How The CIA Played America: The Covert Selling of Anti-Communism


Source: WSWS – Part 1 / Part 2
The history of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—its coups, assassinations, detention, extraordinary rendition, torture, “black sites,” drone executions, dirty wars and the sponsorship of dictatorial regimes [1]—not only underscores the ruthless, bloody and reactionary role of American imperialism, but most especially the ruling elites’ mortal fear of the working class internationally.

From its founding in 1947, the Agency recognized that global hegemony could not be achieved and sustained by brute repression alone. Accelerating anticolonial struggles, revolutionary struggles in Greece and across Europe, mass struggles and strikes across the world (not the least of which was the Great Strike Wave of 1945-46 in the US [2]) were all deeply influenced by socialist views. Despite the collaboration of the Stalinist regime in the USSR in disarming these movements and assisting in reestablishing the authority of the capitalist governments, the American bourgeoisie was well aware that the fate of their system hung in the balance.

The detailed and engrossing 2008 book, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, by Hugh Wilford investigates the CIA’s ideological struggle from 1947 to 1967 to win “hearts and minds” for US capitalism and to prosecute the Cold War.

The Mighty Wurlizter

A dirty business, the CIA devised schemes to create or utilize social organizations, phony pass-through entities, universities, various media, artist groups, foundations and charities to service their propaganda wars—attempting to place a “progressive” or even “humanitarian” veneer upon America’s expanding grip.

Despite the passage of time since the book’s release, it is a pertinent read for its exposure of the modus operandi of the CIA’s ideological campaigns and the role of a section of liberal intelligentsia in supporting it. It is an eye-opener particularly for a younger generation that has been subjected to a decades-long nonstop attempt to whitewash the CIA and US militarism. One gets a picture of the ferociously antidemocratic and reactionary operations of US imperialism and its intelligence apparatus, a clear demonstration of the thoroughly criminal and deceitful nature of US capitalism.

Most important of all, the reader comes away with a sense of the immense significance with which the American ruling elite views the ideological struggle against socialism.

The author correctly emphasizes, “If anything, these practices have intensified in recent years, with the ‘war on terror’ recreating the conditions of total mobilization that prevailed in the first years of the Cold War.” He adds that the Agency is “a growing force on campus.”[3]

The metaphor—a “Mighty Wurlitzer”—was coined by Frank Wisner, the head of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), a paramilitary and psychological operations group created in 1948, which was folded into the CIA in 1951. He prided himself on directing the network of organizations to play any propaganda tune on demand, likening it to the world-famous theater organ.

The Agency sought out those who might be predisposed in a socialistic direction, targeting constituencies that had grievances with the status quo. It selected representatives from ethnic groups, women, African-Americans, labor, intellectuals and academics, students, Catholics and artists and organized them into various front groups to promote anticommunism. These links, in turn, provided the Agency with the cover it needed to influence strategically important sectors of foreign populations.

Ironically, as the federal government was conducting its House Un-American Activities witch-hunts and assembling the attorney general’s List of Subversive Organizations supposedly to ferret out Communist Party “front groups,” the CIA was engaged in a nonstop campaign of subversion. This included creating front groups of thousands of unwitting Americans for covert political operations.

The book exposes how “radical” or “ex-radical,” labor, artistic and middle-class people, a section of the American liberal intelligentsia, found themselves part of this “Wurlitzer.” [4] Significantly, this included a layer of former Communist Party members and fellow travelers, such as novelist Richard Wright, who were disillusioned by their experience with the reactionary Stalinized party, but unable to find their way into the Trotskyist movement and tragically ending up in the arms of the American intelligence apparatus.

The Agency exerted its control over these widely disparate and sometimes rancorous groups primarily through two methods. The first was with large sums of cash—funneled either through big businesses like ITT, wealthy individuals or foundations. Secondly, it vetted and groomed the leaderships of its groups and subjected them to secrecy oaths.

