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The Long War of Ideas

The Long War of Ideas

A survey of America’s funding of the war of ideas during the Cold War can be instructive.

David Lowe

The mere mention these days of the words “Central Intelligence Agency” conjures up dark images of plots to overthrow governments, targeted assassinations, and the use of torture against suspected terrorists. But well before Americans heard of its more infamous operations, the CIA was engaged in more benign activities, funding organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) and Radio Free Europe, which, following World War II, were fighting a war of ideas that today seems like a distant memory. As the contemporary world faces ideological threats from authoritarians and their supporters, are there lessons from this critical period of our history that can shed light on how best to protect and defend liberal democracy?

In the case of the Cold War, the West’s economic and technological superiority ultimately secured its victory, “yet the mortal ‘stroke’ which finally buried Soviet Communism was arguably moral, intellectual, and cultural,” in the words of David Caute, British historian of the cultural Cold War. By 1947, the Soviets had more than a twenty-five-year head start in conducting an ideological offensive against the West. At a time when there was still widespread opinion both in the United States and in Europe favorable to Russia in view of the role it played in defeating Hitler at massive human and economic cost, Stalin had already been spending tens of millions of dollars to seduce leading Western intellectuals—the opinion-formers of the day—with comforting ideas about peace and disarmament.

The CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination found an opportunity to counter Soviet propaganda by funding civil organizations, such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Founded in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet blockade that occurred at the height of tensions in 1950, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was an association of leading Western intellectuals of the anti-Stalinist Left who were committed to fighting Communist ideology. American philosopher Sidney Hook was its principal founder, along with young American veteran and German-language journal editor Melvin J. Lasky. The CCF counted among its shining lights the Hungarian-born author Arthur Koestler, the French political thinker Raymond Aron, and the Italian novelist Ignacio Silone. The CCF’s aim, as pointed out by the sociologist Edward Shils, was less to fight Communism than it was “to keep alive the ideal of the rational and truthful understanding of the contemporary world.” Its target was not so much the sterility and disastrous effects of the Soviet system, but rather the falsehoods being told about it and believed by Western intellectuals. The Agency made use of both “dummy” and established foundations to funnel money to the CCF.

This February marks the 56th anniversary of the exposure of what longtime CIA agency critics and even many insiders consider the most embarrassing scandal in Agency history—the covert CIA funding of private organizations such as the CCF in the United States and beyond. In February 1967, the New Left magazine Ramparts unloaded a blockbuster piece that exposed the inside story of the CIA’s relationship with the National Student Association (NSA), the American branch of an international federation of college student activists. Among other details, the Ramparts article documented for the first time the Agency’s elaborate funding network.

But while Ramparts was the first to document the inner workings of the CIA’s relationship with a private U.S. organization, it was not the first publication to report on groups that had received secret Agency funding. The previous April, the New York Times had already noted in a long feature on CIA spying methods that the Agency had also subsidized the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom and its London-based flagship publication Encounter, which the Times described as “a well-known anti-Communist intellectual monthly.”

Although rumors had long fed speculation about the CCF’s ability to support a secretariat in Paris, a global network of world-class journals, and a program of international conferences and arts festivals, the notion of covert funding by a U.S. spy agency seemed far-fetched to many of its adherents and participants. Reaction by CCF supporters to the Times’ article, which provided no details of its CIA relationship, was swift. In a letter to the newspaper, four of the CCF’s most prominent U.S. figures, George Kennan, Robert Oppenheimer, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Arthur Schlesinger, vouched for its independence and integrity, adding that the Congress had demonstrated “an unswerving commitment to cultural freedom” demonstrated by its public criticism of U.S. policies and actions.

It took the publication of the Ramparts article the following year—with its details about CIA funding as well as close collaboration between the National Student Association and its secret benefactors—to heighten charges by CCF critics that its participants had been dupes of American intelligence. The article opened the floodgates to investigations by leading news outlets that turned up additional connections between the CIA and U.S. private organizations. Whatever the urgency of the Soviet threat early in the Cold War, by the 1960s the CIA had been implicated in an array of sordid international activities, with its Vietnam operations in particular coming under scrutiny as the war became increasingly controversial and divisive.

Criticism aimed directly at the CCF reached a fever pitch in May 1967.   Under the provocative title “I’m Glad the CIA is Immoral” that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, a former Agency official claimed that it had been his idea “to give cash, along with advice, to labor leaders, to students, professors and others who could help the United States in its battle with Communist fronts.” Tom Braden, the article’s author, had come to Washington in 1950 to work as an assistant to Deputy CIA Director Allen Dulles when the Agency was in its infancy. He had watched in frustration as Soviet front groups with names like the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the Women’s International Democratic Federation were capturing the support of opinion leaders, “while we Americans were sitting here tongue-tied.” Braden believed it was only those on the democratic Left, whose first-hand experience of Stalinism fed their anti-Soviet animus, who “gave a damn” about fighting Communism.

Why was it necessary for the Agency rather than the State Department or the U.S. Congress to take on the task of funding socialist and other anti-Communist forces? At the time, senators and congressmen frequently conflated non-Communists on the Left with actual Communists, in their McCarthyite zeal to track down government officials regarded as disloyal. Braden recalled Senate Majority Leader William Knowland’s negative reaction when Dulles, now the Agency’s director, proposed that a former socialist prime minister of Belgium be allowed to enter the United States to provide advice. When Dulles pointed out that in many European countries socialism was in the political mainstream, Knowland replied, “I don’t care. We aren’t going to bring any socialists over here.”

