How The U.S. Used Jazz, Art & Orwell To Fight The Soviets


Why are some of the biggest names
in the culture of the West during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s –
why are they linked to the CIA? – How do you fight a war? You may fight it with guns,
bullets, tanks, missiles, drones or maybe even soldiers. There’s strategy.
There’s bloodshed. Homes are demolished.
Entire populations might vanish. But, how do you win a war? With poetry. ♪♪ In his book, “The Master and Margarita,”
Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov infamously wrote,
“Manuscripts do not burn.” The line was a reference to Soviet
censorship of books, about how ideas ultimately cannot be destroyed,
even if the books that hold them are. It’s a powerful statement
about the immortality of ideas. But while Bulgakov was right, ideas
still can be replaced or made obsolete. And that’s actually the outlook
the United States unwittingly adopted during the Cold War to fight the Soviets. – President Truman officially announces
the end of German resistance. When Nazi Germany fell in 1945,
the U.S. and the Soviet Union rose as the two major world powers. And naturally, they rose in
direct opposition to one another. The Cold War was, at its root,
partly about competing ideas on how to govern,
how to build economies. The Americans knew that
weapons and proxy wars wouldn’t be enough to fight the war. They had to fight the ideas that were
foundational to Soviet ideology. And so came the art and the music. ♪♪ The CIA, for 20 years,
until their program was discovered, were secretly promoting certain artists
and intellectuals and musicians and historians and
philosophers and writers, in a covert way, it was the kind of
collective, cultural NATO. The Soviets, early in the Cold War years
as well as Communists in other countries, mocked the United States
as a cultural wasteland. They would point to Soviet art,
cinema, literature and dance as evidence of the cultural
depth of the Communist state. What, they asked, did the
bastion of capitalism and individual freedom have to offer? ♪♪ In 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency
was established. One of its main tasks was, in fact,
to use culture and art as a means of spreading
American influence, or, at the very least, thwart the
influence of enemies, and those who were part of the Western
intellectual and cultural elite, who were critical of
American foreign policy, who wanted peace and a
nuclear weapon-free world. But the CIA couldn’t be seen
as forcing it. Americans wanted to stand for freedom. That was very much the cause,
the slogan, of the U.S. Cold War effort. The U.S. government didn’t want to
be seen to be controlling American artists and intellectuals. Three years later, in 1950, the CIA launched
the Congress for Cultural Freedom in West Berlin as a near-direct
response to a series of Soviet-organized workshops and meetings
around the world for Communists and those who were seen
to be sympathizers. The enemy wasn’t actually
really Moscow. The real enemy for the States,
I think, were the people who
were not yet convinced that this was the American Century, that Pax Americana was the
best way to go forward. The purpose of the Congress for
Cultural Freedom was to tap into and exploit any seeds of anti-Communist,
anti-Stalinist thoughts that may have been swimming
around among American and Western European intelligentsia. The very first meeting attracted
several notable writers and intellectuals, like Arthur Koestler, Tennessee Williams,
Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and Irving Brown. The CIA plowed millions of dollars into the
Congress for Cultural Freedom via fake foundations. Within a few years, Congress for Cultural
Freedom was running arts festivals, and publishing literary magazines,
and staging conferences around the world. It also established national affiliates
in nearly 40 countries. There was no other organization at
the time that was comparable, except perhaps for the funding that
the Soviet Union were giving to their own propaganda
and psychological warfare outfits. Publications in particular were told
not to publish anything that could be seen as critical of
American foreign policy. Famously, the CCF promoted this:
abstract expressionism, a style of art that emerged in New York City
following World War II. It was the first American-born
style of art that gained international prominence –
and that was by design. Abstract expressionism
didn’t have structure. It was spontaneous. It was seen as just pure, carnal
expression of human instinct. This provided an incredible visual
challenge to Soviet realist art which, in comparison, was deemed
as controlled and contrived. It wasn’t natural human expression,
but an authoritarian one. Jackson Pollock, known for his
paint-dripping technique, was one of the handful of artists
whose work was promoted throughout the world
through CIA-funded exhibitions. It was difficult art.
It was impressive art. It gave the impression
that the United States had this very successful
high culture, which is something that many
Communists claimed it didn’t. This is something that artists wouldn’t
have been doing in the Soviet Union, where socialist realism was the
dominant cultural aesthetic, and artists seemed very sort of
controlled, very regimented. But, here was the catch: The world –
including many, if not most of the American and Western European
writers, artists and thinkers who were involved – had no idea that the CIA
was behind the CCF, allegedly anyway. I think many more had a pretty good idea
that money was coming from the CIA. There were actual CIA officers
sort of working undercover helping run the Congress for
Cultural Freedom. There was a small unit of people who
knew — and that included some of the intellectuals who were
brought in on the secret — and they were the ones who were then
getting their other intellectuals and artists and everybody
conjoined to this, but without telling them the truth. The program was exposed in 1966 –
16 years after being founded – through a series of articles published
by the New York Times and an exposé in 1967 by the
far-left magazine Ramparts. It was revealed that the reach of the CCF,
of the CIA’s cultural Cold War front, was in fact pretty far and wide. Some of the 20th century’s
most influential personalities, from feminist Gloria Steinem to
philosopher Isaiah Berlin, had been, sometimes knowingly, involved
in projects that served as CIA fronts. Throughout this period,
from 1950 to 1966, the CIA’s involvement in the arts
also creeped into film. They saw an opportunity in
George Orwell, in particular. Orwell, who wrote such middle school
classics as 1984 and Animal Farm, described himself as a
Democratic Socialist, and was actually pretty anti-Stalinist
and anti-Soviet-style socialism, something which was unusual among
leftist circles at the time. The British government started this
trend of translating Orwell’s novels, like 1984 and Animal Farm, and distributing them
to foreign audiences. It was such good work.
