The Mighty Wurlitzer
The subtitle of this wretched book reveals the arrogance with which the contemporary intellectual left has transformed facts of history into absurd and mendacious legends.
The main target chosen by Hugh Wilford for such a repellent and redundant exercise is the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an effort to counter global Soviet influence over intellectuals with the support of the U.S. government and intelligence officials. But plenty of other anti-Communists, from Jay Lovestone and his associates in the labor movement to Christians working in Indochina, fall within range of his revisionist rage.
The first lie resides in the subtitle, since anti-Communist efforts backed by the federal government (and described herein) had almost no role in American life, and it cannot be reasonably argued that the CIA or any recipients of its support significantly manipulated opinion in the United States. But professor Wilford's screed is intended to convince Americans that in a generation past the public was a victim of CIA disinformation intended to make it a compliant tool in the Cold War. And in this reading, the Cold War was an evil enterprise intended to reinforce American global domination.
One is tempted to respond to this botch with the comment of the longtime AFL-CIO president George Meany, who affirmed his "pride in the work that we have done overseas" in supporting anti-Communist unionism, and protested against "the CIA . . . trying to horn in on it."
But let us begin with the most obvious question: Who or what is Hugh Wilford? Since he brings nothing new to this accounting, and this cut-and-paste chronicle is strewn with errors, what standing has he to produce such a catechism of contumely? He is an associate professor of history at Long Beach State University in Long Beach, California, who has published some previous, but undistinguished, examples of leftist propaganda. It is therefore unsurprising that, as with other chapters of modern history transformed into myth by the left, there is little new to be added to this immorality play.
Professor Wilford's disputation is markedly primitive: According to him, the involvement of the intelligence community in assisting anti-Communist labor organizers, religious figures, and intellectuals provides "proof, if any were needed, of the fundamental rottenness of liberal anti-Communism." But events in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after 1989 should furnish proof, if any were needed, of the fundamental rottenness of pseudo-liberal anti-anti-Communism. Still, Professor Wilford evades this reality throughout his book; it was written as if the Soviet empire had never collapsed and the views of the early CIA and the anti-Communists had not been bountifully vindicated by history.
But there is no history in this book, only ideology, delivered without nuance. For example, the "patrician" James Burnham, who became a leading anti-Communist figure, was a prominent American Trotskyist during the 1930s. Wilford does not explain this by the revolutionary enthusiasm that gripped the West at that time. Rather, he has recourse to the claim that the anti-Stalinists included, in addition to Jewish radicals, "upper-class, gentile bohemians whose rejection of New Deal politics could be interpreted as a form of radical conservatism."
From this hallucination to the Stalin-era claim that Trotskyists were Nazi agents would not require much of a journey, but Wilford soon demonstrates his aptitude for such a slippery slope in his venomous attack on the Marxologist and philosopher Sidney Hook. According to Wilford, in the purges of the 1930s, Stalin "used the courts to purge his political enemies. Hook went so far as to organize a commission of inquiry, chaired by his mentor [John] Dewey, which traveled to Mexico to question the exiled Leon Trotsky. In 1939 . . . much of the American left had rejected the Dewey commission's finding that Trotsky was innocent."
So few words, so many distortions and ahistorical "counter-factuals"! In truth, as any historian would know, most of the victims of the Stalin purges were imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or executed out of hand, and never saw a courtroom. Further, anybody who reads the newspapers and leftist journals of the time would know that world opinion was shocked and repelled by the bizarre accusations in the Moscow trials, and that the Dewey Commission's devastation of the Stalinist case was nearly absolute.
Further, "much of the American left" failed to reject not only the Dewey Commission's findings but the Stalin purges-including, perhaps especially, the Moscow show trials-which were viewed by most Americans (and most Westerners) as totalitarian atrocities equal in perversity to the Hitler terror in Germany and the Japanese massacres in China. Still, the shock of the purges drove thousands of people away from the Stalinist movement-along with Communist intrigues in the labor movement, the betrayal of the Spanish Republic by the Soviet Union, and finally, in 1939, Stalin's pact with Hitler-none of which figures as a major topic for Wilford. For him, anti-Communism sprang full-blown from the head of the American ruling class, like Athena from the head of Zeus. This work includes only occasional, near-imperceptible references to Soviet tyranny, chiefly employed to draw spurious lines of moral equivalence between Moscow and Washington.
Wilford deals in anti-anti-Communist scare stories about the CIA, not in history, context, or perspective. To achieve his end, he must exaggerate the weight of groups like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which he describes as "one of the West's main defenses against the ideological appeal of communism and a dominant institutional force in Western intellectual life." Would that it were true! But as those who lived through the period can testify, the CCF was of little influence against Communism, compared with the steadfast presence of U.S. military forces in West Germany and the Korean peninsula, and was scarcely known to the American public at all.
Wilford also willfully obfuscates the circumstances under which CIA activity, on university campuses and especially in the old National Student Association, was disclosed, which led to accusations against the CCF, Encounter, and similar entities. This exposure began not with an article in Ramparts in 1966 but in the extensive propaganda of the Soviet-controlled International Union of Students (IUS), headquartered in Prague, which had been attacking the NSA and its affiliated International Student Conference/Coordinating Secretariat (ISC/COSEC) as CIA fronts throughout the early 1960s.
I know this from my experience, at that time, in Communist ranks.
Wilford's wild and wacky tour through the decrepit horror house of anti-anti-Communism-which is the real witch-hunt, and not the legitimate pursuit of Stalinist agents in the West, which has been so labeled-naturally ends with grotesque adumbrations of the future. Predictably, neoconservatives, as the descendants of the anti-Communist intellectuals of the Cold War era, are the new scapegoat. In Wilford's mind, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is about the difficulties of teaching modern literature in an Islamist clerical state, is part of "the neoconservative project of preparing American opinion for a U.S. invasion of Iran." Once again, would that American opinion were so intellectual in tone that Nafisi's work would have so perceptible an effect! Of course, for Wilford, the dread consequences of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's misrule are irrelevant, as is the Stalinist terror.
Looking back at the experience of the CIA, anti-Communist labor activists, the CCF, and similar activities, one can find many lessons for today's global struggle against radical Islam-not least the need to ally with moderate Muslims, as the CIA once formed bonds with non-Communist leftists. But one is also struck by the difference between that time and our own, in that the U.S. intelligence community was once smart enough to understand the battle for influence over the human mind, and many notable and accomplished intellectuals were smart enough to join in a struggle that, at first, seemed doomed, but that was proven righteous beyond measure.