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The Congress of Cultural Freedom: The CIA's Role in Postwar American Art (Part One)

By Edited Nov 30, 2016 0 1

Kandinsky
Paris, April 1st, 1952. The prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra performs Igor Stravinksy’s ballet The Rites of Spring (1913) as the opening to a month-long celebration of the arts entitled ‘The Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century’. The festival is the first major project of the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF), set up by the USA in 1950 to promote the cultural achievements of the Free West around the world. Throughout Paris, the most renowned orchestras in Europe perform “works proscribed by Hitler or Stalin,” (Saunders) or by composers who had fled from the Nazis before the war, such as Arnold Schoenberg; more recent operas such as Billy Budd (1951) by Benjamin Britten and Fours Saints in Three Acts (1934) by US composer Virgil Thomson receive their première French performances. Amid the music of Bartok, Mahler, Copland and others, there is also a major art and sculpture exhibition, showcasing the likes of Matisse, Kandinksy, Cezanne and Seurat, “whose exhibition would not be allowed by such totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or present-day Soviet Russia” (Saunders), and literary debates including speeches by William Faulkner, W H Auden and Stephen Spender. All this, courtesy of the Congress of Cultural Freedom.

In the words of American cultural commentator Hilton Kramer, “You would think...this extraordinary festival of the arts would be acclaimed in retrospect as one of the proudest accomplishments in the history of the Congress.” And yet, despite this ambitious festival, others like it (such as in Rome, 1954) and nearly twenty years of an “extraordinary array of activities, including festivals, seminars and concerts” (Wilford), the CCF would in time be viewed as “a necessary evil of democracy,” an example of “a sham pluralism...utterly corrupting,” promoting not the arts but “the illusion of dissent” (Saunders). For even as conductor Pierre Monteux raised his baton, the CCF, as only a few select men in that audience of April 1952 knew, was a body orchestrated and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, with its “reputation as a ruthlessly interventionist and frighteningly unaccountable instrument of American Cold War power” (Saunders), as part of the kulturkampf against Soviet Communism. For the story of America’s cultural self-promotion in the years after the Second World War is of covert operations, clandestine conferences – and the paintings of Jackson Pollock.

The close of World War Two saw the USA emerge as the most powerful economic state in the world. “Washington had supplanted London as the center of Western political power” (Pells), with its opposite power now in Moscow, rather than Berlin. In July 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency formed from the ashes of the wartime Operation of Strategic Services, primarily to supervise diplomatic and military intelligence. Its operatives visiting Europe soon became aware of “the bad press the United States received overseas” blamed on “an adroit Communist propaganda campaign” (Guilbart).

The Cold War would be a psychological struggle and without atomic power or America’s economic muscle, the USSR “did much in these early years of the Cold War to establish its central paradigm as a cultural one” (Saunders). Thanks to Russian propaganda, many Europeans viewed America as “culturally barren, a nation of gum-chewing, Chevy-driving philistines” (Saunders). An American cultural drive in postwar Berlin helped challenge this attitude, with programs of book exchanges, theatrical performances and musical concerts featuring the finest talents America had to offer. The success of this cultural ‘Berlin airlift’ was enough to convince the Americans to extend the program, but by the time the brutal winter of early 1947 had finished its work, one truth was evident: “Europe was broke” (Saunders) and could not fund such activities itself. As the months passed, America knew it required a greater effort yet to secure freedom for its European allies, and to safeguard its own interests in the tense stand-off with the USSR.

March 1948, and “the atmosphere in Washington is apocalyptic” (Guilbart). The Washington Post and the New York Times both run articles on the seemingly imminent outbreak of

Harry Truman
another war, with Soviet Russia threatening to sweep across the weakened nations of Europe. Czechoslovakia had fallen to a Communist coup in February 1948; Greece and Turkey appeared on the brink of following suit; French and Italian Communist parties threatened strong showings in forthcoming elections. And so, on March 17th 1948, as “a kind of collective hysteria had gripped the nation,” US President Harry Truman made a broadcast speech “in which he lashed out violently at Soviet foreign policy” (Guilbart). Truman urged Congress, and the American public, to back the Marshall Plan, “a package of economic assistance coupled with a doctrinal message” (Saunders), to prop up the flattened European economies, a scheme previously considered with indifference or skepticism by the domestic audience. With the Soviet threat laid bare, Truman’s speech “galvanized Congress and the public, which awoke at last from its lethargy” (Guilbart). The Marshall Plan went ahead, to the anger of the Soviets, who viewed the plan (perhaps with some justification) as “a program for interference in the eternal affairs of other states” (Saunders). And so the Cold War began in earnest. 

Dollars and doctrine aside, The US faced a problem as to how to convince wavering allies that the American way was best. The then-influential native European intelligentsia were not impressed with military might, but were more likely persuaded by art and culture. As Stephen Spender said, “the advertising, propagandist way of doing things...is almost useless in a continent saturated for many years with the diabolically clever propaganda from Germany and Russia,” (quoted by Guilbart). Instead, “education” was needed, “teachers, books, orchestras,” (Guilbart). On this level, the Russians were ahead in the propaganda war; Europeans believed “communists read the classics, spoke different languages, listened to the nineteenth-century Romantics,” whereas Americans had “paralyzed their brains with cartoons, pop music and an avalanche of consumer products” (Gienow-Hecht).

For although political power had shifted to Washington, cultural power had not; art was still seen as the preserve of the French, and Paris, not least by Americans themselves, who thought little of their home-grown talent: “...Americans were still so piously attached to the prestige of the School of Paris they could not bring themselves to recognize what was going on in their own country” (Kramer). Good art to Americans was, if not French, then certainly European – and appreciated by Russians. European intellectuals were also traditionally left-wing, requiring the Americans to prove its artistic worth to both to a domestic and a foreign audience. “Independence of Paris became the crucial factor” (Guilbart), as did persuasion of “those intellectuals, who were disillusioned with Stalinist Communism but still faithful to the ideas of Socialism” (Saunders), to keep the right side of the Iron Curtain.

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Feb 15, 2015 11:37am
HLesley
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