It was so readable. It was so accessible
to foreign audiences. And the CIA, I think noticed this
and followed the British example. His books “Animal Farm” and “1984”
explored themes of totalitarianism, government control,
repression of free speech and even individual identity
and human relationships. And that’s where the CIA
turned to Hollywood. When the animated film, “Animal Farm,”
was released in 1954, there was one major difference between
the book and the film: the ending. In the book, the oppressed farm animals
look at both the human farmers and the pigs, and they’re unable
to differentiate between the two. It was a metaphor for the tyranny
of both capitalism and communism. The farmers were the capitalists
and the pigs were the communists. But that didn’t fly with the CIA. The CIA covertly provided funding
for the film, and produced an ending that only included the pigs –
meaning no equivocation. When the book, “1984,”
was made into a movie, the CIA again altered the ending. Instead of the protagonist succumbing
to the authoritarian regime, they had him let out
one last gasp of defiance. It’s small, but it mattered. But the CIA’s involvement in Hollywood
during the Cold War didn’t stop there. One of the biggest propaganda talking
points of the Soviet Union was to point out the treatment
of Black Americans. Jim Crow was, after all, alive
and well for much of the Cold War. So the CIA hired a guy,
more or less. In Hollywood, the CIA had a very
secret sort of organization that was scouting films, looking around
at the films that were in production, and trying to insert positive
racial stereotypes. But that wasn’t the only way the U.S.
tried to counter the narrative of racism. Enter the jazz ambassadors. Much in the same way that abstract
expressionism was seen to represent American individual freedom through
its spontaneity, so too was jazz. In 1956, the U.S. State Department started
a jazz ambassadorship project. The idea was simple: Take some
of the most notable and talented American jazz musicians,
and send them around the world. In particular, the idea was to send
them to decolonizing countries, which were seen as ripe for influence —
whether Soviet or American. Jazz was very interesting because,
like abstract expressionism, it was a kind of thing that
confused the Soviets. There were cultural orthodoxies in the
Soviet Union and in its satellites, which, if they were
broken by artists, there was immediate reaction
from the Soviet authorities. Dizzy Gillespie was the first ambassador. He toured the Middle East,
South Asia and the Balkans. ♪♪ Gillespie’s success translated to
more tours from American musicians, such as Louis Armstrong,
Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington. ♪♪ While the program was, for the U.S.
government, pretty straightforward, it wasn’t for the musicians
who were involved in it. Remember, this is happening in the late
’50s and throughout the ’60s. There’s a Civil Rights Movement
in the United States, there’s Jim Crow and
there is a lot of violence. How could they tour the world boasting
the homestead of tolerance and harmony the United States was,
while their kin couldn’t even sit at the same lunch counters as some
of their fellow Americans because of the color of their skin? They went on the tours,
but they had their own protests. Gillepsie refused to be briefed by the
State Department before his first tour. He said he had 300 years
of all the briefing he needed. Louis Armstrong actually backed out
of a Soviet Union tour in 1957 in response to the events in
Little Rock, Arkansas, when nine black students were prevented
by the National Guard from integrating into
a local high school. ♪♪ OK, so I started off by saying that
you win a war with poetry. So, how much of a victory
was the program for the Americans
against the Soviets? I think the CIA probably would have been
very pleased with the results of its efforts in terms of how many
Western intellectuals the Congress was able to
rope into its activities, and all of the conferences, and festivals
and literary magazines that came out of it. But long-term, this always had the potential
to sort of blow up in the CIA’s face. It wasn’t a victory for culture,
for literature, or for art, or for jazz or for any other form of
cultural or artistic expression. Because, in my view, that needs to exist,
and can only really breathe if it’s not locked in some kind of embrace
of the political institutions in which it finds itself. It’s about
reacting to and against those things. It’s hard to know this history,
coupled with all the other clandestine CIA efforts to, you know, undermine
movements and governments, and not feel like you can’t trust
anyone or anything. Especially these days when social media
in particular makes it almost impossible to know how much you’re
experiencing is organic versus how much,
well, isn’t. If it’s being done properly,
you’re not going to know about it. But you kind of, there is an
acoustic sometimes that’s wrong. Things emerge and they seem to
be very well-funded. And it’s like, where did
all this come from? Those are the things that I always
look at and sort of wonder a bit. But be careful because it can
make you a bit paranoid. Yeah, just a bit paranoid. Fair warning by the way, the
CIA did not approve this script before we started filming. Although I’m expecting a
call sometime soon. If you guys like this video,
and you want to see more of Pop Americana, make sure
to like, share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *