Famous literary meals
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson
In 1958, the Paris Review’s George Plimpton wrote his Paris editor with a grand proposal. The Russian author Boris Pasternak had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. But under pressure from the Soviets — humiliated that “Dr. Zhivago” had to be smuggled out of the country — he refused it. “The Pasternak affair has caused such a stir here,” writes Plimpton from the journal’s New York office, “and is in itself an event of such importance in lit’r’y history that we feel the Review somehow should chronicle what has happened…” Writing to Nelson Aldrich, the Paris editor, Plimpton suggests short statements by a “variety of authors asked to comment. What does Sartre have to say on this matter … Aragon, Neruda, Waugh? Here [in New York] we have Niccolo Tucci … digging up statements, mostly from writers who (as he is himself) are refugees from tyranny…” Plimpton goes on to suggest that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, largely and covertly funded by the CIA, might fund brochures to help publicize the issue.
The Paris Review has been hailed by Time magazine as the “biggest ‘little magazine’ in history.” At the celebration of its 200th issue this spring, current editors and board members ran down the roster of literary heavyweights it helped launch since its first issue in 1953. Philip Roth, V. S. Naipaul, T.C. Boyle, Edward P. Jones and Rick Moody published their first stories in the Review; Jack Kerouac, Jim Carroll, Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides all had important early stories in its pages. But as Peter Matthiessen, the magazine’s founder, has told interviewers — most recently at Penn State — the journal also began as part of his CIA cover.
Plimpton’s letter on Pasternak is essential, however, because for many years a small group of journalists has been trying to pry more information out of Matthiessen on the still-unknown extent of the CIA’s role with the Paris Review — and many in particular have wondered what the legendary Plimpton himself knew of the magazine’s CIA origins. Matthiessen’s story has not changed much since it was first revealed in a 1977 New York Times story. But the Review’s archive at the Morgan Library in Manhattan — until now left mostly out of the debate — shows a number of never-reported CIA ties that bypass Matthiessen or outlive his official tenure at the Agency. In fact, a number of editors, Plimpton included, repeatedly courted ties to the Congress for Cultural Freedom. These ties started modestly — ad exchanges, reprints of Paris Review interviews in the Congress’s official magazines — but grew much more robust, including what one editor described as a “joint emploi” where the Congress and the Review would team up to share an editor’s living expenses in Paris and also to share interviews and other editorial content. In its vast quest to beat the Soviets in cultural achievement and showcase American writing to influential European audiences and intellectuals, the Congress may have even suggested some of the famed Paris Review interviews. All of which means that at the dawn of the CIA’s era of coups and nefarious plots, America’s most celebrated apolitical literary magazine served, in part, as a covert international weapon of soft power.
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The weaponization of culture starts at Yale. Prof. Norman Holmes Pearson is cited on the Paris Review web site as the intelligence officer who recruited Matthiessen (Yale College, 1950) into the CIA. This fact may explain the subtle cultural politics of the supposedly apolitical Paris Review. Pearson’s career is a mashup of literature and spying. A friend of the modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (aka, “H.D.”), he hired H.D.’s daughter as his secretary. She then became that of his assistant, the CIA’s bogeyman, James Jesus Angleton. After an illustrious record during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services alongside CIA founding light William Donovan and CIA director Allen Dulles, Pearson returned to academe to take charge of Yale’s fledgling American Studies program.
How does covert propaganda or intelligence work link up with American Studies? Answer: Monomania and the Cold War. Consider a letter from Yale’s dean at this time to its president:
From such a study we will gain strength, both individually and as a nation … strength, which we need so badly in our time to face the changing, and in part, hostile world … This is an argument … for the establishment of a strong program of American Studies at Yale, which in many respects is our most native university … In the international scene it is clear that our government has not been too effective in blazoning to Europe and Asia, as a weapon in the “cold war” the merits of our way of thinking and living … Until we put more vigor and conviction into our own cause … it is not likely that we shall be able to convince the wavering peoples of the world that we have something infinitely better than Communism …
Yale’s American studies “would be ‘positive,’” as one academic has written, “not a matter of preaching against communism, but one of advocacy for the American alternative.” Where the CIA would get into the game — call it cultural propaganda or psychological warfare — it would avail itself of both “positive” and “negative” means, celebrating American cultural achievements on one hand while attacking Soviet ideas and policies on the other. So would the literary magazines created in this period, including the Paris Review.
