Commentary Magazine

The Intellectuals & the Cold War

In May 1967, acting on motives that to this day remain mysterious, Tom Braden, who in the early 1950’s had been head of the International Organizations Division of the CIA (and would subsequently earn a sort of celebrity as the voice “from the Left” on CNN’s nightly talk show, Crossfire), boasted in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post that the CIA had been directly involved in the work of an organization of liberal anti-Communist intellectuals known as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and especially in the funding of its distinguished London-based monthly magazine, Encounter.

This news, coming on top of earlier revelations of CIA involvement with the National Student Association, had the results one might have expected. To members of the late 60’s New Left, it was a “smoking gun” which confirmed what they had suspected all along: that the “criminal” American war in Vietnam, in which the CIA was playing so heavy a role, was itself but the logical consequence of cold-war liberalism.

As for the intellectuals themselves, many of whom by then had also come to oppose the American military presence in Southeast Asia but who at one time or another in the past had contributed to magazines or participated in conferences which the CIA, it now appeared, had helped to finance, they responded to the news in different ways. Some were genuinely shocked and said so; some pretended to be shocked; some drew a distinction between their kind of anti-Communism, which they preferred to call anti-Stalinism, and the “professional” anti-Communism espoused by American conservatives, by successive American governments, and, presumably, by the CIA itself, from which they heatedly dissociated themselves; and some, while deploring the deceit of secret funding, insisted that the cause in which they had labored and continued to labor was just and good, CIA or no CIA.1



The question on everyone’s mind in 1967 was, “What were supposedly independent intellectuals doing accepting secret U.S. government funds?” Few bothered to ask a perhaps more pertinent question: “What was the U.S. government doing funding liberal intellectuals?” This is one of the questions that Peter Coleman attempts to answer in his new history of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, The Liberal Conspiracy.2 Coleman, who is the editor of the Australian quarterly review, Quadrant—itself once funded by the Congress—begins his account with the story of the birth of the organization in Berlin in June 1950. Along the way, he competently and thoroughly describes the magazines it sponsored—among them Encounter and Survey in England; Preuves in France; Tempo Presente in Italy; Cuadernos in Spain; Quest in India—and recounts the arts festivals, the innumerable scholarly seminars, and the gigantic international conferences held under CCF auspices. Coleman concludes his tale with the slow demise of the Congress: how in the aftermath of the revelations about its secret source of funding it reemerged temporarily as the International Association of Cultural Freedom, now supported entirely by the Ford Foundation but with annually diminishing subventions, and how in January 1979 it finally dissolved.

Coleman, not surprisingly, is sympathetic to the work of the Congress. To the extent that he argues a thesis in his book, it is a retrospectively upbeat one, summarized in his final sentences:

Today almost everyone including [Mikhail Gorbachev] agrees with the Congress’s once lonely assessment of Soviet totalitarianism. . . . In contributing in so brilliant and timely a way to this public awareness throughout the world in a period of great danger, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was a historic success.

But is this true? Coleman is so fair-minded an author that much of the evidence he presents can be used to support a less cheering conclusion—not, to be sure, the conclusion of the Congress’s critics on the hard Left, who abhorred its work altogether as an adjunct of what they regarded as a nefarious American foreign policy, but rather one based on an assessment of the Congress’s fidelity, or lack of fidelity, to its own founding principles and goals. In fact, from the beginning there was a confusion about those goals that would eventually prove debilitating, and would in the end be the real reason the Congress proved to have a rather shorter life span than did some of the magazines it started.



According to Coleman, “the basic hallmark . . . of the Congress’s anti-Communism was that it felt itself to be of the Left and on the Left.” This needs to be qualified. In the early postwar years, with Stalin launching another Popular Front, it was indeed those who still preferred to describe themselves as socialists, many of them ex-Communists, who seemed best positioned to counter the Stalinist threat within the community of the liberal intelligentsia, especially in Western Europe. In the late 40’s, the ranks of such intellectuals, guiding spirits of the early Congress, included Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Raymond Aron, Manes Sperber, and Franz Borkenau. But in those early days the emphasis fell less on partisan political affiliation than on the commitment to a common political venture: the point was to form, in Sidney Hook’s words, the “nucleus for a Western community of intellectuals who despite all their differences on domestic matters felt embattled against the virus of neutralism that was spiritually disarming the West against Communist aggression.”

In 1949, the Communist-inspired and -sponsored Waldorf-Astoria Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace featured such names as Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, F. O. Matthiessen, Albert Einstein, and Frank Lloyd Wright. At its own inaugurating conference in Berlin in June 1950, the Congress—attempting to create, as it were, an alternative “popular front”—responded with A. J. Ayer, James Burnham, Herbert Read, H. R. Trevor-Roper, Sidney Hook, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Carlo Schmidt. Although some of these latter figures were “of the Left and on the Left,” others were not and never had been in any meaningful sense, and the same could be said of some of the Congress’s five honorary presidents: Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, John Dewey, Benedetto Croce, and Jacques Maritain.

It was in line with their desire to formulate a common and inclusive political goal that Arthur Koestler proclaimed the crucial dividing line in postwar politics as running no longer between capitalism and socialism but between “total tyranny [and] relative freedom.” To a crowd of some 15,000 in a public park in the British sector of Berlin he read out the Freedom Manifesto he had written together with Manes Sperber. Its fourteen paragraphs ranged from the platitudinous (“The defense of intellectual liberty today imposes a positive obligation: to offer new and constructive answers to the problems of our time”) to the profound (“In totalitarian states restrictions on freedom are no longer intended . . . as sacrifices imposed on the people, but are . . . represented as triumphs of progress and achievements of a superior civilization”) to the abstruse (“No political philosophy or economic theory can claim the sole right to represent freedom in the abstract”). But for those who attended, the cry of freedom was the great thing, and as a unifying idea it was certainly more compellng than the transparently dishonest and tired slogan of “peace” trotted out at the Waldorf conference.

