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Reflections on the ‘Godfather’ of Neoconservatism
Posted on Sep 25, 2009
We now think of the CIA as peopled by blunderers, liars, thugs—with a counterculture of conscience-stricken servants of the Republic in the ranks of its retired. The early CIA was more diverse. It was led, generally, by scions of the Ivy League who had returned from the war to their banks and law firms and universities to find peace boring. They were joined by Midwestern Protestants and urban Catholics and Jews: The expanding foreign policy apparatus needed their talents.
When President Richard Nixon gave his first instructions to Henry Kissinger as his national security adviser, he told him to keep an eye on “the liberals” at the CIA. One of the things some of the CIA liberals, and their more conservative allies, knew was that the Cold War had cultural and ideological dimensions. It wasn’t enough to place an occasional agent in The New York Times or at the University of Chicago, or buy a journalist in Paris and a professor in Berlin. Something much larger was needed, and a repentant segment of the former left was able to provide it. The CIA’s ideological operations included the financing and direction of the Congress for Cultural Freedom—which in much of the rest of the world recruited prestigious figures for large-scale projects: conferences, subsidies for those willing to support the Cold War, and the publication of journals in foreign capitals. The CIA’s role was kept secret, but it is difficult to believe that the luminaries of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (Raymond Aron in Paris, Isaiah Berlin in Oxford and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., originally of Harvard) were so naive as not to know (or guess) where the money was coming from—whatever their protestations later.
The senior American figure in the congress was the philosopher Sidney Hook, who had in effect adopted Kristol in the years after 1945. An excellent Marxist scholar as a younger man, he undertook the long march from early Stalinism to social democracy—and, of course, reconciliation with the U.S. as it was. Hook (against some opposition) had Kristol appointed the American editor of Encounter in London. The opponents objected to the very qualities which made him a successful editor: his quite un-British openness (we would term it chutzpah and so would have the British, had they known the term), his disdain for tradition poorly masked as a respectful effort to revise it, his very un-Anglo-Saxon origins.
Great Britain in the postwar years suffered acutely from imperial exhaustion and loss of power and wealth—and for some, Kristol’s arrival as editor of what became an immensely influential journal was confirmation of national decline. The Labour governments of 1945-51 had in fact shaken and even opened British society, and an American new to status in his own country was quick to exploit the cultural fascination that social change evoked in the U.K. He combined it with a strenuous dosage of anti-communism, some of it at a reasonably high level, much of it tiresomely repetitive and no small amount of it a slightly better mannered McCarthyism.
Encounter was widely read and discussed, but living in London from the year it began to publish (1953), I had the impression that Kristol was more feared than admired. He returned the compliment, making little secret of his disdain for much of then contemporary British culture and politics—which he thought of as entirely compatible with respect for earlier British achievements. In any event, Encounter’s defense of pluralism was combined with the rigorous propagation of a Cold War party line: The U.S. could do no wrong. That is why, presumably, the magazine refused in 1958 to publish a critical article on the U.S. by Dwight Macdonald, even though Macdonald had served for some months previous as a temporary replacement for Kristol.
By then, I was active in the nascent British New Left and on the editorial board of one of our journals, Universities and Left Review. I wrote an “Open Letter to the Congress for Cultural Freedom,” criticized the refusal to publish Macdonald’s article and asked where the money came from. We placed it in ULR—and as the ensuing tumult died down, I opened a discussion which culminated in 1967 with the admission by the U.S. government of the CIA’s sponsorship of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its panoply of journals, Encounter among these. Kristol in fact returned to the U.S. in 1961, and managed to move from shameless denial of a CIA connection to unrelenting defense of it without an intervening phase. (See the excellently documented book by Frances Stonor Saunders, “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters,” New Press, 1999.)
He had had, of course, unkind words about and for me during the controversy—but after a while treated it as business. I recall visiting him and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, at their Manhattan apartment in 1961. Norman Podhoretz had just taken over the editorship of Commentary and was rapidly converting it to what it would be for a few years, a major voice of the American New Left. Gertrude and Irving greeted me with one voice. “You have come back just at the right time. The whole country is moving left: The Podhoretzes have just had a violent quarrel with the Trillings.” There is much to be said for familial values—but at times, just a bit more worldly distance would help.
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