Undercover Lovers, or How The CIA Became Style

By Greg BarnhiselMarch 1, 2020

Undercover Lovers, or How The CIA Became Style
FOR MANY DECADES, for those of us on the left, no argument had to be made as to why the CIA was an evil force; that was an a priori. The corollary was that if the CIA had touched something, it was irredeemably tainted. And this didn’t just apply to the backroom deals or the cowboy adventurism whose ultimate product was dead brown poor people — it held for the Agency’s seemingly innocuous endeavors. Partly populated in its early decades by Ivy League intellectuals and poets, the CIA liked culture and universities, and they put their money where their interests were. The Congress for Cultural Freedom and its magazines, the National Student Association, the Museum of Modern Art, even Partisan Review and The Paris Review — all had received CIA funding or, at the very least, had some links to the Agency during the 1950s and 1960s.

Predictably, writers on the left and in academia insisted that these collaborations utterly discredited those institutions and publications and everything they’d done and said. First to hit the easy target were public intellectuals Christopher Lasch and Jason Epstein, then several art historians, including Serge Guilbaut (with the snappiest title of them all: How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art). British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders essentially brought this period to a close with her Who Paid the Piper? in 1999, although Joel Whitney struck these themes again, rehashing many of Saunders’s anecdotes, in his 2016 Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers. The title gives you a sense of its measured tone.

But a funny thing was happening behind the university gates. Over the past 15 years or so, academic historians and novelists on the left started to find in the pre-Vietnam CIA something to admire, or at least not to revile quite so much. In their monographs, scholars such as Hugh Wilford, Penny Von Eschen, Giles Scott-Smith, Deborah Cohn, Kenneth Osgood, Michael Krenn, and others (including me!) detailed how the State Department, the United States Information Agency, and the CIA used arts and culture to advance American interests in the early years of the Cold War. And while these books certainly didn’t endorse the covert service’s hidden activities, absent was the autonomic condemnation of anything with CIA fingerprints that typified previous scholarship on the topic. It was no longer “If the CIA was involved, it’s poisoned”; instead, the approach was “What were the actual effects of this program? What was its extent? And what exactly was the nature of the harm or even good that it did?”

This change, if not of heart then of rhetoric, seems now to have bubbled out of academia and reached writers who are aiming at a broader audience. Two oddly parallel 2019 titles, Lara Prescott’s novel The Secrets We Kept and Duncan White’s popular history Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War, exemplify this trend. Both are solid, fast-moving, and well told, but Prescott’s novel certainly made the bigger splash, as it was selected for Reese Witherspoon’s book club, Hello Sunshine. It is a multinarrator fictionalization of the so-called “Zhivago affair,” in which Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of the Soviet Union (by an apostate Italian communist, no less!) and published in the West. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958, but Soviet authorities forced him to decline it because they had deemed the novel anti-Soviet.

Prescott’s novel combines real historical figures such as Pasternak and his lover Olga Ivinskaya with imagined characters like a Russian émigré recruited into covert work, a glamorous lesbian OSS veteran spy, and a plodding CIA functionary. Prescott consulted a number of historical studies for her background research, relying particularly heavily on Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s 2014 The Zhivago Affair. Olga’s narration of Pasternak’s story takes up approximately half the novel, and she’s by far the most compelling character: sentenced to the Gulag twice for her work with Pasternak while he avoided arrest, she remains the “other woman” while Boris lives with his wife Zinaida in their dacha in Peredelkino, the writers’ colony created by Stalin. Paralleling Olga in Washington, DC, is American-born Irina, whose parents came to the United States in “the last of the second wave of Russian immigrants to leave the Motherland,” and who just wants a typing job at the Agency. She ends up, predictably, with more than she bargained for, not least a sexual awakening.

Prescott is a graduate of the James Michener Center for Writers program at the University of Texas, and it shows: that program encourages its students to pursue commercial success by writing screenplay- and bestseller-friendly work. (I was Michener-adjacent in grad school, and a remarkable number of Michener Fellow friends and acquaintances sold screenplays and got big trade publishing contracts before graduating.) The Secrets We Kept is film-ready and has already been optioned.

It does have its MFA touches, though. Of all of its narrators, my favorite was the anonymous collective voice of the CIA typing pool that opens the novel — “We typed a hundred words per minute and never missed a syllable” — which Jeffrey Eugenides used to such brilliant effect in The Virgin Suicides. Unfortunately, some of Prescott’s passages feel like undigested bits of her background reading, lightly reworked from studies of the Cultural Cold War.

Irina, for example, ventriloquizes history books that won’t appear for 60 years:

Back then, we believed books could be weapons — that literature could change the course of history. The Agency knew it would take time to change the hearts and minds of men, but they were in it for the long game. Since its OSS roots, the Agency had doubled down on soft-propaganda warfare — using art, music, and literature to advance its objectives. The goal: to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought — how the Red State hindered, censored, and persecuted even its finest artists. The tactic: to get cultural materials into the hands of Soviet citizens by any means.

