Waging the War of Ideas

Having written before in this space about venturesome Americans and their actions on the international stage, I am moved to return to the subject. Some new books—Karen Paget’s Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, Gregg Herken’s The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington, and Richard Norton Smith’s new biography of Nelson Rockefeller—yield insight into the “global meliorism” that has defined American policy for a long time and the American character for even longer. What they also do is offer a picture of the genesis of the national security establishment that we know today.

Trying to make life in other countries better, as Walter McDougall said—it was he who coined the phrase “global meliorism”—has been central to U.S. policy since the run-up to the Second World War. And the Cold War only added “new urgency to this American mission.”

There’s a way in which the urgency, of course, was sheer self-interest. Americans fought totalitarianism abroad lest it arrive on their shores. The U.S. government cultivated foreign leaders in the fight against totalitarian ideologies, sending its “missionaries” (intelligence agents) out to perform the missions that managed to keep such countries as Greece, Austria, the Philippines, and Thailand in freedom’s fold—and that other times ended in tragedy and failure.

Makers of foreign policy from both political parties countenanced the use of private foundations, labor unions, political groups, and student organizations for propaganda efforts to sway populations around the globe against the fascists and later against the communists. These American internationalists, inventors of the modern national security apparatus, included corporate moguls and clergymen, spooks and scholars.

A mogul who put himself at the hub of these activities was Nelson Rockefeller. The most interesting sections of Richard Norton Smith’s biography cover Rockefeller’s career on the eve of and during the Second World War. Latin America, with its German- and Italian-speaking enclaves, was “deemed vulnerable to Nazi attack,” writes Smith, and so Washington embarked on an “improvised effort to counter Axis influence.” One of the chief improvisers was Rockefeller, who entered the Roosevelt administration in 1940 as the head of a new office dealing with the Americas.

Smith calls his subject “a brashly charismatic salesman” whose hyperactive energies and Rockefeller family clout enabled him to establish an office that was officially separate from the State Department, and to do it “unhindered (for the most part) by civil service or political considerations.” His Inter-American Affairs bureau pursued cultural liaison programs to shore up FDR’s Good Neighbor policy. It sent shortwave radio broadcasts and printed matter into Latin American cities that portrayed the United States in a favorable light.

Rockefeller served his country and also the interests of American business, arguing successfully for the buying up of strategic resources in Latin America lest they fall into Nazi hands. He also worked with the FBI to probe Nazi connections to U.S. commercial interests and to create a blacklist to punish the offending American companies. (Smith doesn’t mention it, but this may have been Rockefeller’s way of trying to rescue the family honor in light of the notorious public relations work performed by Ivy Lee, a John D. Rockefeller assistant, for the Third Reich and the German firm I.G. Farben.)

Smith does not sugarcoat Nelson Rockefeller’s intemperance or his overweening ambition. Having gotten elected to the governorship of New York and appointed to the vice presidency of the United States, he made several “lunges for the presidency.” His sense of entitlement to that office was not gratified because political rivals and other countervailing forces got in his way—a proof of the wisdom of the Madisonian design of the government if ever there was one. Rockefeller nonetheless made a wartime contribution that was groundbreaking. The public diplomacy activities pioneered by his Inter-American office would later be picked up (with a change of emphasis in the content) by the likes of George Kennan, Frank Wisner, and other managers of national security in the conflict to come.

Wisner is one of the main figures in The Georgetown Set, Gregg Herken’s work about Cold War Washington. A veteran of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, Wisner helped the Soviet expert George Kennan design the political side of the postwar Marshall Plan. This book reminds us that the Marshall Plan—the provision of foodstuffs, aid for resettlement of refugees, and other material assistance to the war-torn European nations—also had a political warfare component. It entailed a new-fangled government action called psychological operations or “psy ops”— to counter the power and influence of Soviet communism over Central and Eastern European countries.

These programs would later move, as would Wisner, from the State Department to the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. In Herken’s account, Wisner comes across as a fierce but rather fitful anticommunist. He sent in teams to try to destabilize the communist government of Albania but forbore to stoke a spontaneous and widespread rebellion of East Germans against the Ulbricht regime in 1953. One of Wisner’s bursts of activity was an impulsive rejoinder to the pro-communist sentiment expressed by intellectuals in the United States. After the famous Waldorf conference of 1949 blaming America for inciting conflict with Russia, Wisner commandeered Marshall Plan funds to underwrite a pro-U.S. counter-demonstration in Paris.

