WHO PAID THE PIPER? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War
By  Frances Stonor Saunders
Granta, 1999

‘Gin and cleavage’ Frances Stonor Saunders replied when asked how she had got retired CIA operatives to reveal so much about their management of free world culture between 1945 and 1966. This no-nonsense approach distinguishes her political outlook, her prose style, and her determination to pursue details. Saunders is clear eyed and skeptical, without becoming the least bit cynical. She never forgets the distinction between keeping the world safe for the free exchange of ideas and the Pentagon’s making the world safe for the kind of free trade imposed by US corporations. The result is a book to read for enjoyment as much as for enlightenment.

This achievement is the greater because the key to unlocking her materials was turned thirty years ago. The story of how magazines such as Quadrant in Australia took money from the security services of a foreign power became public in 1967. What Saunders has done is to look at the global subversion of intellectuals across every zone of creative endeavour. The CIA was anxious about every aspect of public life, from the symphony hall to the suburban cinema. All media had to be managed.

Hence, Washington put its agents inside the Hollywood studios. Cowboys and Indians was not kid’s stuff. Retelling the genocidal wars against the Apaches had to be corrected to match the politics of the Cold War. Hence, the CIA’s man at Paramount got scenes of the forced deportation and dog-tagging of the Apaches deleted from the 1953 film Arrowhead. He convinced its producers with a combination of what he called ‘commercial and patriotic’ arguments. The pursuit of profit and the love of country of course were never identical, but they remain inseparable. For instance, in 1946, the US had obliged France to screen a majority of Hollywood movies, a tussle which continues through the World Trade Organisation.

Meanwhile, nothing could be left to chance. The spooks operated on what one of their hirelings called the police conception of history, in which nothing happens by accident. The FBI suspected that the expressionist verse of William Carlos Williams might have been in code. Williams failed the security test to be appointed the Consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. Saunders has an eye for such telling examples and an ear for the phrasing that keeps those incidents active in our memory.

She’s also astute about the conflicts inside the organisation, between its bureaucrats and the literati. She tracks these personality clashes without reducing policy disputes to quirks of temperament. She’s equally alert to the shifting battle lines that were nowhere more significant than over the de-Nazification of Germany. The Cultural Cold War was born in the same place as was the Cold War, namely, in the divided occupation of Germany. At first, the US gave away German editions of books by US liberals and radicals to convince the German people of the virtues of democracy. By 1953, aides to Senator Joe McCarthy were touring Europe to burn those books. On to the fire - for a second time - went Tom Paine and Henry Thoreau. De-Nazification was always half-hearted. Hitler’s rocket scientists and his spy masters were given sanctuary immediately the war ended in Europe. The cultural front remained contested for some time as can be seen in the cases of Furtwangler and von Karajan. Were those pro-Nazi conductors to be barred from the podium? Or were they to be turned into maestros of the free world? We’ve all heard the answer to that.

The price of freedom - like the rest of the economy  - was subject to inflation. In 1947, the Berlin Philharmonic could be hired for the black market price of a box of US cigarettes. Ten years later, the creative spirit could not be motivated for less than a first-class air ticket, a whacking great fee and – most coveted of all – that blessed word, “expenses”. Intellectuals seemed unable to think freely unless ensconced in an Italian palace with hot and cold running servants.

The overseers of US cultural imperialism were fighting on two fronts. First, they had to refute the prejudice that the US was incapable of generating any culture beyond the cash nexus. Yanks bought art from Europe; they could not make it themselves. That snobbishness was as common among conservatives and reactionaries as it was among communists and radicals. US-born Ezra Pound had voiced his anti-Semitism by equating the USA with US-ury. To assume leadership of the world, the US managers needed to promote the superiority of their composers, painters, poets and novelists. Jazz and Hollywood would not suffice. On the contrary, conservatives took them as proof of the barbarism of democracy in America, further proof of the triumph of mass-marketeering over the life of the mind.

A second front opened against working people everywhere, what Thomas Mann in 1938 had called the world class war’. The culture battles surveyed in Saunders took place within a contest for ideological dominance between corporations and the labour movement. After two world wars, the great depression and fascism, capitalism was a filthy word. Corporate spokesmen complained that the New Dealers had convinced the US people that the greatest criminals were all in company boardrooms. Employers therefore spent millions in the mid-1940s on research for an acceptable brand name for their system. Their publicity agents came up with “Free Enterprise”. That Whiter-than white lie was allied with “Free World” to package a line of dictators. A country was labeled free if US corporations could invest there and repatriate profits. A country was not free when it exercised its national sovereignty to control its natural resources or its trade. Fifty years on, the brand label “free enterprise” has been merged with free-market into globalisation to disguise the same old monopolising.

This particular tentacle of the Cold war machine reached Australia in the mid-1950s when the Congress for Cultural Freedom launched Quadrant. Its editor was the poet, Catholic convert and political apparatchik, James McAuley, whose road to Rome - via the outer circles of hell - was explored last year by Cassandra Pybus in her The Devil and James McAuley. The CIA’s front in Paris kept complaining that Quadrant was not open to the non-communist left. Indeed, it was not. McAuley mis-applied the CIA’s subvention to wage war against the Enlightenment -  in a line of succession from Generalissimo Franco and B. A. Santamaria down to Archbishop George Pell.

By the time I read the Congress for Cultural Freedom papers in the National Library in the late 1970s, I was past being shocked that they had taken CIA money. What continues to depress me is that the Australian were so mean in their defence of cultural freedom. The Left forever had our hand in our collective pocket to support this or that good cause, By contrast, the Quadrant crew of Richard Krygier and Frank Knoffelmacher would not make so much as a local telephone call in defence of freedom against Soviet totalitarianism without a prior guarantee that they would be reimbursed. Their relentless demands for money make it impossible to believe that they did not know who was paying the piper?

Saunders suggests that exposure of the CIA’s bank-rolling was not entirely accidental. With the rise of opposition to the US war against the Indo-Chinese, Washington had less use for soft-hearted and muddle-headed liberals. Given the opportunity to dump these allies, the CIA took it by publishing their own self-exposure in the Saturday Evening Post.

That explanation is of a piece with the late Geoff Fairbairn’s suspicion that Congress pointsman Richard Krygier had purposely not restricted access to the papers of the Australian operation in order to carry forward one of his Machiavellian schemes - perhaps to take his revenge on the members, such as Henry Mayer and John Kerr, who had resigned in 1961 to protest his dictatorial deviousness.