The need for cultural propaganda — a sort of international American Studies — grew out of an American reaction to Soviet cultural programming in post-World War II Western Europe. It was articulated in an unsigned paper attributed to George F. Kennan, widely seen as the founding father of American “containment,” as well as the State Department’s policy planning staff and founders of the CIA. This thinking eventually spurred the creation, under the new CIA, of the Office of Policy Coordination, under which would emerge the Congress for Cultural Freedom. As Frances Stonor Saunders has written in her landmark “The Cultural Cold War”:
At its peak, the Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in 35 countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over 20 prestige magazines, held art exhibitions, owned a news and feature service, organized high-profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances. Its mission was to nudge the intelligentsia of Western Europe away from its lingering Marxism and communism towards a view more accommodating of the American way.
It later expanded to Asia, Africa and Latin America, and — according to one of its boosters — was “the only outfit … making an anti-Communist anti-neutralist dent with intellectuals in Europe and Asia.” The fact of its CIA origin was kept well hidden, but those working within its vast apparatus knew the rumors attached it to its origins, according to one former staffer.
Though these efforts started with conferences, they soon moved to publishing. In his “Proposal for the American Review,” Melvin Lasky argued for the creation of a magazine to “support the general objectives of U.S. policy in Germany and Europe by illustrating the background of ideas, spiritual activity, literary and intellectual achievement from which the American democracy takes its inspiration.” As Saunders wrote, The American Review was born instead as Germany’s Der Monat. Its equivalent in France was Preuves, edited by Francois Bondy. In the U.K., it would be called Encounter, edited by poet Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol (later replaced by Lasky). All, Saunders reported, would be secretly funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Encounter was born in a planning meeting attended by Michael Josselson (who would covertly lead the Congress for Cultural Freedom for the CIA for most of its life), the composer Nicolas Nabokov (Vladimir’s first cousin), and, from the United Kingdom, by Christopher Montague Woodhouse, a British intelligence officer. Encounter finally launched with an initial grant of $40,000, which came via Julius Fleischman. The yeast and gin heir also served as the most important “quiet channel” for the Congress and was used to funnel CIA money to various organizations and assets. And the Paris Review sought out his patronage from inception.
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“Dear Mr. Fleischman,” writes Peter Matthiessen on Paris Review letterhead sometime before the first issue. “Here at last is a prospectus of the fine new literary review I mentioned to you in June. I sincerely believe … it will be the best literary quarterly since the TRANSITION of the Hemingway-Pound-Gertrude Stein era.” He goes on to request funding and, according to Scott Sherman, writing in The Nation, he got $1,000 from Fleischman. When confronted with this donation, Matthiessen told Sherman it indeed “muddies” the picture of the CIA ties being contained within his short service. The following proposal from Matthiessen to Plimpton, found by Salon in the Morgan Archive, may as well.
In the winter of 1953-54, Matthiessen writes to Plimpton — who had since become the magazine’s public face and, in Matthiessen’s words, its “nominal” head. He offers Plimpton funding largesse in the amount of $20,000 by unnamed backers who would need to be convinced the money could be used to put the Review, beset by funding and communication problems, on “an efficient working basis.” Alluding to its most recent issue (No. 4) having arrived late, annoying advertisers, he asks Plimpton to consider the offer carefully; it would probably require putting Matthiessen back in charge since he would be accountable for the money. The sum of $20,000 in 1953 is the equivalent of around $170,000 today.
In the documentary “Doc,” Plimpton admits that Matthiessen founded the Review as a CIA cover. But Plimpton says that none of the other editors knew this until the 1960s. Matthiessen confirmed that in his Penn State interview, and says it would have been illegal for him to tell them of the agency’s involvement.) “This was right after the war. It was when the CIA was starting up. It was not into assassinations and all the ugly stuff yet,” he adds in “Doc,” speaking to documentarian, Immy Humes. “There were so many guys signing up for the CIA. It was kind of the thing to do.” Matthiessen declined several requests to discuss the Paris Review and the CIA with Salon.
