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12 July 1999

How the CIA plotted against us

The NS made the left seem clever. Something had to be done, reports Frances Stonor Saunders

By Frances Stonor Saunders

“Have you seen Encounter?” Mary McCarthy asked Hannah Arendt in October 1953, after reading the debut issue. “It is surely the most vapid thing yet, like a college magazine got out by long-dead and putrefying undergraduates.” McCarthy was not alone in denigrating Encounter. Anthony Hartley, also in October 1953, remarked somewhat prophetically that “it would be a pity if Encounter, in its turn, were to become a mere weapon in the cold war”. More mischievous was an item in the Sunday Times‘s Atticus column, which referred to the magazine as “the police-review of American-occupied countries”. And A J P Taylor, writing in the Listener, complained: “There is no article in the [first issue] which will provoke any reader to burn it or even to throw it indignantly into the waste-paper basket. None of the articles is politically subversive . . . All are safe reading for children.”

It is a measure of Encounter‘s success that it was able to ride these criticisms and establish itself in the “newborn Euro-American mind” as the leading review of its day. People still remember Nancy Mitford’s famous article “The English aristocracy”, a bitingly witty analysis of British social mores which introduced the distinction between “U and Non-U”. Or Isaiah Berlin’s four memorable essays on Russian literature, “A marvellous decade”. Or Vladimir Nabokov on Pushkin, Irving Howe on Edith Wharton, David Marquand on “The Liberal revival”, stories by Jorge Luis Borges, critical essays by Richard Ellmann, Jayaprakash Narayan, W H Auden, Arnold Toynbee, Bertrand Russell, Herbert Read, Hugh Trevor-Roper – some of the best minds of those decades.

The cultural side of Encounter (which political nymphomaniac Melvin Lasky sneeringly referred to as “Elizabeth Bowen and all that crap”) thus secured its respectability among the intelligentsia. And yet, when it finally folded in 1991, few were willing to grant it a proper testimonial. It had become gouty, smug, anachronistic. Reeking of the cold war at a time when that conflict was all but exhausted, it had become a “whifflebird”, the name one New York intellectual invented for a fabulous creature that “flies backward in ever decreasing circles until it flies up its own asshole and becomes extinct”.

Encounter‘s demise can be traced directly to its origins as part of the “high-minded low cunning” of those British and American intelligence agents responsible for running the cultural cold war. Meeting in Whitehall in early 1951, the top echelons of the CIA and MI6 discussed the idea of an “Anglo-American left-of-centre publication” aimed at penetrating the fog of neutralism which dimmed the judgement of so many British intellectuals, not least those close to the New Statesman. What they needed was a voice that could oppose the “soft-headedness” and “terrible simplifications” of Kingsley Martin’s magazine, and its “spirit of conciliation and moral lassitude vis-a-vis Communism”.

The Foreign Office’s secret subventions to Tribune had been a gesture in this direction. In April 1950 Malcolm Muggeridge, after meeting its editor Tosco Fyvel, reported that Tribune was “obviously badly on the rocks, and I said that in the interests of the cold war [it] should be kept going as a counterblast to the New Statesman. Developed one of my favourite propositions – that the New Statesman‘s great success as propagandist had been to establish the proposition that to be intelligent is to be Left, whereas almost the exact opposite is true.”

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The New Statesman and Nation was flourishing, its weekly circulation of 85,000 showing an impressive resilience to attempts to sap its “ideological hegemony”. In these pre-Encounter days the CIA was dishing out secret subsidies to Michael Goodwin’s journal Twentieth Century, on the specific understanding that it should address itself to rebutting the New Statesman‘s positions. “I fully agree the New Statesman is an important target, and must be dealt with systematically,” Goodwin told his backers in January 1952.

But Goodwin’s efforts were not enough to satisfy his secret sponsors, who now followed up their Whitehall meetings with a definite proposal for a new magazine. Cleared at the highest levels of the CIA and MI6, the project was passed down the lines and into the hands of three intelligence officers: Michael Josselson, Lawrence de Neufville and Monty Woodhouse. Woodhouse, a dashing, daring spy of the old school, was assigned to the Information Research Department, the Foreign Office’s secret ministry of cold war. Josselson and de Neufville were acting under cover of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the organisation born in Berlin in 1950 as the beachhead from which western culture would be defended against communist encroachments. Funded and managed by the CIA, the congress announced itself in its Freedom Manifesto as the protector of cherished liberal values, the champion of every man’s “right to hold and express his own opinions, and particularly opinions which differ from those of his rulers”. Ironically it was not Stalinism but Washington realpolitik that would ultimately pose the greatest threat to this noble right.

