tl;dr: it’s good.
I got this for Christmas and read it in a day.
The long story short is that the CIA, after the war, decided that it needed to lure the intelligentsia of the West away from the Stalinism and communism that it had been enamoured with in the 1930s towards an anti-communist, ideally liberal, kind of leftism that would be much more amenable to US ideological interests. They did this by supporting a huge range of conferences, magazines, and cultural events designed to woo such intellectuals towards an anticommunist position, and by making sure that power and wealth flowed towards those intellectuals with the “correct” opinions.
The book primarily focuses on two “case studies”, which are significantly interlinked. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, and the magazine Encounter, both CIA backed and, to at least some extent, ran.
The Congress for Cultural Freedom ran various conferences, seminars, and other cultural events such as sponsoring operas, plays, and musical troupes around Europe. The aim was both to showcase American culture (to counteract the Soviet propaganda and widely held European opinion that America was a cultural wasteland) and also show that “freedom” in the cold war sense can produce better culture than the Soviets. Encounter ran on similar lines. It was a magazine for the non-communist left intelligentsia. The aim was to run primarily issues about culture which were supposedly apolitical to lure in many communist sympathising intelligentsia, and then slowly convert them to the approved non-communist left position. It also aimed, as did the congress of cultural freedom - to help the careers and fame of those whose ideological positions they agreed with, and to harm those (if only by ignoring them) whose views did not so align.
Behind these two organisations lie a variety of wonderful characters such as Michael Josselson,Nicholas Nabokov, a second rate composer, but first rate schmoozer and intellectual socialite, Stephen Spender, an astoundingly naive British intellectual and cultural aesthete, and editor of Encounter, and Irving Kristol, father of Bill Kristol (isn’t it funny how that works out!).
The actual history narrated is fascinating, but what is much more fascinating is what lies between the lines. The book becomes especially interesting if you also go to Wikipedia and read the biographies of all the characters involved, especially the minor ones who show up for a page or two.
We hear a lot about the “revolving door” between finance and government, and the “millitary-industrial complex” used to be something people worried about.This book implicitly reveals the existence of something much more interesting: A kind of CIA-media-academia-foundations complex. If you look at the biographies of many of the characters in the book, you’ll see that they tend to bounce between all three. They might have originally worked for the CIA (or OSS during the war), then they become an editor of a magazine, then they might teach for a few years at some Ivy league university, then become a syndicated columnist in a major paper, then another editor or something, all the while probably reporting, or at least on friendly terms with the CIA. These people all know each other socially. They go to all the same parties (and they go to a lot of parties). A famous philosopher and an editor of the times might be invited on holiday to yacht with a rich “philanthropist” who, of course, has extensive CIA connections, along with several other academics - always philosophers or social and political theories or historians - as well as journalists. All strictly off the record, of course.
Together they form a kind of merger of the natural intelligentsia, the NGO (hah!) sector, and significant parts of government. This grouping can flit easily between government, academic, and NGO or foundation jobs, and really functions as a single social grouping. They all know each other socially and have essentially the same views and attitudes. In some sense, this isn’t that surprising. There are clear elective affinities between the types of people in these fields; they are all highly verbal, cultured, and intellectual. They are all avid consumers of high culture and high-intellectualism. They each view the others as high status, and, critically need each other professionally. Academics need literary journalists for the promotion of their ideas. Journalists need academics to mine for abtruse theories they can apply to the situation of the day to sound informed, sophisticated, cultured, intelligent and insightful, and thus build readership and prestige. And both, of course, need the government and nominally non-government foundations for funding, as well as other perks which, for those “on the in” with any of the CIA backed ventures, were considerable. Insiders got plenty of first class flights and free hotels to conferences, and invitations to prestigious parties and stipends to supplement their otherwise relatively meagre salaries as academics or journalists. And the government need such men because they are the creators of culture and the shapers of public opinion. As such they have enormous soft power as a group, so the government tries to influence and “nudge” them towards its desired opinions. Such a complex almost certainly still exists today, though doubtless changed somewhat in ideological valence and social composition.
