America: Losing the CIA Culture War Since 1947

by William Skink

After WWII, bullets and bombs were replaced with words and songs. What I mean by that is the war transformed from a shooting war to a war of culture and ideas. The emerging Cold War had many fronts.

Even visual art was deployed as a cultural weapon by the CIA:

For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

Scoff if you want, but this involvement in promoting modern art by the CIA is a fact. More from the link:

Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and thecultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.

The existence of this policy, rumoured and disputed for many years, has now been confirmed for the first time by former CIA officials. Unknown to the artists, the new American art was secretly promoted under a policy known as the “long leash” – arrangements similar in some ways to the indirect CIA backing of the journal Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender.

The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations. They joked that it was like a Wurlitzer jukebox: when the CIA pushed a button it could hear whatever tune it wanted playing across the world.

This is a critical part of understanding how we have gotten to such a sad place here in America, where Americans, when confronted with the horrors of the violence we inflict on innocents around the world, shrug their shoulders with defeatist sentiments, like this pathetic comment from my last post:

Livingston has bomb trains rolling through every day, wild bison are being managed as livestock and strip mining decimates Montana. Write about something you have actual control over, liz.

What writers write about, and how they write it, is the topic of a fascinating piece by Eric Bennett, titled How Iowa Flattened Literature. Though this piece came out in February of 2014, it’s timely for me as I consider what I’m going to do next after I leave the job I’m currently doing early next year. I had kicked around the idea of getting my MFA for creative writing. This article helped me realize I’m not going to waste my money. From the link:

Did the CIA fund creative writing in America? The idea seems like the invention of a creative writer. Yet once upon a time (1967, to be exact), Paul Engle received money from the Farfield Foundation to support international writing at the University of Iowa. The Farfield Foundation was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Seven years earlier, Engle, then director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had approached the Rockefeller Foundation with big fears and grand plans. “I trust you have seen the recent announcement that the Soviet Union is founding a University at Moscow for students coming from outside the country,” he wrote. This could mean only that “thousands of young people of intelligence, many of whom could never get University training in their own countries, will receive education … along with the expected ideological indoctrination.” Engle denounced rounding up students in “one easily supervised place” as a “typical Soviet tactic.” He believed that the United States must “compete with that, hard and by long time planning”—by, well, rounding up foreign students in an easily supervised place called Iowa City. Through the University of Iowa, Engle received $10,000 to travel in Asia and Europe to recruit young writers—left-leaning intellectuals—to send to the United States on fellowship.

Read the whole article, it’s fascinating.

I bristle when people tell me what to write about, or what NOT to write about. The backlash is quite interesting, and shows how pressure to conform works through impotent little proxies. When I write about foreign policy I’m told I hate America. When I write about conspiracy culture I’m ridiculed. When I write about another political scam absorbing the misplaced hope of easily manipulated Democrats, I’m booted from the blog space I kept relevant for years.

America doesn’t require the same degree of cultural repression that other regimes require to maintain power. That’s because American propaganda works so well, there are millions of unwitting foot soldiers ready to pounce on those who challenge long-accepted norms, like American exceptionalism.

I’m going to keep writing about what I want to write about, including putting more of my time in developing a story I’ve started that I’m really excited about. Stay tuned…

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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26 Responses to America: Losing the CIA Culture War Since 1947

  1. steve kelly says:

    No person frightens a government more than a poet or an artist. Over the years there have been programs to coopt those who could be bought, and marginalize those who couldn’t be bought.

    The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was part of President Johnson’s (Great Society) baby in 1964. By 1980, President Reagan was trying to eliminate it altogether. The NEA was effectively neutered in 1989 by Sen. Jesse Helms with help from (Williams-Cole Amendment, 1990) Rep. Pat Williams in a long-forgottten House-Senate compromise with Sen. Helms called the “corn for porn” deal.

    Google this all you want. “Sorry, there are no Web results for this search.”

    Essentially, the NEA grant process made it impossible for any self-respecting artist to apply because of questions about “decency,” personal drug use and other (free speech) unconstitutional demands on applicants. jmuse/ files/ 2011/ 11/ Governmen…

    The full legal discussion:

    • I’m doing a deep dive on Jim Morrison right now, and I’ve recently been greatly disillusioned by stuff I’ve been reading about Leonard Cohen. I’ll leave it at that for now.

      • The more you scratch, the more you uncover, the less you are believed. It’s the Cassandra problem. There is a barrier you’ll encounter: if one thing is not as authority figures say, it creates discomfort, fear of the implications. People avert their eyes, resort to ridicule.

        The Pogie Syndrome: regurgitate received wisdom from trusted sources. The Kurtz Syndrome: Attack with venom when faced with discomfiting evidence, perhaps even telling you what you should instead be writing about.

        All very interesting, but forms of denial nonetheless.