But whether or not Plimpton knew of his old friend’s work as a spy, the other editors’ ties to the CIA through the Congress for Cultural Freedom lasted beyond the John F. Kennedy assassination and the buildup to and U.S. entrance into the Vietnam War. Nelson Aldrich, who began as a Review editor in 1958, writes in his oral history of Plimpton, “George, Being George,” that he left the Review to join the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom. From the Morgan letters, it is clear his work for the two organizations brought them closer, and when he left the Review in 1961, he helped ensure it would be working in concert with the Congress.
Robert Silvers — later founder of the New York Review of Books — writes Plimpton in 1956 that he “greedily” sought out the Congress magazines to reprint the Paris Review’s interview with William Faulkner. Silvers points out, though, that he sought out the Congress this once for the widened readership and would have had no knowledge of whether the money the Review got would go to the interviewer, Jean Stein, or the Review. “I should also make it clear that during these Paris years, I had no idea of CIA or U.S. government funding of the Congress,” he added by email.
The Review had already mastered the highly profitable art of selling interviews for reprints in Congress-affiliated magazines by the time of Plimpton’s Ernest Hemingway interview, begun in 1954 but not published until 1958, in issue No. 18. In the years planning it, Plimpton even suggests a whole Hemingway issue, but Matthiessen pushes for their core mission of launching new writers. Nevertheless, before it was out, the Congress’ magazines already had designs on it. “Lasky is coming to Paris any day now,” writes Aldrich, “and I will give him the H. interview as per instructions. If that doesn’t work, I have already heard expressions of interest from magazines in the countries of our Axis allies … In short, I guess we shan’t have much trouble selling Papa.” Melvin Lasky, one of the brainchildren of the Congress’s magazines, would move that year from editing Der Monat to Encounter. These are the CIA’s magazines in Germany and Japan — Der Monat and Jiyu — and their interest in a long-worked interview with a major American author — a “most native” one at that — would have been, of course, for cultural propaganda (what Joseph Nye will later name “soft power”).
Sales were evidently quite good for issue 18. Aldrich writes to Plimpton and Silvers: “What is the run to be on this issue? Here we can use perhaps a thousand, though that may be overly optimistic. The USIS may repeat their largesse and buy another few hundred copies, but I doubt it. (Did I tell you that they have now bought 460 copies of No. 18 and taken out 10 subscriptions?) As far as possible, this information should remain secret; I tremble to think of Congress discovering such a thing.” The U.S. Information Services is the overseas name for the U.S. Information Agency, founded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 for propaganda purposes. This letter shows that entities like USIS were recognized by some at the Paris Review as government propaganda fronts. Congress would disapprove because, by funding a magazine with a New York office that was distributed in the U.S., it was engaged in propagandizing to the American public, which was illegal.
Along with his work selling reprint rights for the great Hemingway interview, Aldrich jumps at the grand Pasternak proposal. His enthusiasm matches Plimpton’s sense of the event as a major one in “lit’r’y history.” “[W]hat a marvelous coup that will be! I think of huge international mailing drives, droves of publicity.” In this period, anti-communist writers will increasingly find their way into the editorial letters, as well as into the Paris Review’s pages. And, as in issue 18, Hungarian author Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” a critique of Soviet policy and life, was also subsidized by officialdom; 50,000 copies were bought up by Britain’s Foreign Office. Touring with his book, Koestler traveled to the U.S., where he enjoined American radicals to “grow up,” and thus sparked an idea at the CIA that would define its propaganda funding: “Who better to fight communists than former communists?” In the Morgan letters, Aldrich proposes Koestler for an interview as well.
