Art, Literature, and the CIA

Literary Star is Reborn” by Celia McGee

The renewed attention to Harold Humes is no doubt aided by the growing interest in American writing of the 1940s and ’50s…. But also intriguing to many is the documentary’s revelation of a CIA connection to the history of The Paris Review. In the film, Matthiessen, best known as a novelist, environmental activist and advocate of American Indian rights, admits publicly for the first time that he was a young CIA recruit at the time he helped start the magazine, and used it as his cover.

“Immy cajoled me into talking about it,” Matthiessen said.

Humes, who tussled with Matthiessen and Plimpton about this secret after Matthiessen confided in him in the mid-’60s, died in 1992 in St. Rose’s Home, the New York City cancer hospice founded by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter. Immy Humes found correspondence between the three co-founders about Matthiessen’s clandestine affiliation in a suitcase of papers…

The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited

by James Petras

Abstract Art and the Cultural Cold War” by Mark Vallen

For those who still regard art as being above politics consider the following. The Central Intelligence Agency financed, organized, and assured the success of the American abstract expressionist movement, using artists like Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko, as weapons in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Frances Stonor Saunders has presented this matter of public record in her well documented book, The Cultural Cold War – The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.

Saunders informs us that during the height of the Cold War in the 1950’s, the CIA secretly promoted abstract expressionism as a means of discrediting the socialist realism of the Soviet Union….

The Real Agenda” by Richard Cummings

Robie Macauley, a top literary editor at Harcourt, Brace, was, while he functioned in his literary capacity, the head of the CIA Africa desk. I know he was, because he told me so not long before he died. He explicitly said to me that his literary career was his cover. When his obituary appeared in the New York Times, it listed his accomplishments in the literary field, but failed to mention in his real career with the CIA. I rang up the author of the obituary and said, “You left out Robie’s career with the CIA.” There was a long pause. Then he said, “We can’t put everything into an obituary.”

The Empire Strikes Back,” by Karl Wenclas, and “A Crazy Tale“:

Yale poet WWII vet Cord Meyer won an O. Henry Prize in 1946 for best first-published story. He became President of the United World Federalists, “which envisioned a globe under the calm and rational dominion of one government.” In 1951 he joined the CIA. “He would rise to become the number two man in the agency’s clandestine operations. . . .” “Along the way, he secretly financed labor unions, youth groups, writers’ organizations, and literary journals.”

This info is from a 2007 bio of the Kennedys, Brothers by David Talbot, former editor of Salon. Elsewhere in the book, Talbot mentions that by 1977 there were over 400 U.S. journalists considered “assets” by the CIA. Do any remain? (We know that CNN’s Anderson Cooper worked for the CIA after Yale.)

The Fiction of the State” by Richard Cummings

War Stars — by H. Bruce Franklin

…explores over two hundred movies, novels, and stories, from obscure pre-World War I fiction that influenced Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan to such modern classics as Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, and Dr. Strangelove. He demonstrates how the American imagination continually shapes ingenious new superweapons while engendering their antitheses in art and action.

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters — by Frances Stonor Saunders

A spectacular history of the ways the CIA’s cold war operation included the creation of a safe Western Culture. They channeled money for conferences, founded magazines, mounted art exhibitions, arranged concerts and flew orchestras around the world.

“Cold War Duplicity” in Reluctant Radical — by Maxwell Geismar

Irving Kristol and William van den Heuvel combine on a TV literature program to “defend Henry James as a primary Cold War literary figure” and to attack Geismar’s book of criticism on James. William van den Heuvel “ran an agency for African affairs and, according to Warren Hinckle’s Ramparts, was a rich, cultivated, charming, and liberal member of the upper echelons of the CIA and had a large hand in embroiling us in Vietnam.” Irving Kristol “as it later turned out was almost always affiliated with many State Department or CIA literary projects in editing, pubilshing, and the academic world…a hired hand of the establishment.”

(William vanden Heuvel? – father of the current editor and publisher of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel. Irving Kristol? – has come to be known as the “father of American neoconservatism” – also father of current regular Fox TV political pundit Bill Kristol.)

The CIA calls the tune…” iMomus

On November 29th Arte television aired When the CIA Infiltrated Culture, a documentary based on three years of research into a secret, highly ambitious “Marshall Plan of culture”: the CIA’s efforts to promote “the freedom of individual choice” in postwar Europe by… subsidizing the arts.Using front organizations like the Farfield Foundation and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA channelled millions of dollars into the European cultural scene during the 1950s and 60s in an attempt to alter the intellectual DNA of the continent. If you wanted the CIA on your side, paradoxes abounded: “no ideology” had to become your ideology. You had to banish politics from your work for entirely political reasons. You were free to be anything except critical of “freedom”, and you could pick any individual stance except a pro-collective individual stance. What’s more, your anti-government, pro-market position had to be bankrolled by the government and protected from the market.

