The Guardian • Issue #2006

Weaponising culture: the CIA’s use of art, literature and music in the cold war

Photo: John Keogh (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Today the CIA has illegal operations around the world, from gathering information on Americans to developing new forms of torture. What is little known is how they weaponised culture to attack Communism, producing misinformation that is still believed to this day. It created such mistrust and hate that it will be years before the damage is rectified. The CIA did this by using art, literature, and music to undermine communism and socialism in the West. These devious propaganda projects were used for over forty years with impunity. The CIA was never brought to account. The recent release of classified documents reveals the extent to which the CIA manipulated public trepidation to create the fear of Soviet infiltration, “Reds under the Bed.”

Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under the National Security Act of 1947. The Agency’s website states that its primary mission was to collect, evaluate and disseminate foreign intelligence to assist the president and senior United States government policymakers in making decisions about national security. The CIA doesn’t make policy, but at the president’s request it achieves its goals by engaging in covert action. In 1975 the “Church Committee” (after its chair, senator Frank Church) investigated the legality of intelligence operations by the CIA, NSA and FBI. Since then, the CIA hasn’t been allowed to assassinate foreign government leaders, nor spy on the domestic activities of Americans. It gets around both restrictions through other means.

Doctor Zhivago – Lara Fiodorova & Komarovsky (Julie Christie & Rod Steiger). (Public domain)

In 1949 the act was amended to ensure the CIA’s budget, staffing, organisational structure, and salaries were kept secret. The first time this information was released was in 1997. The total budget for all US government intelligence and intelligence-related activities was US$26.6 billion, employing 20,000 people. A third of these were undercover or had been at some point in their careers. What then does the CIA do besides spying? The Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) of the CIA was formed in 1948 to help combat the spread of communism. It created psychological warfare projects to deceive the American public, to win them over to a constructed perception of the Cold War world. It used propaganda to create public hysteria, the “Red Scare.”

Senator Joseph McCarthy used this to manipulate the US government: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 – a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” The list was soon shown to be completely false but had the desired result on the media.

Photo: John Keogh (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The CIA website listed its Cold War scandals – the overthrow of Iran in 1953, the Bay of Pigs, Cuba in 1961, and Watergate in 1972 – but fails to mention the CIA’s secret involvement in culture: the arts, literature, and music. The US government used ideas, images, and sounds to win over the hearts and minds of the public. Its sinister methods reveal an insidious behaviour that manipulated everyone from children to adults with a constructed false world of communism and the left, belief that persist to this day.

The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 under the US Department of State bill, the Amendment to the Surplus Property Act of 1944, with the purpose of disposing surplus property outside the US. It hid its true international purpose. Senator McKellar told Fulbright that had he known the implications of the legislation, he would have voted against it: “Young man, that’s a very dangerous piece of legislation. You’re going to take our young boys and girls over there and expose them to those foreign’isms.” This is exactly what Fulbright intended. Other activities were successfully hidden to appear as the work of individuals and institutions acting without government funding. Over the fifteen years the agency “ran” the magazine Encounter it published over 2,000 articles and reviews spreading US propaganda.

The CIA tried to undermine “intellectual freedom” in Western Europe, using prominent American and European intellectuals, to promote American values: free elections, free speech and free markets. The target audience for Cold War cultural propaganda was foreign left-wing intellectuals and avant-garde writers and artists, who were attracted to communism and the Soviet Union, turning them into anti-communists.

In 1946, the US State Department’s newly formed Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs put together a show named Advancing American Art. The division spent US$49,000 purchasing seventy-nine paintings by American artists, who defined “American reassurance, stability, and enlightenment.” It included modernist, naturalist and expressionist works by Romare Bearden, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Ben Shahn, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jacob Lawrence. The State Department sent the works to Europe, where it was well received. Clement Greenberg wrote in The Nation, that the show was “a remarkable accomplishment.” Even so, attacks from conservative art critics in the US forced the show to be recalled, and the paintings were sold off for US$5,544. Today these art works are worth a fortune.

The State Department next enlisted institutions such as museums, foundations, and arts groups to take over, giving the government a low profile. President Eisenhower thought of cultural diplomacy as a branch of psychological warfare, and his Administration was the first to provide systematic funding for international arts exhibitions. This “Propaganda as Art” especially concentrated on Abstract Expressionism, such as Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist. In 1949 Alfred Barr asked Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, that modern art be regarded as “artistic free enterprise,” since it had been attacked by totalitarian governments. The US government had manipulated the direction of the modern art movement.

In 1954 Eisenhower said: “As long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art.” For the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), his Administration sponsored tours of American art, opera (“Porgy and Bess” to counter Soviet propaganda about American racism), musical theatre, dance and jazz. Over the next thirty years, the State Department and the Smithsonian Institution sent hundreds of exhibitions of American art abroad.