Within six months, however, Koestler was to resign from the executive of the Congress over its decision to invite such dubious friends of Western freedom as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to a conference being planned for Paris in 1952. That conference never did take place. Instead, the Congress, whose Secretary General was now Nicolas Nabokov, a Russian-born composer and cousin of the novelist, organized a massive exposition of music, painting, sculpture, and literature. It was an extremely expensive undertaking, and a definite social and artistic success. But how many of the thousands who flocked to the entertainments saw any connection between them and the articles of the Freedom Manifesto, or any consequent reason to subscribe to those articles, was an open question.

For Sidney Hook, at any rate, all this was early evidence, as he would later put it in his memoirs, that the Congress was “more interested in acquiring a kind of respectability in the eyes of the predominantly nonpolitical, even neutralist, European intellectuals than in the effective militant opposition to Communist cultural influences.” It was this tendency that soon led the American affiliate of the Congress, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, into a break with the parent organization.



The Congress, besides holding conferences, performed much good and important work—above all in sponsoring its magazines but also in providing relief to Hungarian writers and artists fleeing Soviet tanks in 1956, donating books and periodicals to individuals and libraries in Eastern Europe, helping banned writers find publishers in the West. Nonetheless, its achievements were a far cry from the hopes expressed in 1950. No doubt this had something to do with the distinctly unseasonable intellectual climate in which the Congress operated, and which (it could be argued) made it necessary, in order to remain “of the Left and on the Left,” to balance every protest about, say, an act of repression in the East with an attack on American culture or American society.

But the larger problem is that the cause on behalf of which the Congress labored to win that support—the struggle against totalitarianism—seems to have been forgotten along the way. Indeed, Michael Josselson (the Congress’s executive director and “the CIA man on the spot,” as Irving Kristol has called him) went so far as to say that the “negative battle against Communism and all other forms of totalitarianism” was over by the mid-60’s. In this respect the Congress followed the fashion in liberal anti-Communism that was also reflected in quite a number of the contributions to the September 1967 COMMENTARY symposium; as one writer put it, anti-Communism had become nothing more than “an ideological justification for American global involvement on the side of those who try to hold back the tide of fundamental change in the underdeveloped areas of the world.”

Sidney Hook assigned most of the blame for the Congress’s adoption of a newly anti-anti-Communist attitude to the leadership in Paris—in particular Nabokov. Coleman, by contrast, suggests that the Congress’s direction (which he defends) may have been influenced by CIA tactics. Since he has been unable to obtain any new information on this latter point it must remain a matter of speculation.



But this returns us to the question of what the U.S. government was doing funding liberal intellectuals in the first place. William Colby, a former director of the CIA, remarks in his memoirs that the International Organizations Division (the branch that actually financed the Congress) had “a firmly liberal coloration [which] viewed the principal struggle with the Communists internationally as one over the loyalties of voters attracted to social change and even socialism—whether they would be lured by the false promise of the Communists or could be brought to support the democratic socialism of the West.” This sentence reveals much about the instinctive political sympathies of men like Colby, Tom Braden, and Cord Meyer, Braden’s successor as head of the International Organizations Division and a former president of the United World Federalists. For them it was all but axiomatic that the Left stood for social progress, and for that reason deserved the support of the American government not just as a matter of tactics but as a matter of principle.

In some places and times, such support made good political sense. Trade unionists in France and Italy who were already fighting the Communists undoubtedly found CIA money useful. In France, however, the anti-Communists would probably have prevailed without it—the biggest blow suffered by the French Communists came at the hands of the socialist Guy Mollet, who in 1947 threw them out of his government without any CIA encouragement—whereas in Italy, by contrast, the so-called “opening to the Left,” of which William Colby had been an early advocate, had the effect of ensuring, in Luigi Barzini’s bitter words, that the Communists “acquired . . . an all-pervading tentacular influence they had never previously enjoyed or hoped for.” And as for Great Britain, until the 1960’s the anti-Communist Left was arguably less important intellectually, and less needful of support, than were the views of men like Evelyn Waugh, Karl Popper, and Michael Oakeshott, all stalwart opponents of Soviet totalitarianism from various points of view but none of whom subscribed to dirigisme of the Western variety.



In any event, and whatever certain people in a certain department of the CIA may have been after, as far as the work of the Congress was concerned the perceived need to be perpetually “of the Left and on the Left” led sometimes to grotesque intellectual contortions. A single example from the many recounted by the scrupulous Coleman: Josselson once begged Bertrand Russell not to resign as honorary president after Russell had written a letter to the Manchester Guardian comparing America with “other police states such as Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia.” As Diana Trilling (one of the leaders of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom) asked at the time, “How untruthful about America may a man be and still be useful to an organization which is pledged to the truth?”

What could the Congress have done instead? By sticking to the principles of the Freedom Manifesto, it could have established as its chief business the effort to give clear articulation to the factors that make free societies more successful and attractive than unfree ones. Certainly it lacked neither the funds nor the intellect for such a task. Indeed, the people whose names we still today continue to associate with the best work of the Congress—Irving Kristol, Meivin Lasky, the late Raymond Aron, Edward Shils, Leo Labedz, and others—are precisely those who remained true to that task.

If, then, the Congress’s day has come and gone, it has gone for reasons more complicated and rather less admirable than its historian’s verdict of success would lead one to believe.




1 A sampling of intellectual opinion on the question can be found in a fascinating symposium published in the September 1967 COMMENTARY, “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited.”

2 Free Press, 313 pp., $22.95.

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