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Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War

by Frances Stonor Saunders

Granta pounds 20

Berlin, 1947: In a freezing city of food rationing and airlifts and cagey ideological shadow-boxing between East and West, three concerned citizens - American intelligence officer Michael Josselson, New York journalist Melvin Lasky, and Russian emigre composer Nicholas Nabokov - find themselves fighting a rearguard action against a Soviet offensive on the battleground of culture and ideas. Two years later, their efforts are recognised in the inauguration of a department within the new CIA, an innocuously titled Office of Policy Coordination. With Europe broke and its free market in ideas looking perilously close to exhaustion, the OPC brief is to go on the offensive in the propaganda war against the Soviets, champion the artistic and cultural freedom on offer in the West and shore up the emerging Pax Americana. Finance was to be set aside from funds already allocated for the Marshall Plan and recruitment was to be in accordance with an strict policy of equal opportunities: in the words of one CIA staffer, "using any bastard as long as he was anti-communist".

In the course of the next two decades, this scheme was to develop into a highly sophisticated and expensive international operation, in which CIA fixers covertly subsidised magazines, exhibitions and conferences in an attempt to draw vacillating artists and intellectuals away from communism and towards a viewpoint more sympathetic to the American way. Under the energetic stewardship of Michael Josselson, and with the assistance of Nabokov and Lasky, the American taxpayer took a stake in a bewildering portfolio of cultural ventures.

The CIA showcased a grand festival of 20th-century culture in Paris, nurtured the school of abstract expressionist painting through its involvement with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and bankrolled the influential journal Encounter in Britain. Millions of dollars were channelled through educational foundations or through the bank accounts of private citizens in an effort to conceal the involvement of the American government. The Congress for Cultural Freedom movement, a stepping-stone used by the CIA for many of its cultural outings, grew in 17 years into an organisation with offices and personnel in 35 different countries.

Who Paid the Piper? is painstakingly researched - from a trawl through the labyrinthine archives of the American State Department and interviews with retired secret service agents - and jauntily written, alive to the ironies of a campaign for cultural freedom whose boundaries were circumscribed by its shady sponsors. The preferences of the aesthetes and bookworms at the CIA were sometimes predictable - courting John Wayne, financing and distributing the animated cartoon film of Orwell's Animal Farm - and occasionally eccentric - translating the work of Chekhov and even air- dropping copies of T S Eliot's Four Quartets into Russia. Patronage was often bestowed on those who simply looked likely to get up the nose of the Soviets. The anarchic paint- dripping of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, once thought dangerously radical, became feted as "artistic free enterprise" when America needed a response to the rigidities of socialist realism. Nor can it be said that the beneficiaries of CIA largesse always represented value for money. The poet Robert Lowell, sent by the Congress for Cultural Freedom to deliver a speech at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, forgot to take his medication for manic depression and ended up extolling the virtues of Hitler and Naziism. Wrestled into a straitjacket but patriotic to the last, Lowell insisted that his luckless CIA minder whistle "Yankee Doodle Dandy".

Stonor Saunders introduces her work as a "secret history" but her research shows that it was not, in practice, as secret as all that. As early as 1962 an article in Dissent announced that Encounter and the Congress for Cultural Freedom were fronts for the CIA: under the weight of hostile publicity, the Congress was forced to close five year later. By the 1970's, as Lyndon Johnson's vision of The Great Society gave way to Watergate and Vietnam, the modus operandi of such `soft' cultural linkages had fallen into disrepute and the gravy-train had run out of steam. In retrospect CIA interference in cultural life looks like no more than fluff on the surface of a more intractable battle of ideas which it cannot be said to have manufactured, a lavish experiment which proved expendable as soon as it became an embarrassment.

The driving force of Who Paid the Piper? is less the fact of CIA involvement than its scale of its operation, and what makes the book so readable is the gossipy and compromising detail. Stonor Saunders is right to find something unsightly about this Dad's Army of cultural emissaries, drawn to the CIA by the frisson of Cold War subterfuge and tempted by a campaign fought over smoked salmon canapes and fine wine. But while she recognises the distinction between "witting" and unwitting participants in the CIA campaign, she pours her scorn indiscriminately. There were those who actively participated in the deception and the vast majority, everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to the Boston Symphony Orchestra to visiting Soviet writers, who simply found a community of interest with their anonymous benefactors. Stephen Spender, a former editor of Encounter, joked about "writing a funny Gogol-like story about a man who, whatever he did, and whoever his employer, found that he was always being paid by the CIA".

History, says Frances Stonor Saunders, is about "redeeming the truth for truth's sake, not retrieving images that are useful for the present". But if there is a problem with this book, it is that her retrievals look queasily familiar to a contemporary audience. Nowadays, when bickering over alleged financial improprieties seems to define much of the substance of political debate, the ceaseless round of naming and shaming in Stonor Saunders's narrative comes across as all too easy. The reader might be forgiven for thinking that politics reduces to the analysis of expense accounts, or that an exposure of who paid the piper tells us all we need to know about the tune.