The Worker

The Trojan Horse of Cultural Freedom. Part I

Andy Warhol. Statue of Liberty, 1986.

While military and economic components of the Cold War were meant to contain the Soviets, culture and information had become the true and chief weapon of the Western assault.

On March 12, 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman gave an address in Congress that defined the principles of future U.S. foreign policy. That address, later dubbed as Truman Doctrine, would become one of the first Cold War salvos against the Soviet Union and the growing “communist threat.” The Soviet Union and the newly formed socialist countries were proclaimed totalitarian regimes (implicitly, similar to fascist regimes) and a menace to the Western free world.

“We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.

<…> I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way. I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.<…> The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world — and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation,”  — Truman said.

So, the main value the U.S. would have to act for was that of freedom.

Commenting on the main message of Truman’s speech, prof. Scott Lucas, author of the Freedom’s War: The US Crusade Against the Soviet Union, defined it as a call for a “contest of values.” Of course, the Cold War had other components: military, economic, diplomatic, and scientific, among others. However, the clash of values that unfolded in the sphere of culture and ideology did indeed play the most significant role in the defeat of the USSR — as eloquently evidenced by the very form of this defeat: a practically voluntary surrender with the abandonment of all its values.

What is the explanation of such a development? The USSR that dissolved without any fight faced no core economic challenges, that would be dire enough to provoke its defeat, — a fact that has been proven ad nauseam. Yet, a whole country — even more so, a civilization — vanished as if a mirage. It takes a complete crumbling of values in the elite as well as in the nation for this to occur.

While military and economic components of the Cold War were meant to contain the Soviets, culture and information had become the true and chief weapon of the Western assault. The information warfare was waged not only against the Socialist bloc (take for example Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and others), Western audiences were subjected to it as well. Moreover, in terms of cultural influence the main effort was made first and foremost inside the Western bloc: the intent was to neutralize left-wing forces who held a positive view on the USSR, to portray the West as attractive as possible and to create a sly ideological notion of freedom among Soviet people that would become destructive for them. The impact on Soviet society was in this case more insidious and indirect, yet no less effective. This cultural component of the Cold War is still underresearched and barely publicly discussed in Russia.

The most garish signs of this “freedom” crusade was that of the American lifestyle, with its glamor and excess. The U.S. supplied Europe abundantly with its pop-culture, foods and clothing under the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan. Yet, there were other more subtle, but just as important components practically unknown to the wider public. They included reaching out to philosophers, critics, artists, composers, and others in the high culture circles. It is assumed that culture is beyond politics, that it develops independently and influences people thanks to its inherent universal and timeless values. This notion turns out to be very naive at least when the U.S. and Europe of the second half of the 20th century are concerned.

Culture, including a high one, was the domain of specific organizations bent on achieving specific political goals. They include Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) —  a structure, believed by many scholars to be the most influential actor on the cultural front of the Cold War. It triggered processes and developed concepts that still loom large not only in culture and arts but also in politics, education, and people’s worldview as well.

In addition to the concept of freedom, understood as strictly individualistic freedom of expression, the Congress promoted the idea of creative autonomy, which had to be totally uninfluenced by any political agenda. That approach indirectly condemned all Soviet arts as being mandated by the government, as well as the government itself that sought to make the arts express specific ideas.

Most interestingly, that agenda was put forward and financed not by some free and independent actors, but rather by a body of the opposing government – by the CIA that went to great lengths to conceal its involvement. The Agency, established in 1947 specifically to wage the Cold War, was conceived as a type of civilian intelligence (its staff is up to this day mostly civilian) with an eye on academic and cultural spheres and working with civil society. However, the Agency could carry out military operations as well.

However, it is not our intention either to make the CIA the one and only culprit and or to portray it as some omnipresent octopus. There was a kind of underlying, natural compatibility between the undertakings of the agency and many US and European intellectuals. The CIA was effectively made up by the same intellectuals — primarily from Ivy League universities. They were mostly leftwing anti-Soviet liberals. Many had a Trotskyist background.

Walter Lippmann

The idea to bridge civil society and the government, that would work — including in a clandestine way — together to form public opinion, came about long before any CIA. As early as in 1922, Walter Lippmann, an American writer and journalist coined a term “manufacture  of consent” in his bestseller Public opinion.

