Pretty much every government uses culture as propaganda, so it should not be surprising that the United States did so throughout the Cold War. As a superpower involved in a multi-pronged proxy war for the hearts and minds of each and every inhabitant of Earth, how could it not? And the CIA was behind most of it.
While Hoover and his FBI men were busy red-baiting, tapping phones, and compiling dossiers on just about any American with even the most minuscule of leftist leanings, the CIA was simultaneously funding and promoting art by many of the same people the FBI was watching. Meanwhile, Joe McCarthy was attacking anything and everything with even the slightest hint of communism, once even raising a ruckus when he found a citation—a citation mind you—to a book by avowed Marxist Corliss Lamont in the bibliography of an Army publication.
At the exact same time that such insanity was sweeping across the government, the CIA was paying for the publication of books and articles by plenty of ex-communists and others with leftist leanings and Marxist pasts. The CIA showed a willingness, since its inception, to fund whoever made sense as a tool regardless of the political climate, and despite the politics of those funded.
As the twentieth century wore on, it seems safe to assume that the CIA continued acts of cultural propaganda. The files remain secret and the names redacted. We know some of what they did in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, but nothing after that.
An informed guess would point to rock ‘n’ roll and its various offshoots as an obvious art form to fund. If “freedom” and American individualism were the values to endorse in support of the American ideology, then the cultural wing of the CIA would have been remiss in its duties if it failed to utilize rock ‘n’ roll in its propaganda efforts. Especially considering the role rock music occasionally did play in the downfall of communism, in particular in Czechoslovakia, where the defense of the unfairly arrested rock band the Plastic People of the Universe helped unify a large group of once disparate dissidents. These dissidents eventually staged a revolution called “the Velvet Revolution,” which was purportedly named after the Velvet Underground, whose smuggled records were almost universally loved by those involved.
If individualism and “freedom” were the ultimate cultural tools to de-Bolshevize the world and make planet Earth safe for the free market, why wouldn’t rock ‘n’ roll become central to the next phase of the CIA’s cultural activities? In many ways, the Dionysian, self-expressive elements of abstract expressionism and other frequently funded art forms are just distilled and restated in a more popularly palatable form in rock ‘n’ roll, with the alcohol-fueled masculine fury of Jackson Pollock just updated and embodied in someone like Jim Morrison.
Moreover, while abstract art had its roots in Western Europe, rock ‘n’ roll is distinctly American. Derived from the blues. Mass marketed. Mass produced. Had its roots in “low” culture. Slowly but surely became a “high” art of its own, complete with a “classical” period. And although mass produced and mass consumed, it makes its listeners feel like the lone individual who understands the plight of the lonely rock ‘n’ roller.
More obviously, rock ‘n’ roll is also much more affordable. Not everyone can purchase a Pollock, but just about anyone can buy a record. Mass produced with mass appeal and relative affordability, rock ‘n’ roll reaches the proletariat, thus stealing communism’s target market. It’s perfect.
Could the CIA possibly miss this?
Near the beginning of the Cold War, with European Intellectuals still erroneously enamored with the Soviet Union, and the United States widely perceived as a cultural backwater populated by materialistic yokels, the CIA began covertly funding a Cultural Cold War to help change America’s image. It’s called “branding” now. Through an astonishing number of front organizations, in particular The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), the CIA paid the bills for jazz tours, art exhibits, the publication of enough books to fill a small library1, and the animated version of Animal Farm, to name just a few of their many cultural activities.
Given America’s public image, the need for such activities was obvious. The need for secrecy in these activities became equally obvious in 1947 when the exhibit “Advancing American Art” was sent to Europe (quite openly) at taxpayer expense. President Truman and numerous members of Congress loudly voiced their disgust. How could leftist and ex-Communist artists making incomprehensible (and reprehensible) abstractions—that any three-year-old could make just as well—receive government funding to have their art “advanced”? Lesson learned. Art still received funding, but the money was funneled through fronts, including, but not limited to, those later unveiled in 1964 by Congressman Wright Patman—the Gotham Foundation, the Michigan Fund, the Price Fund, the Edsel Fund, the Andrew Hamilton Fund, the Borden Trust, the Beacon Fund, and the Kentfield Fund. These were all little more than addresses to send money before it went elsewhere.