Later in the novel, another character (Teddy Helms, a covert operative) apparently borrows Irina’s book and finds her underlined passages:

The Agency wanted to stack its ranks with intellectuals — those who believed in the long game of changing people’s ideology over time. And they believed books could do it. I believed books could do it. That was my job: to designate books for exploitation and help carry out their covert dissemination. It was my job to secure books that made the Soviets look bad: books they banned, books that criticized the system, books that made the United States look like a shining beacon.

It’s clumsy exposition, no doubt, and I suppose it’s churlish to cavil about the repetition of the phrase “the long game” and the similar use of em dashes and consecutive colons in these passages, but these little tells undermine Prescott’s intent to draw distinct narrators with distinguishable voices.


White’s Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War probably suffered from being released just a week before Prescott’s heavily hyped novel, as the two cover much of the same ground, and Prescott’s is a much snappier read. It’s a shame because in the end, White’s book is much more satisfying, even just in its portrait of the Pasternak/Zhivago affair. White takes us back to the Great Terror, the period in the late 1930s when anyone could be arrested, and gives poet Anna Akhmatova, barely mentioned in Prescott’s book, the leading role she certainly merits. A close friend of Pasternak and probably his equal in terms of poetic accomplishment, Akhmatova was persecuted (although never arrested) during the Terror and then again in the 1950s, and, like Pasternak himself, she came to symbolize how the regime could make a writer’s life hellish even without actually arresting or murdering them.

Pasternak and Akhmatova are only two of the figures profiled in White’s book, which he describes as “the story of the writers on both sides of the Iron Curtain who found themselves locked in this exhilarating, dangerous conflict.” Graham Greene, Mary McCarthy, Howard Fast, Stephen Spender, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn all pass through White’s narrative. But the most memorable account is of Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian, ex-communist brawler who abused everyone around him, particularly women, in his implacable drive to bloody communist noses. White also expands the catalog of literary Cold Warriors beyond the well-worn territory of the 1940s–1950s. McCarthy and Spender serve as the central links between the Red Decade of the 1930s and the 1960s, as both remained deeply involved — or, in Spender’s case, implicated as a CIA dupe — in the Cold War well into the Vietnam era. I wish White had done more to link the 1970s stories of Václav Havel and Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli with their predecessor Cold Warriors, but the book as a whole seems not to want to make a strong argument about writers in the Cold War, preferring rather to be a kind of omnibus collection of their stories.

Tellingly, though, in both books the “good guys” here are writers who sided with the West — even the security agencies of the West, including the CIA. So what changed? Why are writers and scholars moderating their once instinctive anti-CIA attitudes?

An important part of this is generational: the conflict gets telescoped and simplified as it fades into the past. To many younger people with no living memory of it, the Cold War has become solely the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, full stop. The endless proxy conflicts, the real venues in which the CIA did its worst, float free from the A-story as it becomes more remote. Meanwhile, the bankruptcy of Soviet ideology, even apart from the brutal and murderous ways in which it was actually carried out, makes it simple to choose a side retrospectively. Who would throw their loyalties in with the USSR? And were the little escapades and dishonesties of the CIA really that bad? Funneling a little money to student groups, secretly underwriting magazines and conferences … for those who don’t remember the Cold War, it must be hard to imagine why anyone got so worked up about that.

This historically foreshortened way of thinking, of course, disconnects the outrages committed by the CIA from the Cold War itself and obfuscates the real links between the literary escapades and the blithely destructive blundering that Tim Weiner fulsomely cataloged in his history of the Agency, Legacy of Ashes. But to my mind, even more influential are the ways that pop culture has recycled the events, images, and signifiers of the Cold War. The Cold War has become entertainment, even style.

Prestige TV and Hollywood film have done especially effective image surgery on the Cold War–era CIA, even when they don’t directly deal with the Agency. FX’s The Americans, for instance, disentangled the Cold War from ideology. Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings weren’t deep-cover agents because of communist fervor; they had been recruited young, and this was the only life they knew. And when their resolve was shaken, it was patriotism, or even a kind of Russian nationalism, that steeled them. Nor were their superiors — the KGB rezident in Washington or their memorable handler Claudia — ever shown to be motivated by a drive for world revolution. Perhaps this was a product of the times in which the show was set; by the Brezhnev/Andropov years, even the commissars were mostly going through the motions. These are not ideologues of the kind we meet in le Carré novels. But, to be fair, in The Americans neither are the Americans, especially Stan, the plodding, obtuse FBI agent neighbor who betrays his wife even as he pursues those who betray the country.