“The creation of consent … is a very old [act] which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technique, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power”, — wrote Lippmann.

What kind of consent had to be manufactured in the capitalist camp during the Cold War? Naturally, a consent of the superiority of western values and the inferiority of the USSR. The U.S. government had to convince Soviet-leaning Western intellectuals, artists and nations as a whole that this was the case. And the Congress for Cultural Freedom did just that.

Western historians can today boast of quite a few in-depth and interesting works about it. The most famous of them is a book by the British journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders, titled Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (first publication: London, 1999). The history of the organization will therefore be summarized here as briefly as possible. The main subject for our series will be the fate of culture and the arts themselves, given the profound changes they have undergone and the impact these changes have had on society and the individual.

So, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was founded at a conference held from June 26 to 29, 1950 in West Berlin, supported by the CIA and the U.S. Office of Military Government. The conference brought together about 200 intellectuals (according to some sources 118) — writers, journalists, artists, economists, historians, trade union leaders — mostly from Europe and the United States. All of the participants were “anti-totalitarian” figures who saw no fundamental difference between the Stalinist USSR and the fascist regimes. They included former communists, anti-fascists, concentration camp survivors, refugees from the Soviet bloc, and simply staunch champions of freedom in the liberal-democratic sense. Interestingly, the group was joined by several African-American figures. The delegates were mostly left-leaning, but there were some more right-wing ones, which gave the gathering an attractive pluralistic flavor.

The general secretary of the conference was Melvin Lasky, a thirty-year-old New York journalist who had worked under the head of the administration of the American zone of occupation and who had published the anti-communist magazine Der Monat since 1948. One of the key roles in the preparation and holding of the conference was played by Sidney Hook, an American philosopher and representative of pragmatism, who stated in Politics magazine in 1949: “Give me a hundred million dollars and a thousand dedicated people and I will guarantee to generate such a wave of democratic unrest among the masses — yes, even among the soldiers — of Stalin’s own empire, that all his problems for a long time to come will be internal.”

The most influential participants in the conference included the Trotskyist and future founding father of American neoconservatism Irving Kristol, the American political scientist James Burnham, who also strongly influenced the neoconservatives, composer and employee of the US Office of Strategic Services Nicolas Nabokov (Vladimir Nabokov’s cousin), the writer, anti-fascist and former communist Arthur Koestler, who published his novel Darkness at Noon in 1940 about the period of mass repression in the USSR, the American trade union leader Irving Brown, who organized a split in the French trade union movement and then contributed greatly to the anti-communist struggle (against the Greek communists, against Salvador Allende and others).

The conference received backing from such major figures as Bertrand Russell, Julian Huxley, André Gide, Raymond Aron, Karl Jaspers, John Dewey, Benedetto Croce, Tennessee Williams and others who would later continue to work with the CCF.

Founding Conference CCF, Berlin, 1950.

The main person in charge of the event was an Estonian-born CIA agent recruited a couple of years earlier, Michael Josselson. In Berlin, Josselson was kept out of sight, but then it was he (along with Nicolas Nabokov) who headed the CCF secretariat.

The Berlin conference adopted a manifesto, which later became the CCF charter. At first glance, it is a document “for all that is good”: “We hold it to be self-evident that intellectual freedom is one of the inalienable rights of man” and so on. A closer look, however, will notice certain peculiarities, such as the condemnation of the absence of freedom in “totalitarian” states, without defining this concept and without specifying which states it refers to (it was assumed obvious that these were equally the socialist camp and fascist regimes); the use of the general concept of freedom as a synonym to individual freedom of opinion, which was invested with the highest moral value; the militant and uncompromising position that “the theory and practice of the totalitarian state are the greatest challenge which man has been called on to meet in the course of civilized history” and “indifference or neutrality in the face of such a challenge amounts to a betrayal of mankind and to the abdication of the free mind.” The emphasis was on the struggle for peace, which was deemed “inseparable” from freedom.

Note, as we proceed, that today all this pathos has somehow disappeared and no CIA funds free intellectuals. Moreover, the latter are often almost openly gagged or repressed.

