Finks, Fronts, and Puppets: Revisiting the Cultural Cold War

By Greg BarnhiselJanuary 8, 2017

Finks, Fronts, and Puppets: Revisiting the Cultural Cold War

Neither Peace nor Freedom by Patrick Iber
Finks by Joel Whitney

THIS YEAR, 2017, will mark the 50th year of American intellectuals being shocked that the CIA stuck its hands into our literary magazines. We’ve known of this scandal at least since 1967, when Ramparts magazine detailed how the CIA had helped found and fund a number of writers’, artists’, and noncommunist leftist groups and publications, and that in the early 1950s the Agency threw money around hoping for a foothold in seemingly independent organizations. Since then, some excellent scholarship — notably Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1984) and Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War (1999) — has quite comprehensively documented the Agency’s meddling in the art world and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, respectively.

The opening of archives over the last 10 years has added quite a few titles to this corpus. Just in the last year, we’ve seen Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire (about CIA influence and funding at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), Karen Paget’s Patriotic Betrayal (on the CIA links with the National Student Association), and my own Cold War Modernists. Ian McEwan even mined this episode for his metafictional novel, Sweet Tooth, whose protagonist, a young MI5 agent, funnels covert funds to a writer to induce him to produce anticommunist fiction.

In 2012, the same year McEwan’s novel appeared, the writer and editor Joel Whitney published an article in Salon about the CIA’s ties to The Paris Review. Late in his life, Peter Matthiessen had admitted that he was working for the CIA when he co-founded the magazine with George Plimpton and others in 1953, using his work on the magazine as his cover. Whitney unearthed additional evidence that Plimpton, although he may not have known that Matthiessen was an Agency plant, eagerly collaborated with the magazines of the secretly CIA-sponsored Congress for Cultural Freedom well into the 1960s. He concludes that Plimpton had to have been aware of his own magazines’ and the CCF’s CIA ties, and thus the putative neutrality of The Paris Review, which has always liked to present itself as above ideology and committed only to the eternal verities of literature and art, was a sham.

Whitney’s new book Finks is a greatly expanded version of his Salon article. It seeks to be a comprehensive catalog of ways in which the CIA “tricked” writers from Ernest Hemingway to Gabriel García Márquez, all unified by the tentacular reach of The Paris Review. But it doesn’t stop there: Finks, Whitney tells us, is his “attempt to look through a keyhole into the vast engine room of the cultural Cold War, to see if [the] ideology […] favoring paranoid intervention into the media over adherence to democratic principle […] remains with us.” The book’s scope is indeed broad, and it details how quite a few boldface literary names of the 1950s and 1960s crossed paths with The Paris Review, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, or both. Finks fails to persuade, though, as thirdhand connections to the Review — whose editor may or may not have known of the CIA’s presence in the lit-mag world — are hardly enough to make an open-and-shut case of nefarious puppeteering.

Whitney also fudges differences and at times gets facts wrong in the drive to make his story cohere. The American Committee for Cultural Freedom was affiliated with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, but it was not a mere puppet or subsidiary of the central group; the national committees had a great deal of independence (and the ACCF, founded before the European organization, had distant relations with the CCF’s Paris secretariat). Hemingway didn’t, as he says, win the Nobel Prize in Literature for The Old Man and the Sea, because the prize is not given for a particular work. Joseph McCarthy didn’t lead the House Un-American Activities Committee; as a senator, he was not eligible to do so. (He was in charge, after 1953, of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.)

For a magazine writer and editor (he is the co-founder of the long-running little magazine Guernica), Whitney seems unaware of some publishing norms. The appearance of advertisements for Mobil and Standard Oil in Quest (the CCF’s India magazine) shows that “American editorial influence riddled” the magazine. An alternate explanation would be that those companies purchased ads. Whitney objects to the fact that Paris Review interviews with authors such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Boris Pasternak, and Gabriel García Márquez ran in translation in several of the CCF’s magazines. What is in reality a standard subsidiary-rights agreement becomes, for Whitney, a betrayal of the authors involved, “reek[ing] of coercion.” These authors, Whitney argues, had consented to an interview with the “apolitical” Paris Review. They would never have agreed, he insists, to allow their words to run in what Whitney calls the “literary propaganda mags of the CIA” or, elsewhere, “covert state lit mags.” Perhaps, but the fact that Faulkner had an article in the first issue of the CCF’s Encounter, which was widely rumored to be an American government mouthpiece even before its first issue hit the newsstands, suggests that at least one of these writers would have been cool with it. “Freedom means […] the right to say yes or no,” Whitney self-righteously proclaims. But I’d be more leery of a situation in which an interviewee controls what a journalist could do with an interview after initial publication. Sounds like something only an apparatchik, or a publicist, would mandate.

