Canons of the Cold War: The Weaponization of Literature

Image by Patrick Tomasso.

During the Cold War, stemming from propaganda programs of the Second World War, the American State spearheaded a series of literary and cultural programs intended to foster a socio-political environment among European ‘intellectuals’ that would allow for the widespread perpetuation of liberal-democratic ideology. This produced a system in which culture was explicitly weaponized on a mass-scale by the American State.

These operations initially began during the de-Nazification of post-war Germany but, as the Soviet Union began to pose a serious threat to America’s European influence, shifted to anti-communism under the pretense of creating a space in which artistic-intellectual activity could exist free from authoritarian interference. During this time, the American State organized and funded conferences, literary magazines, libraries, publishers, writers, and translation programs. It also ran parallel operations targeting art, theatre, cinema, science, and journalism.

The culmination of America’s Cold War cultural operations was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which has been described as both the cultural counterpart to the Marshall Plan and as a cultural NATO. The CCF organized, funded, and directed cultural activities and publications in an attempt to establish a global network of sympathetic artists. Whereas the Marshall Plan focused upon economic liberalisation, the CCF focused upon intellectual liberalisation, establishing what was purported to be an ideology-free zone in which artistic freedom was able to exist. In reality, it was a space in which American State ideology was continuously reproduced, serving to bolster and secure American hegemony.

In 1967, Ramparts magazine revealed that the CCF was a CIA front. In 1999, Frances Stonor Saunders published Who Paid The Piper? The Cultural Cold War, outlining the vast network of cultural propaganda activities that the CCF carried out on behalf of the CIA from 1950 to 1979. A substantial body of work has since emerged demonstrating that the CCF was part of a campaign of cultural warfare intended to foster a sociopolitical environment conducive to the solidification and expansion of American dominance in the post-war world.

Recent books such as African Literature and the CIA and The Cultural Cold War and the Global South have focused more directly on the way that literary and cultural operations targeted colonized and formerly colonized regions of the world. When examining these operations, it becomes clear that anti-communism was often a means to continue practices of colonialism. The operations intended to transfer the mantle of imperial power from Europe to America, maintaining chains of extraction. This helped to bolster a pan-European sphere of accumulation, led by the United States.

Though work undertaken by the CIA and other covert organizations receives most of the attention, cultural operations were carried out by various arms of the state. For instance, at the end of the Second World War, the United States opened Information Centers, or information libraries, in countries such as Germany, France, Austria, Egypt, Korea, India, and Japan. By 1962, there were over 180 centers in 80 different countries. These centers extended hand-picked literary canons to the so-called intellectual elite in an attempt to influence the socio-political development of target nations.

Greg Barnhisel has written that Information Centers specifically stocked books which would “furnish evidence of the American intellectual, spiritual, and artistic heritage and combat the charge that our people are lacking in cultural background and tradition.” And that, though a certain number of critical books were allowed, “books touching on inflammatory topics such as race, labor relations, and the Communist movement in the United States had to hew to a narrow ideological and rhetorical line.”

Hiromi Ochi’s study of libraries in occupied Japan demonstrates that the “introduction of American culture alongside the installation of a new political system intended to connect the system of democracy to the lexicon of freedom, affluence, and equality.” In its presentation of culture and politics, the American state used these libraries to equate freedom with pro-Americanism. Ochi traces the roots of these libraries back to the OWI (Office of War Information) libraries set up in Allied territory during the war, and later extended into Asia and Africa.

Drawing on the work of Trysh Travis and F. Brett Cox, Ochi notes that in industrialized, commercial society, the poet represented non-commercial impracticality. The patriarchal nature of war caused the literary establishment to try to distance itself from ‘the feminine passivity’ of poetry and to actively weaponize literature. During the war, organizations such as The Council on Books in Wartime provided members of the literary establishment the opportunity to participate in war efforts via literature, thus proving their masculinity. The Council on Books in Wartime was created by W.W. Norton and one of the founders of Random House to specifically mobilize the literary establishment for war. In the aftermath, cultural Cold War operations allowed this practice to continue.