Wilford explains how the secrecy oaths were implemented in the case of the CIA-controlled National Student Association (NSA). “When the CIA judged it necessary to have an unwitting [uninformed of CIA control] officer made aware of the true source of the organization’s funds, a meeting would be arranged between the individual concerned, a witting colleague and a former NSA officer who had gone on to join the Agency. At a prearranged signal, the witting staffer would leave the room. The CIA operative (still identified only as ex-NSA) would explain that the unwitting officer had to swear a secrecy oath before being apprised of some vital secret, and after getting the officer to sign a formal pledge, the operative would then reveal the Agency’s hand in the Association’s affairs.”

Oaths were not just for effect; violation carried a possible 20-year prison sentence. In later years, some of the witting later aptly denounced the operation as entrapment and complained that they were “duped into a relationship with the CIA.” Others were in political agreement and/or saw working with the Agency as a solid career move.

Origins of CIA front groups

Wilford traces the origins of CIA-financed covert groups to the political reorganization of the state under US President Harry S. Truman. Emerging from World War II as the dominant economic, political and military force, the American ruling class sought quickly to take advantage of its position to establish global hegemony.

Truman signs the CIA and NSC into law

Truman restructured American military and intelligence forces in line with the developing Cold War and his outlook for geopolitical control dubbed the “Truman Doctrine.” With the National Security Act of 1947, Congress established the CIA, the first permanent American intelligence apparatus, and the National Security Council (NSC). But from its inception there was controversy over whether the CIA’s role should be limited to intelligence-gathering, covert action or both.

The pro-covert action “interventionists” prevailed, Wilford explains. George Kennan, a State Department diplomat and the author of the doctrine of “containment” against the USSR, argued that American politicians needed to overcome the “popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war” and adopt covert actions as a legitimate part of its global strategy.

George F. Kennan, advocate for CIA covert action

Kennan advocated for the establishment of “liberation committees” to foment anti-Soviet ativity, using “indigenous anti-Communist elements” covertly in “threatened countries of the free world,” as well as overt paramilitary activity. These suggestions, the author notes, “set the agenda for all of the United States’ front operations in the first years of the Cold War.”

The first target for the covert recruitment was émigrés from Germany, Eastern Europe and the USSR. Wilford refers here to operation “PAPERCLIP,” codename for the funneling of ex-Nazis with military or technical expertise into the US. He briefly notes the employment of Nazi General Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler’s chief of military intelligence on the Eastern Front, whose network was “folded into” American and, several years later, German intelligence.

Wilford’s unfortunate tendency to sanitize US imperialism repeatedly undermines his exposures, a case in point being his description of the Gehlen connection. For example, rather than Wilford’s rather dry mention of it, Joseph Trento, author of The Secret History of the CIA, describes the same facts with more appropriate emphasis.

“…Gehlen convinced [Allen] Dulles [the first civilian director of the CIA, formerly with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the Office of Policy Coordination] that the United States must provide protection for thousands of high-ranking Nazis… ‘Nothing was more important than the recruitment of these Nazis who had escaped all over Europe… You have to remember they were considered the ultimate anti-Communists… the American authorities were willing to recruit any useful Nazi…’” Trento cites Robert T. Crowley, who played a significant role in managing the Nazis for the US.

Trento concludes with the politically incriminating appraisal: “This partnership between the ex-Nazis and the OSS/CIA dominated US activity against the Soviet bloc for the next three decades.” [5]

While Wilford is not prepared to offer such broad assessments, he is particularly adept at undercovering and exposing the details of the CIA’s intricate connections. This is especially compelling when he follows the money trail, a solid aspect of The Mighty Wurlitzer and clearly the result of painstaking research.

The Agency’s creation of the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE) in 1949 is an early example. Wilford indicates how its funding formula became a prototype. NCFE appeared as an independent and humanitarian-based organization of American citizens to assist Eastern European refugees. In fact, it was directed from the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination.

Requiring a cover story to explain the NCFE’s well-appointed offices and hefty bank balances, a fund-raising campaign, the “Crusade for Freedom,” was concocted. The funds raised were not needed for expenses, but they provided plausibility. The expertise of previous public relations campaigns, such as the War Advertising Council (used during World War II to “strengthen civilian morale,” e.g., “sell” war) was now deployed to “sell” the Cold War. It was out of these efforts that Radio Free Europe eventually emerged.

