From the 1930s to the 1950s, under the direct supervision of Joseph Stalin, Communist parties around the world set up “front groups” — organizations under their own control but not publicly affiliated with them — to advance the interests of the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of World War II, America’s fledgling CIA, seeking ways to counter Soviet influence in Europe and elsewhere, took a leaf from the adversary’s playbook, covertly funding individuals and organizations that would advance the fortunes of the Free World. The CIA’s conduct in this period has been much vilified in recent years. Hugh Wilford’s “The Mighty Wurlitzer” leaves room, often inadvertently, for a very different view.
One of the CIA’s early postwar “front group” efforts, described by Mr. Wilford, was aimed at organizing and funding émigrés from the Eastern Bloc. In 1949, the National Council for a Free Europe was born, seemingly the initiative of American philanthropists. At first, it helped refugees. As the Cold War intensified, it participated more directly in political action — for instance, by sending balloons out along the borders of communist lands and dropping antigovernment leaflets down to the citizens below. By 1956, it had papered Eastern Europe with a staggering 300 million pieces of propaganda.
The National Council for a Free Europe, Mr. Wilford writes, was “to outward appearances an independent organization spontaneously formed by private American citizens.” In fact, it was something else: a CIA invention or, to use a metaphor, one piping note in the seeming orchestra of the CIA’s “mighty Wurlitzer.” It was Frank Wisner, the head of the CIA’s covert programs in the 1950s, who first attempted this organ metaphor, intending it as a compliment to the CIA’s range of orchestrated activities. Mr. Wilford borrows the phrase for his book title, intending something a bit more ironic and critical.
Among the Wurlitzer’s loudest notes, naturally, was anticommunism. Through the American trade-union labor movement — firmly anticommunist even before the Cold War — the CIA channeled money to organizations and individuals who would be useful to the anti-Soviet cause but reluctant to take cash directly from an intelligence service. The CIA also erected a network of foundations — the Fairfield Foundation was particularly active — to fund yet other organizations where the intelligence connection could not be revealed.
Among the beneficiaries of Fairfield’s largess was the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a group of writers and intellectuals fighting communism in the cultural arena. In the mid-1950s, Diana Trilling, the literary and cultural critic then running the committee, suspected that Fairfield was “fake,” but she was uncertain whether it was a conduit for the CIA or the State Department. Either way, as she was to write decades later, “I did not believe that to take the support of my government was a dishonorable act.”
In the 1960s, Ms. Trilling’s view was not widely shared, to put it mildly. When Ramparts magazine, in a 1967 article, exposed the CIA’s covert funding programs, it set off (in the words of one CIA veteran) “a drumfire of editorial denunciation.” Look magazine declared that “whoever participated in this money grabbing has stained us all.”
In the course of his chronicle, Mr. Wilford wonders exactly how much loyalty the CIA was able to buy for its money. His answer: not much. In just about every one of the organizations he examines, he arrives at roughly the same conclusion: “Imagery of puppet masters and marionettes fails utterly to capture the complexities of the partnership.” Too often, he says, it was the recipient, and not the CIA, that pulled the strings. In any case, he echoes Look magazine, believing that the CIA’s covert funding programs “stained the reputation of the nation itself.”
It is certainly true that covert programs rarely remain covert forever, and when a leak does occur the damage is considerable. The Ramparts revelations arguably harmed the cause of anticommunism; they certainly harmed the reputations of individuals. Among those who suffered were the editors and writers affiliated with Encounter, a great magazine of culture and ideas that had been a covert recipient of CIA money.
On the whole, Mr. Wilford’s tone is temperate and scholarly, although he occasionally dismisses the men and women who labored to check Soviet totalitarianism as “ideological zealots” in the grip of a political “hatred.” He also, at times, compares the CIA’s methods and objectives with those of the Soviet intelligence services, as if there was not a fundamental distinction between the two.
More important, Mr. Wilford’s skepticism toward long-ago CIA efforts spills over to the current moment, as when he denounces the Project for a New American Century, a Washington-based group founded in 1997 and devoted to promoting an actively engaged U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Wilford cites it as evidence that the “front group” tactic has experienced “a revival of sorts” and is now being used to “prosecute the neoconservatives’ notion of a ‘global democratic revolution.’ ” He notes ominously that the Project for a New American Century is the “invention of William Kristol,” the “son of . . . Irving Kristol,” who was, he reminds us, an officer in the CIA-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom. There is more than a vague suggestion here that the Project for a New American Century is in the pay of the CIA or some other government entity, although Mr. Wilford presents no evidence for such a claim. Employing the past to fight battles in the present is a formula for distorting both.
Mr. Schoenfeld is the senior editor of Commentary magazine.