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The Cultural Cold War

"The battle for men's minds."

I’m a student of history.

Not names, dates, places, who did what to whom and lived to tell about it, that kind of thing. You know, the history that made your eyes cross from sheer boredom while in high school.

I’m interested in the history of ideas, the political movements they spawned, and how those ideas still affect us today. If you follow the timeline, it’s like connecting the dots.

But for this one? I was out of the room. Waaay out of the room. Maybe out of the country.

After the Second World War, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union began. CIA. KGB. Secret agents. Double agents. Arms race. Space race. Two superpowers duking it out over which one’s power and influence would hold ultimate sway over the globe.

I know that part of the story. I also know that at the time, Europeans (and possibly the world) considered the U.S. to be a cultural wasteland, a country inhabited by a rabble of Philistines.

The Soviet Union saw an opportunity. Everybody knew Russia had an intellectual and cultural tradition — music, literary, visual arts — nobody could diss. So, they played it up, attempting to lure the European, meaning the French and German in particular, intellectuals to their side. It had appeal. After all, what did they have in common with the brutes who won the war for them?

“Oh, no you don’t,” Staters and the British said. They launched a cultural counterattack — the Congress of Cultural Freedom. The CIA arranged international tours for musicians — orchestral, jazz, and operatic. They sponsored visual arts contests, with cash prizes. It worked. The tide of opinion turned.

But that wasn’t all.

It was in the literary arts that the CIA, after recruiting the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and a whole bunch of other monied interests, made the most impact. On me, anyway.

Monthly literary reviews. Well-respected literary reviews were recipients of The Agency’s largesse. More astonishing to me is how many of them were out-and-out CIA fronts. At one point, the CCF had 35 international outposts. Some are still operating, although without CIA money. 

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The granddaddy of them all, founded in 1936. If you’re a writer, you know the drill. “Show, don’t tell.” Use words that evoke the senses. Countless MFA programs nationwide are patterned after it. Well, they received CIA funding, too. Not directly. The Fairfield Foundation, spelled CIA, contributed pots of money. 

This whole deal, the Cultural Cold War, was operating well into the 60s, almost to 1970.

And that’s why we writers write the way we do. The Workshop style, exported worldwide. Generations of writers have been trained to write like this. Generations of readers have been trained, and expect, to read works written like this.

This, and not that, is what makes for great literature.


Because the CIA says so.

Unbelievable. Yet all too believable.

I write for a living, and couldn’t believe I’d never heard or read about any of this. I spoke with a friend, all shocked and wide-eyed.

He’s like, “oh, yeah. It’s no secret.” He is not a writer.

Guess this student gets the dunce cap. 







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