Rockefeller’s and then Wisner’s attempts to move world opinion in our direction were followed by countless others. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, for example, proposed making use of American executives who ran overseas branches of their firms. He wanted the State Department to encourage these businessmen to mount demonstrations in foreign capitals at which they would cheer on the Kennedy administration’s policies. Secretary of State Dean Rusk swatted down what he saw as the President’s brother’s harebrained idea.[1]

Influencing the will of the people behind the Iron Curtain—and even more, those who might be pulled into the Soviet orbit—had to be approached delicately. From Karen Paget’s Patriotic Betrayal we learn that the U.S. assumption was that the popularity of leaders (or aspiring leaders) of foreign countries was jeopardized if they were thought to be in the pocket of the Americans. While their being non- or anti-communist served U.S. interests, their being acknowledged as pro-U.S. did not serve U.S. interests. The Cold War was fought indirectly and sometimes through shady means but it wasn’t for love of shadiness—it was a response to this particular conundrum.

And the conundrum had two repercussions of note. First, the direct approach—U.S. diplomats, U.S. government funding openly offered—was not the only or in many cases the best approach. It was natural to use covert means as well.

Second, the foreign protégés Washington preferred tended to be anti-Soviet but vocally opposed to colonialism and imperialism. They were often men of the Left—not identified with, and sometimes even outright hostile to, the promotion of capitalism and close relations with the United States. The guiding idea of the CIA from its inception to the mid-1960s was that to defeat communism, you should help social democrats come to power.

It will surprise anyone who pictures the CIA as filled with right-wingers to know that many of the intelligence officers cultivating these relationships were likewise liberal. Paget, drawing upon a Cold War history by Evan Thomas, has J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI deriding Wisner and his operatives as a “gang of weirdos.” Herken describes Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (R-Wis.) targeting of Wisner and his colleague Cord Meyer as alleged security risks. Dwight Eisenhower’s CIA chief, Allen Dulles, indignantly vouched for their patriotism and refused to cooperate with the McCarthy Senate subcommittee.

The “weirdo” liberal anticommunists, being anti-colonial, sometimes freelanced by funneling support to individuals or groups who were fighting against governments officially designated by the State Department as America’s allies. Paget discusses the CIA versus Fulgencio Batista in Cuba; the CIA versus the Shah of Iran; the CIA’s backing of independence movements in Algeria and Angola, which contravened official U.S. support of allies France and Portugal; and CIA support for an opposition leader in Southern Rhodesia in the face of British consternation. In tracking the CIA as it tries to navigate the rising winds of Third World nationalism, Patriotic Betrayal shows that, while we may have been taught to look back on the superpower rivalry as a conflict of free-market democracy against collectivism, it wasn’t quite that simple.

The book mainly concerns the CIA’s surreptitious use of the National Student Association (NSA) to assist the democratic Left in places like Sweden, Hungary, Algeria, India, and Cuba from the late 1940s until 1967, when the program was cancelled upon being revealed in the media. Letting some of these college students in on what they were doing, intelligence officers funded the entire NSA membership’s travel to conferences around the world. The CIA handlers had “witting” students report back to them about the political dispositions of their foreign counterparts. These informants submitted “detailed analyses of political dynamics within foreign student unions and countries.” The handlers also controlled, from a superintending distance, the association’s major policy decisions.

Readers of this book will learn a lot about how such an operation is carried out. It’s odd, and creepy—if a far cry from the danger to life and limb faced by college students from other countries, whose activism in behalf of democracy left them open to imprisonment by their governments, or worse.

The author and her then-husband took part in NSA activities in the 1960s, and were sworn to secrecy by her husband’s CIA handler. Her motivation in gathering this fascinating account is her personal disillusionment. She is critical of liberal anticommunism—in fact of anticommunism in most any form it might take. Liberals are the last people who she thinks should engage in the deception needed to gather intelligence.

While granting the dangers and pitfalls of covert operations, one wonders what the alternative would be, in the situations described in such painstaking detail in these pages. Would Paget have supported the more forthright projection of American power through the sending of American troops?