Rewards begin to multiply — direct financial rewards for disseminating American greats like Hemingway and persecuted communists like Pasternak — but also free publicity. Thanks “to the kindness of Francois Bondy of Preuves,” writes Aldrich, “the Review has been raved about at great length in Der Tagesspiegel and a Swiss newspaper … both … as widely read (almost) as the New York Times. Also we had a shorter but just as flattering notice in Preuves. Not surprising since Bondy wrote all three.” What to make of this? Bondy is being secretly paid by the CIA to run Preuves. On top of which he plants stories favoring a CIA-founded and -approved (but not officially funded) magazine. So far, it must be said, the dishonesty is all on the CIA side. The Paris Review is taking fair — and full — advantage.
But this would go further when Aldrich’s plans to return to the States are massaged into a Paris job. He had mentioned a return to his New York bosses, and now — in a letter in his Morgan Archive folder — he writes to Plimpton, “I recently got another job (in the press division) at the HQ of the intellectual Cold War, the Congress of Cultural Freedom. I am happy there, but I don’t know for how long.” He at first holds out hope that he can do both jobs. So does Plimpton. And does “happy there” suggest the jobs have already overlapped?
In July 1960, Plimpton — in another Morgan letter — writes,
I see no reason why it shouldn’t be as possible to collaborate with Blair [Fuller, the next Paris editor and stepson of Allen Dulles’ publisher] as it has been for as many as four or five of us to struggle to agreement here in New York … The financial consideration is trickier. Blair needs and will get that niggardly monthly sum. But if you’re staying on, and you let me know quickly, perhaps I can arrange an additional monthly payment. If you need it, or the remuneration from the Congress isn’t sufficient … then tell me frankly and I’ll see what can be done.
But the Congress apparently has plenty of work for Aldrich. In August he responds, in another Morgan letter, “it is true that I will be working … very busily at the Freedom Fighters Guild.” But whether he does both jobs or not, working for the Congress will be good “for the Review because there is no Congress sponsored magazine in the States, and since I am supposed to see that the various articles and stories published in Encounter, Preuves, Der Monat, etc to 16, there is no reason why any really exceptional fiction should not find its way to us.” With skepticism, he mentions the small salary Plimpton is offering to do double duty, testing the waters — it would seem — and alludes to the contract for the Paris Review’s interview anthology, “Writers at Work.” Plimpton’s early mentoring in monetizing will perhaps inform the Congress as it begins its second decade.
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By January 1961, the Pasternak interview is published with a sprawling introduction mirroring the breathless tone of Aldrich’s “coup,” and Plimpton’s grand proposal. Before it ran, Plimpton had asked Aldrich repeatedly about the “portfolio” to run with it. But lacking the writers’ reactions, a Robert Frost interview runs with the Pasternak instead. Looking closely at this letter, I see an asterisk scrawled on the word “variety” — where Plimpton has suggested a variety of writers’ reactions, including from Neruda and other socialists. And at the bottom, another asterisk, with the note, “Only possible variety would be communists + …” There the note is cut. It does not appear to be in Plimpton’s hand.
Notably, Sartre, a socialist, had been rejected for the interviews before. Though he is ever-present in the editorial letters after his condemnation of the Soviets around 1956, the editors had already held an interview with him in hand, which they apparently killed. Matthiessen and Tom Guinzburg, a New York editor and co-founder, voted to hold it until the “literary content” could balance the political.
By 1961, checks are coming in from the Congress on a regular basis. These are for Paris Review interviews reprinted in numerous official Congress publications, as well as subscriptions for the Congress’s Paris office and its offices around the world. Aldrich also tries to take advantage of Congress-sponsored conferences by leveraging them for interviews, and he hopes to reuse pieces rejected by the Paris Review — namely, Carlisle’s pieces — in the Congress magazines.
With Aldrich’s exit now nearing, a Paris editor was needed. This editor was being conscripted to do double-duty for the two organizations. As several of the Morgan letters, never reported on before, indicate, the CIA would augment the meager literary quarterly pay — and the ways to work together had already become multiply evident. The Review was to coordinate the hiring through “friends of the Congress.” The Paris Review’s candidates were Frederick Seidel, the New York poet, and Roger Klein.