The American Library Association, an apparently independent group, also mobilized during wartime and heavily influenced OWI booklists. The ALA also worked with the Rockefeller Foundation to distribute books in Europe and with the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, an American propaganda office, to distribute books in Latin America. For these projects they created the Selected List of Books in English by U.S. Authors the Selected List of Periodicals Published in the United States to maintain control over the type of American literature presented to foreign audiences. The ALA pushed carefully selected books of literary criticism in order to maintain control over the perspective of American literature that developed in targeted areas.

Books distributed through the Council on Wartime Books, in series such as Armed Service Editions and Overseas Editions, featured prominently in information libraries. Armed Service Editions featured both “literary” and “pulp” books, specifically chosen to build morale during the war. Overseas Editions featured books specifically chosen to stock foreign libraries. In addition to justifying U.S. wartime actions in the pacific, the books selected attempted to orient post-war by including non-fiction books alongside works of fiction which presented America and its version of liberalism in a positive light.

CIE libraries were initially under the control of the General Headquarters/Supreme Command for the Allied Powers (GHQ/SCAP), and therefore part of the War Department. After the war, they transferred to the information offices of the State Department, but remained functionally the same. Following the war, GHQ/SCAP also reformed Japan’s public libraries, school libraries, and educational curriculums in order to re-educate populations. The books selected were not random snapshots of the literature but carefully selected to shape and structure post-war development.

In contrast to the CCF and military programs, semi-private propaganda operations of the same era have not been well-researched. However, during the Cold War years, semi-private actors regularly carried out propaganda activity on behalf of the American state. These operations are incredibly revealing about the nature of propaganda and the reproduction of state ideology, and remain an overlooked but integral part of the so-called Cultural Cold War. They are also incredibly revealing about the way that cultural activities can influence society and politics today.

One little known semi-private propaganda operation revolved around a short-lived cultural periodical called Perspectives USA. The magazine was published by the Ford Foundation between 1952-56. It was edited by James Laughlin and published specifically for export. In the first issue, Laughlin writes that the magazine will attempt to counteract negative perceptions of American culture in Europe by demonstrating the “vitality” of America’s “spiritual and artistic elements” to European intellectuals.

In order to legitimize American dominance in the post-war world, Perspectives situated America as the heir of Western civilizational progress and attempted to demonstrate the strength of its culture in order to justify this position. Perspectives focused primarily upon a binary network of communication between elites in Europe and America – a transfer of Western power; however, regions of extraction which seemingly existed on the “periphery” were actually central, if often unspoken, areas of concern. As Western civilizational superiority was a presumption to the editors, positioning America at the forefront of the Western world implicitly meant domination of non-European regions.

Perspectives launched in 1952 after Robert Maynard Hutchins, Associate Director of the Ford Foundation, approached James Laughlin, owner of New Directions Press, to propose collaboration. At the time, the Ford Foundation was the largest philanthropic organization in the world and New Directions was the most respected modernist publisher in America. Together, Laughlin and Hutchins developed the schematics for a high-brow periodical intended to improve the European perception of American culture. It operated with much of the same logic as other programs, such as Information Libraries.

Laughlin and the Ford Foundation launched a company called Intercultural Publications to publish the new periodical. This company’s board included publisher Alfred A. Knopf and William J. Casey, who later became director of the CIA. An advisory board was created for the magazine which included prominent ‘Cold Warriors’ such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Norman Holmes Pearson, and Melvin Lasky. Lasky was a CIA agent who edited propaganda magazines such as Der Monat and Encounter. Norman Holmes Pearson was a Yale professor who features prominently in Robin Winks’ study of espionage and academia, Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War.

Perspectives’ board also included literary figures such as Robert Penn Warren, W.H. Auden, John Crowe Ransom, Tennessee Williams, Francois Bondy. Jacques Barzun, R.P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Wallace Stegner, and Malcolm Cowley. Many of these men are also implicated in Eric Bennett’s book Workshops of Empire, which studies the ways that creative writing was used for Cold War purposes by the American State. Wallace Stegner, for instance, committed the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to an approach to literature, firmly rooted in American liberalism, which emphasized the importance of writing about isolated individual experiences as opposed to ‘reductive’ structural matters. In return, he received immense funding. The workshop later became the model for almost every subsequent creative writing program in America.

