Uncovering the CIA’s Funding of American Literary Journals
Author Joel Whitney in conversation with Rob Spillman
It’s long been known in the publishing world that in the 1950s, the CIA was involved in founding the influential literary magazine, the Paris Review. My wife, Elissa Schappell, was senior editor of the Paris Review under George Plimpton in the ’90s, so I saw firsthand his charismatic charm, and it was hard to imagine this liberal lion anywhere near the CIA. Yet Peter Matthiessen, one of the other founders, was employed by the agency, which was formed after World War II to counter worldwide Soviet influence. Its focus was not just political influence, but cultural influence, so-called “soft power,” which the Soviets were successfully wielding, winning hearts and minds of Western cultural elites. The CIA also funded the first American abstract expressionist exhibit in Europe, the Boston Symphony’s first European tour, and dozens of cultural magazines.
What is less clear is the extent of Matthiessen’s CIA work, and the extent to which the other Paris Review founders — Plimpton, Doc Humes, Terry Southern, and William Styron — knew of Matthiessen’s connection to the agency and whether or not decisions about the magazine’s contents were influenced by the CIA.
Joel Whitney’s Finks delves deep into this murky world. Using extensive research of primary sources, including never-before-seen correspondence, Whitney raises difficult moral questions that still resonate today.
— Rob Spillman
Rob Spillman: Before we jump into specifics, can you give us a short primer on how the CIA was formed?
Joel Whitney: Its formation came out of anti-fascist thinking during World War II. The Nazis had spies — so the Allies needed them too. As the war came to a close, the practice of spying and what it accomplished was seen as monumental. But the Americans didn’t really know how to do it. There were spies during the Revolutionary War, but in terms of modern “spy-craft,” the Americans were playing catch-up when they formed the OSS wartime intelligence agency. Those agents were often portrayed as swashbuckling can-do types who presided over decisive but unsung war events.
After that war, some of the OSS guys became professors at Ivy League Universities. Some of my main characters, like Peter Matthiessen, were recruited by these professors in an environment that called for a new patriotic spying agency. The CIA was created hastily; the language and wording for its founding documents were pretty reactionary, as a response to fears about what the Soviets were doing.
The more liberal guys who were part of the brain trust that formed the CIA saw that the Soviets in Berlin were getting masses of people from other sectors to come over for their symphonies and films. They saw that culture itself was becoming a weapon, and they wanted a kind of Ministry of Culture too. They felt the only way they could get this paid for was through the CIA’s black budget. This was because in the McCarthy era — like the Tea Party era — the less sophisticated reactionaries who represented small states, small towns, and so on, were very suspicious of culture, of the avant-garde, the little intellectual magazines, and of intellectuals themselves. They were fairly anti-intellectual, so how could they fund culture safely if not through the unaccountable budgets of the CIA?
RS: But if we look at World War II as a whole, the covert operations, the sabotage, infiltrating behind German lines and blowing stuff up… You could say that this is just a necessary part of any conflict. The book seems interested in what Matthiessen calls “the ugly stuff” and those who claim they were only involved in the cultural aspects of the war. Is the truth somewhere in the middle?
JW: In writing the book, I wanted to see if the cultural propaganda and sponsorship were ever done in service of those ugly things. A lot of times, I would find new magazines cropping up right after blowback about some terrible event the covert ops side had perpetrated. In terms of the folks I’m critical of, their legacies hinge on claims of good intention and fear. I looked at the structure of the CIA and saw that the funding of culture — whether through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, like the CIA’s magazines, or the Free Europe Committee, which funded radio stations and book publishing wings, or any number of other fronts — almost always came from the covert ops side of the agency. So, structurally, it was the same CIA that Matthiessen was calling “ugly,” the same side he worked for.
He was a counterintelligence officer while launching the Paris Review and likely somewhat ashamed of it. He was probably spying on his friends.
A good bit of this story is in Immy Humes’s film, DOC, about her father, Doc Humes, who had a nervous collapse in the 1960s worrying about the CIA, the Kennedy Assassination, and other affairs of state. In the middle of Humes’s breakdown, Matthiessen confessed that he had been an undercover agent when the Paris Review launched. He’s on record describing some of what he did, then he wipes it all away by saying he joined before the “ugly stuff” started. But that’s counterfactual given the dates of his tenure with the CIA. I think Matthiessen deliberately blurred those. He was a counterintelligence officer while launching the Paris Review and likely somewhat ashamed of it. He was probably spying on his friends. He was trained in a chain of command that had James Jesus Angleton at the top. And Angleton later became the head of counterintelligence. He and others who worked with CIA Director Allen Dulles were very much a part of the ugly stuff right from the get-go. They were buying off elections in Italy — for decades. They were sending vulnerable refugees back to spy. These refugees may have joined out of a sincere desire to get rid of the communists but they were misled about their chances of success, and their possible choices. Many of them were killed.