The Cultural Cold War was a huge operation, featuring incredible amounts of money, art, and secrecy. So much secrecy, in fact, that many of those involved had no idea their place of employment was a CIA front. The composer Nicolas Nabokov, Vladimir’s cousin, worked for the CCF. Worried by all those malicious rumors about the CCF’s true purpose, he wrote back to headquarters that “Many [European Intellectuals] think of our Congress as some sort of semi-clandestine American organization controlled by you. I think our constant efforts should be directed towards proving to European Intellectuals that the Congress for Cultural Freedom is not an American secret service Agency.” Which it was. But why should he know that?
Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters is the comprehensive guide to the CIA’s involvement with the arts, from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to Abstract Expressionism. The Nicolas Nabokov quotations and others are from her research.
The CCF was founded by the CIA in 1950, following a successful conference of anti-communist intellectuals in Berlin. Michael Josselson, an Estonian-born polyglot who had worked as a cultural officer for the American occupation government in postwar Germany, ran the Congress from its inception until its embarrassing outing as a CIA front in 1967. The CCF hosted conferences and directly published numerous political and literary magazines around the world—in particular, the British journal Encounter—and also helped fund and facilitate other journals, including the Paris Review and the Partisan Review. The CIA bailed the Partisan Review out of bankruptcy in 1953, while a series of recently discovered letters to and from Paris Review editor George Plimpton help reveal the CIA’s role in the Paris Review’s operations, while also offering an interesting glimpse into the tactics and practices of cultural warfare.
The CCF also helped present exhibits of contemporary American art throughout the world, usually in cooperation with another major player in the Cultural Cold War, the Museum of Modern Art. Visual art, especially abstract expressionism, became the CIA’s most important weapon in its cultural warfare arsenal, making MoMA’s assistance quite essential.
Why did abstract expressionism fit the CIA’s needs so well? The CIA’s goal in the Cultural Cold War was not just the denigration of Soviet Communism, but the promotion of the free market as well. Jackson Pollock and the other abstract expressionists were useful for each of these goals. The collectivism glorified by (the often rigid and never abstract) Soviet Socialist Realism could be set in stark opposition to the rugged individualism and “freedom” of these distinctly American abstract expressionists. Or, as CIA agent Donald Jameson said, in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters :
We recognized that this was the kind of art that did not have anything to do with Socialist Realism, and made Socialist Realism look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibits. Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of non-conformity to its own very rigid patterns. So one could quite adequately and accurately reason that anything they criticized that much and that heavy-handedly was worth support one way or another.
A lone cowboy figure like Pollock, born in Wyoming and transplanted to New York, heroically flinging paint with reckless abandon. The visual embodiment of “freedom.” Pure form. No content. Just an ideologically empty vessel waiting to be filled. And filled it was, as the CIA politicized this otherwise apolitical art, and by the power of the American dollar, helped make New York City the center of the art world.
So thanks in part to the CIA, tough-loner-masculine-bravado came to dominate Cold War-era art. 1963, the year Sylvia Plath committed suicide, one year before Congressman Patman unveiled some of the CIA’s covert cultural activities, was a high-water mark for female suicides. Perhaps the manufactured cultural centrality of hyper-masculinity helped produce widespread alienation and depression among women, thereby contributing to this spike in suicides? Collateral damage of the Cultural Cold War? There’s a doctoral thesis in there somewhere.
But how did MoMA assist in this artistic alienation of women, communists, and every remaining figurative painter? Most prominently, Nelson Rockefeller, who eventually served as Gerald Ford’s vice-president, also served as trustee, treasurer, and president of MoMA throughout much of the 1940s and 50s. In 1940, FDR appointed Rockefeller to the new position of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) to combat burgeoning Nazi influences in Latin America. In this position, he worked closely with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, which was not formed until 1947. Then in 1954, Rockefeller became Eisenhower’s special advisor on Cold War strategy, and chaired the Planning Coordination Committee, which, among other things, oversaw the NSC and CIA—all while still working with MoMA. Not coincidentally, given Rockefeller’s involvement with both, MoMA frequently collaborated with the CIA throughout the Cold War to export and promote American art.
The connections don’t end there. William Borden, who had worked for Rockefeller at the CIAA, sat on the board of MoMA and was also “president” of the Fairfield Foundation, one of the many CIA fronts for funding art. Prominent Cultural Cold Warrior Lawrence de Neufville often referred to the Fairfield Foundation as the “Far-Fetched Foundation,” as it was so very obviously a front. Or as CIA agent Tom Braden explains in The Cultural Cold War, in a quotation that may set some sort of world record for appearances of the word “foundation,” “The Fairfield Foundation was a CIA foundation and there were many such foundations. We used the names of foundations for many purposes but the foundation didn’t exist except on paper. We would go to somebody in New York who was a well-known rich person and we would say, ‘We want to set up a foundation,’ and we would pledge him to secrecy and he would say, ‘Of course I’ll do it.’ And then you would publish a letterhead and his name would be on it and there would be a foundation. It was really a pretty simple device.”