One of the CIA’s tactics in pushing back against Soviet-backed international organizations, whether labor or student, was to nurture rival organizations. Paget disapproves of the CIA-instigated NSA policy of shunning the organization that the Russians controlled, the International Union of Students. Based on evidence in this book, she’s mistaken about the supposed benefits of attending the IUS’s conclaves. (As she has no hesitation in reporting, its members took disgraceful positions—for example the young Hungarians who affiliated with the IUS enthusiastically defended the Soviet invasion of their country in 1956.)

She gives a stirring account of the role played by one student leader, the young Olof Palme, in awakening the Americans to the significance of the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. Palme, the future Prime Minister of Sweden, was a man of the Left who even so had no intention of letting his country fall to the Soviets. Secretary of State Dean Acheson himself wanted Palme to collaborate more closely with the State Department—at which point Palme begged off, not wanting to be too closely associated with the U.S. government.

If Olof Palme’s involvement in intelligence raises any eyebrows, so, too, might other passages in this book concerning Kofi Annan, William Sloan Coffin, Gloria Steinem, Barney Frank, Walter Pincus, Duncan Kennedy, and Luigi Einaudi. Zbigniew Brzezinski makes an appearance in Patriotic Betrayal as the young anticommunist disrupter of a student conclave in Moscow; the late Herbert Romerstein comes in as the young anticommunist disrupter of a student conclave in Vienna.

Some of the book’s best anecdotes concern the world tour made by a Hungarian student who helped lead the ultimately failed 1956 anti-Soviet insurrection. Travelling on the CIA’s dime, Alpar Bujdoso came to the United States (where he criticized the Americans’ reneging on promises of aid to the Hungarians), and also visited countries in Asia. Bujdoso insisted on going to South Korea, over the objections of his friends, the NSA students. They thought it looked bad to be seen visiting a country so closely allied with the United States.

They called that part of the tour “a fiasco.” As Paget puts it:

Hobnobbing with an American-backed Asian dictator [Syngman Rhee] was hardly the way to reach fierce Asian neutralists who were also fierce anticolonialists and anti-imperialists.

She goes on:

Paradoxically, the Hungarians received a warm reception from Korean students, eager to receive instruction on how to start a revolution and bring down a dictator. Three years later, in April 1960, when South Korean students led the effort that toppled Rhee, some Hungarians believed that their visit had had an inspirational effect.

I don’t see a paradox or, for that matter, a fiasco.

The least defensible behavior of the CIA in this affair was in 1967, when officials tried to stop the relationship with the NSA from being exposed in Ramparts magazine. They made intimidating noises at the students to try to keep them silent. But the drama of the end of the book kind of peters out. Paget describes students in a state of anxiety-wracked indecision as to whether to step forward and corroborate the magazine’s revelations. They feared their own country’s secret police were about to come after them. They spoke out. And then . . . not much happened. Except that the governmental favoritism they’d been shown—like exemption from military service—was withdrawn. Their draft notices suddenly arrived in the mail.

The author seems indignant on their behalf. She is also indignant that the story did not cause a huge stir. In the Congress, even liberal members like Senator William Fulbright (D-Ark.) and Senator Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) had muted reactions. Of course there’s little chance this news was actually news to either one of them. (Paget notes that Kennedy met with “witting” NSA students when he was Attorney General, and indeed, the connections that show up along this thread are interesting: NSA leaders not infrequently went on to careers in the CIA or other parts of the government, and of these, many got aboard the “Dump Johnson” campaign within the Democratic Party in 1968, and flocked to the anti-Vietnam War candidacy of none other than Robert Kennedy.)

Anticlimax in the case of the students and the spooks may disappoint Karen Paget but it shouldn’t surprise her. Americans of that time, aware that they did not live in a police state, were mildly scandalized by what was in fact a mild scandal. Whenever the public gets an inkling, today, of U.S. intelligence actively trying to dissuade young people from radical Islam there’s no major outcry, either. Perhaps that’s because Americans still realize that their country has adversaries, and influence operations come with the territory. Waging the war of ideas will always be necessary.

[1] See Thomas Schoenbaum, Waging Peace and War: Dean Rusk in the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson Years (Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 268.