But Matthiessen may not have known much about it when he signed up. He was young, and that’s a fair defense, but the book is an attempt to say there were great magazines out there, but what was it in service of? Correcting the anti-Americanism that resulted from the failed (and even the successful) covert ops? Was it just altruistic funding for its own sake? Obviously the answer is a bit of both. By the CIA’s telling, it was almost totally altruistic. It was the “good CIA.” But it’s more complicated than that, and a much better story for such complexity.
RS: That’s the milieu I grew up in. I was born in Berlin in ’64, where my parents came on Fulbright scholarships as musicians. We spent ten years there, where the arts were heavily subsidized. Berlin was 200 miles inside Communist territory but a cultural mecca. The opera, the symphony, all that. I doubt my parents had any idea where any of the money was coming from. My first memory is of my father being booed on stage because he was playing some incredibly obnoxious avant-garde piece at the Modern Art Museum in Berlin, doing John Cage stuff. They were blessedly unaware. But what about having a “purely cultural literary magazine” like the Paris Review?
JW: I don’t believe the Paris Review was doing that. It was honoring something very political, which was the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, a cultural alliance. It was basically saying, indirectly, that the West is best. When it started to bring in people of color very late, it was trying to do it in an instrumental way. The “West is the best” argument comes through just in the number of interviews they published. They interviewed Europeans and Americans who they put in abelles lettrist context. They basically were politicizing the apoliticization of art. They made it seem apolitical, and did so very effectively.
They’re not hiding anything now, and Lorin Stein is a great editor with an astonishing ear. Their staff is always sharp, and they seem to cover politics more robustly now. But through the 1960s there were so many political trends they ignored, pretending to be focused on craft and art for art’s sake. You see that in the MFA programs today when they call it “creative nonfiction” as opposed to just reporting. There’s a de-emphasis on historical truth. You see that across all the CIA aesthetics that they championed. Abstract expressionism was depoliticized against the backdrop of social realism. You have new criticism, which was almost rabidly not interested in historical or the post-colonial context. The Paris Reviewpretended they didn’t do politics. But they were being political when they engaged in cultural politics that made the Russians look bad, like when the Russians forced Pasternak to refuse the Nobel Prize. They were hot on the trail for an interview with him, which was, of course, political. If it looks apolitical, that doesn’t necessarily make it so.
RS: As you said, a lot of the recruiting was happening at Yale and other Ivy Leagues. The whole Paris Review crew had this patrician entitlement. They were all white males of privilege who would just decamp to Italy for a month to play tennis and hang out. You get this early 1950’s version of the Lawrence of Arabia types, swashbuckling and charming.
I remember playing tennis with Plimpton when he was doing benefits out in the Hamptons. He could just charm that entire crowd so well. He would beat me by the slimmest of margins, no matter how well I played. If I played atrociously, he would play atrociously plus a little bit. If I played brilliantly, he would play brilliantly plus a little bit more. He would never make you look bad, but he would always beat you. He was in his sixties at the time. It was maddening and charming. Do you think he, in his heart of hearts, knew?
JW: Matthiessen called Plimpton’s skill a kind of “social genius.” When he was a younger writer trying to get his scoop, interview, friendship, and book blurb from Ernest Hemingway, Plimpton knew how to lose. The famous story is that he was training for one of his boxing matches when he was interviewing Hemingway, and Hemingway used that pretext to deck Plimpton over a question he didn’t like. And Plimpton boasted later in print that he got Hemingway to stop wailing on him with flattery, asking how he got his hands up so fast to deck him. His chief social genius, to put it in Matthiessen’s terms, was flattery and humor.
In 1966, Humes wanted Plimpton to come clean about Matthiessen’s service. In response, Plimpton offered Humes a place to stay when he was having his break down. He did the outwardly generous thing, in keeping with the role this all put him in, but I think you can hear some of the angst, even in those letters back to Humes, about the awkward position he was put in. What Humes didn’t know was that Plimpton was taking money from the Congress for Cultural Freedom. So Matthiessen was involved with the CIA on the covert ops/counterintel side, and Plimpton on the cultural propaganda front.
I think Plimpton knew Matthiessen wasn’t the only one and that there were probably other people in his circle with more direct ties. He was the son of a diplomat to the UN who had to lie, who was tricked into lying by proxy along with his boss Adlai Stevenson during the Bay of Pigs invasion. What you see in Plimpton is someone who understands what it feels like to be very close to power, to have to do ugly things, but not necessarily to like them, to know what the burden is of other people’s secrets and other people’s secrecy.