The larger problem is that Finks is so diffuse. Whitney’s Salon article was a minor but genuinely original and valuable contribution to the scholarship on the Cultural Cold War. Here, he attempts to expand that article to book length, and the seams strain. His new contribution to the field is still his research on The Paris Review, but at times the links are so distant, or speculative, that they just seem forced. To round out the manuscript, he’s included a fair amount of potted history, retelling many incidents that have been recounted, better, in other books. Chapter three reads like a paraphrase of Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s 2014 book The Zhivago Affair, and chapter five is largely a summary of Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War. Had Whitney’s master-narrative been stronger, had he been arguing something different than “the CIA was behind them,” this reliance on previously published sources wouldn’t be such a problem. As it is, it leads the reader to question precisely what original ideas are being offered here.

I am not minimizing the seriousness of Finks’s concerns. I share Whitney’s rage at the CIA’s role in immiserating countless millions of people in Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Chile, and elsewhere, and because the Agency used literary magazines to paper over or draw attention away from its interventions and dirty tricks, I agree that those magazines are to some extent tainted by the association. But while Whitney’s indignant tone throughout this book and his tendency to overplay his evidence may stoke the old outrage once again, they are not helpful in answering what I think are the real questions. We know that the CIA tried to secretly influence people through art and literature. Did it work? How and where? Which kinds of writing, framed in which kinds of ways, were effective as propaganda, and which weren’t? What story did this art and literature tell about the United States, about the West, about the Soviet Union? What, for instance, was the editorial line of Encounter, the CCF’s English-language magazine and the best known of these compromised journals, with the closest relationship to the CIA? Whitney flatly asserts that Encounter was a CIA mouthpiece, but in my own research in that magazine’s archives I found very few traces of any editorial intervention, and even Saunders, whose research Whitney relies on, only points to three instances of the CIA actually spiking or planting stories in the monthly between its 1953 founding and the 1967 revelations of its CIA ties. There is much more to be learned about the Cultural Cold War and the CIA’s role in promoting American literature, but Finks is not the place to learn it.


Where Whitney’s book is reckless and unsatisfying, Patrick Iber’s Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America is measured, nuanced, and deeply informed. For Whitney, the only important player in the Cultural Cold War is the shadowy CIA. But for Iber, the central dynamic is the internecine struggle among leftists themselves, on top of which the superpower showdown plopped itself. “[T]he foundations of the Cultural Cold War,” he asserts, “lay in the fractured history of the global Left.” Yes, he grants, there were “front groups” on both sides, but, he cautions,

the language of “fronts” […] risks reducing the complex dynamics of the Cultural Cold War to a simple story of superpower manipulation. […] Front groups were indeed instruments of cultural diplomacy, but they were also the work of political and intellectual currents whose existence predated the Cold War, and whose sources lay in what might be described as the international Left’s civil war.

The fault lines between the communist and noncommunist left in Mexico and post-1959 Cuba were especially consequential for how the Cultural Cold War unfolded. Mexico, especially under President Lázaro Cárdenas, was a haven for left-wing exiles and refugees. The PRI, the party many of us associate with Mexico’s endemic corruption, was in its early incarnation a leftist party, before the Mexican left split over the role of the Communist Party of Mexico. In the United States, the conflict between the Party and the Trotskyists ended friendships and spawned new magazines. In Mexico, the result was an ice axe in Trotsky’s cranium.