The specific significance of the defense of peace theme in the manifesto is revealed when one considers that the creation of the CCF was a response to the cultural program launched by the Soviet Union through Cominform (the postwar successor to the Comintern), which in turn countered the American influence that was spreading through the Marshall Plan. The core of the Soviet cultural campaign was the defense of peace against war. The World Peace Council was established, under the auspices of which several major international conferences were held. In doing so, the USSR — the country that had liberated itself from fascism and the country that had liberated itself from exploitation — managed to demonstrate its moral superiority over the West, whose important factors were anti-militarism and reliance on high culture (in contrast to the Marshall Plan, oriented towards mass consumption and American management style).

Thus, the Berlin Conference and the CCF intercepted the Soviet initiative and countered it with a similar agenda but a slightly altered interpretation of underlying concepts with the goal of undermining the authority of the USSR and allowed a left-liberal intellectual platform to develop an anti-communist consensus among the Western intelligentsia.

We must also note that the discourse of cultural freedom was fueled by the Soviet campaign against “formalism” in 1948 — we will certainly return to this topic later. We should also stress that the CCF had all the outward signs of intellectual independence. Not only did it pursue an anti-Soviet line, but sometimes it also criticized Western actions if they contradicted its values (the Suez Crisis of the mid-1950s, the failed operation at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to overthrow Fidel Castro, the bombing of Vietnam, etc.). Thus, the CCF not only fought against communism, but also contributed to the left-liberal reorientation of Western society itself. Some CCF supporters have suggested that if intellectual activity did not need financial support, the CCF would have done its job without any secret service patronage. We will return to this issue as well.

In 1950-51, the CCF was transformed into a permanent institution with headquarters in Paris. The CCF adopted its organizational structure from the Comintern and Cominform. It opened offices in thirty-five countries, employing dozens of staff members. The Congress developed a wide range of activities: it had its own news agency, financed the publication of more than twenty prestigious magazines, organized art exhibitions, festivals and international conferences all over the world, established and awarded prizes for artists. It worked closely with the Rockefeller Museum of Modern Art in New York, with whom abstract art was promoted as a flagship movement. Support was also given to the avant-garde music that emerged in the postwar years.

Everything seemed to be going as well as it could, but the CCF’s credibility was suddenly undermined. In 1966, The New York Times made public the CIA’s involvement in funding the CCF. The NYT printed five articles one after the other about the CIA’s aims and methods. One of these articles detailed the dummy funds used to secretly finance various organizations and ventures, including the CCF and several related magazines and publishers.

This crisis had been maturing for several years and had complex causes, which we will not dwell on. Interestingly, the CIA, in its negotiations with the New York Times prior to the first high-profile publications, tried to shield the CCF as its most prestigious brainchild, but to no avail.

In 1967, the CIA’s funding of a number of anti-communist cultural organizations was reported by the American magazine Ramparts. This was followed by other publications, including an article in the Saturday Evening Post by Thomas Braden, head of the CIA’s International Organizations Division (IOD), I’m glad the CIA is ‘immoral.’ In it, Braden justified the activities of his agency and publicly acknowledged funding for the CCF and its associated Encounter magazine.

The scandal was extremely painful. It was exacerbated by the Vietnam War and the rise of anti-war sentiment in the United States. Several key CCF figures spoke in the press, claiming that the intellectuals who collaborated with them were completely independent and had nothing to do with the CIA. But this didn’t help. One by one, CCF members began to leave the organization.

In May 1967, Michael Josselson publicly admitted that he was the liaison between the CCF and the CIA. According to him, none of the members of the organization knew about it. After that, the CCF ceased to exist or rather it was renamed as the International Association for Cultural Freedom (IACF), fully financed by the private Ford Foundation.

The renewed organization inherited all the structures of the old one, but its moral legitimacy was irreparably shaken and its activities sharply curtailed. The next milestone of the Cultural Cold War was the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, but IACF was no longer a part of it. In 1979, the association dissolved itself. Its subsidiary, The European Intellectual Mutual Aid Fund, continued to exist until 1991 when it was merged with the Open Society Foundation by George Soros.

Source (for copy):

This is a translation of the article by C. Komov, I. Lobanov, V. Kanunnikov, T. Siewert published in The Essence of Time newspaper, issue 439 on July 24, 2021

Translation by: J. Zika, A. Simachkov, et. al.

Scroll to Top