In February, Plimpton writes to Fuller and Aldrich:
Fred Seidel has scribbled in a postcard to say that now he’s very interested in the Review job — a somewhat predictable turnabout I might say. The trouble is that while he sat in his tent another candidate has been suggested — one Roger Klein … a brilliant young editor at Harpers. He’s a linguist, would be an excellent choice … for the Congress job which he would need to supplement his PR salary. Very important, he seems genuinely anxious to do the job for both organizations.
Aldrich writes to the New York office in March:
If … you propose [Roger Klein] for the PR and the CCF, I must have a curriculum vitae to show the people here. The language abilities sound auspicious but we’ve got to have more dope on this fellow … After I have seen the curriculum vitae, the best policy would be for him to meet Dan Bell or some other “friend of the Congress” in New York. Having passed that test I don’t believe there will be any objection on this side either to hiring him or to sharing him with the PR.
Aldrich finally leaves, with the prospects for what he calls “joint emploi” up in the air and the Congress looking at other candidates. In late June, Fuller writes the Congress on behalf of the Paris Review: “Nelson Aldrich, having departed for America, we no longer have a direct link to the Congress.” The Congress replies a week later, “Before leaving, Nelson was trying to find out how many interviews have been reprinted in the Japanese magazine Jiyu.” The letter indicates nine: Faulkner, Sagan, Mauriac, Moravia, Hemingway, Eliot, Pasternak, Georges Simenon and Aldous Huxley. The Congress also stipulates that it will pay three times as much for the Pasternak — which is to say interviews with a higher element of the “negative” propaganda (to put it in Yale American Studies terms). The money has been sent, this staffer writes, adding: “Jiyu requests Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Kingsley Amis, Henry Green, and Arthur Miller.” But there was one small problem.
Seidel’s tenure — insofar as the Morgan letters show — begins with his articulating this problem in the summer of 1961. He writes Jiyu’s editor, Hoki Ishihara: “Mr. Ivan Kats of the Congress for Cultural Freedom here in Paris has listed for us a number of interviews that you would be interested in publishing. The list mentions several writers we have not yet interviewed…” Arthur Miller, for instance, did not appear in the Paris Review’s interviews until 1966. Maugham, another spy writer like Matthiessen, would never appear in the Paris Review interviews at all. Kingsley Amis would not appear for more than a decade. Aside from Maugham, there is nary a mention of Miller or Amis in the editorial correspondence for this period. What to make of this?
It may of course be the case that, through Aldrich, the two organizations were so close they shared editorial calendars and plans. But again, with Miller and Amis not yet nominated for interview, this would not explain this exchange. Perhaps the Congress was guessing which sorts of interviews might come. Or, perhaps, the Congress on occasion exerted some subtle influence over some of the writers the Review chose to interview. It would seem to complicate, too, the very notion of the Paris Review as apolitical. Here are some of the West’s “most native” writers — to use Yale’s term — sought after as soft-power diplomats for the Congress’s magazines.
By 1962, the question of direct links and joint employment was apparently back on the table. The Congress’s Irving Jaffe invites Seidel to talk about an editorial assistantship with him and John Hunt. By 1964 the same sorts of requests come for interviews to be translated into Hiwar, the Congress’s “Arab Review,” Jiyu in Japan, and reprints for Sameekha in Madras, and on and on. When Seidel leaves abruptly, requests go back and forth between the Congress’s Anne Schlumberger, Irving Jaffe and Ivan Kats, and the Paris Review’s Patrick Bowles, who takes over for Seidel, or Joan Moseley. The Morgan’s Paris Review/Congress for Cultural Freedom archives show that editorial ties continued at least through 1966, probably until the 1967 revelations of CIA covert influence. That year Neil Sheehan, writing in the New York Times, tied CIA funding to student groups in a front-page story followed by a series tying the Agency covertly to various cultural institutions. The series led to the resignation of editors like Stephen Spender, who claimed that although he had heard rumors, he had never been able to confirm that Encounter was indeed funded by the CIA.
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So who were Plimpton and the Paris Review editors aligning themselves with in this attempt at joint emploi?
