By turns hilarious and horrifying, the story of the CIA’s attempts to disseminate anticommunist propaganda through a variety of front organizations.
Since the agency’s inception in 1947, writes Wilford (History/California State Univ., Long Beach), its leaders envied communist-front organizations that (they believed) accepted KGB money, slavishly carried out its wishes and won hearts and minds throughout the world. To counteract this, the CIA began funneling funds to students, unions, women’s groups, political parties, governments-in-exile, arts organizations and anticommunist left-wing periodicals. Readers’ jaws will drop at the Who’s Who of prominent Americans who took the agency’s money: Richard Wright, Gloria Steinem, a young Henry Kissinger, AFL president George Meany and the UAW’s Reuther brothers, among many others. Until the mid-1960s, if an international gathering of students, women, writers, blacks or journalists took place, the CIA probably footed the bill for the American delegation. This was not viewed as hypocritical in the way it would be today, argues Wilford, whose previous scholarly publications have also dealt with the complex relationships between government agencies and private organizations. Members of the cash-strapped avant-garde and activist groups funded by the CIA were usually idealists with admirable goals. More liberal than most government departments, the agency refused McCarthy’s demand to fire ex-communists and homosexuals, and the beneficiaries of its largesse often ignored the suggestions that accompanied it. Amusing passages describe CIA fronts feuding with other CIA fronts and activists on CIA expense accounts who traveled the world denouncing U.S. policies. Everything unraveled in 1967, after a series of exposés sparked by a Ramparts magazine article converted chronic rumors into headlines and Congressional investigations. Those who accepted CIA money had always worried that revelation of this link would convert their good work into a public-relations catastrophe, and that is precisely what happened. Everyone now agrees it was a bad idea from the start.
Unlike Tim Weiner’s brilliant Legacy of Ashes, whose litany of disastrous covert operations makes for painful reading, this superb account will provide CIA aficionados with some welcome comic relief.