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Let a few decades pass and you can find how history can be miscast,
not to mention virtually misinterpreted. A recent hefty, 500-page book
by a young English woman is one such case in point. Her purported
subject: “The Cultural Cold War” (The New Press) presents unequivocally
her point of view with the subtitle: “The CIA and the World of Arts and
Letters.”

For author Frances Stonor Saunders, described on the dust jacket as
“an independent film producer of documentaries,” the CIA is about as
vile, Machiavellian and downright evil an organization that has ever
existed. “The consortium which the CIA built up — consisting of what
Henry Kissinger described as ‘an aristocracy dedicated to the service of
this nation on behalf of principles beyond partisanship’ — was the
hidden weapon in America’s Cold War struggle, a weapon which, in the
cultural field, had extensive fall-out.”

She describes the “centerpiece” of a secret program of cultural
propaganda in Western Europe, as being the Congress for Cultural Freedom
principally active from 1950 to 1967. At its peak, the organization had
offices in 35 countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over 20
prestigious magazines, held art exhibitions, owned a news and features
service, organized high-profile international conferences and rewarded
musicians and artists with prizes and public performances. “Its
mission,” Saunders says with deep distaste — practically revulsion –
“was to nudge the intelligentsia of Western Europe away from its
lingering fascination with Marxism and Communism towards a view more
accommodating of ‘the American way.’”

The CIA, you see, for Saunders, “was the organization that
masterminded the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala in
1954, the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation in 1961 and the notorious
Phoenix Program in Vietnam. It spied on tens of thousands of Americans,
harassed democratically elected leaders abroad, plotted assassinations,
denied those activities to Congress and, in the process, elevated the
art of lying to new heights.”

And how about the Soviet Union during all this time? Saunders can
hardly be bothered to pay that country and its activities cultural or
political much heed. The Hungarian Uprising of 1956? She devotes more
attention to the role the CIA and Radio Free Europe may have played than
to the Soviets’ brutal repression. She mocks the Congress for Cultural
Freedom’s taking satisfaction from noted fellow traveler Jean-Paul
Sartre’s denunciation of Soviet brutality — a major coup for our side,
to say the least.

Some personal disclosure seems in order here. As a young thing in
Paris in those years, I was a very junior soul with the U.S. Information
Service, and very interested in film — Paris being then (and still is
perhaps) the most movie-oriented city in the world. The French movie
business was permeated with Communist unions and fellow travelers.
Twenty-five percent of the country voted Communist. Yet American movies
were very popular with the French public and with French Communist movie
critics — a number of whom were genuine film aesthetes and wonderfully
informed about the cinema despite how they voted. Many a discussion I
had with distinguished film historian and Communist Party member Georges
Sadoul over film. He came on my invitation to a talk by Preston
Sturges, which I’d organized for USIA, because he so admired Sturges’
work as a filmmaker.

The Soviets built a large fancy movie house on the Left Bank where
they regularly played all the latest Soviet and Eastern European films,
many of which were first-rate and drew a wide range of audiences. Film
clubs sprang up all over the Latin Quarter, again with a strong
fellow-traveling bent in the choice of films. American cultural
activities, funded or not by the CIA, did find a very real response from
the French students and intelligentsia (way ahead of the U.S. in those
years in serious interest in movies). If we were in a struggle to
capture the minds and cultural tastes of European elites we did a pretty
good job of it.

Perhaps the most telling summation of French intellectual
disillusionment with Communism came from Yves Montand, one of the old
U.S.S.R.’s most glittery stars, after the Berlin Wall came down. He
went on French National Television, and declared, “Nous etions des
cons,” (Roughly translated as “We were jerks” by way of explanation as
to why he’d gone along with the Soviets so long).

But do you get even a hint of any of this from “The Cultural Cold
War”? Nope. What you do get is an awful lot of snide, well, gossip is
the most apt descriptive word. She can barely bring herself to mention
the names of Irving Kristol, an early editor of the prestigious monthly
journal, Encounter, or Mel Lasky, its last editor, without a sneer or an
insult. Objective, the lady is not.

Saunders put a lot of work into her book, interviewed many an
individual; but her prejudice — no, her truly violent hatred of the
CIA — blinds her to telling what is a compelling story, still waiting
to be told in full.

Go to

amazon.com
and call up the title to get a variety of reviews and comments, although none give just what kind of a cultural war the Soviet Union was waging during those years.

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