That’s a common thing when you read CIA books and family memoirs. Scott Johnson wrote a CIA family memoir that was shortlisted for the National Book Award a couple years ago. He was bureau chief at Newsweek as his dad was returning to the CIA from retirement to fight the war on terror. They stayed across from each other in facing hotels, and he had to carry this burden too. He waited until he was of a certain age to write this memoir. It was gripping because it shows what the contradictions are like.
RS: I wonder about the legacy of this. The CIA gave the blueprint to the FBI in the ’60s for COINTELPRO, in what they were doing with American Indian activists and the Black Power movement. There are links to the FBI fire-bombing Barney Rosset’s office for doing the iconic Che Guevara cover. Your book begs the question of whether ramifications of this mindset are in the distant past.
JW: There are two ways to answer that. The first is more optimistic and relates to the issue of funding. I’m in favor of public and government funding of the arts, and I’m in favor of public journalism like the BBC. It’s not always done well, but it needs to be done well. That gets into concerns about the separation of funders and editorial staff. Editors should be treated as experts who are fully professionalized craftspeople who know how to do their job and only need money to do it, without the moneyed interests meddling. It’s harder for me to get mad about Abstract Expressionist painting exhibitions in Europe or jazz tours with Louis Armstrong than it is to think about journalism polluted by secrecy. Secrecy does corrupt in that context. The element of secrecy made it almost inevitable that the CIA was the agency that funded the arts that included journalism because literary magazines have journalists and essayists writing [for them], and critics are sometimes journalists.
That legacy is problematic because in the early to mid ’60s, when issues were exposed by magazines like Ramparts or being criticized by magazines like Rosset’s Evergreen, the CIA reacted to protect its secrecy because it was worried about prosecution or public shame. The CIA flinched, and that flinch resulted in programs that had an impact. Operation CHAOS in the ’60s was a media penetration program to spy on media in the US and de-emphasize and actually break up the anti-Vietnam War student newspaper and left newspaper movement.
It seems when something like that is called out, it goes into hiding for a little while and comes back stronger. About ten years after CHAOS was in full effect, we saw Operation Mockingbird, which was the complete takeover of the American media (addressed by the Church Committee hearings). It’s scary to think that might be our legacy insofar as the FBI and the CIA are concerned. In Latin America in particular, the FBI had jurisdiction during World War II. When the CIA was formed and the FBI realized there was a little bit of an overreach, all the FBI desks flipped to the CIA. Some of the domestic spying that the FBI did probably equally informed the CIA, and vice versa. During Operation CHAOS, the CIA tried to de-emphasize its role as domestic spies by outsourcing it to FBI. Now it can be done (for example) through private consulting companies in Iraq.
The big question was how bold were you willing to be to tell the truth? It was clear the guys who were paying for it, who had a clear foreign policy agenda, a clear anti-Stalinist agenda, were chilling and outright censoring all the time. The story [of the cultural Cold War] was broken by Frances Stonor Saunders, looking at Western Europe. For me, it was important to look at Latin America, at India. The developing world became more critical in the late ’50s, after the Bandung Conference in 1955, and then certainly in the ’60s as the New Left emerged, as African American civil rights movements were starting to synergize with Black Power movements, Black arts movements, and Negritude movements in Africa. That became a new source of fear. What you see is that money is often quietly, and not so quietly, encouraging its recipients to obsess over the same things. It was dirty money and wasn’t used as openly as it should have been. If we know the government is funding the arts or journalism, then it behooves us to put structures in place that allow for them to be fearless — “fearless reporting,” as Mother Jones calls it.
I hope this book can help people learn when to distrust some mass reproduced meme or idea that they’re getting across media or social media. Even if they really believe what they’re representing or re-tweeting, there’s an element of propaganda to everything we say. Sometimes it’s treated like, Oh, that’s a Russian meme, so we shouldn’t believe it! An automatic reaction that points back to the Cold War — blame the Russians. We’re seeing that now, even on stuff that is not disputed in its context, but rather disputed in its sourcing. It’s insane that you can discredit something corrupt that your candidate did because the person who leaked it might think Putin is cool or whatever.
RS: Sure. You just get systems that protect the lie and become more elaborate. I’m thinking of Santiago, Chile. They have two Nobel laureates in poetry there: Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. Neruda of course was alive when the Allende government was in control. He died days after the CIA-sponsored coup that put Pinochet in power. They tried to erase Neruda’s legacy with the help of the CIA. He was very openly leftist. They put Gabriela Mistral up as the antidote. She’s a wonderful poet who predated Neruda. She’s on the 5,000 peso note, which is like the equivalent of the dollar bill. Her statues are found everywhere in Santiago. They tried to make her like Susan B. Anthony, a Mother of Us All kind of thing. When I was there, her long-time lover’s letters finally came out, twenty years after her death. Turns out she was queer. The right-wing paper freaked out.