Ad for Radio Free Europe

NCFE was among the first of hundreds of such organizations throughout Eastern Europe. They supported “scholarly” projects, had their own publishing house, established a myriad of ethnic National Councils within the US and funneled money to fascist-sympathizing organizations like Brutus Coste’s Assembly of Captive European Nations.

As the CIA branched out, more groups of potential ideological opponents were targeted. This review will highlight a few of these operations in order to give a sense of the scope and breadth of the American government’s mortal fear of social revolution and the CIA’s preoccupation with maximizing the growth of anticommunism.

Fascinating sections of The Mighty Wurlitzer, not detailed here, discuss other areas—the Congress for Cultural Freedom (with offices in 35 countries), the substantial and sordid role of the “Hollywood consortium,” the courting of the abstract impressionist painters, refugee groups as a cover for paramilitary operations, the promotion of “humanitarians” like Dr. Tom Dooley, the regular use of the Museum of Modern Art as a conduit, and women’s correspondence groups, to name a few—which had ties to the Agency through the “umbilical cord of gold.”


From today’s vantage point, the suppression of information and collusion of journalists with the CIA is hardly a revelation. Nonetheless, the book points to the early and noteworthy depth of this ongoing relationship.

In 1977, Carl Bernstein calculated that there were about 400 journalists who had worked for the CIA since 1952. But Wilford aptly notes that the number of individual journalists processing government stories was far less significant than the institutional collaboration between the Agency and the major news media.

The author points out that Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, was a good friend of CIA Director Allen Dulles and signed a secrecy agreement with the Agency. He says that under the terms of this arrangement, the Times provided at least 10 CIA officers with cover as reporters or clerical staff in its foreign bureaus, while genuine employees were encouraged to merely spy. The fact was that Dulles cultivated the media—they were excellent sources of information abroad.

Columbia Broadcasting System’s news president was in such constant telephone contact with the CIA headquarters that, Wilford writes, being tired of leaving his office for the proverbial pay phone, he installed a private line to bypass the switchboard.

A third conduit for disseminating CIA “news” was the syndicated news services—the Associated Press and the United Press International—together with the Agency’s in-house operation “Forum World Features.”

There were also the newsmagazines. Like the New York Times, Henry Luce’s Time provided CIA officers with journalistic credentials. Wilford notes, “overall…the collaboration was extraordinarily successful, so much so it was difficult to tell precisely where the Luce empire’s overseas intelligence network ended and the CIA’s began.”

Alongside the news services were the indispensable services of the American Newspaper Guild (ANG), the journalists union. The ANG was a founding member of the International Federation of Journalists, a group of anticommunist newspapermen established in Brussels in 1952 to oppose the left-leaning International Organization of Journalists.

Funded by the AFL-CIO and CIA seed money, an ANG staffer developed a campaign for African and Asian journalists. Another ANG representative ran the Inter-American Federation of Working Newspapermen’s Organizations with close links to the CIA’s South American labor front, the American Institute of Free Labor Development. These CIA fronts offered many free services of a technical and educational character, and were funded by many of the usual CIA pass-through foundations.


Deeply fearful of the attraction of young people to socialism, the CIA established its presence on campuses from the start. In 1947, the Agency organized the United States National Student Association (NSA), followed by an International Student Information Service to link the NSA with groups abroad. Wilford details the mechanisms used by the CIA to closely groom and vet all NSA officers. Quite a few of these individuals would go on to careers with the Agency.

The NSA hosted annual foreign relations seminars for Americans, while providing scholarships for those from the “developing world” and extensive travel abroad for staff members. By 1967 it had organizations on 400 US campuses.

The CIA and NSA also sponsored international youth festivals to “rescue Third World youth from the clutches of communist propagandists.” A leader in this operation was feminist icon Gloria Steinem. She accepted a paid position as director of the Independent Service for Information, “a CIA operation from beginning to end,” stated Wilford, and was made “witting.” Among her compatriots in this group was Zbigniew Brzezinski, at the time a Harvard graduate student, whom she described as “a star member of the Independent Service.”

