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

By Edited May 30, 2016 1 0

By March 1948 then, the need to establish the USA as a world artistic power was fivefold: first, to encourage the belief that the American way of life was inherently the most advantageous for any country to take; secondly, if America was the global force it believed itself, it needed a culture to match, for as editor and publisher Jason Epstein put it, “you couldn’t be a great power if you didn’t have art to go with it, like Venice without Tintoretto or Florence without Giotto” (Saunders); thirdly, to prove to the world that American artists had the freedom to produce whatever work they wished, unlike their Russian counterparts constrained by the diktats of the State to Socialist Realism; fourthly, to improve the image of America abroad (As Guilbart states, “improving the cultural image of the United States was identified in 1948 as the most important goal for American propaganda”); and lastly, to coax the leftists of the Free West away from any lingering ideological interest in Communism. In short, Europe needed “a worldwide Marshall plan in the field of ideas” (Guilbart).

During a meeting in a Frankfurt hotel room in August 1949, “a group of German

intellectuals...started to sketch out their idea for a permanent structure dedicated to organised intellectual resistance” (Saunders), to counter Soviet propaganda. They suggested a conference to take place in Berlin, “a gathering of ex-Communists...of anti-Stalinist American, English and European intellectuals, declaring its sympathy for...the silent opposition in Russia” (Saunders). With the project approved and budgeted by the CIA, the organization to carry out this ideological Marshall plan was born during that Berlin conference of June 1950; added urgency that week came from the news that communist North Korean troops had invaded South Korea. The Congress of Cultural Freedom, as the organization was so named, would have its headquarters in – where else? - Paris. Frank Wisner, head of the CIA’s covert action division, gave the job of heading the Congress to Michael Josselson, a former Cultural Affairs Officer with the American Military Government in Berlin. Frances Stoner Saunders sums up the CCF’s mission:

“It was a beachhead...in Western Europe from which the advance of Communist ideas could be halted...to engage in a widespread and cohesive campaign of peer pressure to persuade intellectuals to disassociate themselves from Communist fronts...to encourage the intelligentsia to develop arguments and theories which were directed not at a mass audience...It was to act as an emissary for the achievements of American culture and to undermine the negative stereotypes prevalent in Europe, especially France, about America’s perceived cultural barrenness.”

Exhibitions and festivals were not the only methods by which the CCF spread their message. “The Fulbright Scholarship Program emerged. The United States Information Agency came into being in 1953, and soon had jazz bands like Dizzy Gillespie’s making international tours” (Kammen). Two 1955 feature film versions of George Orwell novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, were given covert CIA backing via the CCF, and both had their endings changed to suit the political climate. Radio Free Europe, set up and funded by the CIA through the CCF, “had twenty-nine stations broadcasting in sixteen different languages” (Saunders) directed at Communist regimes.

Also allocated money were the new cultural magazines appearing in newsstands across the world. Modeled on the German magazine Der Monat, publications such as Preuves (France), Quest (India) and Quadrant (Australia) printed articles with a left-wing slant that nonetheless failed to criticize American foreign policy, even as times of crisis such as the US Army’s report of the treatment of prisoners during the Korean War, or the American involvement in Vietnam. In Britain, the magazine Encounter, which ran from 1953 until 1991, sprang from talks between the MI6 and the CIA in early 1951. Although primarily a political magazine, culture formed a large part of Encounter’s output and, for the first fourteen years of its life, was co-edited by poet Stephen Spender.

Back in 1950, the CCF set off on a firm footing in terms of declaring an American artistic tradition. In 1941, literary critic F O Matthiessen had published his landmark American Renaissance, (one of the books distributed in post-war Berlin), which looked back to the times of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne and Melville as a golden age in American liberal freedom of expression.

Figures such as Emerson and Thoreau were often deployed in this stage of the cultural Cold War, both in the US and abroad. Both “were only the most obvious of American writers and philosophers who celebrated a particularly American individuality” (Cheever). Leerom Medovoi explains further: “The new canon placed at its apex the works of the so-called American Renaissance...Melville, Hawthorne and Twain...were now deployed as a coherent tradition that dramatized the emergence of American freedom as...somehow already waging its heroic struggle against a pre-figured totalitarianism.”

Christopher Gair has pointed out the usefulness of the mid-nineteenth century transcendentalism movement to contemporary counterculture movements such as the Beats, who avoided claims of anti-Americanism by identifying with “genuine American values, such as individual freedom of choice, as alternatives to a corporate capitalism they perceived to be corrupting American ideals.” Such domestic dissent would later be promoted as proof of the value of American cultural freedom.

The CCF considered other established forms of American culture for the fray against Communism. In music, the most popular export was jazz, lauded by European critics as an art form, although “...as in the case of film criticism, it took European writers to tell the Americans

Louis Armstrong and Grace Kelly
what was valuable about their own artistic endeavors – a sign that the worth of American’s culture still depended on European confirmation” (Pells). Moreover, the qualities of jazz seen as essentially American – spontaneity and agility – were proof that “intellect, knowledge and ideas played no role in this music itself” (Pells).

As for film, Hollywood was cited as a main cause of the popular European view of America as “a giant with the head of a child” (Geinow-Hecht). In this case, the problem, ironically, came of too much success: “...the European’s argument that their films were artistically superior to Hollywood’s products was a reaction to, and defense against, the worldwide invasion of American movies” (Pells). Film historian David Trotter argues “Hollywood gained control of the international market by mass-production of a distinctive and highly efficient style of filmmaking.” The ‘classical continuity system’ gave up the “pleasures of sheer visibility” of film to “a vehicle for narrative.”

The global popularity of the method spelled doom for alternative ways of exploring film as an artistic medium, such as the German Expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). As early as “the late 1920s...with the arrival of sound...a certain nostalgia for early cinema’s exposition of space through movement” (Trotter) had developed among film theorists in Great Britain. Richard Pells, however, believes the feeling was mutual: “...the majority of American intellectuals and film critics shared the belief that Hollywood films were rubbish, another sign of America’s continuing sense of inferiority in its cultural contest with Europe.” With no chance of Hollywood changing its ways to suit Washington, another cultural mode would need to take on the fight for the minds of the Free West...  



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