CIA Covert Influences Over American Culture Revealed

The revelation that the CIA secretly helped establish a leading museum on President Kennedy's 1963 assassination helps fuel much-needed study of illegal CIA influences on American cultural life.

Charles BriggsKennedy assassination and CIA researcher Jefferson Morley reported Nov. 6 that the obituary of a CIA Executive Director Charles Briggs revealed that Briggs, shown in a file photo, had helped create the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, a prominent tourist attraction located at the Texas Book Depository that employed accused JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Morley's finding adds to the already substantial findings of secret propaganda influences. They include three new books.

Eric Bennett book cover Workshops of EmpireOne is Workshops of Empire by professor Eric Bennett, published Oct. 15 by the University of Iowa Press. It documents how the CIA secretly helped fund the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, thereby influencing American literature away from genres deemed undesirable.

This builds upon previous revelations, including how the agency helped fund the prestigious Partisan Review literary magazine and, more generally, many famous politicians, academics, and journalists. We have often documented those covert funding operations here and in our Presidential Puppetry, drawing on such by-now well-known declassified documents as the Operation Mockingbird program for the CIA to influence thought-leaders in violation of the agency's charter forbidding propaganda programs to influence the U.S. population.

Two new books about the CIA last month provide big picture treatments of these topics. The most hard-hitting is The Devil's Chessboard, a comprehensive new biography by David Talbot of the late CIA Director Allen Dulles, who led the agency from 1953 until President Kennedy forced him and his top two deputies out in 1961. The Disciples by Douglas Waller describes the careers of Dulles and three other CIA directors who had worked during World War II under William Donovan, leader of the CIA predecessor Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

This editor will discuss the CIA's pervasive and at times sinister impact over U.S. politics and culture during a Nov. 21 lecture in Dallas at the JFK Historical Group's Annual JFK Assassination Conference, which will be from Nov. 20 to 22 at the Crown Plaza Hotel in downtown Dallas. The locale is on Elm Street just four blocks from the death trap on the street that took Kennedy's life, some say in a CIA-orchestrated plot involving also Cuban exiles, Mafia, and Texas right-wingers opposed to Kennedy.

The topic for my 75-minute talk is why young people particularly should care about the Kennedy killing. The reasons are the kind of hidden controls over our knowledge of other current affairs and the historical record shaped by such institutions as the Dallas Sixth Floor Museum, a major tourist attraction.

The museum maintains a veneer of objectivity while steering visitors towards the official view of the Warren Commission (whose most influential member was Dulles). The official view, maintained by federal, state and city governments, as well as all major media, is that alleged Communist sympathizer Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy with three shots fired from the Book Depository and acted alone at all times. Yet a vast amount of evidence has emerged debunking the Warren Commission report in ways far too numerous to mention, based in part on millions of pages of declassified documents. Among them are 

CIA LogoMorley, a former Washington Post reporter, reported the finding on the valuable website he curates under the headline: CIA man assisted in the creation of the Sixth Floor Museum. Morley's column focused on the late CIA Executive Director Charles Briggs [shown in a file photo]. A CIA executive director holds  the agency's third highest ranking post after director and deputy director. Morley wrote of Briggs:

His obituary in the Washington Post states: "A notable contribution was serving as liaison for the creation of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, TX dedicated to the JFK Assassination." The CIA’s intervention in the creation of popular culture is not unprecedented – witness its support for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop -- but this episode of cultural production is especially intriguing.


Returning to the scene of the emergence of the discipline of creative writing in the Cold War, this book makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about one of our most consequential contemporary literary institutions. While one might want to quarrel with or qualify some of Bennett’s conclusions, one can’t help but be impressed with the vigor with which they are offered, and applaud his passionate concern for intellectual and artistic freedom.”— Mark McGurl, author, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing



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Dallas JFK Museum, CIA man assisted in the creation of the Sixth Floor Museum, Jefferson Morley, Nov. 6, 2015. His name was Charles Briggs and he served as Executive Director of the Agency, which is the number Charles Briggsthree position in the agency’s hierarchy. His obituary in the Washington Post states: "A notable contribution was serving as liaison for the creation of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, TX dedicated to the JFK Assassination." The CIA’s intervention in the creation of popular culture is not unprecedented – witness its support for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop -- but this episode of cultural production is especially intriguing. Presumably, Briggs was acting in a public affairs capacity in assisting with the creation of the Museum, not in an operational role. The CIA is a foreign intelligence agency and its charter charter forbids operations on U.S. soil. But even if the Briggs did act legally, his motivation still seems mysterious. If one man unaided shot President Kennedy for no discernible reason, why would CIA care about a museum in Dallas? I’m asking the Sixth Floor Museum for comment.