John Hunt, Seidel’s would-be job interviewer and employer at the Congress, worked on a campaign to send Robert Lowell into Latin America as a CIA-embedded poet. In this disastrously farcical incident, recounted by Saunders in “The Cultural Cold War,” Lowell was sent on a 1962 tour of South America to improve the United States’ cultural image (damaged after the CIA overthrew Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and invaded Cuba — disastrously — in 1961). Problems came when Lowell’s family made their New England return and he threw away his pills for manic depression. After a battery of martinis, he declared himself “the Caesar of Argentina.” Lowell’s CIA “leash,” Keith Botsford, Lowell declared as his “lieutenant.” “After giving his Hitler speech, in which he extolled the Fuhrer and the superman ideology, Lowell stripped naked and mounted an equestrian statue.” This extended outburst ended with “Lowell … eventually overpowered … wrestled into a straitjacket, and taken to the Clinica Bethlehem, where his legs and arms were bound with leather straps while he was injected with vast doses of thorazine.” (Incidentally, Seidel interviewed Lowell for the Review’s Art of Poetry interviews.) The year after Seidel was invited to meet him in Paris, Hunt would also lead the campaign to deny Pablo Neruda the Nobel Prize.
Daniel Bell was the “friend of the Congress” Aldrich suggested Klein or Seidel meet in New York. He was also a former Fortune editor who used his ties to Henry Luce to ensure friendly media coverage of the Congress, its writers and its arguments. When another unofficial but approved Congress magazine, Partisan Review, was threatened with the removal of its tax-exempt status, Saunders reports that Bell helped secure $10,000 from Luce. Luce thought highly of Partisan Review. “Jason Epstein [of the New York Review of Books] later claimed that ‘what was printed in Partisan Review soon became amplified in Time and Life.’” But Bell also sat on the Congress’s American Committee and voted that the Committee not censure or condemn Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts or his blacklisting of leftists.
Along with Irving Kristol, Bell essentially invented the neoconservative political movement that would inspire George W. Bush in his disastrous invasion of Iraq. In 1965 — with no gap between their stints in the Congress — their new magazine, the Public Interest, began what would amount to its unrelenting assault on affirmative action and multiculturalism and started propagating its structural contradictions about what government power could or could not achieve. “For the next 30 years, they wrote about … the fact that it was fruitless to think that you’re going to deal with crime [here at home] by attacking the deep social roots of crime [that is, poverty and racism],” Francis Fukuyama told me about the neocons in 2006. “But it could have been applied to foreign policy where something like re-engineering the Middle East in order to democratize it and make it safe from terrorism was a task that by that earlier framework should have been judged as quite unrealistic.” Bell left the magazine, to be sure, when Kristol veered too far to the right.
Josselson would have been the shared candidate’s boss on the CIA side. Aldrich describes the effect of Josselson’s visits to the Paris office of the Congress as a little “flutter” that would come over the place. Along with Spender, Nabokov, and Bondy, Josselson set up Encounter in the U.K., it bears repeating, with Christopher Montague Woodhouse, the British intelligence officer. After Encounter was up and running by June 1953, Woodhouse would have then turned his attention to his other project that year, the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected President Mohammed Mossadegh. In August, this coup d’etat — conceived by the British over the ouster of British Petroleum, suggested to the Americans and overseen on the British side by Woodhouse — had been the CIA’s first successful overthrow of a foreign government. Spearheaded on the American side by the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt, it also involved intensive propaganda mixed with the buying off of the Iranian military.
Of course, you could be unknowingly linked to the Congress, or linked, without quite understanding the scale and scope of projects some of the vast secret hierarchy was spearheading. Many writers in this time undoubtedly were linked to this vast apparatus, and some clearly did not know the Congress was the child of the CIA. By taking money for interviews and sharing staff with the CIA’s cultural propaganda wing, it is not as if Plimpton and Aldrich were knowingly toppling governments in Iran or Guatemala, or — this must be said — responsible for those things the people who paid them money would later say or do. The total 1950 budget for psychological warfare — $320 million or so in today’s dollars—would quadruple over the next two years, writes Saunders. The Paris Review’s share of that — the bits I found recorded in the Morgan letters — were crumbs.
