Monday Book: Intelligentsia and the CIA

A GRAINY black-and-white photograph from the Fifties graces the cover of Frances Stonor Saunders's new history of the CIA's cultural cold warriors. Four men sit hunched round a table strewn with the remains of a meal; there are wine glasses smeared with fingerprints and the dregs of a bottle, while an afternoon sun slants through large windows. One man throws a menacing glance over his shoulder at the photographer.

That look, and this clutch of figures, speak volumes about the mission of that tight network of intellectuals and espionage agents who worked alongside the CIA to promote the ideal of a new age of enlightenment - the pax Americana. Fearful of the Soviet Union's cultural influence, the agency operated a sophisticated cultural front to win over leftist artists and their audiences. This was the cold warriors' "battle for men's minds", stockpiled with a vast arsenal of journals, books, conferences, seminars, exhibitions, concerts and awards.

Among the agency's most powerful operators was Michael Josselson, a former agent in the intelligence section of the Psychological Warfare Division. He went on to head the influential Congress for Cultural Freedom. Stonor Saunders vividly captures both Josselson's character, and the dynamic appeal of the pax Americana to a young Jewish intellectual with a passionate interest in literature and the right political bent. His network relied on his friends, many former members of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, and on his wife, Diana Dodge. After their wedding in Paris in 1953, he confessed that he was not really in the import-export business. Together, the couple formed an effective partnership.

Diana describes an idyllic life in postwar Paris where "you felt you were in touch with everything going on everywhere - things were blossoming, it was vital". She also succumbed to the romantic fantasy of the intelligence world, and was given her own code name. An agent would hand over memos and cables from Washington to Michael during their Martini hour at the Josselsons's apartment. "We'd read the incoming cables, then I'd flush them down the toilet."

But there was more to the American cultural frontline than romance and ideological conviction. The agency's biggest weapon was its bank account. From its inception in 1952, the Congress that Josselson headed received millions of dollars to act as America's unofficial Ministry of Culture. "We couldn't spend it all," recalled former CIA agent Gilbert Greenway. "There were no limits, and nobody had to account for it. It was amazing."

Radio Free Europe alone received a budget of $10m at its founding in Berlin in 1950. Elsewhere, a former case officer described piling his car high with bundles of dollar bills for distribution into "quiet channels". By the Sixties a joke was circulating that, if any American philanthropic or cultural organisation carried the words "free" or "private", it must be a CIA front.

While thousands reaped the benefits of their position, others were victimised by the agency's relentless pursuit of Communist "fellow travellers" in the arts. During spring 1953, when the impact of the Rosenbergs' treason trial and execution had exposed resentment at America's presence in Europe, the United States Information Agency conducted a purge of "pro-Communist writers". More than 30,000 books were banned from USIA libraries, including works by Dashiell Hammett, Langston Hughes, John Reed and Herman Melville. The number of titles shipped abroad by USIA in 1953 plunged from 119,913 to 314.

When the CIA's involvement in American culture was finally exposed in the Sixties, it revealed a staggering number of household-name artists who had received its tainted funds. Through myriad projects, from cash- heavy prizes to magazines such as Encounter and international conferences, the beneficiaries included WH Auden, AA Milne, Nancy Mitford, Mary MacCarthy, Stephen Spender, Jackson Pollock, Isaiah Berlin and George Orwell. Did they realise they were being used? Stonor Saunders argues that most of these artists knew where their money was coming from and "if they didn't they were... cultivatedly and culpably, ignorant".

The damage the CIA caused was irreparable and pervasive. Behind the "unexamined nostalgia for the `Golden Days' of American intelligence lay a more devastating truth," Stonor Saunders writes. "The same people who read Dante and went to Yale and were educated in civic virtue recruited Nazis, manipulated the outcome of democratic elections, gave LSD to unwitting subjects, opened the mail of thousands of American citizens, overthrew governments, supported dictatorships, plotted assassinations, and engineered the Bay of Pigs disaster." "In the name of what?" asked one critic. "Not civic virtue, but empire."

Who Paid the Piper? illuminates a dark corner of America's cultural history, drawing on an extraordinary range of interviews and recently opened documents. Frances Stonor Saunders is strong on biographical sketches, and a thorough researcher. But questions about the real impact of the cultural cold war remain to be answered. In spite of its murky sources, did this money still produce some of the most significant art of the 20th century?