Writers Workshops

The Chronicle of Higher Education, How Iowa Flattened Literature, Eric Bennett (shown below right), Feb. 10, 2014. Did the CIA fund creative writing in America? The idea seems like the invention of a creative writer. Yet once upon a time (1967, to be exact), Paul Engle received money from the Farfield Foundation to support international writing at the University of Iowa. The Farfield Foundation was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Eric BennettSeven years earlier, Engle, then director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, had approached the Rockefeller Foundation with big fears and grand plans. "I trust you have seen the recent announcement that the Soviet Union is founding a University at Moscow for students coming from outside the country," he wrote. This could mean only that "thousands of young people of intelligence, many of whom could never get University training in their own countries, will receive education … along with the expected ideological indoctrination." Engle denounced rounding up students in "one easily supervised place" as a "typical Soviet tactic." He believed that the United States must "compete with that, hard and by long time planning" — by, well, rounding up foreign students in an easily supervised place called Iowa City. Through the University of Iowa, Engle received $10,000 to travel in Asia and Europe to recruit young writers — left-leaning intellectual s— to send to the United States on fellowship.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since. So the conventional wisdom that Iowa kicked off the boom in M.F.A. programs is true enough.

But it’s also an accepted part of the story that creative-writing programs arose spontaneously: Creative writing was an idea whose time had come. Writers wanted jobs, and students wanted fun classes. In the 1960s, with Soviet satellites orbiting, American baby boomers matriculating, and federal dollars flooding into higher education, colleges and universities marveled at Iowa’s success and followed its lead. To judge by the bellwether, creative-writing programs worked. Iowa looked great: Famous writers taught there, graduated from there, gave readings there, and drank, philandered, and enriched themselves and others there.

Yet what drew writers to Iowa was not the innate splendor of a spontaneously good idea. What drew writers to Iowa is what draws writers anywhere: money and hype, which tend to be less spontaneous than ideas. So where did the money and the hype come from?

Eric Bennett book cover Workshops of EmpireMuch of the answer lies in the remarkable career of Paul Engle, the workshop’s second director, a do-it-yourself Cold Warrior whose accomplishments remain mostly covered in archival dust. For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: It fought Communism. The workshop thrived on checks from places like the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave Iowa $40,000 between 1953 and 1956 —good money at the time. As the years went by, it also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department.

As for the hype, it followed the money and attracted more of it. The publishing moguls Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles Jr. conceived of themselves as fighting a battle of ideas, as they contrasted the American way of life with the gray Soviet nightmare on the pages of their newspapers and glossy magazines. Luce published Time and Life, Cowles published Look and several Midwestern newspapers, and both loved to feature Iowa: its embodiment of literary individualism, its celebration of self-expression, its cornfields.

Knowing he could count on such publicity, Engle staged spectacles in Iowa City for audiences far beyond Iowa City. He read memorial sonnets for the Iowa war dead at a dedication ceremony for the new student union. He convened a celebration of Baudelaire with an eye toward the non-Communist left in Paris. He organized a festival of the sciences and arts. 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.

In 1954, Engle became the editor of the O. Henry Prize collection, and so it became his task to select the year’s best short stories and introduce them to a mass readership. Lo and behold, writers affiliated with Iowa began to be featured with great prominence in the collection. Engle marveled at this, the impartial fruits of his judging, in fund-raising pitches.

The Iowa Workshop, then, attained national eminence by capitalizing on the fears and hopes of the Cold War. But the creative-writing programs founded in Iowa’s image did not, in this respect, resemble it. No other program would be so celebrated on the glossy pages of Look and Life. No other program would receive an initial burst of underwriting from Maytag and U.S. Steel and Quaker Oats and Reader’s Digest. No other program would attract such interest from the Asia Foundation, the State Department, and the CIA. And the anticlimax of the creative-writing enterprise must derive at least in part from this difference.

