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Book review: Joel Whitney’s Finks is a riveting account of the CIA’s plot to recruit literature to America’s cause

In the Cold War the eastern bloc persecuted the artistic freedoms of writers, but Joel Whitney's Finks shows the CIA in the West was just as manipulative.
After the Soviet Union suppressed publication of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, above, the CIA obtained a microfilm to publish it in English. Courtesy Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images
After the Soviet Union suppressed publication of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, above, the CIA obtained a microfilm to publish it in English. Courtesy Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Art can be an instrument of change. But it is never insulated from the conditions in which it is produced. The conditions of its production can therefore also influence the change it might seek.

Since the start of the Cold War there was an attempt by both sides in the conflict to instrumentalise art as a means of ideological domination. The artistic landscape was consequently fraught with political landmines. Artists had to navigate this terrain with caution. Some became willing instruments of policy, some were coerced into it, some made expedient compromises, and many were snared unwittingly.

The eastern bloc’s means of control were explicit, hence they are better known. They were exemplified in the persecution, fear and exile suffered by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. They have also been fictionalised in popular films like Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.

Less known however, are the means that the ‘free world’ used to turn the intellectual climate in its favour. Decidedly more tolerant of dissent than its eastern counterpart, the West developed a system of rewards and exclusion to amplify favourable voices and marginalise critical ones.

This vast apparatus was orchestrated and conducted by the analytical wing of the CIA, which in its halcyon days drew the best and the brightest from Ivy League universities. Erudite and urbane, these recruits were conscious of the revolutionary mystique of Soviet communism and sought to counteract this by promoting a strong anti-communist line emphasizing western ideals of freedom and openness.

Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers is Joel Whitney’s riveting account of the CIA’s machinations to recruit some of the world’s leading writers in this ideological contest. Part-literary history and part-investigative research, the book unravels hitherto unknown details about the CIA’s vast cultural operation.

Whitney’s story pivots around The Paris Review, one of the finest literary publications, best known for its series of interviews with such literary giants as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T S Eliot, Thornton Wilder and Vladimir Nabokov. The magazine also published original fiction and poetry from the likes of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, V S Naipaul and Philip Roth.

But in 1953 when it was launched, one of The Paris Review’s three co-founders, the novelist Peter Matthiessen, was working for the CIA and used the magazine as a cover. George Plimpton, the magazine’s other co-founder, was also aware that the magazine’s benefactor, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), was heavily funded the by the CIA. The CCF sustained The Paris Review by mass purchasing its copies, syndicating its content, and paying extra for material that aligned with Cold War imperatives. The CCF also tried to influence the magazine editorially.

The CIA also engaged in more direct interventions. When the Soviet Union tried to suppress Boris Pasternak’s now-classic Doctor Zhivago, which took an independent stance on the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the author had the book published in translation in Italy. But the CIA managed to secure a microfilm of the manuscript and also facilitated its publication in English.

Its bigger coup however, was in getting copies of the book in the original Russian smuggled back into the Soviet Union. The CIA purchased thousands of copies of Doctor Zhivago to put it on best-seller lists and lobbied for the author to receive the Nobel Prize. But the CIA merely complicated the author’s precarious situation at home; and when Pasternak finally won the Nobel, his Soviet persecutors presented it as proof of his collusion with the West (though he had never consented to any of it). Facing pressure and threats at home, Pasternak declined the prize.

But if CIA lobbying could help secure a Nobel, it could also help deny it. In 1964, after rumours spread that the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was being considered for a Nobel, the CIA-funded CCF kicked into action to deny him it. Few doubted Neruda’s poetic genius: his work appealed to lay and literary audiences alike. But the fraught history of US interventions in Latin America had turned Neruda not just into an anti-imperialist, but also into an admirer of anti-American strongmen. Neruda wrote odes not just to Stalin and Fidel Castro, but also to Fulgencio Batista, the dictator that Castro would later overthrow. This put Neruda beyond the pale for the staunchly anti-communist and anti-totalitarian CCF who lobbied hard against him and the 1964 prize instead went to Jean-Paul Sartre.

Finks is replete with these and many other literary anecdotes that make it a highly-readable book. It is most compelling as a work of literary history. Its understanding of the intersection between art and politics is subtle and dimensional. The storytelling is gripping with a sense of drama. The sections on Gabriel García Márquez’s literary fortunes and Hemingway’s life in Cuba are particularly good.

But while it is richly detailed with a wealth of primary sources, the book does not always succeed as investigative journalism. It often makes inferences that aren’t warranted by the evidence presented. It also makes false equivalencies that diminish its credibility. John Berger’s book in the UK being withdrawn by a publisher in response to harsh reviews over a sympathetic comment on the Soviet invasion of Hungary is not comparable to Pasternak in the Soviet Union being denied the opportunity to be published (not to mention his persecution and harassment).

Though Whitney presents indisputable evidence that the CCF favoured authors who would adopt a strongly anti-communist line, his claims of censorship rest on shaky grounds. Whitney shows, for example, that a sharp polemic against the United States by Dwight MacDonald was declined by Encounter, the CCF’s flagship publication, but the essay was published in Twentieth Century, another magazine run by the CCF. James Baldwin was able to use CCF publications to write not just strong condemnations of racism but also to report on the CCF’s own dysfunction.

The analysis is also marred by assumptions that grant little agency to individuals. Arthur Koestler, Jayaprakash Narayan or Ignazio Silone did not need CCF patronage to take a tough line against communism. Nor for that matter was CCF reducible to its CIA funding: after all, it was an initiative led by Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and Jacques Maritain – hardly evangelists for US power; and it wasn’t operating in a vacuum: the Soviets had been investing in cultural warfare since 1925. So to accuse someone like Narayan of “carr[ying] water for US anti-communism” just because of his CCF affiliation is to sully a man’s integrity based on dubious association.

The book also reprises conventional left-wing mythology on Afghanistan in which the Soviets invaded “after the United States lured them there” (by funding extremist insurgents). As a matter of fact, extant Soviet records show that the Politburo authorized the invasion only to pre-empt the implosion of Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) government whose infighting had culminated in the prime minster ordering the president arrested and killed. The insurgency had started almost a year before the invasion (mainly in response to the PDPA’s murder spree, executing 27,000 to 50,000 Afghans). And Soviet military presence in Afghanistan predated the July 1979 CIA authorisation; the invasion came later. The terrors Afghans faced were real, not a CIA creation; and the insurgency was popular, regardless of US interest.

These demurrals aside, the book is a timely reminder of the distorting effect of power on artistic endeavours. As Whitney notes, this is particularly ironic when the values being promoted are freedom of expression and individual liberty. As the paradigm has shifted from the Cold War to the war on terror, with a greater emphasis on “information dominance”, the need to remain on guard against new attempts at manipulation remains urgent.

As Whitney notes, there have already been such cases of manipulation with the CIA’s laundering of history in films such as Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Meanwhile Russians are perfecting new forms of “hybrid warfare” in which disinformation plays a central role.

If there is one lesson to be learned from this book, it is that we can’t afford to be exclusive in our sympathies – or scepticisms – and we must always maintain a sense of proportion. Because the conditions for intellectual freedom are as important as intellectual freedom itself.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a lecturer in digital journalism at the University of Stirling.

Updated: January 12, 2017 04:00 AM

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