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Finks

HOW THE C.I.A. TRICKED THE WORLD'S BEST WRITERS


JOEL WHITNEY


"Another odd episode steps out from the Cold War's shadows. Riveting."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


"Listen to this book, because it talks in a very clear way about what has been silenced."
—John Berger, author of Ways of Seeing and winner of the Man Booker Prize


"It may be difficult today to believe that the American intellectual elite was once deeply embedded with the CIA. But with Finks, Joel Whitney vividly brings to life the early days of the Cold War, when the CIA's Ivy League ties were strong, and key American literary figures were willing to secretly do the bidding of the nation's spymasters." —James Risen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War

“A deep look at that scoundrel time when America's most sophisticated and enlightened literati eagerly collaborated with our growing national security state. Finks is a timely moral reckoning—one that compels all those who work in the academic, media and literary boiler rooms to ask some troubling questions of themselves...” —David Talbot, founder of Salon and author of The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government


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About the Book

When news broke that the CIA had colluded with literary magazines to produce cultural propaganda throughout the Cold War, a debate began that has never been resolved. The story continues to unfold, with the reputations of some of America’s best-loved literary figures—including Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, and Richard Wright—tarnished as their work for the intelligence agency has come to light.

Finks is a tale of two CIAs, and how they blurred the line between propaganda and literature. One CIA created literary magazines that promoted American and European writers and cultural freedom, while the other toppled governments, using assassination and censorship as political tools. Defenders of the “cultural” CIA argue that it should have been lauded for boosting interest in the arts and freedom of thought, but the two CIAs had the same undercover goals, and shared many of the same methods: deception, subterfuge and intimidation.

Finks demonstrates how the good-versus-bad CIA is a false divide, and that the cultural Cold Warriors again and again used anti-Communism as a lever to spy relentlessly on leftists, and indeed writers of all political inclinations, and thereby pushed U.S. democracy a little closer to the Soviet model of the surveillance state.

Publication January 3, 2017 • 348 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-682190-24-1 • E-book 978-1-682190-25-8

About the Author

joel whitney author photo

Photo © Gregg Richards

Joel Whitney is a cofounder and editor at large of Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, Boston Review, The San Francisco Chronicle, Dissent, Salon, NPR, New York Magazine and The Sun. With photographer Brett Van Ort, he co-wrote the 2013 TED Talks ebook on landmine eradication, Minescape. His poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, The Nation, and Agni. His Salon essay on The Paris Review and the Congress for Cultural Freedom was a Notable in the 2013 Best American Essays.

Read an Excerpt

….Implicit in Plimpton’s response, detailed in the pages to come, is the notion that became chronic throughout the American media that working journalists may justifiably do double duty as CIA assets, and that CIA assets may use the media in its many forms as cover, and as a soft power method of dampening blowback against its unpopular operations. Even after Humes begged his colleagues to come clean, Matthiessen’s work for the CIA, however short-lived, remained secret until a 1977 article in The New York Times by John M. Crewdson outed him among scores of others embedded across media as undercover agents. If Plimpton and Matthiessen had listened to Humes, there would have been no story implicating The Paris Review. In the same article identifying Matthiessen’s past service in that agency—out a year before The Snow Leopard would garner him the National Book Award—a former agent is quoted claiming, “‘We ‘had’ at least one newspaper in every foreign capital,’ and those that the CIA did not own outright or subsidize heavily it infiltrated with paid agents or staff officers who could have stories printed that were useful to the agency and not print those it found detrimental.”

The program that The Paris Review was part of—Matthiessen through the front door and Plimpton through the back—was astonishingly vast. While Humes argued for transparency, Plimpton, for reasons we can imagine, balked. Many of the liberal interventionists who turned to culture to beat back Soviet influence were of course well-intentioned and were legitimately concerned about the spread of Soviet ideology at home and abroad. But their good intentions were nevertheless ill-conceived. If The Paris Review played a relatively small part in the CIA’s media war, it also had many friends who joined the young CIA. Even if some could guess, no one, obviously, could know for sure what the young agency, born in 1947, would become. Furthermore, those tied to the CIA through funding designated for cultural programming were often unaware, as has been said many times before, where the money originated. But many others would lean on the contradictory line of being unaware, yet being nevertheless proud. It reeked of doublespeak and of hedging: if I had known who paid the bill, I’d have been proud to do exactly what I did do. But I didn’t know.

Exposing these ties is not for the purpose of moral condemnation. It marks my attempt to look through the keyhole into the vast engine room of the cultural Cold War, to see if this ideology (one that favors paranoid intervention into the media over adherence to democratic principle) remains with us. If so, what do we lose by accepting that our media exist, in part, to encourage support for our interventions? And if we’re ok with it during one administration, are we still ok with our tax dollars fostering the nexus of CIA contractors, military propagandists and journalists even when the opposition runs the government? Most importantly, what—if anything—can we do about it all?

In the Media