The head of MoMA, like the leaders of most mainstream institutions in the US, were anti-Communists and therefore there was no need for any explicit arrangements with the government, as they were very willing to help. MoMA mounted exhibitions on modern architecture and design, and started the museum’s film department, dedicated to Hollywood movies as part of the modern art movement. Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, who believed that Abstract Expressionism was pure expression, were Left-wing anti-Communists associated with the anti-Stalinist Partisan Review. Their theories attacked Soviet aesthetics, which saw abstraction as individualistic self-indulgence.

The list of CIA covert activities during the 1950s and 1960s is long. The Agency subsidised European tours of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was behind the filming of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. It clandestinely subsidised the publishing of thousands of books, including an entire line of books by Frederick A. Praeger Inc, and the renowned work by Milovan Djilas, The New Class. The Agency bailed out, and then subsidised, the financially faltering Kenyon Review, and concentrated on two famous authors, George Orwell and Boris Pasternak.

Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, was believed to hold left-wing views, leading the British police to label him a communist. The MI5 held a very different view and never took action against him, as they knew that the CIA had found Orwell useful for their propaganda projects. While the left saw Orwell as an uncompromising enemy of fascism and imperialism, the right knew he was anti-communist. His study of poverty in Britain in The Road to Wigan Pier is a strange sort of socialism, as was his Down and Out in Paris and London. This can be explained by Orwell joining the Spanish POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), the anarchists, during the Spanish Civil War. Later Orwell gave a list of the top communists in Britain to MI5. Other famous British writers were also members of MI5, including Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

The CIA saw Animal Farm as perfect for its anti-Stalinist programme, as Daniel J. Leab discloses in his Orwell Subverted (2007). The CIA played a dominant role in financing the 1954 animated film Animal Farm, with its attack on the Russian Revolution. The same was done for the film Nineteen Eighty-Four, constructing an anti-Stalinist warning. Yet neither film reveals who owns the means of production (is there any State ownership?), or mentioned the Great Purges, which were commonly attacked by the Western media at the time.

So what are these two novels really about? Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, was set in northern Burma and is based on his days as a British colonial police officer. According to Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma (2006), the Burmese of modern Myanmar (Burma) see this novel and his Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as being based on Burma, not the USSR. The pigs were Burmese generals; ask anyone and they will tell you who they were. The hardship and corruption reflect the military running the country. The OPC had turned Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four into anti-Soviet propaganda.

Other factors revealed in recent research published in the Journal Clinical Infectious Diseases (2005) and the Journal of Medical Humanities (2019), show that Orwell suffered from severe physical and psychological problems, which are expressed in his Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. He was dying. He was deeply depressed by his wife’s death, he suffered from chronic tuberculosis, Young syndrome, infertility and severe psychological problems, which are obvious in his “Orwellian” novel. A world constructed just as MI5 and the CIA viewed the world of the Cold War. The main character, Winston Smith, reveals a psychotic view of a world filled with deception and distortion of reality. Someone who believes the TV is watching him, suffers from paranoid delusion. It was written at the time when Freudian psychoanalysis was at its height of influence. Orwell, as a colonial police officer, lived in a world of political espionage and control. His real name was Blair. The title is the reverse of the year in which it was written, 1948. He had turned the MI5 and the CIA’s imagined world of Russia into the dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Declassified documents show that the other writer the CIA concentrated on was Boris Pasternak, using Dr Zhivago for its “great propaganda value.” They printed hundreds of copies in Russian and distributed them via the Vatican’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Universal and International Exposition. The operation was a huge success, with the book being published in numerous languages, culminating in Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. With CIA assistance the book was made into a film in 1965 by David Lean, with the help of his colleague Noel Coward, a MI5 agent. The film adaptation was a great piece of cinema. At the 38th Academy Awards, Doctor Zhivago won five Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. By 2016 it was the eighth highest-grossing film of all time in the United States. The film was so popular that its constructed history changed the audience’s view of the Russian Revolution into a disaster. This view is still commonly held.

Photo: Tim Evanson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1985 the CIA produced an analysis of the French New Left, an early post-Marxist intellectual movement. The New Left were very critical of the USSR, Marxist philosophy and all overarching ideologies and systems, including capitalism. Many of the philosophers of the French New Left were structuralists, who maintained the same systemic and historicist thinking that Marxists did, and after the Agency used the New Left, it morphed into Postmodernism, which is still essential reading in all Western university humanities classes, to analyse history and literature.

At the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall the CIA turned to music. According to Radden Keefe of The New Yorker, in 1990 the CIA wrote Wind of Change for the German rock band, Scorpions. The song was ostensibly inspired by the two-day “hard-rock Woodstock” festival in Moscow in 1989, which featured metal royalty, such as Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Cinderella, Skid Row and the Soviet band, Gorky Park. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed due to political, economic, and military reasons. How much this was also due to the CIA weaponising culture in the Cold War, we may know when the documents are released.

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