Iber certainly doesn’t minimize the role of the United States in Cold War Latin American politics. He grants that “the unbalanced and overwhelming power of the United States in the region” was a determining factor in how the Cultural Cold War played out; indeed, “Latin America […] has frequently served as a kind of laboratory for the United States to experiment with forms of power that it later deployed elsewhere.” Like Whitney, Iber gives due attention to the Congress for Cultural Freedom, whose influence grew in Latin America just as it was fading in Europe, but refreshingly, he asserts that it was “far more complex than a simple puppet of U.S. empire.” The CCF’s first magazine, the “much-unloved Cuadernos,” edited by the Spanish exile Julián Gorkin, was generally seen as a failure, with a smaller circulation than Encounter or even the German-language Der Monat, despite having all of Spain and Spanish-language America as its designated market. Perhaps because Gorkin was unfamiliar with the complexities of Latin American leftism, Cuadernos was out of step with its audience, opposing a Nobel Prize for Pablo Neruda and denigrating the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera. It clumsily weaponized the idea of “freedom,” prompting “critics on the left [to cite] it as powerful evidence that liberal notions of freedom were a form of imperialist propaganda.”

In 1965, the CCF ended Cuadernos’s run and replaced it with Mundo Nuevo, under the editorship of Emir Rodríguez Monegal. Under Monegal, the magazine both benefited from and helped to promote the “boom” in Latin American writing of the 1960s — at least until the revelations of the CCF’s CIA funding came out in 1967, partly, but not wholly, undermining the magazine’s credibility. It also benefited from its position on the Cuban Revolution, which had united the Latin American left in support (and in opposition to American intervention).

After the revolution, Cuba quickly established its own cultural organization, Casa de las Américas, which published a journal of the same name and aggressively confronted los yanquis and courted leftist writers. But the seemingly default revolutionary stance — always support national self-determination and oppose American imperialism, which included the CCF magazines — got more complicated when first Cuadernos and then Mundo Nuevo didn’t take the positions one might have expected, given their secondhand ties to the CIA. Monegal, in particular, took a conciliatory editorial line on Cuba. Cuba then undermined its own position in 1971 by arresting the poet Heberto Padilla, an event that Iber claims broke “the taboo of criticizing Cuba from the Left.”

“Latin America’s Cultural Cold War was farce and tragedy not in sequence but simultaneously,” Iber concludes. None of the three major institutional players — the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, or Casa de las Américas — could “escape the consequences of having been part of imperial projects,” and thus each, to some extent, merely represented a “political fantasy.” And as each of these three groups was overlaid upon an already complicated and contentious welter of leftist ideas and tendencies and resentments and memories, the end results were both unpredictable and disappointing: “The politically engaged artists and intellectuals who participated in the Cultural Cold War […] enjoyed neither peace nor freedom as they worked to produce art and ideas, and they obtained neither through the roles they played in the Cold War.”

Pessimistic as Iber’s conclusion is, his book might give us some cause for optimism, or at least a sense of purpose, in these dispiriting times. A couple of weeks after the election, responding to the flap about Vice-President-elect Mike Pence being booed and addressed from the stage when he attended the Broadway musical Hamilton, Iber tweeted that one of the points of his book was that in authoritarian states, artists and intellectuals matter more. He’s right: as other liberal institutions — government agencies, the media, the business community — are co-opted, neutered, or replaced, art and culture become a major site of resistance. Artists and writers get under autocrats’ skin, and as they have little wealth to be confiscated or positions to be stripped of, they can only be stopped with the bluntest of instruments. Putin murdered Anna Politkovskaya and jailed Pussy Riot, and Erdoğan demanded that Germany prosecute Jan Böhmermann, who recited an obscene poem about him on German television. President-elect Trump started with Hamilton and Saturday Night Live, and it’s hard to imagine this will be the last time he tries to silence criticism, or that he’ll limit himself to tweeting. If we are headed toward a Turkish- or Russian-style populist authoritarian kleptocracy, as appears increasingly possible, artists and writers must stand in vocal opposition. It may not bring us peace or freedom, but it’s what we are here for.


Greg Barnhisel chairs the department of English at Duquesne University. He is the author of Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy.

LARB Contributor

Greg Barnhisel is a professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is the author of Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (2015) and James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound (2005), and editor of the journal Book History. He has written for scholarly and trade publications including Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Humanities, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His Code Name Puritan: Norman Holmes Pearson at the Nexus of Poetry, Espionage, and American Power will be published in October 2024.


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