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Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers

Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers

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by Joel Whitney

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Another odd episode steps out from the Cold War's shadows. Riveting." —Kirkus, 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, 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—namely, what, if anything, have they done to resist the subversion of free thought?” —David Talbot, founder of Salon and author of The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government

"At the height of the cold war, the CIA set out to influence Americans by infiltrating our country’s literary and artistic establishment. Finks is a devastating work of investigative history that unearths the shocking reach of the Agency’s tentacles—from Baldwin and Hemingway to The Paris Review and the renowned American Studies department at Yale. Today, when cultural and literary icons seem closer than ever to elite interests, Finks is a timely reckoning of how we got here. You will never look at American literary culture the same way again." —Anand Gopal, Pulitzer- and National Book Award-nominated author of No Good Men Among the Living

"The CIA's covert financial support of highbrow art and fiction may seem like a quaint, even endearing, chapter in its otherwise grim history of coups, assassinations, and torture. In Finks, Joel Whitney argues otherwise and shines a discomfiting spotlight on this obscure corner of the cultural Cold War. The result is both an illuminating read and a cautionary tale about the potential costs—political and artistic—of accommodating power." —Ben Wizner, Director of Speech, Privacy and Technology Project

Library Journal
Among the Cold War's many grim realities, some only now being revealed, is the extent of CIA influence on the publishing industry. Whitney's (cofounder, Guernica) exhaustive research and interviews uncover details belying the myth of intellectual solidarity and comfort commonly projected onto the literati. In 1982, John Train, founding managing editor of the Paris Review, offered funding from his NGO, the Afghanistan Relief Committee, for a film about that country, which amounted to "Cold War propaganda on broadcast television." Train's archives from the period document his use of a shell nonprofit with a CIA code name to send journalists on anti-Soviet intelligence missions. Novelist and Paris Review cofounder Peter Matthiessen admitted to out-of-the-loop fellow cofounder Harold "Doc" Humes that, in 1952, the magazine was created as a cover for Matthiessen's role as a spy for the CIA. Editor-in-chief George Plimpton was complicit but apparently toed the line by claiming aesthetics—not politics—guided his decisions. Plimpton's visits to idol Ernest Hemingway in Cuba are chronicled, as well as the witting and unwitting involvement of Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, and others. VERDICT Will appeal to readers curious about the political agendas behind CIA manipulation of publishing in America and abroad during and after the Cold War.—William Grabowski, McMechen, WV

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OR Books
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Meet the Author

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.

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Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
LeeBobBlack 10 months ago
The Blurring of Propaganda and Art, CIA-style. The CIA is no stranger to sticking it’s nose into the affairs of other countries. Assassinations. Coups. National building. You name it. But cultural propaganda in the form of poems and book reviews? Who knew? In Joel Whitney’s Finks, apparently numerous literary powerhouses — from The Paris Review to Quest magazine (India) to Combate (Costa Rica) to Hiwar (Lebanon) and many others — had been infiltrated by spooks. But why? To promulgate anti-communist sentiment? To uphold American values? To help win the Cold War? To each of these questions, it seems the answer was a resounding yes, at least in the beginning. In the end, it didn’t take long for it all to go off the rails, civil rights be damned. In my opinion, one particularly cogent quote will prepare a reader for the broad scope of this important book. Mr. Whitney writes that Finks is his “attempt to look through a keyhole into the vast engine room of the cultural Cold War, to see if this ideology—one favoring 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?”