There, in the paragraphs above, is blood squeezed from the stone of a dissertation. If, in 2006, as a no-longer-quite-plausibly aspiring novelist beached on the shores of academe, you’re struggling against the bleakness of the dissertation as a genre, you’ll do your best to work the CIA into yours. You’ll want to write a heroic dissertation—or at least a novelistic one. You’ll read books about soft diplomacy during the Cold War, learn about the Farfield Foundation, and search for its name, on an abject hunch, in the 40 boxes of the Papers of Paul Engle at the Special Collections Library at the University of Iowa. You’ll exhaust those archives and also the ones at Palo Alto (where Wallace Stegner founded the Stanford program) and Tarrytown (home of the Rockefeller archives), tracing the relationship between creative writing and the Cold War. But even as you do, you’ll wonder about your motives.

Read more at the Chronicle link above or in Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War.

Eric Bennett is an assistant professor of English at Providence College. His book on creative writing and the Cold War, This essay is adapted from "MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction," edited by Chad Harbach and published this month by Faber 
and Faber and n+1.

Literary Magazines

Salon,The Paris Review, the Cold War and the CIA, Joel Whitney, May 27, 2012. Letters discovered by Salon show even deeper Cold War ties between the Paris Review and a U.S. propaganda front. The Paris Review has been hailed by Time magazine as the “biggest ‘little magazine’ in history.” At the celebration of its 200th issue this spring, current editors and board members ran down the roster of literary heavyweights it helped launch since its first issue in 1953. But as Peter Matthiessen, the magazine’s founder, has told interviewers — most recently at Penn State — the journal also began as part of his CIA cover.

CIA In History        

"Disciples" by Douglas Waller

Douglas WallerKirkus Reviews, Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller (shown at left), June 25, 2015. Former Newsweek and Time correspondent Waller expands on his earlier biography of the Office of Strategic Services founder (Wild Bill Donovan, 2011, etc.) with a history of the four men who worked for Donovan in the European theater. What Allen Dulles, Bill Casey, Bill Colby, and Richard Helms had in common were the shared characteristics of the men of the OSS. They came from old American families, excelled at school, mastered at least one foreign language, and, with the exception of Colby, came from wealth. Each also eventually headed the CIA.

The author shies away from painting the OSS as something of an old boys’ network, but it certainly attracted officers from the best families. Dulles’ time with the State Department in Vienna taught him never to ignore a potential informer, as he unfortunately did with Vladimir Lenin in 1917. He ended up running the Bern office of the OSS and gathered a most successful haul of espionage of World War II from Fritz Kolbe of the German Foreign Office, who supplied him with information about the Third Reich. Colby trained the Jedburgh commandos, who parachuted into France to lead the resistance, and Colby himself even jumped into Norway on bridge-blowing missions. Casey, with his business experience at the Research Institute of America, was “fixer” for diplomat David Bruce’s London Station and managed covert-ops teams sent into German territory. Journalist Helms finally arrived in London in 1945 to join and organize the OSS mission Dulles would lead in Germany after the surrender.

These men were in the thick of America’s spy game for decades, and Waller’s broad knowledge of their work could easily have been four separate books. His analysis of their effectiveness is eye-opening, as is his short history of their time at the CIA — but that’s for another book. Especially helpful for readers is the cast of characters at the beginning. Waller keeps the interest high and the pages turning in one of the more interesting spy books this year.

Douglas Waller Disciples CoverWall Street Journal, The War That Made the CIA, Alexander Rose, Oct. 23, 2015. Several years ago, Douglas Waller wrote a superb biography of “Wild Bill” Donovan, legendary head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — the precursor to the CIA — during World War II. In a field that is dominated by credulous authors who have fallen for the self-applause of their subjects and overrun with sensationalist tales of derring-do, Mr. Waller struck a judicious balance to reveal the great, and sometimes flawed, Wild Bill in the round.

