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Salon's charges of CIA ties to the Paris Review? Read skeptically

May 28, 2012 | 10:01 am

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In 1953, three American writers living in Paris — George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, and Howard L. Humes — founded a literary magazine, the Paris Review. Matthiessen, who won the 2008 National Book Award for fiction, has admitted that he worked for the CIA at the time — that's not news.

The Salon news is principally about the Paris Review and the Congress for Cultural Freedom. A cultural outpost during the Cold War, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was designed to win the hearts and minds of international players who might be tempted by the lure of communism. Among other things, it created and supported magazines in Europe and the former Axis powers of Germany and Japan. It was secretly funded by the CIA, a fact that came to light later, in a 1967 article in the New York Times.

Researching in the Paris Review archive at the Morgan Library in Manhattan, what Joel Whitney has found are ties between the Paris Review and the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Plimpton sought support for special projects from the organization, and the magazine syndicated its interviews with famous American authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, to the magazines the Congress for Cultural Freedom supported in other countries.

While the piece is interesting for the window it provides into the cultural aspects of the Cold War, that window seems to be installed askance. For example, Whitney writes:

As several of the Morgan letters, never reported on before, indicate, the CIA would augment the meager literary quarterly pay — and the ways to work together had already become multiply evident. The Review was to coordinate the hiring through “friends of the Congress.” The Paris Review’s candidates were Frederick Seidel, the New York poet, and Roger Klein.

The passage is not technically untrue — the CIA was a funder of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and the letters were describing an arrangement in which a new Paris Review editor would also hold a Congress for Cultural Freedom job in order to make ends meet. But since the relationship between the CIA and the Congress for Cultural Freedom wasn't known at the time, it might not be an entirely fair leap. The letters weren't about the CIA augmenting pay, they were about the Congress for Cultural Freedom providing a day job.

If this CIA connection is a stretch, this one is evidently clear: Whitney has found consistent and real evidence of a literary magazine struggling to support itself financially.

By the time he drops in a mention of George W. Bush's war in Iraq, the threads of the article have become unsupportably tenuous. (The connection is Daniel Bell, a man who was suggested, but apparently did not serve, as an interviewer of the above-mentioned Klein and Seidel; a few years later, Bell went on to co-found the conservative magazine the Public Interest).

While Whitney allows that the Paris Review writers may have been unaware of the connections between their magazine and the CIA, he writes, "a secret patronage system, paid for by the taxpayer with no public debate, appears to have existed." Before getting huffy about American tax dollars going to pay for distributing interviews with Nobel Prize-winning authors around the world with "no public debate," take a moment to consider the Pentagon's classified, undebated black budget, reported in 2008 to be $32 billion. Is cultural funding really so terrible?

It might be, if the magazine's independence of thought was threatened. Whitney implies that this is the case, noting that while the Paris Review sought the Congress for Cultural Freedom's support, other magazines, such as the Evergreen Review, aired criticisms of American policies. This is a concluding note, not particularly detailed — if it were, there might have been space to mention that the Evergreen Review published its interview with Che Guevara in 1968, a year after the connection between the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the CIA had been revealed in the N.Y. Times report, altering its role and its name. It's not clear when, exactly, the Paris Review stopped receiving funding from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

The basics that Whitney lays out from his research are fascinating, but his conclusions — including asides like this that mention the CIA's most insidious activities, such as assassinations — overreach. Read, but read skeptically.

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— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: George Plimpton (and friend) in 1977. Credit: Nancy Crampton

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