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How the CIA Sponsored Indian Magazines that Engaged the Country’s Best Writers

A new book recalls the attempts by the Congress for Cultural Freedom to penetrate the Indian intellectual space.

At the Congress for Cultural Freedom's second Berlin conference, June 1960. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s second Berlin conference, June 1960. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1967, much of the intellectual world learned that the United States had outsmarted itself. Two decades earlier, it had quietly created several vehicles for secret cultural patronage. The scheme was billed as necessary to fight cultural penetration and patronage of the Soviet variety, which was presumed to lie behind not just propaganda, but also student and labor unions, world peace conferences and more. To maintain their secrecy, then, many of these American vehicles, such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, were launched under the CIA’s covert bureaucracies. The agency’s secret budget was seen as a way to circumvent debates in the US legislature, whose hardline right-wingers hardly could be convinced to fund “little” intellectual magazines, say, or classical music, or the haphazard paint splashes of Jackson Pollock.

And the secrecy added a second bonus, that the cultural propaganda would be more “subtle”– indeed, undetectable to some – when compared with the clunky Soviet version. That is, until it was definitively exposed in 1967. As my new book, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers (not yet available in India) argues, whatever goodwill earned from the subtlety of those cultural efforts quickly washed away when they were tainted by the CIA connection. Since the patronage had grown so vast, and the magazines and other outlets so numerous, many of the world’s intellectuals had been touched by the controversy, whether they spoke out or not. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had contributed to one of the magazines targeting Latin America, wrote privately to his editor that he felt like a “cuckold” and would never contribute to the magazine again. The Indian intellectuals who had collaborated around one of the Congress’s magazines targeting the subcontinent, Quest (another was called Imprint) expressed similar indignation at the clumsiness of the scheme. Jayaprakash Narayan had worked with the Indian version of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and wrote to his connected friends that “It was not enough to assess that the Congress had always functioned with independence . . . . The Agency was only doing what it must have considered useful for itself.” His colleague, K.K. Sinha, wrote to announce that he was quitting the organisation, adding, “Had I any idea . . . that there was a time bomb concealed in the Paris headquarters, I would not have touched the Congress.” The following short excerpt from Finks shows that the Americans and Europeans seeking to “help” India and other parts of the developing world to see the evils of Stalinism were indeed merely doing what they “considered useful” for the agency and themselves and worked often with little understanding of the cultural exchange expected by their international counterparts.

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Jayaprakash Narayan shifted his focus around the same time as Encounter’s launch in England, and the launch of The Paris Review in New York and Paris. Independent India’s founders were among the leading practitioners of neutrality. This was because of Nehru’s socialism and the British occupation confirming much of the socialist critique. But these views were balanced by strong cultural ties to the English-speaking world. As such, India’s leaders refused to align solely with either the United States or USSR. Because of this, the CIA sought to penetrate India. It would do so by using the local affiliate of the Congress for Cultural Freedom as a foothold, and that affiliate would include Narayan and Minoo Masani among its members. India nevertheless vacillated from side to side, like a sail in changing winds. While US secretary of state John Foster Dulles saw neutrality as “immoral and shortsighted,” Nehru sought “to avoid entanglement in power politics and not to join any group of powers as against any other group.”

Joel WhitneyFinks: How the CIA Tricked the World's Best WritersO/R Books, 2017

Joel Whitney
Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers
O/R Books, 2017

No single event better presaged the rise of the neutral Third World, later called the Non-Aligned Movement, than the Bandung conference in Indonesia, which began on April 18, 1955. It opened with a speech by the Indonesian President Sukarno, who implored the world’s powers to forgo their addiction to intervention and replace it with a principle summed up by the phrase “live and let live!” In the United States, this attitude was traditionally called isolationism. The CIA later came to hate Sukarno so much that they planted fake news pieces about an alleged affair with a Russian stewardess and then shot a porn film, which they called Happy Days. Unable to find a decent lookalike, the Agency hired an actor to wear a latex Sukarno mask designed by the CIA’s Technical Services Division and distributed the film throughout Southeast Asia.

Such dirty tricks were part of what repelled the nonaligned movement from the United States and may have helped rally those non-aligned nations around China’s Zhou En-lai, whose presence at the Bandung conference was significant (not least of all because the US was rumored to have tried to murder him en route). Nevertheless, when Nehru boomed out his neutralist creed, “I do not believe in the Communist or the anti-Communist approach!”, Bandung delegates roared with approval. When Egypt’s Nasser, also in attendance, declared that “the game of power politics in which small nations can be used as tools must be stopped!” they cheered even more. But some Indians saw that neutralism could cut both ways.