JW: “Let’s bring back Neruda!”
RS: Yeah, but it was this lie from ’73 that had been built up and still exists. Mistral was put forward as this weird hetero antidote to Neruda, who was portrayed as a hypersexual leftist. It calcified.
JW: Neruda’s bones have been dug up over the past couple of years to see if he was poisoned, because he supposedly died of something like stomach cancer. He was in a hospital later used by Pinochet to poison his enemies, including a guy that the CIA propped up — Eduardo Frei. Neruda’s family is divided on what happened. That’s the legacy on culture — and on social memory — of a coup that the CIA sponsored. We need to contend with this so that we can figure out how to do what some of these other countries have done, which is a truth and reconciliation process where we realize we weren’t always good. We did awful things. We did it through the military, and through culture. I think what we need here is the most adversarial and fearless media we can muster, a media that pushes back against both parties, not just the more frightening one.
RS: We are in a frightening moment because we’re faced with such overtly fascist sensibilities. Liberals are put in this weird position of going: Yes, America still is great. But then we’re like wait a minute: We’ve done a lot of really dirty, awful things the last fifty years.
JW: We saw it again and again in the Cold War. If there are only two sides to an issue, and one is clearly able to be painted as bad, then a candidate or a movement is in some ways de-incentivized to actually appreciate nuance, to perfect their message and policy. All they really have to do is spout against the ape on the other side of the aisle.
RS: Today the arts are struggling for funding. Increasingly, a lot of magazines, particularly literary magazines, are privately funded, including the Paris Review. It’s a non-profit. Tin House is backed by a single person — Win McCormack, a huge DNC fundraiser. He’s on the platform committee, super liberal. If, let’s say, he was actually an ardent Trump supporter and just funded all sorts of really crazy, insane things that I had trouble with, but he gave me carte blanche…
JW: If the question is: What do we do? That’s broad, ongoing, and unanswerable. Your first duty, if you want the magazine to remain free, would be to criticize that person, and kill that person’s darlings. Maybe that’s a little reflexive, but if I know my money has a certain provenance, I want to go after the politics of that provenance. It’s a little immature and maybe self-destructive, but that’s the only way you really know that you’re free and not being quietly, gently influenced.
RS: PEN has found, in its surveys, that a good number of writers self-censor. That’s a really hard thing to measure because it’s a self-reporting thing. We know what censorship looks like, but self-censorship is a deeply insidious thing.
JW: That’s just the word. It reminds me of the chill on free speech. Thanks to Snowden, we know what has been done before through agents and operatives like him. Insofar as how we’re spied on, we now know that everything is potentially on the record, If we delete something that we posted on social media, somewhere it lives. It’s terrifying actually. It makes for extreme self-consciousness. I’ve certainly not posted things I believed, not so much because I was afraid of somebody seeing it now or later, but because I was worried about my overly contrarian ways constantly losing me credibility. Pick your battles, kind of thing.
RS: Social media is interesting in that it almost doesn’t allow you to change your opinions sometimes. That is your stated position for all eternity.
JW: Publishing has always had an element of that, but now it’s instant and constant. Insofar as social media is concerned, we’re all public figures now, even for a small audience. Glenn Greenwald and Naomi Klein just had a great conversation over at The Intercept about the ramifications of that. Do we all deserve to have whistleblowers or leakers tap into our stuff to see if our public positions match our private ones and so forth? If we think of ourselves as public figures through social media, then in a way we’re all fair game and privacy goes away completely. We started it by joining up.
These are thorny questions that emerged during the Cold War, where culture production became instrumental. Matthiessen was spying on the culturemakers while using culture as a cover; Plimpton was using government funding and creating cultural propaganda; the great Paris Review interviews were used as cultural ambassadorships. A lot of self-censorship goes back to when people realized that they wouldn’t get funded if they were not anti-Communist. The courage of the New Left was inspiring (even if we don’t always agree with every single thing they said) because it seemed genuine and fearless. Some of those figures we now know were posing as New Left figures, again to spy on their friends. Richard Aoki was eventually uncovered as an FBI informant. He might have actually had a CIA mandate. It continues today with people in the media who might have a foreign policy agenda that’s either in their head, known to them but not to the rest of us, or they just know the consequences of certain viewpoints.
Things like the PEN report just go to show that these tricky, secret organizations, networks, and patronage systems are still operating around us. Getting funded is our whole definition of success right now. Publications are thinking: If I can’t do it in a vacuum without funding, then I can’t do it at all. That’s a terrifying thing.
Rob Spillman is the editor of Tin House and the author of the memoir All Tomorrow’s Parties. This article originally appeared in BOMB Daily.