The CIA Battled the Kremlin With Books and Movies
The agency’s ambitions shaped American literature
Originally published on May 2, 2015.
During the Cold War, Moscow’s Ministry of Culture was a master of censorship. The Kremlin’s cultural bulwark screened non-Russian films, suppressed literature and shaped the lives of Soviet artists.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency also dabbled in the dark arts of cultural influence. Except it preferred the carrot to the stick.
Words matter. A society’s books and movies impact the world. Books, in particular were often internationally influential during the Cold War. Both the ministry and the agency understood this.
The CIA funded the production and distribution of individual literary projects. It made sure Russian-language copies of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago flooded into the Soviet Union. Further, the agency directed more comprehensive operations.
Eric Bennett, a professor of English at Providence College and author of the forthcoming Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, wrote that the CIA’s efforts produced lasting and potentially damaging effects.
According to Bennett, the CIA and other conservative organizations actually infiltrated the United States’ leading writing programs and literary journals. The goal was to establish an American literary tradition that would “venerate and fortify the particular, the individual, the situated, the embedded, the irreducible.”
That literary voice would be an alternative to the Soviet Union’s socialist realism — and its selfless heroes sacrificing themselves for good of the revolution.
Soon after Pres. Harry Truman founded the CIA with the National Security Act of 1947, the agency began focusing on the arts.
One of its first literary projects involved George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The book had been already been published, but the agency decided it was ready for the big screen. They just needed someone to write the screenplay — and to write it the way the CIA wanted.
In 1950, CIA agent Carleton Alsop — who was working undercover at Paramount Studios — approached George Orwell’s widow to secure the rights for a film adaptation of Animal Farm.
The agency was a big fan of the book’s anti-communist message. But they weren’t so crazy about the ending.
In Orwell’s version, when the pigs overthrow their human oppressors, they form an alliance with the humans instead of ushering in an egalitarian utopia. Pigs and humans sit down at the dinner table in farmhouse, toasting each other as the rest of the farm animals watch from outside.
In the book, the ending is a critique of communism and capitalism, suggesting that the two in many ways are one and the same. But in the film, the CIA changed the ending to leave out the human capitalists and portray the farm animals attacking only their communist pig oppressors.
There is one brief moment in the movie when Benjamin the donkey hallucinates and sees Napoleon the pig as having a human face. Other than that, “when the barnyard animals attack the new ruling class,” Michael Rogin noted in The Nation, “capitalist exploiters are as invisible on the screen as was the CIA behind the camera.”
Animal Farm opened in theaters in 1954, did well at the box office and received critical praise. Co-directors John Halas and Joy Batchelor were unaware of the CIA’s influence on screenplay’s adaptation until the 1980s.
Another of the CIA’s early forays into literature involved the production of thousands of copies of a Russian translation of Doctor Zhivago. The 1957 novel centers on protagonist Yuri Zhivago’s love for his wife and a mistress during and after the Russian revolution.
Pasternak was widely revered as a poet within the Soviet Union, but he had difficulty finding a domestic publisher for Zhivago due to the complexity of Yuri’s emotions regarding the revolution and life in Russia.
The CIA loved the book. A declassified CIA dispatch from December of 1957 heralded “the appearance of [Doctor Zhivago] as more important than any other literature which has yet come out of the Soviet Bloc and is deeply concerned that its exploitation in the West be handled with care.”
The memo encouraged the publication of Zhivago in “a maximum number of foreign editions, for maximum free world discussion and acclaim and consideration for such honor as the Nobel Prize.”
The dispatch suggested that U.S.-funded Radio Liberty should avoid broadcasting the novel in Russian until after its publication and instead present positive reviews of the book.
The CIA found a translator and publisher, and began its operation in June 1958. “The goal was to have copies of the book printed in Europe in time to distribute them to Soviet visitors to the Brussels International World Fair in September, and also to give copies to sailors on ships bound for the Soviet Union,” the New York Review of Books reported in a 2014 article.
The agency distributed more than 1,000 copies of the translation at the fair, and Pasternak received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958.
The distribution of Zhivago was part of a larger campaign to smuggle subversive literature into the Soviet Union.
According to the Times, the CIA smuggled up to 10 million books and magazines into the Soviet Union under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization funded by the CIA to maintain and widen the gap between non-communist intellectuals and their communist counterparts in Europe.
Books by Orwell, James Joyce, Vladamir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway were among the CIA’s favorites, according to a BBC report.