It is significant that Perspectives was published by the Ford Foundation. From 1950-54, Paul Hoffman was president of the Ford Foundation. Immediately prior, he was Chief Administrator of the Marshall Plan. This relationship sheds light on the rationale behind Perspectives’ distribution. Generally speaking, the Marshall Plan is cast as an aid program intended to bail out European countries devastated by the Second World War. In actuality, it served to solidify America’s newfound position of global dominance in the post-war era. Though the Ford Foundation was apparently committed to humanistic philanthropic work, writers such as Inderjeet Parmar have shown that it largely served the same purpose.

As a Marshall Plan administrator, Hoffman played a central role in efforts to secure Indonesian political independence from the Dutch. When Hoffman moved to the Ford Foundation in 1950, he led the drive to build western educational institutions in Indonesia to establish a “modernizing elite” and restructure Indonesia as a “modernizing country.” In the sense that it is used here, modernization means the establishment of capitalist economic systems and American-style socio-political structures. It is the transition from a diverse array of social forms to a universalized standard in which a certain form of social organization is equated with development and progress, establishing a correlation between the passage of time and a specific pattern of organization.

Indonesia is a strong example of the overlap between Ford Foundation activity, Perspectives, and the American State. Parmar and others, such as David Ransom, have shown that the foundation simultaneously helped to establish ‘Asian Studies’ programs at Harvard, Berkley, MIT, and Cornell to produce economic policy work in collaboration with the University of Indonesia. These programs contributed to expanded and legitimized western extraction when local elites established agricultural and economic plans in collaboration with American economists. As in Japan, cultural activities were then used to legitimize this reconstructive work. In 1956, for instance, Laughlin’s Intercultural Publications published an anthology titled Perspective of Indonesia which included essays like “Facets of Indonesia’s Economy,” “Women’s Role Since Independence,” and “Problems the Country Faces” alongside fiction and poetry. This served to create Indonesian economic dependency following its newfound political independence.

It should also be noted that, in 1953, Laughlin travelled to India on behalf of Intercultural Publications specifically to counter “activities of the Indian Communist Party” and “the threat of communist domination” by “acquaint[ing] Indian readers with the basic traditions of democracy in the West” through literature. He also advised organizers to “send paintings comprehensible to simple people” because “the Indian public is not yet ready for very advanced modern art.” This was an attempt to guide India into American, rather than Soviet, arms. R.P. Blackmur later said that the magazine’s function was tied to “a sense of American responsibility for the world after the dismantling of the old imperial structures.”

Throughout the pages of Perspectives, it is consistently suggested that Europe and America have a shared cultural history but that America has eclipsed Europe, and that Europeans should look to Americans for guidance moving forward. The selection of culture featured is intended to demonstrate and legitimize America’s position at the pinnacle of civilizational development. In Perspectives, culture is treated as a measure of civilizational health and the measurement system by which culture is valued is firmly entrenched in perceptions and dispositions which presume the superiority of western civilization and pan-European culture.

In the post-war era, magazines like Perspectives operated as part of the cultural dimension of America’s imperial strategy, bolstering the European sphere of domination and ensuring alignment with American interests. The concept of liberalism served to categorize America’s dominant socio-political structures, marrying the concepts of democracy and capitalism, and organize political practice so that it is compatible with these structures. The structures of liberal capitalism became tied to the very idea of freedom itself. Protecting and expanding American liberalism, then, became equated with the protection and expansion of freedom and modernity entirely.

There are countless other examples of literary propaganda activities carried out by state and semi-private actors during the Cold War era. The operations outlined above are simply intended draw attention to the existence of such activities. Such activities were often carried out hand-in-hand with practices of violence, serving to facilitate or legitimize them. This may serve as a reminder that nothing is free from political significance or implication. Though the realm of literature is often a beautiful one, it is never an innocent one, and it cannot afford to be treated as such.

Luke Beirne was born in Ireland and lives in Canada. His debut novel debut novel, Foxhunt, was released by Baraka Books in April 2022. His second novel, Blacklion, which will be published later this year.