Were those who were active in the Congress for Cultural Freedom aware of Agency funding? According to Sidney Hook, who had failed to convince the Ford Foundation to provide funding for the CCF a few months after its launch, many involved in or familiar with it did frequently hear rumors of CIA funding. Some who had moral scruples about it but who continued to participate simply didn’t want to know the truth. Nevertheless, the CCF’s acceptance of secret funding was a serious political mistake, Hook argued, since its ultimate disclosure was inevitable, at which point the Congress’ critics would be given free rein. Better, Hook said, to have operated on a more modest scale without official subsidies.

Others were less ambivalent. To the historian Walter Laqueur, although hardly anyone at the CCF’s founding conference could have been aware of CIA funding, even if they had, it would hardly have been a concern “because at the time the sense of freedom under attack was so strong that help would have been accepted from just about any quarter.” In a symposium sponsored by Commentary magazine three months after the Braden piece appeared, the liberal historian Schlesinger wrote that the CIA expenditures were wholly justified, arguing: “For the United States government to have stood self-righteously aside at this point would have seemed to me far more shameful than to do what, in fact, it did—which was through intermediaries to provide some of these groups subsidies to help them do better what they were doing anyway.” Even some Left-leaning historians have recognized that the magnitude of the post-war Soviet threat justified the choices made at the time. “In the circumstances of the time,” observed Tony Judt, “who are we to say that the social democrats and liberals should have denied themselves financial resources to combat a huge Soviet propaganda machine?”

In hindsight, it is easy to see why it was a mistake for the CCF to accept secret funding. Surely the lack of transparency made the CCF vulnerable to criticism not only from its ideological opponents but also from those more sympathetic to its aims. Many in the latter group credibly argued that the CCF undermined its own purported commitment to democratic values by keeping its followers in the dark about how its bills were being paid. And while the notion made by some modern critics of the CCF—that the likes of Arthur Koestler and Raymond Aron could be easily manipulated into a “front group” for the CIA—is clearly absurd, its adherents realized that the funding revelations would doom the organization. Although it limped along for another decade with a different name and leadership, the CCF’s effectiveness was seriously diminished. The U.S. government’s reaction to the Ramparts article was swift. A high-level committee tasked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate secret funding of U.S. organizations recommended that covert government funding to any American educational or voluntary organization be prohibited. The recommendation was approved by CIA director Richard Helms and adopted as Agency policy.

But what of overt support for anti-totalitarian and other democratic-related activities? In 1953, the Eisenhower Administration established the United States Information Agency (USIA), whose mission was “to understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions, and their counterparts abroad." In the USIA’s final report, issued in 1999, then-acting director Penn Kemble told the story of the role USIA had played in convincing European governments to overcome opposition to countering Soviet deployment of short-range nuclear missiles in the 1980s. USIA conducted polls showing that European governments had been misled by Soviet-orchestrated propaganda pushing false narratives about European public opinion. “Many in the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and elsewhere,” wrote Kemble, “began to realize that the democracies would defend themselves, and that the possibility of Soviet dominance in Europe was remote.”

With the fall of the Soviet Union, voices on Capitol Hill claimed that U.S. support for a battle of ideas was no longer relevant and that USIA’s two billion or so dollars in the government’s annual budget could be better spent. During the Clinton administration and with the support of Congress, the U.S. Information Agency was abolished. How sad and self-defeating it is that America simply walked away from its most important means of telling its story to the world. Looking back after the end of the Cold War on the impact of the Ramparts article of which he was the principal author, Sol Stern noted with regret that it marked one of the turning points in the liberal view of the Cold War:

Instead of celebrating their own movement’s contributions to the many successes of U.S. Cold War policy—i.e., blocking Soviet expansionism and preserving Western Europe’s freedom—many prominent liberals now began to accept our radical critique of American foreign policy and to feel guilty about the excesses of the Cold War.

Over recent years, the democratic West has found itself confronted by both resurgent authoritarianism and illiberal populism, while Islamist militancy has extended its reach into Sub-Saharan Africa. While none of these pose existential challenges akin to an ideologically aggressive, expansionist, nuclear-armed Soviet Union, or a compelling systemic alternative to match the global pretensions of Communism, we still must struggle to address the varying threats they pose to liberal democracy itself. These include the soft power of China’s developmental authoritarianism, the “illiberal democracy” of Viktor Orban and other populist leaders, and even the attacks on free speech and democratic institutions in our own country from both Right and Left that have shaken confidence in our ability to defend our most fundamental values. And while the Ukraine War has done much to undermine the appeal of Putin’s propaganda war against the West, it has nonetheless begun to expose divisions over the extent to which we are willing to commit to the long-term challenges required to counter the spread of authoritarianism.

Whether a new Cold War is imminent or already upon us remains a matter of dispute. Still, there is little question that the world has entered an era of strategic competition or great power rivalry that, in the words of foreign policy scholar Hal Brands, “revolves around clashes of ideologies and systems of government no less than around clashes of national interests.” Argues Brands: “The robust defense and promotion of democratic values abroad should be a key part of any comprehensive effort to shore up the liberal international order against illiberal challenges.” The cultural Cold War against Soviet Communism and, more specifically, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, can still serve as instructive models for conducting the long war of ideas against authoritarian and anti-democratic challenges that we face today.

David E. Lowe is the author of Touched with Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle Against Racial and Religious Discrimination (Potomac Books, 2019), winner of a 2019 National Jewish Book Award. He and Michael Allen are working on a biography of Melvin J. Lasky.

Image: Mao Zedong illustration from Ramparts magazine, February 1972. (Biblio)