Since the aesthetic favoured by pro-Soviets in Europe tended to include stuff like political commitment, realism, melody, and representation — the communists deplored “decadent formalism” above all — the CIA (somewhat incredibly, to our eyes) threw its weight behind atonal music and Abstract Expressionism. Concerts and exhibitions of the most inaccessible, anti-populist, non-commercial avant garde artists flourished. “The ideology of the CIA was that the West had to be the most modern of the modern,” says Gunter Grass, interviewed for the documentary.

“Introduction,” New Masses: An Anthology of the Rebel Thirties (Ed. Joseph North) — by Maxwell Geismar

“I welcome this anthology for several reasons, but mainly because it is part of something which I have begun to think of as our ‘buried history’ in the Cold War period. Recently a group of American historians have been digging into, one might say, ‘excavating,’ the true facts of this Cold War Culture – the curious period from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties – and the results are very interesting. We have had almost a quarter of a century of conformity, comfort, complacency and mediocrity in American literature – this epoch of ‘instant masterpieces’ – and only now can we begin to put the pieces together and find a consistent pattern…” (1).

“…it was the Cold War that brought about the downfall, in 1949, of one of the most brilliant journalistic enterprises in our literary history. At the war’s end, a new epoch of repression was about to start. Another great achievement of the Depression years was the WPA Federal Theater Project; and Halle Flanagan’s history of this, in her book Arena, ends with the congressional investigation and foreclosure of the Federal Theater by political figures who are, by Divine Grace or special dispensation, still active in Washington today… What was the real truth, the true historical dimension, of the Cold War? As I said in opening this Introduction, a new group of Cold War historians have been giving us a whole new set of impressions, which, alas, most of those who lived through the period, and are so certain of their convictions, will not even bother to read and to think about.

“For if they did…the Schlesingers, the Galbraiths, the Kristols, the Max Lerners, the Trillings, the Bells, the Rahvs, the Kazins, the Irving Howes: all these outstanding, upstanding figures of our political-cultural scene today…they would have to admit both their own illusions for the last twenty years, and the fact that they have deliberately deluded their readers about the historical facts of our period. Since it was they who fastened the Cold War noose around all our necks, how can we expect them to remove it? – even though, as in the cases of Mary McCarthy and Dwight MacDonald, and the estimable New York Review of Books, they have bowed a little to the changing winds of fashion today. Due to student protests at base, and student confrontations on Cold War issues, Professors Bell and Trilling have indeed moved on from Columbia to Harvard University – but after Harvard what?

“Mr. Trilling has even ‘resigned’ from contemporary literature, saying at long last that he does not understand it – but only after he led the attack for twenty years on such figures as the historian Vernon Parrington, the novelist Dreiser, the short-story writer Sherwood Anderson, and other such figures of our literary history. And only after the Columbia University English Department had taken the lead in setting up Henry James as ‘Receiver’ in what amounted to the bankruptcy of our national literature. The Cold War Liberals, historians, critics and so-called sociologists, also clustered around a set of prestigious literary magazines like Partisan Review, The New Leader, Encounter of London, Der Monat of Berlin, which had in effect set the tone and the values of the ‘Free World’ culture. When it was revealed, about two years ago, that these leading cultural publications and organizations (the various Congresses and Committees for ‘Cultural Freedom’), as well as some student organizations and big unions of the AFL-CIO, were in fact being financed and controlled by Central Intelligence Agency – the game was up…” (10-12).

See also Fiction Gutted – The Establishment and the Novel – part 3 – TC:

When the highly accomplished and leading progressive literary critic, Maxwell Geismar, challenged the very quality and reigning adoration of Henry James’ fiction, he was silenced, and rather prominently in one instance, on national TV by two high level functionaries of the CIA, representing the interests of the corporate state rather than the populace. The two men who played a key role: William vanden Heuval and Irving Kristol – the former a “protégé” of the “father” of the CIA and the latter the CIA flack and “father” of neoconservatism who several years earlier had passed on his position as editor of Commentary magazine to Normon Podhoretz (a student of leading establishment lit critic Lionel Trilling, who [as an establishment liberal] was a sort of forerunner of James Wood). When William vanden Heuvel (father of the current editor/publisher of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel) tag-teamed with Irving Kristol (the father of current prominent Fox TV political pundit and New York Times columnist Bill Kristol, also editor of the Washington DC based political magazine, The Weekly Standard) – when these central figures of the political establishment hastened to appear on national TV over four decades ago to attack directly to the face of the silenced progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar, on the occasion of the publication of Geismar’s book of criticism about Henry James (“a primary Cold War literary figure”), Kristol and vanden Heuvel, two exemplars of the status quo, serving retrograde state interests, executed a prominent role in destroying Geismar’s accomplished literary career and ending his run on a national literary television show, Books on Trial (“or something similar,” in Geismar’s recollection). Geismar posits William vanden Heuvel as “a rich, cultivated, charming, and liberal member of the upper echelons of the CIA [who] had a large hand in embroiling [the US] in Vietnam,” while Irving Kristol “as it later turned out was almost always affiliated with many State Department or CIA literary projects in editing, publishing, and the academic world…a hired hand of the establishment.”



See also:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini



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