When Nehru was initially silent in the face of Soviet bloodletting during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Narayan and the Indian branch of the CCF were shocked. Though Narayan had dedicated his life—lately—to quieter grassroots campaigns seemingly outside the political fray, he had not withdrawn completely from the ugly world of realpolitik, and this incident elicited a brief return from his focus on the Bhoodan movement. Narayan saw the Soviet move as comparable to the French–English occupation of Egypt, which Nehru had denounced resoundingly in support of Egypt and Nasser. As the Indian CCF’s honorary president, Narayan issued a statement: “Russia has no right to be in Hungary. No one can question the right of the Hungarian or any other people, including the Indian people, to choose a Communist form of government, if they so desire.” Narayan continued,

That would be a domestic affair. But when a big power by armed intervention tries to impose in another country its own puppets in power, it no longer remains a domestic question but becomes an international issue of the highest importance.

These statements ran with giant headlines in one of the many national Congress for Cultural Freedom newsletters, and American members delighting over the denunciation of Nehru and recapping the quotations in press releases may have missed that Narayan was privileging national sovereignty above all else, to denounce the Indian leader and his friend. Yet the phrase “when a big power by armed intervention” showed that he was speaking to the United States too. As the CCF’s honorary president, Narayan still carried water for anticommunism against Nehru’s staunch neutrality. But this anticommunism was defended through a reapplication of the principles of sovereignty, a basic right of nations that the United States was more than a little guilty of breaching. Narayan became known as “Nehru’s foremost critic.” But he vacillated between his commitments to the poor and his role as public gadfly, keeping in touch with political players and friends, including Nehru himself, whom he continued to write to throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

These events, and the Cold War mission in India, were never far from the minds of Encounter’s editors. “Irving Kristol, the first American coeditor of Encounter, suggests in his [memoir] the less than spontaneous nature of that magazine’s Indian coverage when he recalls ‘gentle interventions’ from Congress headquarters (in Paris) to attend to Asia, and particularly to India, the last hope in Asia for ‘the free world,’” recalls scholar Margery Sabin. The editors of Encounter knew that India was mission-critical and were told by headquarters. The Paris Review, on the other hand, almost entirely ignored India and the developing world in favor of the transatlantic cultural alliance.

Even so, the magazine’s founding managing editor John Train lamented this absence of India in his editorial critiques to editor George Plimpton. Train, in the late 1950s, had returned from a short leave and went back and forth between the New York and Paris offices, helping to make the two offices communicate more efficiently. He also supported the magazine financially with a series of ads during the period when The Review was working most closely with the Congress for Cultural Freedom. On the subject of India, Train was informed by a Western mastery of the sweeping generalization that informed the mission-critical understanding of India then. “This suddenly occurred to me in meditating on whether to send (issue #) 18 to some Indian writers and booksellers who were promised copies,” wrote Train. “There is nothing quite like the PR flavor in Indian writing, and I do not know whether they would be interested or alarmed.” He continued to Plimpton in late 1958,

Indian writing has a lot of suffering but in a stable framework; indeed a framework that has changed little in the memory of the race. (The British were an episode, birds of passage compared to the Moguls, who themselves were simply absorbed.) For the 80 percent of the population who live on the land things have always been much the same; and Indian writers try to be very conscious of the life of the peasant. Almost all write rather awful social realist novels on this theme. While they are . . . generally looking to the west for guidance in many material fields what would they make of [some of the latest fiction in The Paris Review]?

In particular, Train cited the most recent Philip Roth story, which would “upset them no end,” he wrote. Train’s sense of what India and its Asian neighbors needed would culminate in the early to mid-1980s with a plan to fund anti-Soviet propaganda through a refugee advocacy organization that Train founded after the Soviet invasion there.