It fell to Josselson, de Neufville and Woodhouse to devise the “operations and procedures” for creating and running the magazine that was to become the house organ of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Lunching at the RAC Club on Pall Mall one day in spring 1952, they agreed on how the then unnamed journal would be financed and distributed, who (subject to security clearance by both services) would edit it, and how its editorial content would be monitored, guided and, in extremis, controlled. The finance was handled mostly by the CIA, which used a dummy foundation to piggy-back dollars to Encounter‘s London account. For their part the British supplied a lesser amount, either in brown envelopes handed over to the magazine’s managing editor or in cheques signed by the film director Alexander Korda and the millionaire Victor Rothschild, both of whom were willing “fronts”.

What follows is, as they say, history. Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol, then Stephen Spender and Melvin Lasky, was outed in 1967 as a recipient of CIA funding. Spender resigned, Lasky stayed on. Pooh-pooh, said its apologists, who defended Encounter‘s impeccably independent credentials and derided claims that cultural freedom had been in any way compromised. Tut-tut, said its detractors (many of whom had received generous fees to write for it), we always knew that there was something fishy about it. And that was that. The axe fell on the cover-up, rather than on what one historian has described as “the sweetheart deal that western intellectuals enjoyed with the dark angel of American government for nearly two decades”.

The deal was this: Encounter‘s editors were free to publish anything they wanted, as long as this did not adversely affect American interest. “We agreed that all articles on controversial topics should be seen by us before they were shown to anybody outside,” wrote one of the front-office Metternichs of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, admonishing Encounter‘s editors for accept-ing a piece critical of US foreign policy in China. “We agreed that one of the fundamental policies of Encounter should be to work towards a better understanding between England and America.”

New documentary evidence shows that Encounter received, and was receptive to, CIA “guidance”. This explains what Bob Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, referred to as its “peculiar blind spot – it hardly ever contained any critical articles about the US, as if this was forbidden territory”. For this acquiescence, Encounter earned the moral indignation of Conor Cruise O’Brien, who in 1966 attacked it, famously, for serving the power structure at a time when American soldiers were dying in Vietnam.

Encounter‘s wishy-washy record on McCarthyism should also be viewed in this context. It was a matter of policy that the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its journals leave McCarthyism well alone, as one English activist later recalled: “It was clearly understood that we must not criticise the American government, or the McCarthyism which was then at its height in the US.” Generally managing to avoid the issue altogether, when it did examine it, Encounter‘s tone was far from condemnatory. In an essay of extraordinary obfuscation, Tosco Fyvel argued that, although McCarthy was to be regretted, he had to be viewed in the context of America’s “insistent search for new national security, for a world, indeed, made safe for democracy”. This, concluded Fyvel, was infinitely preferable to “European weariness, and scepticism of any such achievement”.

Encounter is rightly remembered for its unflinching scrutiny of cultural curtailment in the communist bloc. But its mitigation of McCarthyism was less clear-sighted: where the journal could see the beam in its opponent’s eye, it failed to detect the plank in its own.

Back at CIA headquarters in Washington, Encounter was regarded proudly as a “flagship”, an effective vehicle for advancing the arguments for a pax Americana. It even became a calling card for CIA agents. Arranging a meeting with Ben Sonnenberg, a rich young wanderer who worked for the CIA in the mid-1950s, an agent told him, “I’ll be carrying a copy of Encounter, so you’ll know who I am”. Josselson, the CIA agent who headed the Congress for Cultural Freedom, referred to it as “our greatest asset”. In agency-speak an “asset” was “any resource at the disposition of the agency for use in an operational or support role”.

Crucially, the CIA’s operational principle dictated that organisations receiving its support should not be required “to support every aspect of official American policy”. This meant that a leftish agenda could survive in an organ like Encounter. But while it “was left-wing in the sense that it gave expression to some left-wing views, it wasn’t a free forum at all, which it purported to be”, according to the British philosopher Richard Wolheim. “I think the effect of it was to give the impression that it was the whole spectrum of opinion they were publishing. But invariably they were cutting it off at a certain point, notably where it concerned areas of American foreign policy.” This, according to one CIA chief, was precisely how Encounter was expected to perform: “It was propaganda in the sense that it did not often deviate from what the State Department would say US foreign policy was.”

Encounter never shrank from exposing the useful lies by which communist regimes supported themselves. But by “keeping silent on any hot controversial issues” as Dwight MacDonald wrote, and “by excessive diplomacy and hush-hush attitude toward all the fakery and shoddiness that’s for years been growing so in our whole intellectual atmosphere”, Encounter suspended that most precious of western philosophical concepts – the freedom to think and act independently – and trimmed its sails to suit the prevailing winds. Encounter, “a weapon in the cold war”, is gone, the New Statesman is going strong. Is there a lesson here?

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