When Controversy Becomes Conspiracy

Review: Joel Whitney, ‘Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers’

A general view of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency at Langley, Va. in 1962 / AP
January 21, 2017

Joel Whitney opens his Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers with a telling anecdote. It’s 1966. A paranoid Harold Humes, co-founder of The Paris Review, is living alone in London. His wife has just left him, and he is convinced that the Queen is listening to his conversations through microphones in his bedposts. Peter Matthiessen, another co-founder, visits and tells Humes that he used the magazine as cover during his short stint at the CIA in the early 1950s. In response to this, Humes writes what Whitney calls a "clear and sensible" letter to George Plimpton, the magazine's third co-founder and editor, asking him to make the magazine's early ties to the CIA public or remove him from the masthead. The magazine's reputation would be tarnished, he argues, when it became known that it was "created and used as an engine in the damned cold war …"

As it turns out, "created and used as an engine" in the Cold War was a bit of an overstatement. When The Paris Review was founded, Matthiessen was indeed working for the CIA and used the magazine as cover. The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which was revealed in 1967 to have been funded indirectly by the CIA, apparently made occasional donations to the magazine and would regularly syndicate the magazine's popular interviews in the 16 magazines it did fund directly. But even if the early editors knew of the CCF-CIA connection—and it's not clear that they did—syndication hardly qualifies as founding a magazine.

Nor can the magazine's early publication record be called an "engine" of hostilities between the United States and the USSR. Beyond checking with the CCF on potentially controversial articles or taking into consideration the Congress's interest in interviews for syndication, the magazine pursued its innocuous aestheticism in poem after poem, interview after interview—Eugene Walter on a new production of Weber's Obéron, Christopher Rand on Buddhism. The review published prints by Picasso, fiction by Jack Kerouac and Italo Calvino, and poetry by Geoffrey Hill, Adrienne Rich, and Thom Gunn.

But for Whitney, who has the conspiracy theorist's gift for finding evidence where there is none, The Paris Review's "belletristic" style is the very proof of its collusion to "weaponize" culture in America's fight against communism. You see, the magazine's avoidance of politics was not only the result of the early editors' interests or personalities. It was also evidence of their duplicity. Articles that did not discuss working-class conditions in America and interviews with international writers that avoided politics show, according to Whitney, that Plimpton "consciously aligned" the mission of the magazine with "the CIA's growing propaganda and censorship networks." Plimpton's interview with Ernest Hemingway, for example, in which he does ask Hemingway about politics but not enough for Whitney's tastes, is particularly damning in Whitney’s eyes. "Did Plimpton realize," he writes, "that he was making the defiantly leftist Hemingway into a US propaganda tool, even vaguely."

Did the CCF's money influence The Paris Review's editorial decisions? Of course. Editors tend to avoid publishing articles that will play poorly with subscribers or foundations that give them money. Does this mean that Plimpton's editorial decisions were made in order to serve the CIA's goals? No, though Whitney regularly suggests that it did ("Was it just coincidence," Whitney asks, "that this editor whose magazine had positive propaganda ties, secret though they were, was now writing pieces that celebrated American pastimes?") Does it mean that The Paris Review willingly played a "bit part" in a "massive secret performance that drove a nation for nearly two decades?" If by "massive secret performance" Whitney means the construction of what he calls "a totalitarian system where secret agents spy on the media and sabotage free speech and press freedom," then, again, no.

Even Whitney is occasionally forced to admit this. Before all the insinuations and accusations of quid pro quo later in the book, Whitney writes that unlike "official CIA magazines, The Paris Review was left almost entirely to its own devices." But Whitney has a bee in his ushanka, and he must swat at the buzzing. It is directly after this that he claims that Plimpton "consciously aligned" the magazine's mission with the CIA's.

While Finks is an expanded version of Whitney's 2012 Salon article on the ties between the CCF and The Paris Review, he fills it out with details about the CIA's support of cultural activities—some of which have been known for over thirty years now—to imply that the American government's attitude toward artistic freedom was not so different from the USSR's. For Whitney, America's persecution of journalists like Julian Assange (yes, he names Assange among other "persecuted journalists") and practice of propaganda and censorship began in these early Cold War years.

As proof, Whitney retells the relatively well-known story of the clandestine publication of Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, which was critical of Soviet communism and which, along with his other works, helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. Pasternak was forced by the Soviet government to renounce the award, but Whitney blames the CIA. Pasternak had planned to publish the novel only outside Russia because he knew, Whitney writes, that to "publish the novel cautiously in Russian outside the territory, on terms he set out carefully with his Italian publisher was one thing. To smuggle it back in was another." But smuggled in it was, and with the help of the CIA no less, who printed and handed out clandestine Russian versions of the text, lamentably full of typos, at the World's Fair in Brussels.

Shortly after this, Pasternak was forced to refuse the award. Whitney writes: "The assumption [in 1958] was that the Soviet authorities had in fact forced Pasternak to renounce the prize for having published his novel," but "the CIA had shaped these events and the news cycle both." The implication is that the CIA is somehow to blame for Pasternak's renunciation—as if the Soviets would have let a writer toward whom they had long been antagonistic accept the most prestigious literary award in the world for a novel critical of the state, which they had long tried to suppress, had only the CIA not helped the novel across Soviet borders. There's no doubt that both the Americans and the Russians used Pasternak. What's missing throughout Finks is a sense of proportion.

Whitney claims that the three recorded cases of the CCF nixing articles in the British Encounter, particularly its decision to renege on its acceptance of Dwight Macdonald's essay "America, America," are no different from Soviet censorship. But they are different. Refusing the publication of an article in a single magazine that was supported in part by governmental funds is quite different from preventing an article from appearing in any magazine. After Macdonald's essay was rejected at Encounter, he published it in Twentieth Century, another magazine with ties to the CCF.

Whitney rummages through the grass to find a few more examples of "editorial coordination" at other publications. The examples, in my mind, mostly show the surprising amount of freedom these publications—which the CCF went as far as to list on its letterhead—had.

The book has a couple other annoying quirks. He insists on calling National Review "The National Review" and has a gift for mixed metaphors (a hangover "drives" our nation, for example, which may be true, but not in the way Whitney means it). While parts of Finks are entertaining and remind us of how complex things were during the Cold War period, Whitney's insistence, without sufficient evidence, that the CIA in the 1950s and 60s "swallowed media, the arts, and academia in one large covert gulp" spoils the soup.

Published under: Book reviews