But how fully is America itself addressing its own history on the global stage? In foreign policy, no less than domestic politics, the United States continues to be hugely shaped by its experiences in the Cold War. Even as archives yield new documents, and enrich scholarship on the period, the price of the Cold War is still being calculated.

In The Mighty Wurlitzer. How the CIA Played America, a book that assesses the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in engaging American citizens for the fight against communism, Hugh Wilford provides some idea of this price. The story is as follows. With the close of the Second World War, political leaders began to dismantle the intelligence services, including the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), that had supported the American war effort. Alarmed, a group of policy makers, led by Soviet expert George Kennan, persuaded government officials to change course.  They argued that the totalitarian threat of Stalin rivaled the threat posed by Hitler. But the post-war situation demanded a new set of strategic priorities, together with appropriate tactics to pursue them. The priorities would be guided by, first, a policy of “containing communism” and, second, “liberating” areas of Soviet influence; the tactics would be grounded in covert action.  From these origins, the CIA was born. The Mighty Wurlitzer describes how new strategic priorities and their tactics converged on American citizens. According to the CIA blueprint, information campaigns, openly conducted by the United States, were essential, but limited, especially when their targets already lacked trust in the American government.  Private American citizens, by contrast, could work far more effectively in promoting American interests abroad.  The challenge was to locate these individuals, secure their help, and then ensure that this hidden underground civilian army flourished.


From the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, the CIA secretly approached existing American organizations to offer financial support for their activities abroad. And as Wilford shows, CIA dollars supported a variety of American liberal organizations with ties to similar organizations abroad. On the CIA payroll, American labor officials based in Paris worked with their European counterparts, while American Catholic women reached out to Catholics in the developing world. Devoting a chapter to each of the financed groups, Wilford documents the scope of the CIA endeavor, which touched not only labor leaders and Catholics, but émigrés, intellectuals, students, women, African Americans, and journalists. It was a bold strategy, and with a range of CIA-financed front organizations, also a comprehensive one. Frank Wisner, the first chief of political warfare at the CIA, compared it to a Mighty Wurlitzer organ that could play any propaganda tune he wished. To succeed, however, the strategy demanded a level of confidence from everyone who participated. The principles of covert action, for example, required that organization leaders put loyalty to the CIA above personal loyalty or the bonds of friendship.
Strange as this confidence of individuals in the government might sound today, even more extraordinary, perhaps, is the confidence that the CIA had in its methods and mission.  Front groups, for example, were granted wide autonomy in setting policies and conducting their activities. A pro-American stance was mildly discouraged, while the use of anti-American sentiments was understood to be wise politics.  When the Soviet Union called the United States a cultural wasteland, a charge that resonated in European ears, front groups were not asked to shout “gulag.” The CIA sent the Boston Symphony.

An enterprise based on vague expectations and trust, it is not surprising that the mighty Wurlitzer did not always play the tune requested by the CIA. Indeed, Wilford argues that the metaphor of CIA puppetmasters and front group puppets is not supported by the evidence. Again and again, CIA plans encountered resistance and rebellion from the front groups. The American Committee for Cultural Freedom, for example, a group composed of fiercely anti-communist New York intellectuals, denounced the CIA cultural initiative that brought the Boston Symphony to Paris, arguing that the French were too neutral.  The independence of the front groups may have increased the credibility of their message, but it also meant that the CIA yielded some control over that message. Empowered to strengthen the image of American blacks among African elites, the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) forcefully condemned U.S. policy in South Africa, the Portuguese colonies, and the Congo during a visit of its representatives to the African continent.
By the mid-1960s, the failures of Vietnam and a new post-war generation had changed the politics of trust in America. In January 1967, leaders from the National Student Association, itself a former front group, revealed their organization’s financial history to a young reporter from Ramparts magazine. Published a few months later, the subsequent expose, together with a series of articles New York Times, put an end to the nearly twenty-year history of covert financial support of front groups by the CIA.
While many of the material facts about the CIA’s mighty Wurlitzer organ are now known, the moral questions raised by covert intelligence action remain largely unresolved. What is the cost to a nation when the idealism of private citizens is used to advance a global political agenda? How much is the United States still paying for the decrease of basic trust in government and the increase of suspicion towards other private citizens brought about by revelations of covert CIA operations? In the United States, as elsewhere, the price of the Cold War is still being calculated. 

Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer. How the CIA Played America. (Harvard University Press, 2008)