Julius “Junkie” Fleischman, the first “president” of the Fairfield Foundation, sat on both the CCF’s Music and Arts Committee and on MoMA’s International Arts Council. The connections don’t even end there. In The Cultural Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders, who spends much of her time listing names and links without ever seeming to tire of doing so, and in fact seems resolved to cram every piece of information at her disposal in there somewhere, only seems to get exhausted by all the naming and linking while discussing MoMA’s role in the Cultural Cold War, writing, “On and on go the names. On and on go the links,” and stops naming names and linking links for perhaps the only time in the entire book. Given the number of people involved, it is perhaps not surprising that the promotion of abstract expressionism was the CIA’s greatest (known) success in cultural propaganda.
And after that success, perhaps they called it quits. It seems impossible, but I can find no hard evidence or even believable rumors that the CIA used rock ‘n’ roll as a weapon in its cultural propaganda. The Internet leads one over and over again to slightly unhinged conspiracy theory websites. Search queries including “CIA,” “rock music,” “secret funding,” and just about anything else you could imagine, and all I found out was that Robert Smith of the Cure has been killed and replaced and that Jimi Hendrix’s manager was in the British Secret Service and almost certainly killed him. (I actually kind of believe that latter one now. Some pretty damning circumstantial evidence. Nothing that would hold up in court, but….) However, I haven’t found anything to support my thesis. Just paranoid people posting slightly unhinged prose on their almost uniformly hideous websites.
The CIA is not averse to murder, as Salvador Allende’s family would be happy to tell you. And it’s also very suspicious that so many 1960s antiwar musicians died with such regularity. Jimi Hendrix says positive things about the Black Panthers and the next thing you know, he’s somehow drowned in red wine, his hair and clothes covered in the same wine that filled his lungs, almost as if he had struggled with someone as they poured it down his throat. Strangely, just as musicians start singing about “revolution,” we start seeing lots of dead musicians—dead from lots of easily faked and easily believed overdoses.
But I want to know about rock music as propaganda. Political murder is interesting of course, but there may be much more important (though much more mundane) information out there, most likely about money moving around and magazines getting published. My own version of paranoia, coupled with what I know about the CIA’s earlier activities in the arts, leads me to speculate that there may be a lot to uncover about the possible secret funding of rock music, as well as funk, disco, hip hop, or any other musical form that could be utilized to serve the CIA’s goals.
And maybe some of these things are true? For instance, who got those Velvet Underground records into Czechoslovakia? Maybe Kevin Shields is right, and Britpop was a government conspiracy?2 And is it really such a “coincidence” that “grunge” was heavily marketed to white suburban youth, inspiring them to strum guitars and mumble about their personal sadness, just as Public Enemy and NWA were successfully telling these same young people about the systemic racism of the United States? Why wouldn’t the CIA prefer flannel shirts to Malcolm X hats as the main sartorial signifier at suburban malls? Why would the U.S. Government want Chuck D saying “Fight the Power,” when it could have Kurt Cobain’s “Oh well, whatever, never mind”? 3
Is it any further coincidence that when hip-hop returned as a cultural force it was dominated by MCs like Jay-Z and Kanye West? MCs who spend most of their time name-checking all their favorite brands? Their message being: “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man”? Is it a coincidence that these professional hype men for the free market have come to dominate the globe?
Even though this may sound like crazy speculation, do think about it. Time after time, apolitical and ideologically empty music tops the charts. Music that, like the similarly apolitical and ideologically empty abstract expressionism before it, could be cleverly wielded to ensure continued global dominance for American ideas. Is the CIA behind this in some way? Why would cultural propaganda end in the late 60s? So MOMA and the CCF were outed. So what? Why wouldn’t the CIA just switch tactics and media a little bit and get on with the crazy business of cultural propaganda? There was no reason for them to stop, and no reason to assume they did. And especially now that the ban on domestic propaganda has been lifted, and the CIA can legally practice cultural propaganda within the United States, they have even more reasons to keep at it.
My research has stalled. There aren’t even rumors of documents. Where is my Congressman Patman, reading classified information onto the House floor? How do you invoke the Freedom of Information Act if you won’t know what you’re looking for until you find it?