By some measures, Encounter also did a ham-fisted job of covering India. While many magazines of the CCF were intended as the local CCF vehicle for that country alone, Encounter was special. Remember that the “encounter” of the magazine’s title was originally rendered as “East-West Review” and was therefore an “East-West encounter.” But by focusing on the US special friendship with England, it gave short shrift to the subcontinent. For instance, there were zero articles devoted to world-renowned Indian film director Satyajit Ray during Encounter’s first decade.

questTo make up for these lapses, the CCF launched a new Indian magazine called Quest in August 1955. When the US Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, saw the magazine after his appointment in 1961, he was unimpressed, suggesting that the magazine “broke new ground in ponderous, unfocused illiteracy.” Indian Communists called it “insidious” American propaganda. But it nevertheless formed yet another invisible tie between Ambassador Galbraith, the intellectual HQ for the Cold War (as Nelson Aldrich called the Congress’s Paris office) and magazines like The Paris Review, under the great umbrella that Aldrich dubbed the “Congressiste” magazines. Quest even ran ads for Encounter, promising Indians and Asians that “Time and again you will find that your own problems, the problems of the Far East, are illuminated by articles in Encounter.” It also ran ads in its first several issues for giant US oil conglomerates like Mobil and Standard Oil. The American Committee advertised Quest’s birth and sought its funding by other CIA fronts, like Asia Foundation; James Farrell recorded its mission statement in a grant appeal to the Foundation: “Considering moral neutrality in the face of totalitarian threat to be a betrayal of mankind, the Congress opposed ‘thought control’ wherever it appears, whether concealed or active.” And one of Quest’s columnists, Dilip Chitre, corresponded with The Paris Review over editorial matters. The network was growing.

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Despite the United States’ best efforts, Nehru clung to his neutrality like a bachelor to his freedom. In 1951, he refused to let the second international CCF convene in India’s capital. He purportedly knew that the organization was an “American front.” However, given the growing strategic importance of the world’s most populous democracy, the CCF planners would not, as it went, “quit India.” They merely moved the conference from Delhi to Bombay (now Mumbai).

Alongside Narayan, Minoo Masani rounded out the Indian annex of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s executive committee, which built itself up around a roster of prominent socialists who would operate all over India and jostle against India’s neutrality. A former mayor of Bombay, Masani was a three-time member of parliament, a democratic socialist who opposed monopolies and who went on to co-found the right-leaning Swatantra Party partly in opposition to the nationalization of banks. We’ve already seen how Masani had in the early 1950s been offered a special welcome at the American Committee’s center for foreign visitors, and the American Committee pitched his trip to the United States for press coverage to the New York Post. (The Welcome Center itself strengthened the American Committee’s tie to the Asia Foundation, a CIA front.) Before Masani swung right, he, too, fought India’s neutrality.

Masani and Narayan were joined in the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s efforts in India by Nissim Ezekiel, a young Indo-Jewish writer who later achieved renown as a poet. Nirad Chaudhuri, another India CCF-linked writer, published the controversial book, Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, and was described by one scholar as “a gadfly” working in opposition to the “culture-wallahs” in the service of Nehru in New Delhi.

As Quest’s editor, Ezekiel would attempt to navigate India’s contentious waters, emphasizing the common ground between the US agenda and the Indian; where that common ground faltered, he wasn’t shy about saying so. In his first editorial for Quest, for example, he wrote that phrases “like ‘cultural freedom,’ along with ‘peace’ and ‘social justice,’ all belong to the rhetoric of a global conflict not designed to promote India’s independent interests.” Ezekiel’s magazine was taking money from the American side, suggesting a kind of Westward alignment. But at the same time it was all but disavowing this stance by renouncing the buzzwords of both the American and Soviet sides in his first editorial.

This and the conferences’ on-the-spot encounters suggested that wounds between Eastern and Western partners were more fresh than either side might have liked. According to one analyst of the period: “In . . . accepting Western sponsorship, Quest was choosing the alliance that most supported a version of cultural freedom crucial to and within India, namely the freedom to criticize established authority within the state. Ezekiel . . . wanted to use Quest for a specifically Indian project of internal ‘opposition to authority,’ in accord with the position argued more recently by African critics . . . that after the struggle for anticolonial freedom, there needs to come a ‘second phase’ of internal debate within postcolonial nations themselves.”

Ezekiel instituted principles that would define Quest throughout its life: “Everything about it must have some relevance to India. It was to be written by Indians for Indians—for in those days, we still glamourised everything foreign, including writers.” Ezekiel’s personality charmed many who worked with him long after Quest’s demise. A relentless mentor to younger poets and writers, he spent time in Chicago and recited to Saul Bellow the names of his own family members that he found in Bellow’s novel Herzog.

Excerpted from Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers by Joel Whitney. Whitney is a cofounder of Guernica: A Magazine of Global Art & Politics. He was awarded a Discovery Prize for his poetry.