Gloria Steinam, 1987

In a highly relevant section of “The Mighty Wurlitzer” Wilford explains how professors, particularly from the elite Ivy League colleges, acted as conduits for the Agency. The author focuses on the CIA work of William Y. Elliott of Harvard, a 41-year veteran of the university’s Government Department and dean of the famous Harvard Summer School.

Elliott was active in “plugging in” specific students into CIA operations. He utilized the prestigious Summer School to expand the Agency’s international recruitment pool. Among the Harvard graduate students individually “mentored” by Elliott was Henry Kissinger, who played a prominent role in the summer program and used it to launch his government career.

In his conclusion, the author emphasizes that such university operations are clearly not over, but are increasing. He references the Church Committee’s [6] findings of the Agency’s “operational use” of individual academics, including “providing leads and making introductions for intelligence purposes, collaboration in research and analysis, intelligence collection abroad, and preparation of books and other propaganda materials.”

Labor: The “AFL-CIA”

The institutional anticommunist European operations conducted by the American Federation of Labor began in 1944 with the Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC). It was funded by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) under David Dubinsky and run by Jay Lovestone, the former US Communist Party national secretary-turned- anticommunist, and his protégé Irving Brown. Brown had worked for the OSS during World War II. When the OSS was disbanded, Brown and Lovestone ran their own operations, boasting, “our trade union programs and relationships have penetrated every country of Europe.”

Jay Lovestone, far right back row

By January 1949 the FTUC was on the CIA payroll, disguised as donations from private individuals. By the end of the year, the labor portion of FTUC income was dwarfed by CIA money—laundered by Lovestone in New York and transferred via a variety of bank accounts. The money was disbursed to anticommunist labor groups all over Europe, including Force Ouvrière (a right-wing split-off from the Communist Party-dominated CGT union federation), the Mediterranean Vigilance Committee in France, socialist unionists in Italy including the Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions, etc. There were other operations outside of Europe, such as the All-Indonesian Central Labor Organization.

However, there was another bid for the franchise. Victor Reuther, brother of UAW president Walter, opened an office in Paris. The reputation of UAW militancy played better abroad than the discredited “business unionism” of the AFL, which meant that the UAW was better placed to supply the CIA with contacts in the European labor movement.

The beginning of the end for the AFL’s CIA patronage took place at a conference on November 20, 1950. Director of Central Intelligence Walter Bedell Smith and Frank Wisner met with AFL Secretary-Treasurer George Meany, David Dubinsky, AFL Vice President Matthew Woll and Lovestone to sort out which labor organization would continue the CIA’s covert operations.

Meany vociferously denounced the CIO, “mentioning dates, names and places” of communist infiltration of its rival, but to no avail. As CIA Deputy Director Allen Dulles put it, he was “very much interested in the labor movement” and believed that the CIO should be folded into CIA covert operations.

Wilford’s research points to the role of the CIO’s director of international Affairs Mike Ross as the conduit for tens of thousands of dollars from the Agency to Victor Reuther’s Paris operations.

African Americans

The vicious repression and murders of US civil rights workers in the early 1950s—including the broadcasting of images of police turning dogs and fire hoses on nonviolent protests—undermined US attempts to broaden its influence on the African continent.

This was a major concern under conditions where the European colonialists were being thrown out and the anti-colonial movement was spreading like wildfire. “It was against this background that the US government agencies, including the CIA, began casting around for black American leaders who might be called on to paint a positive picture of their country’s race relations and help steer newly independent African nations away from the communist camp,” explains Wilford in his chapter on the CIA recruitment of African-Americans.

The major CIA operation developed in this effort was the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC). A 1954 meeting at the home of former NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, attended by Eleanor Roosevelt and Victor Reuther, led to the decision to found a permanent organization to “downplay socialist anti-colonialism in favor of liberal anticommunism among Africans.”

Many Americans who admire Ricahrd Wright for his literary honesty and willingness to lay bare the brutality of racism are surprised to find that he joined in the CIA front group. Wright approached US authorities at their Paris embassy and offered his services to “combat leftist tendencies” at an international Congress of Negro Writers and Artists to take place in 1956. He returned to the Embassy on several occasions to discuss how officials might “offset Communist influence,” as the book cites.

