Tinker, tailor... cultural historian

Who Paid the Piper?

October 22, 1999

This is a book about front organisations such as the egregious Congress for Cultural Freedom, the clouded obligations of state-sponsored artistic production, the subtle corruption of intellectual exchange, and the co-option of the intelligentsia. Contrary to the polar pieties of the cold war, it is not about the satellites of the Soviet Union but the acolytes of the United States. In short, it is not about Them. It is about Us.

Frances Stonor Saunders's answer to the question posed in her title is almost stereotypically simple: the CIA is the culprit. Yet it seems to be true. Who Paid the Piper? is an extended disquisition on the cultural imperium of "The Agency" in the deep cold war. The book gives every sign of being researched and written with relish with some marvellous personal testimony from the veterans of this underworld, underhand Kulturkampf . "It's my contention that the CIA not only engaged in a cultural cold war in the abstract and purely pragmatic way," says the novelist Richard Elman,"but that they had very definite aims in view, and they had a very definite aesthetic: they stood for High Culture."

What was the aesthetic of Britain's secret intelligence service, MI6, one wonders? Did Smiley's people care for High Culture? "I always got on extremely well with my American colleagues," remembered that pukka prizeman and part time puppet-master Monty Woodhouse, "provided they weren't lunatics." The philosopher Stuart Hampshire, one of the author's best sources, gives some background: "In 1949, I believe, the Ford Foundation came to London, and they held a big meeting in a hotel, to which they summoned the leading intellectuals. At that time, they had capital reserves which were worth more than the whole of the sterling area.So, the intellectuals come, and the Ford Foundation offers them the earth,but they say, 'We're fine, thank you. We've got All Souls, and that's enough for us.' The British were underwhelmed. They did ask for a few things, but they were so small the Americans thought they were mad. And the context for this is that there was a very deep, Freud-like anti-Americanism; a kind of Wykehamish snobbery meets Chinese left-wingery,epitomised by people like William Empson and E. M. Forster. I remember Forster staying with Lionel Trilling in New York once. Trilling ... was very nervous. Forster told him he needed to buy a shirt for some occasion, and Trilling took him to Brooks Brothers. But when Forster got there, he took one look and said, 'My God, I can't possibly buy anything here.' That summed it up."

For the CIA, high culture meant high modernism. One of the most arresting images in the book is that of the agency as a kind of ersatz ministry of culture, disseminating American abstract expressionism to the unenlightened, rejuvenating the jaded palettes of the decadent Europeans, emancipating the slaves of socialist realism: Jackson Pollock as a continuation of politics by other means. In literature, too, the agency had advanced tastes. It boasts a distinguished if somewhat eccentric backlist - the books to which it gave a helping hand, in publication, translation, or distribution, including T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets , a translation of which was air-dropped into Russia. There was also a stable of journals in which the agency had an interest. These included Partisan Review , Kenyon Review , Hudson Review, Poetry , The Journal of the History of Ideas , and Daedalus . Notoriously, however, the echt intellectual journal of the CIA, financed and operated through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was Encounter (1953-90), edited for most of its rebarbative life by the American praetor Melvin Lasky and the British patsy Stephen Spender. Encounter was the heavy weapon of the cultural cold war. Its mission was brilliantly satirised on That Was the Week that Was , where "a Congress spokesman" spoke of "cultural containment, or, as some of the boys like to put it, a ring around the pinkos. In fact, I wouldn't say we had an aim, I'd say we had a historic mission. World readership ...". To this end, journals were kept on "round-the-clock, red-warning alert - always watching what the other fellow is doing, instead of wasting valuable time on scrutinising ourselves".

All this makes for a marvellous tale. It is this very marvellousness that is so well documented in Who Paid the Piper? Evocatively, the work is a considerable achievement. Analytically, it is much weaker. The borrowed conclusion is a case in point. "'In the name of what?' asked one critic. 'Not civic virtue, but empire.'" This is surely too pat. A different epitaph, suggested by the author herself, cries out for more attention; but in vain. "Proponents of the Cold War, they were also in some measure its victims, destroyed by the moral ambiguities of the Great Game."

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

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

Author - Frances Stonor Saunders
ISBN - 1 86207 029 6
Publisher - Granta
Price - £20.00
Pages - 509

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.