        • steve kelly says:

          It’s hard for Democrats to accept that they voted into office a lying assassin.
          Lie # 5,382 (but who’s counting): “No boots on the ground”

        • larry kurtz says:

          Few dispute that CIA operates under its own set of rules but suspect Mossad and IDF before resorting to hating America.

        • JC says:

          The rest of the world sees the CIA as “America.”

          You sound like a mobster, using a hit man as an enforcer, claiming innocence: but Vinny the Man did it, not me! Which exactly is the problem of this country. When do we get to enforce some accountability of the shadow sides of our government?

          As long as democrats abide by the status quo, they are as guilty as those who order the CIA to do their dirty work (if not the ne and same).

        • Part of the problem is perception: we think of CIA and Mafia and think two different entities. They are two hands that wash the other, but are peceptions are further limited by imagining only two hands. The problem of evil is larger than our brains can visualize. There are two societies, one that lives inside the law and pays a price for violating it, and the other that knows no law. It moves freely among us.

  2. JC says:

    I think the notion that there is such a thing as “American exceptionalism” is one of the biggest successes of our propaganda masters.

  3. Eric says:

    JC – I have pondered what that term means also. I decided it doesn’t mean that the average American is somehow superior to every other Homo Sapien on the planet,
    I do however, think it could be applied to our country as a whole, which in the last 240 years has been wildly successful compared to the rest of the ‘old’ world.
    I’m willing to let history be our Judge, and see if the America experiment will last longer than the Roman Empire did.

  4. larry kurtz says:

    Nothing says Montana’s war on the American Indian like art does.

  5. larry kurtz says:

    Missoula County conducts a 24/7/365 war on American Indians yet it goes virtually unreported here at America’s conscience, right, liz?

  6. Big Swede says:

    CIA spooks always ate at Wendy’s in the eighties.

  7. Ken Nari says:

    Great post. Would hate to see you give up blogging for creative writing — you’re too good at blogging. Well, maybe you can do both.

    I first came here a month or two ago through a link on MoA. You seem to have a talent for picking up on what no one else sees — what Kos, Atrios and Billmon had in the beginning and about a million others aimed for. (As Johnny Cash said, I’ve seen ’em come and go and I’ve watch ’em die.)

    As more people find out about you you’re sure to attract the wrong kind of attention and face swarms of paid trolls who’ll want to silence you or buy you off. Hang in there.

    By the way, I hope everyone reads the comments following the Iowa Writers’ link — not hard to believe, in the American way, some of those people were paid to try to kill the message.

    Want to hear what you find out about Leonard Cohen. Nothing would surprise me.

  8. Big Swede says:

    Yeah those Ruskies would never stoop to the low levels of our CIA.

    • Happy New Year! 1967 can only be better than ’66! Keep moving forward.

      • Big Swede says:

        JFK’s trip to Dallas was in ’63. Shall I go back that far?

        • Well, the Soviet scare was never real, just agitation propaganda, whereas the JFK matter was real coup d’etat. I’ll be concerned abut real over fake any day.

        • Big Swede says:

          When God Goes Away, Superstition Takes His Place

          Human beings feel instinctively that the visible reality that we live in day to day is connected to something larger and more mysterious. When belief in God goes away, the hunger for meaning and connection with a truth beyond the business of daily life remains.-American Interest

        • Big Swede says:

          Same source.

          “People who think themselves too rational for religious belief end up believing in “astral forces”, ghosts and other phenomena. Sometimes these superstitions take the deadly form of political ideologies that fanatical believers take up with religious fervor—communist atheists murdered tens of millions of people in the 20th century in the irrational grip of an ugly ideology. They scoffed at the credulity of religious believers even as they worshipped the infallible insights of Stalin. Similarly, the Nazis presented their faith as an alternative to the “outgrown superstitions” of historic Christianity.”

        • Nice sounding quote, but completely wrong. It is not like that at all. Absence of belief in a deity as taught to us as children merely leaves a longing for understanding that leads to curiosity, awe and wonder at the universe. Not having “the answer” is no problem for the curious mind. Einstein, himself agnostic, often commented in awe at what he saw out there. It’s marvelous, and incomprehensible, and that is satisfying enough.

  9. steve kelly says:

    Swede. The Thirty Years Wars/The Enlightenment. Google it. A neo-theocracy will not protect your individual freedom any more than the God-free, corporate, authoritarian security/police state. Get real man, we’re trying to run an empire here.

  10. steve kelly says:

    “We are tolerated as citizens, Wolin warns, only as long as we participate in the illusion of a participatory democracy. The moment we rebel and refuse to take part in the illusion, the face of inverted totalitarianism will look like the face of past systems of totalitarianism.” – Chris Hedges from “Sheldon Wolin and Inverted Totalitarianism:”

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