influence in publishing was on the covert ops side and it was done as propaganda. It might have been conceived by some of the participants as an altruistic funding of culture, but it was actually a control of journalism, a control of the fourth estate. It was a control of how intellectuals thought about the US. But once it was exposed, it was completely useless.
But not only did the Paris Review solicit this kind of propaganda literature, a lot of their editors were also monitoring writers and expats and the going-ons in France. How did they casually just replace their editors and move on?
This “joint employ” is important because it shows a sort of soft collusion. Peter Matthiessen admitted that we were spying but he resigned when he saw how ugly it was. I think there are some conspiracies out there that he didn’t but I’ve tried to stick with what I could find. Were Nelson Aldrich and Frances Fitzgerald spying on their friends while they were working for the Congress for Cultural Freedom? I don’t think so. They were basically doing magazine work and PR work, disguising it as innocent cultural work while doing sort of PR for the American Way. It’s not totally inconceivable that you could imagine yourself in the way that García Márquez did, taking that money and sort of affecting its outcome more than the paymasters would. That’s the conundrum, I think, and the problem with patronage in secret: It lets you tell yourself, “I don’t think I was tainted” and justifying your own behavior. But as soon as you say that, you’re talking against the basic journalistic principle of transparency.
The CIA turned writers into cultural weapons even when they weren’t saying anything explicitly pro-America, by simply advertising for the “American alternative.” How is that different today? American writers still have a monopoly in the literature scene—are they not conveying the same narrative?
That’s a huge question, and a good question. It reminds me of the mission for Guernica during the Bush Administration. The US was committing an ugly war, and I was horrified, ashamed, but I was a lit guy who did an MFA, so what could I do to help? I feel like a lot of writers feel that way now—what can we do? I needed to be instrumentalized. There is a shame in being represented by Bush or Donald Trump and the assholes only who often cheat their way into government. I will say, I don’t think positive propaganda is quite as nasty as disinformation and negative propaganda, which are almost always the same thing.
Once you start doing negative propaganda, I think it quickly turns into disinformation. You’re willing to entertain any argument that makes your enemy look bad. In the moment The Paris Review started to chase the Boris Pasternak interview, its implicit propaganda mission changed from something like: “We need the American and Western writers to be known overseas” to a more negative one that tells Americans how unfree “they” are, without explaining much in terms of context. I can almost agree with the first gesture of wanting Americans to be known by our writers rather than our Republicans. But this is more equitable when we’re willing to say, “We need Americans to know about work in translation.”
Pasternak is in many ways a native informant, in that he was a foreign writer who gave testimony to a narrative that the US wanted, and so became a CIA darling.
That’s what the Pasternak story is. He wrote Doctor Zhivago as an independent dissident, but the CIA wanted to control that, and so Pasternak became a symbol of why Western democracies “were better than that” culturally.
You have to hear his criticism not as a one-way thing that only criticizes his system. You have to listen to these dissidents and think about your own dissidence. Who is your Pasternak, and how are you treating him while you’re propping up Pasternak? That was one impetus behind the book: the question of whether we have a Pasternak now. What is Snowden compared to Pasternak? I don’t know that you can make huge comparisons to one creative writer making critique versus a leaker and whistleblower. But I wanted people to see in Pasternak not just the symbol that we try to make him into as Cold Warriors. These people are now symbols, but before that, they were independent thinkers. In some cases, they were just trying to tell their stories.
Where can we draw the line today? If writers want to avoid the blurred lines between honest expression and propaganda, should we simply swear off any sort of government funding or is it possible to be more nuanced?
No. It’s way more nuanced. We should have a wall of separation, and we have the principle in government in the separation of powers. It’s not that we don’t want government funding, it just can’t be secret. Some principles that point back to some of our finest big principles need to be re-articulated and restated. We’re in a messy, impure world, and as journalists, we’ll take whatever funding we can get. [But] we have be smart about it, like what García Márquez was trying to do.
Social media has dethroned editors as the gatekeepers of information. Do you think that makes it easier for the CIA to control the conversation?
I feel like some of these platforms withstood the government pressure better than others. I know that Facebook constantly is changing its algorithm for ad-related purposes, but they withstood some of the pressure a little differently than Twitter, who faced pressure to reveal identities in the wake of Arab Spring and other movements.
But there are other ways to leverage these cultural markets. If you look at the film industry— Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, etc.—we’re paying billions of dollars to lie to ourselves. I feel like at some point in the early war on terror, the Bush administration met with filmmakers, and they said, “We need to enlist you in this mission.” That’s not a new thing, but it felt new at the time, if you didn’t know how often that kind of thing happened during the cultural Cold War.
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Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers by Joel Whitney is available in bookstores and online from OR Books.