While the “Zhivago Affair” was only a small part of the CIA and CCF’s operations, Zhivago still holds a special place in the agency’s heart.
As Slate recently noted, the CIA posted a tweet in Cyrillic on Jan. 15, 2015. The tweet translates as, “I wrote the novel in order for it to be published and read, and that remains my only desire.” That’s a quote from Pasternak about Zhivago.
Two subsequent tweets on the CIA account boasted that the “CIA’s book program kept a critical mass of intellectuals in the Soviet Bloc informed about the values & culture of the free world.” The second stated that “Books & periodicals were smuggled in by travelers & mailed in under the cover of various organizations.”
Both tweets bore a Zhivago hashtag.
While the CIA introduced literature into the Soviet Union, it sought to shape American literature at the same time. As Bennett pointed out in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the CIA used the Farfield Foundation and the Asia Foundation to funnel money to the Iowa Writers Workshop, the Iowa International Writing Program and writing teacher Paul Engle.
Engle directed the writers workshop from 1941 until 1965, and founded the International Writing Program in 1967. He served as editor of the O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies, one of the most distinguished annuals in American literature, from 1954 to 1959.
Further, Engle used funds he received from CIA fronts, the Rockefeller Foundation and other conservative donors to promote the Iowa programs and attract students and faculty. He was a “do-it-yourself Cold Warrior,” Bennett wrote.
He promoted writers whose work conveyed anti-communist themes. He courted Henry Luce — the publisher of Time and Life, and Gardner Cowles Jr. — the publisher of Look, to help him promote the workshop. Both publishers were staunch anti-communists.
“Engle staged spectacles in Iowa City for audiences far beyond Iowa City,” Bennett added. “He read memorial sonnets for the Iowa war dead at a dedication ceremony for the new student union.”
“Life and Time and Look transformed these events into impressive press clippings, and the clippings, via Engle’s tireless hands, arrived in the mailboxes of possible donors.”
During Engle’s directorship and afterwards, the Iowa Writers Workshop became one of the most important literary institutions in America.
The founders and directors of numerous other graduate writing programs came from there, as did countless literary luminaries. Raymond Carver, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Frank Conroy and Stuart Dybek are a few that Bennett cited.
While Engle served as editor of O. Henry Prize Stories, he stacked the anthology with Iowa alumni.
The CIA also funded and influenced several literary journals, including The Kenyon Review and The Partisan Review, according to Bennett and Frances Stoner Saunders, author of The Cultural Cold War — The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.
Robie Macauley, a CIA agent who received his MFA from Iowa, served as editor of The Kenyon Review from 1959 until 1966. He then became fiction editor at Playboy.
But the CIA and CCF’s biggest literary coup was The Paris Review.
According to a 2012 Salon article by Joel Whitney, George Plimpton, then editor of The Paris Review, wrote a letter in 1958 to his Paris editor concerning the possibility of the magazine publishing a special issue on the “Zhivago Affair.” In the letter, Plimpton suggests seeking funds to promote the issue from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
The Paris Review had ongoing ties with the CIA. After all, Peter Matthiessen helped found the magazine while serving as an undercover CIA agent in Paris in 1953.
Whitney explained that the ties started out “modestly” with ad exchanges and reprints of Paris Review interviews in Congress’ official magazines, but later grew into “much more robust” links. These included a “joint emploi [sic]” in which the CCF and The Paris Review would “team up to share an editor’s living expenses in Paris and also to share interviews and other editorial content.”
With the CFF’s links to the CIA and Matthiessen’s relationship exposed, Paris Review could no longer deny its role in the cultural Cold War. “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,” Whitney wrote.
In all, the CIA shaped American literature by influencing the Iowa programs and their successors, including the nation’s leading literary magazines and mainstream publications.
According to Bennett, the effects linger on in today’s writing programs and literary journals, often without the contributors realizing it.
Bennett is not alone in his critique. MFA vs NYC, a collection of essays edited by Chad Harbach, explored the tensions between the MFA institution and the New York City literary establishment.
In an essay reprinted by Slate, Harbach explained that one of the dilemmas MFA programs face today is pervasive sense that they churn out cookie cutter “program fiction.”
To Bennett and others, the CIA’s incursion into literary matters stifled creativity in American writing, Harbach wrote. “Raymond Carver, trained by writers steeped in anti-Communist formulations, probably didn’t realize that his short stories were doing ideological combat with a dead Soviet dictator.”