But Matthiessen’s claim that he got out of the CIA before the “ugly stuff” is false, if you consider the CIA’s messy exploits in the late 1940s and early 1950s as ugly. Either way, a secret patronage system, paid for by the taxpayer with no public debate, appears to have existed.
And though the Congress magazines were fairly robust in the diversity of work they contained, in some cases you might not get paid if you went structurally beyond the government’s official view. If you sought to serve as a gadfly, as per the role of the Fourth Estate — and emphasized the transgressions of your own side — you were clearly less likely to tap into the patronage. Aldrich describes the thinking then: “The CIA in those years was in very good odor amongst — everybody. It hadn’t disgraced itself in the Bay of Pigs and all the rest. It was an outgrowth, we all knew, of OSS, and it was now arrayed against the Communist menace and it was palpably real in Paris at that time. There was all this talk of tanks on the Vistula ready to conquer Europe, which turned out to be a bunch of bullshit. [But] the powers that be believed it.”
Paul Berman, for one, would see nothing to be ashamed of in the Congress’s role during these times. “I think the CCF did a great thing,” he wrote in an email. “The CIA was stupid to offer secret subsidies — everything should have been funded openly. Private money could have done it. I don’t think the magazines did anything sinister — on the contrary. They played a noble role in Europe.” In another email he adds, “I find it surprising that anyone still objects to the CCF. Isn’t it obvious that the cause of anti-communism, in its liberal and social-democratic versions, was a very good cause?”
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Nevertheless, while the Paris Review was planning a joint emploi with the Congress, other little magazines operating in the 1960s, such as Ramparts and Evergreen Review, alongside their high-caliber literary publishing, were also courageous in their criticism of the surveillance bureaucracy and its ties to the American proposition and the Cold War. Both were surveilled as a result. Evergreen, published out of Grove Press’s offices, was even bombed. Barney Rosset, its editor, suspected the CIA (or Cuban exiles working with the CIA) of the bombing. In the documentary “Obscene,” he said he thought they detested the magazine’s publication of the diaries of Che Guevara, who was caught and murdered by the Agency in 1967.
Did Plimpton know? That question has always been asked with regard to Matthiessen’s CIA service. Immy Humes’s “Doc” makes clear he knew from at least 1966, when Matthiessen told Harold “Doc” Humes, another Paris Review co-founder. But did he know before 1966? Aldrich, for one, thinks he did. “I think he must have known,” he told me. “He and Matthiessen were very tight friends.” To read Matthiessen’s early letter to Plimpton, floating the possibility of unnamed backers, is to ascribe either naïvete or secrecy onto Plimpton.
Yet given the Morgan letters from the early 1960s, the question takes another form: Did Plimpton know the CIA funded the Congress and its magazines, with which he sought ties? Again, he probably did. When Aldrich indicated to Plimpton that he would “tremble” to think what U.S. Congress would do if they found out the U.S.I.S., another foreign propaganda agency, was buying copies of the Paris Review, he demonstrated that he knew the rules of propaganda. Later, in another letter, he calls the Congress for Cultural Freedom the HQ for the intellectual Cold War. From this, he seems to have known, and both letters were written to Plimpton. When I called him, Aldrich said “of course” he [Aldrich] knew the Congress was the CIA. “Everybody knew the rumors.” Then he qualified; he knew “effectively, if not literally.” Why wouldn’t Plimpton?
So by the early 1960s the Paris Review was collaborating with an organization whose covert activities — alongside the overthrow of Mossadegh, which led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, the hostage crisis and the Rushdie fatwa — had additionally included the fixing of the 1948 Italian elections, propping up the right in Greece the same year (which both might be called soft coups); the ouster of Guatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 (which radicalized Ernesto Che Guevara, who watched the coup); and the events that would lead up to the Vietnam War. None of which is fair to attach to the Paris Review, if not for Matthiessen’s claims that the Review’s ties ended before the ugly stuff, or for Plimpton’s failure to disclose the ties that remained.
A co-founder of Guernica, Joel Whitney is a Brooklyn writer whose work appears in The New York Times, The New Republic, World Policy Journal and The Paris ReviewMore Joel Whitney.
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