Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who defected to the West in 1951, was struck by the ostentatiousness of American cultural programs: “You could smell big money from a mile away.” The era’s finest little magazines, titles like Partisan Review and The Paris Review, published enduring fiction, poetry, and essays. The writings of Clement Greenberg and Lionel Trilling set the high-water mark for art and literary criticism. Richard Wright wrote the mournful poem that would provide the title for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 best-seller, Between the World and Me. The artists who waged the radical political battles of the 1930s emerged in the 1950s as cultural institutions, achieving a prominence—even a celebrity—that has eluded subsequent generations.
Plenty of observers, however, suspected that the free market of ideas had been corrupted. World tours, fancy conferences, prestigious bylines and book contracts were bestowed on artists who hewed to political positions favored by the establishment, rather than on the most talented. In 1966, The New York Times confirmed suspicions that the CIA was pumping money into “civil society” organizations: unions, international organizations of students and women, groups of artists and intellectuals. The agency had produced the popular cartoon version of George Orwell’s anticommunist classic Animal Farmin 1954. It flew the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a European tour in 1952, to counter prejudices of the United States as uncultured and unsophisticated. It promoted the work of abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock because their artistic style would have been considered degenerate in both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The propriety of such largesse, both for the CIA and its beneficiaries, has been hotly debated ever since. Jason Epstein, the celebrated book editor, was quick to point out that CIA involvement undermined the very conditions for free thought, in which “doubts about established orthodoxies” were supposed to be “taken to be the beginning of all inquiry.” But Gloria Steinem, who worked with the CIA in the 1950s and ’60s, “was happy to find some liberals in government in those days,” arguing that the agency was “nonviolent and honorable.” Milosz, too, agreed that the “liberal conspiracy,” as he called it, “was necessary and justified.” It was, he allowed, “the sole counterweight to the propaganda on which the Soviets expended astronomical sums.”
Today’s intellectuals approach their labors in a very different set of circumstances. The struggle for academic patronage and the strained conditions of nearly all media properties have led to fewer jobs and fewer venues for substantial writing; the possibility of leading a public-facing life of the mind now seems vanishingly small, which only heightens nostalgia for the golden age of the 1950s. Yet the shadow of the CIA lurks behind the achievements of that time. The free play of ideas—the very thing that was supposed to distinguish the United States from the Soviet Union in the first place—turned out to be, at least in part, a carefully constructed illusion. What if the prominence of midcentury intellectuals, the sense that they were engaged in important political and artistic projects, is inseparable from the fact that they were useful to America’s Cold War empire?