A second interesting note is that the book showed just how well integrated the foundations and other NGOs of the time were integrated with the actual government. For all intents and purposes, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefellers and so on were practically part of the government.Not officially, obviously, but they directors of the foundations and the relevant people in government all knew each other socially, were all “on the same page”. The CIA and the State Department could coordinate with the foundations just as well as with each other, and they were all united for the same foreign policy goals. There was a standard amount of bureaucratic infighting, but the book paints the picture of a remarkably close and cohesive elite who were united around similar goals. Socially they were the old WASP aristocracy, with a fair smattering of Jews. Educationally they all went to the Ivy League, preferably Harvard or Yale (or Oxford if they were British) and were probably the last cohort to have a securely classical education. Culturally they were educated and cultured cosmopolitans, haughty and elitist, but still Christian and at least nominally devout. Ideologically they were anti-communist, but still broadly liberal. They were anti-communist, but had little sympathies for the McCarthys and Birchers of the world. In many ways this was the WASP ruling class that the left likes to rail against today, even though by now it has been entirely displaced and destroyed as a cohesive entity. This isn’t surprising. The New Left of the Sixties (i.e. today’s current left) was fighting against this elite, and though they won almost completely, the ghost of their old opponent is still used as a rhetorical bogeyman as much of the ideology doesn’t make sense without it.
This book also shed some interesting light on the beginnings of the neoconservatives. I’d always known about their philosophical underpinnings such as Straussianism, but never considered their sociological foundations. Neoconservatism today is effectively the remnant of the older pre-1960s cold war liberalism. They were originally communists and Trotskyists in the 20s and 30s when that was cool. They moved right during the war and quickly reconciled themselves to, and became ardent supporters of America’s post-war power. They were the liberal establishment then. Anti-communist in ideology, but always closer socially and classwise to actual communists and other intelligentsia than to the right-wing anticommunists such as McCarthy, who they largely despised. Indeed neoconservative-esque (and CIA-man!) William Buckley founded the national review which largely excommunicated old-school rightism of the McCarthy variety and substituted the new-right/old-school left as the new “respectable right” in opposition to the new left of the sixties. They have dominated elite conservative politics ever since, relegating pre-60s conservatism to the fringes as “paleoconservatism” or just “racism” or some such. They substituted Islam for communism as the great enemy after the collapse of the Soviet Union and especially after 9/11. Though they were recently defeated by Trumpist populism this election, we’ve yet to see whether that will develop a self-sustaining intellectual network able to combat their already entrenched networks in think-tanks and in foreign policy and international relations.
My final point is on the Sixties. Though it isn’t really addressed directly in the book, it does drive home the difference between the Left then and the Left now. And the big inflection point was the Sixties, with the beginning of the New Left. This was the point when the Left largely abandoned Soviet-Union style communism/Stalinism and instead embraced all the positions we know today - the antiracism, feminism, environmentalism etc. - all became major talking points, and were bundled together into one ideological package then. Economic equality became largely subordinate to quest for racial and sexual equality. In a way, this was the final victory of the CIA, though they did not see it like that. Communism was never again a serious threat. The Avant-garde had gone from supporting Stalin to supporting the Black Panthers. This change baffled and confused most of the Cold-War liberal non-communist left. Some, like Stephen Spender embraced the new movement. Most were disapproving and hostile. Not that it mattered. They were superseded. Somehow probably by the 80s and 90s, the New Left of the Sixties had managed to displace both the Old Liberalism and the hardcore Communists to become the majority of the Left. A small remnant of the Old Liberalism became neoconservatism, but largely it just appeared to fade completely. The Marxist left retreated into small pockets of academia and small and ineffective activism, and the New Left became supreme on the left and, ultimately, the ruling establishment. The book cuts off just as the Sixties are beginning, and I have no real idea how exactly this happened, but it must have at some point. Today’s entire political spectrum, from the left to the “respectable right” are steeped in the ideas of the new left and their axioms have become articles of faith baked into the culture. How the New Left won is a story for another time, and one that I am extremely interested in, because in many ways it is the key to understanding our current politics.
Overall the book was extremely interesting. Though sometimes dry - and requiring many excursions to Wikipedia! - it often also read like a page-turner. I definitely recommend.