How the CIA Sponsored Indian Magazines That Engaged the Country's Best Writers PDF Print E-mail

By Joel Whitney,
Source: The Wire

In 1967, much of the intellectual world learned that the United States had outsmarted itself. Two decades earlier, it had quietly created several vehicles for secret cultural patronage. The scheme was billed as necessary to fight cultural penetration and patronage of the Soviet variety, which was presumed to lie behind not just propaganda, but also student and labor unions, world peace conferences and more. To maintain their secrecy, then, many of these American vehicles, such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, were launched under the CIA’s covert bureaucracies. The agency’s secret budget was seen as a way to circumvent debates in the US legislature, whose hardline right-wingers hardly could be convinced to fund “little” intellectual magazines, say, or classical music, or the haphazard paint splashes of Jackson Pollock.

And the secrecy added a second bonus, that the cultural propaganda would be more “subtle”– indeed, undetectable to some – when compared with the clunky Soviet version. That is, until it was definitively exposed in 1967. As my new book, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers (not yet available in India) argues, whatever goodwill earned from the subtlety of those cultural efforts quickly washed away when they were tainted by the CIA connection. Since the patronage had grown so vast, and the magazines and other outlets so numerous, many of the world’s intellectuals had been touched by the controversy, whether they spoke out or not. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had contributed to one of the magazines targeting Latin America, wrote privately to his editor that he felt like a “cuckold” and would never contribute to the magazine again. The Indian intellectuals who had collaborated around one of the Congress’s magazines targeting the subcontinent, Quest (another was called Imprint) expressed similar indignation at the clumsiness of the scheme. Jayaprakash Narayan had worked with the Indian version of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and wrote to his connected friends that “It was not enough to assess that the Congress had always functioned with independence . . . . The Agency was only doing what it must have considered useful for itself.” His colleague, K.K. Sinha, wrote to announce that he was quitting the organisation, adding, “Had I any idea . . . that there was a time bomb concealed in the Paris headquarters, I would not have touched the Congress.” The following short excerpt from Finks shows that the Americans and Europeans seeking to “help” India and other parts of the developing world to see the evils of Stalinism were indeed merely doing what they “considered useful” for the agency and themselves and worked often with little understanding of the cultural exchange expected by their international counterparts.


Jayaprakash Narayan shifted his focus around the same time as Encounter’s launch in England, and the launch of The Paris Review in New York and Paris. Independent India’s founders were among the leading practitioners of neutrality. This was because of Nehru’s socialism and the British occupation confirming much of the socialist critique. But these views were balanced by strong cultural ties to the English-speaking world. As such, India’s leaders refused to align solely with either the United States or USSR. Because of this, the CIA sought to penetrate India. It would do so by using the local affiliate of the Congress for Cultural Freedom as a foothold, and that affiliate would include Narayan and Minoo Masani among its members. India nevertheless vacillated from side to side, like a sail in changing winds. While US secretary of state John Foster Dulles saw neutrality as “immoral and shortsighted,” Nehru sought “to avoid entanglement in power politics and not to join any group of powers as against any other group.”

No single event better presaged the rise of the neutral Third World, later called the Non-Aligned Movement, than the Bandung conference in Indonesia, which began on April 18, 1955. It opened with a speech by the Indonesian President Sukarno, who implored the world’s powers to forgo their addiction to intervention and replace it with a principle summed up by the phrase “live and let live!” In the United States, this attitude was traditionally called isolationism. The CIA later came to hate Sukarno so much that they planted fake news pieces about an alleged affair with a Russian stewardess and then shot a porn film, which they called Happy Days. Unable to find a decent lookalike, the Agency hired an actor to wear a latex Sukarno mask designed by the CIA’s Technical Services Division and distributed the film throughout Southeast Asia.

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