Washington Post, Four U.S. spies who later led the CIA, Peter Finn, Nov. 6, 2015. In “Disciples,” Douglas Waller chronicles the World War II careers of four future CIA directors.  After reading journalist Douglas Waller’s entertaining and richly detailed Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan (Simon & Schuster), it’s hard not to conclude that all great lives in espionage end in tragedy. The tenaciousness, the risk-taking, the cold-bloodedness and the towering self-confidence — the qualities that make a spymaster — eventually consume their carriers.

The disciples in this book are the four future CIA directors who served under William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan in the Office of Strategic Services, the American spy agency during World War II: Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey. Waller is already the author of an accomplished biography of Donovan, and I came to this latest book with the slight suspicion that it might involve some clever repurposing. There is, of course, some cross-pollination, but “Disciples” stands on its own: a textured adventure story that emerges from Waller’s command of the archival material and his fluid writing style.

Dulles’s career ended on “a swampy beach along Cuba’s coast,” with the Bay of Pigs disaster. Helms wound up in federal court “striking a plea deal to avoid a felony conviction” for lying to Congress. Colby, in contrast, cooperated with Congress, turning over the “Crown Jewels,” a catalogue of CIA dirty tricks. For that he became “a pariah to many in his agency.” Casey was the subject of “accusation and ridicule” for the Iran-contra affair, the scandal that tarnished President Ronald Reagan as well as the agency Casey was trying to reinvigorate.

“They returned home, invigorated with high hopes, affected profoundly by their service in the OSS, determined to take up arms against communism in the way they had learned to wield those weapons against Nazism,” Waller writes. “It made it all the more tragic that their Cold War after the guns of Europe fell silent finished so badly for each of them.”

Peter Finn is the Washington Post’s national security editor and the co-author of “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.”


"The Devil's Chessboard" by David Talbot

Kirkus Reviews, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government by David Talbot, July 28, 2015. Former Salon founding editor-in-chief Talbot (Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love, 2012, etc.) shares his extensive knowledge and intense investigations of American politics with a frightening biography of power, manipulation, and outright treason.

The story of Allen Dulles (1893-1969), his brother John Foster, and the power elite that ran Washington, D.C., following World War II is the stuff of spy fiction, but it reaches even further beyond to an underworld of unaccountable authority. Dulles’ career began in the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, where he built a powerful client list. During wartime in Switzerland, he worked to protect his clients’ corporations and build his own organization. In direct opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s policy, he sought a separate peace with the Germans to use them to fight communism.

Talbot delivers a variety of thrilling stories about Dulles that boggle the mind, from skimming funds from the Marshall Plan to using Richard Nixon as his mouthpiece in Congress. It is really about the power elite, the corporate executives, government leaders, and top military officials who controlled the world. They protected corporate interests in Iran, Guatemala, and elsewhere, and they fomented revolutions, experimented in mind control, and assassinated those who got in their way. With John Foster as secretary of state, this “fraternity of the successful” enforced a Pax Americana by terror and intimidation, always invoking national security and often blatantly disobeying policy guidelines. The author asserts that the Bay of Pigs was an intentional failure, meant to force John F. Kennedy to invade Cuba and retrieve corporate properties. Even out of office, Dulles’ conspiracies continued. Talbot also delves into CIA involvement in Kennedy’s assassination. Ultimately, the blatant manipulative activities of the Dulles brothers will shock most readers.

Washington, D.C., regulars may know some of this information, and foreign nations certainly do, but all engaged American citizens should read this book and have their eyes opened.

The Intercept, A New Biography Traces the Pathology of Allen Dulles and His Appalling Cabal, Jon Schwarz, Nov. 2, 2015 {excerpts below]. As I read The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret David Talbot "The Devil's Chessboard" Dulles Book coverGovernment, a new book by Salon founder David Talbot, I couldn’t help thinking of an obscure corner of 1970s history: the Safari Club. Dulles — the Princeton man and white shoe corporate lawyer who served as CIA director from 1953 to 1961, still the longest tenure in agency history — died in 1969 before the Safari Club was conceived. And nothing about it appears in The Devil’s Chessboard. But to understand the Safari Club is to understand Allen Dulles and his milieu. Any normal person would likely hear the Safari Club saga [different from the hunter's society with the same name] as a frightening story of totally unaccountable power. But if there’s one thing to take away from The Devil’s Chessboard, it’s this: Allen Dulles would have seen it differently — as an inspiring tale of hope and redemption.