Showtime’s Homeland portrays the CIA in a largely positive light, even though it is set in the present and gestures only obliquely to viewers’ residual feelings about the Cold War Agency. But Carrie and Saul are good guys — complicated, imperfect, sometimes compromised, yes, but on the right side of history. Its depiction of the post–Cold War CIA isn’t designed to own the libs the way that Kiefer Sutherland’s post-9/11 24 was, which makes it more effective in winning over the libs. A little more delicate was the 2012 film Argo, which trod close to one of the great blowback fiascos of the Cold War, the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh, without ever fully acknowledging that this was why the Iranian students were so angry.

Perhaps most offensive, partly because it flaunts its textured ambiguity, is 2006’s film The Good Shepherd, centering on a lightly fictionalized version of early counterintelligence chief James Angleton. This big-budget production (directed by Robert De Niro and starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie) suggests that the outrages committed by the CIA were, to use Don Rumsfeld’s immortal phrase, due to “a few bad apples” who got perhaps a bit too rarified in Skull and Bones. But the film’s self-congratulatory ambivalence toward the Agency isn’t about the incalculable damage it did to the world; it’s about the psychological toll this work took on people like Angleton and his family. Cry me a river.

The Good Shepherd, moreover, immorally leverages one of the most chilling features of the CIA’s dirty wars: the practice of throwing dissidents out of airplanes. Mostly associated with Pinochet and the Argentine generals during the “Operation Condor” period of the 1970s, in the film it is the Americans who do this. But here, the defenestrée is deserving, as she’s actually a Soviet agent. Even worse, to those who remember this history, the murder takes place in 1961 near Léopoldville, Congo, which was the actual site and date of the CIA-approved murder of the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. The filmmakers efface one of the most notorious real crimes of the Cold War by turning it into a regrettable but justifiable act. (And in the film, any actual Congolese on screen are dark yelling mobs in dingy Third World streets, again reinforcing the narrative that the only real people involved in the Cold War were the Soviets and the Americans.)

The last three years of Trump have only accelerated the rehabilitation of the CIA’s public image. Trump’s own attacks on his “intelligence community” — now there’s a loaded, leading euphemism — have subtly nudged left and liberal Americans to reconsider the Agency. Media coverage of CIA-Trump conflicts emphasizes the Agency’s “careful analysis,” its measured judgments, its immersion in research and devotion to truth, playing on our prejudices about Trump’s own rejection of all of those virtues. Director of Central Intelligence Gina Haspel stands for the deliberate and fact-driven way things should be done, in these depictions; she’s also one of the few women in the Trump administration, and someone who hasn’t shamed herself as a toady yet. That her work overseeing torture in the black site in Thailand makes her little better than an NKVD captain in the bowels of the Lubyanka prison goes politely unmentioned. Those were different days.


“There was something of the caper about the Zhivago operation,” Finn and Couvée conclude in The Zhivago Affair. “All these years later, […] the CIA’s faith — and the Soviet Union’s faith — in the power of literature to transform society seem almost quaint.” And I think that’s where we are. The passage of time has made the Cold War “quaint.” Depictions in literature and on screen blunt and defang the genuine terror of the conflict, most especially the way it immiserated or made collateral damage of hundreds of millions of people in the Global South. Instead, it’s now a “caper,” like the sham film Ben Affleck’s character produces in Argo. Prescott’s and White’s books, for all of their real virtues, also move the historical events they recount into this generic realm.

For this reason, I’m increasingly convinced that Ian McEwan’s 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, is a key for understanding where we are — how, as the raw anger of leftists against the CIA cools, the episodes of the Cold War will increasingly be told as stories and not as illustrations of or fuel for politics. McEwan’s novel is narrated by Serena Frome, a mediocre Cambridge undergrad recruited by MI5 to funnel money secretly to leftist writers, roughly paralleling the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Frome starts an affair with Tom Haley, her writer beneficiary, and then is horrified when MI5 hates the anticapitalist novel he writes with his funds. “Sweet Tooth,” the covert MI5 program, is exposed, and Serena fears that she has lost Haley’s love. But in the end, he always knew about Sweet Tooth, and he turns this whole saga into his next novel — Sweet Tooth, the novel that we are reading.

McEwan’s metafictional experiment here isn’t considered one of his better books. But as our stories about the Cold War evolve from politically urgent realist narratives (which we judge and respond to as a depiction of the real world) to a narrative convention (which we judge as a formal device), Sweet Tooth seems a more of-the-moment, if less satisfying and pleasurable, treatment than that of Prescott or White. Quoting T. S. Eliot, James Angleton referred to counterintelligence work as a “wilderness of mirrors,” and for many years John le Carré’s realist novels depicted how that epistemological confusion felt for the characters facing it. Now, McEwan’s novel brings that one step forward, and it is the reader, not the characters, who find themselves in that wilderness, wondering whether we should still be outraged about (or inspired by) the events behind the stories from the entrenched ideological conflict, or whether they are just that: stories.


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.

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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