Richard Wright

Wright secured funding and arranged a five-man delegation from the US to the Paris Congress. By contrast, W.E.B. Du Bois was denied a passport and issued a blistering statement to the group: “Any American Negro traveling abroad today must…say what the State Department wishes him to say.”

The Paris group created the Société Africaine de Culture (SAC); the formation of the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) followed in June 1957. The funding was typical for CIA groups—in this case Matthew McCloskey, a Philadelphia construction magnate, and Wall Street lawyer Bethuel Webster (who in the 1950s had helped set up the American Fund for Free Jurists as a conduit for CIA funds to the International Commission of Jurists) provided the start-up cash.

AMSAC’s activities had several aims. It disseminated propaganda—including an ambitious series of publications— and held annual conferences featuring a glittering array of black intellectuals, artists and performers (Nina Simone, Lionel Hampton, etc.). It also sponsored festivals both in the US and Africa.

The CIA’s more ruthless hand in dealing with threats of African militancy was also assisted by AMSAC. Following the CIA murder of Congolese President Patrice Lumumba, AMSAC officer Ted Harris was moved from his New York office to Léopoldville to “train local politicians in western administrative techniques.”

Wright eventually became disillusioned. In November 1960 he delivered a surprising address at the American Church in Paris lambasting the US government for spying on expatriates and attempting to silence them. “I’d say that most revolutionary movements in the Western world are government-sponsored,” Wright told the crowd. “They are launched by agents provocateurs to organize the discontented so that the Government can keep an eye on them.” He implied further revelations to come, but died in a Parisian clinic a few weeks later at the age of 52. There were recurrent rumors, the author states, that he had been murdered.

The last successful operation conducted by AMSAC was an extensive tour of Africa by civil rights leader James Farmer, designed to counter the impact of Malcolm X’s prior visits. With the hands-on assistance of Carl T. Rowan, the first African-American to sit on the National Security Council, Farmer arrived in Africa in January 1965, staying in nine countries and meeting virtually every head of state, lecturing students, meeting with members of parliament and addressing trade unions.

The Mighty Wurlitzer provides a glimpse into the decades-long, multimillion-dollar campaigns of the American government to undermine socialist thought and to give anticommunism a cultural, social or humanitarian facelift.

In his final chapter, the author assures the reader that CIA front groups are alive and well today. He cites the literary bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, as a recent example of this ongoing propaganda: using “women’s rights” as window dressing for preparing popular opinion for a possible US invasion of Iran.

The most important drawback of the book is the disconnect between the covert operations and their political purpose. One could read most of the book and conclude that the American government was merely hypocritical, undemocratic and manipulative.

Throughout the volume, the reader must bear in mind the horrific consequences of CIA activity throughout the world—the deaths of millions, the subversion of democracy, the installation of despots and oligarchs via regime-change—because these dirty operations are never alluded to in The Mighty Wurlitzer.

In other words, the author, while exposing the activities of American imperialism, continually sanitizes it. He is a journalistic partisan of the American government. His conclusion, of a piece with some sections of American liberalism, is that the covert front groups are at odds with an otherwise healthy American democracy, have “stained” the United States’ reputation, caused various forms of blowback and were/are generally ineffectual.

Nevertheless, despite these serious limitations, the author should be acknowledged for his dogged investigative journalism in light of the “shroud of official secrecy that still surrounds [the covert operations] today.” In fact, after the passage of more than 50 years, the government refuses to release the files on these operations.

Today’s readers of The Mighty Wurlitzer are now living through a period in which the US has gone far beyond these relatively amateurish efforts at censorship and public relations manipulation. Before our eyes, the courts and government at all levels—including the ever-growing military-intelligence apparatus—are eviscerating the entire framework of legal and democratic rights fought for over hundreds of years.

The book’s ability, therefore, to document the ferociously undemocratic and reactionary activities of the CIA in an earlier period underscores the growing and legitimate fears on the part of the bourgeoisie today of the revolutionary power of genuine socialist thought.


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