Because what the Safari Club demonstrates is that Dulles’ entire spooky world is beyond the reach of American democracy. Even the most energetic post-World War II attempt to rein it in was in the end as effective as trying to lasso mist. And today we’ve largely returned to the balance of power Dulles set up in the 1950s. As Jay Rockefeller said in 2007 when he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “Don’t you understand the way intelligence works? Do you think that because I’m chairman of the Intelligence Committee that I just say ‘I want it, give it to me’? They control it. All of it. All of it. All the time.”

As Talbot explains, “What I was really trying to do was a biography on the American power elite from World War II up to the 60s.” It’s a huge, sprawling book, and an amalgam of all the appalling things Dulles and his cohort definitely did, things the evidence suggests they probably did, and speculation about things they might plausibly have done. More than a biography, it’s a exploration of well-organized pathology.

It includes detailed reexaminations of Dulles’s most notorious failures, such as the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the nightmarish mind control program MK-ULTRA, as well as his most notorious “successes,” the CIA’s overthrow of democratic governments in Iran in 1953 and in Guatemala in 1954.

But by this point these events are fairly well-known. Perhaps most compelling is Talbot’s in-depth look at Dulles’s lesser-known yet still extraordinarily sordid projects. As the Swiss director of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, Dulles — whose law firm had represented German corporations and many U.S. corporations with German interests — quietly attempted to undermine Franklin D. Roosevelt’s demand that Germany surrender unconditionally, going so far as to order the rescue of an SS general surrounded by Italian partisans. Dulles also led the push to save Reinhard Gehlen, Nazi head of intelligence on the Eastern Front and a genuine monster, from any post-war justice. Dulles then made certain Gehlen and his spies received a cozy embrace from the CIA, and helped push him to the top of West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service.

Also gruesome is the lurid story of how Jesus de Galindez, a lecturer at Columbia University, was kidnapped in Manhattan by U.S. government cutouts and delivered to Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo then had Galindez, whose exposés of corruption Trujillo feared, boiled alive and fed to sharks, and ordered the murder of the American pilot who’d flown Galindez there. All under the beneficent gaze of CIA Director Allen Dulles.

In a sense, however, all of The Devil’s Chessboard seems to exist to set the stage for the final chapters about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. In the first 500 pages you are convinced that Dulles would have had no moral qualms about killing any politician, including Americans. You learn Dulles had a lifetime of experience in arranging assassinations, and apparent ties to attempts to overthrow or murder French president Charles de Gaulle. And you discover the depth of his grudge against John F. Kennedy, who dismissed him and several of his key underlings after the Bay of Pigs.

But were JFK and possibly Robert Kennedy killed by conspiracies involving Dulles? That’s the conjecture of The Devil’s Chessboard. There’s no question Talbot has pulled together a lot of suggestive old information, and uncovered some that’s new. Furthermore, he certainly proves there was a great deal of reluctance on the part of journalists and politicians at the time to pull on even the most obvious threads. But 50 years later, I don’t think there’s any way to say much for sure on this subject, except that it’s pretty interesting.

In the end, whatever the reality of Talbot’s most sensational claims, he unquestionably makes the case that — unless you believe we’re governed by shape-shifting space lizards — your darkest suspicions about how the world operates are likely an underestimate. Yes, there is an amorphous group of unelected corporate lawyers, bankers, and intelligence and military officials who form an American “deep state,” setting real limits on the rare politicians who ever try to get out of line. They do collaborate with and nurture their deep state counterparts in other countries, to whom they feel far more loyalty than their fellow citizens. The minions of the deep state hate and fear even the mildest moves towards democracy, and fight against it by any means available to them. They’re not all-powerful and don’t get exactly what they want, but on the issues that matter most they almost always win in the end. And while all this is mostly right there in the open, discernible by anyone who’s curious and has a library card, if you don’t go looking you will never hear a single word about it.

Moreover, it’s still right there in front of us today. Talbot recently argued, “The surveillance state that Snowden and others have exposed is very much a legacy of the Dulles past. I think Dulles would have been delighted by how technology and other developments have allowed the American security state to go much further than he went.”