The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America

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Overview

In 1967 the magazine Ramparts ran an exposé revealing that the Central Intelligence Agency had been secretly funding and managing a wide range of citizen front groups intended to counter communist influence around the world. In addition to embarrassing prominent individuals caught up, wittingly or unwittingly, in the secret superpower struggle for hearts and minds, the revelations of 1967 were one of the worst operational disasters in the history of American intelligence and presaged a series of public scandals from which the CIA's reputation has arguably never recovered.

CIA official Frank Wisner called the operation his "mighty Wurlitzer," on which he could play any propaganda tune. In this illuminating book, Hugh Wilford provides the first comprehensive account of the clandestine relationship between the CIA and its front organizations. Using an unprecedented wealth of sources, he traces the rise and fall of America's Cold War front network from its origins in the 1940s to its Third World expansion during the 1950s and ultimate collapse in the 1960s.

Covering the intelligence officers who masterminded the CIA's fronts as well as the involved citizen groups--émigrés, labor, intellectuals, artists, students, women, Catholics, African Americans, and journalists--Wilford provides a surprising analysis of Cold War society that contains valuable lessons for our own age of global conflict.

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Editorial Reviews

ossreborn.com

In framing my review or observations, I would like to ask Frank Wisner what he thinks of this book. My feeling is that he would give it a High Pass...Mr. Wilford’s index is tantalizing. It invites our interest and suggests that if we spend the time to decode it, we might deduce the substance and flair undertaken in his research and the breadth of his own investigative skill...Mr. Wilford writes clearly and without the inbred pomposity of so many popular historians and journalists.
— Dan Pinck

International Affairs

Fascinating...The book represents a sophisticated integration of intelligence history with social and cultural history. Above all it is very well written; it engages the reader from the outset through clandestine operations to the heights of culture and celebrity.
— David Ryan

Choice

The title of Wilford's engaging book comes from CIA official Frank Wisner's comment that his operation was a "mighty Wurlitzer" organ on which he could play any propaganda tune. Wilford traces the history of how the CIA funded and employed front groups in its contest against the Soviet Union from the inception of George Kennan's Office of Policy Coordination under Wisner in 1949 as the prime instrument of psychological political warfare through the exposure of these clandestine activities by the radical muckraking Ramparts magazine in 1967. The book discusses the colorful characters that designed, created, and implemented the various programs, and the different venues targeted and used—including the postwar émigré community, labor organizations, journalists, intellectuals, artists and others of the cultural front, student organizations, women, blacks, Catholics, and others. The expense in dollars was considerable, but the author also considers the costs to democracy, the nation's reputation, and individual lives far too great a price to bear.
— J. P. Dunn

Commentary

In contrast to most previous discussions of the CIA's front-group operations, which have tended to concentrate narrowly on culture and the arts, The Mighty Wurlitzer covers a much wider range of activities. Wilford is especially good, for example, on the agency's dealings with sympathetic American journalists like the political columnist Joseph Alsop and Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who served as publisher of the New York Times from 1935 to 1961.
— Terry Teachout

Allan M. Winkler
An outstanding book: lively, engaging, thoroughly researched and beautifully written. It provides a clear view of the many activities of the CIA to gain the support of Americans during the Cold War, and raises important questions about the place of such secret efforts to mobilize popular opinion in a democracy.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
Fusing the perspectives of intelligence and social history, Wilford has written the first authoritative overview of the CIA's recruitment of private American citizens to fight communism. Combining meticulous scholarship with a fluent narrative style, he tells a story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. His argument, that American individualism frustrated the CIA's efforts to control, will provoke debate for years to come.
Nelson Lichtenstein
Wilford's book is superb, by far the most comprehensive work to date on the front groups through which the CIA sought to project U.S. cultural and political influence. He has an inviting, perceptive, allusive style that pulls in the reader, humanizes and harmonizes the material, and in the end generates the incisive moral or historical point. It was a pleasure to read.
The Observer - Peter Preston
[An] elegantly written, diligently researched examination of the CIA's glory days...The fronts that Wisner built were more errors than terrors, shrill tunes on that tin whistle--which Hugh Wilford plays with sentient skill.
Washington Post Book World - Michael Kazin
[A] brisk yet thorough narrative...No one has written a more comprehensive or sophisticated account of the pro-American fronts from their creation in the late 1940s to the investigative report 20 years later in Ramparts magazine that first exposed the CIA's cultural offensive and left people such as [Gloria] Steinem with a bit of explaining to do.
New York Sun - Ronald Radosh
Hugh Wilford has given us the first comprehensive and thorough report of how the CIA--modeling its policies on the Comintern's creation of Communist front groups--created their own fronts, with recipients who included not only the white male writers and artists who made up much of the postwar cultural establishment, but women, African-Americans, students, the labor movement, Catholics, and journalists. Mr. Wilford undermines rather than bolsters the boast made by CIA man Frank Wisner, who called his agency a "Mighty Wurlitzer," a mass of information and intelligence capable of playing the tunes the rest of the world would dance to. The old view, that the Agency was composed of "puppet masters" and that its recipients were simple marionettes, is not only inaccurate, but highly misleading. Mr. Wilford carefully shows that in almost all the cases, those funded understood the high stakes of the Cold War with the Soviets. Rather than following CIA orders, most used whatever funds they received to carry on the work they had already started, and often discarded the advice of the Agency handlers...[A] first-rate book. It is doubtful whether another survey of this subject will ever be necessary. One can differ with his own conclusion that covert funding "stained the reputation" of America and still find the book of immeasurable merit.
New York Times Book Review - Nathan Glazer
Remarkably detailed and researched...There were indeed fronts directly established by the C.I.A. for a particular goal, and the story Wilford tells of them in The Mighty Wurlitzer is fascinating, involving a surprising collection of well-known figures in American life...There is a great deal to be learned from this book. Wilford has consulted an astonishing number of scholarly and popular accounts, along with the papers and records of some of the central participants and organizations. He's done a remarkable job of research...Wilford has mastered an enormously complex tale in almost every detail.
Bloomberg.com - Charles Trueheart
[A] superb new account of the underground combat in ideas and checkbooks that unfolded in the 1950s and early '60s...One important insight Wilford brings to this history is that it wasn't necessarily ignoble to promote American values in the face of a menacing communist alternative in those two decades.
Tribune Magazine - Will Podmore
An astonishing account of the CIA's front operations in the United States during the Cold War.
ossreborn.com - Dan Pinck
In framing my review or observations, I would like to ask Frank Wisner what he thinks of this book. My feeling is that he would give it a High Pass...Mr. Wilford’s index is tantalizing. It invites our interest and suggests that if we spend the time to decode it, we might deduce the substance and flair undertaken in his research and the breadth of his own investigative skill...Mr. Wilford writes clearly and without the inbred pomposity of so many popular historians and journalists.
International Affairs - David Ryan
Fascinating...The book represents a sophisticated integration of intelligence history with social and cultural history. Above all it is very well written; it engages the reader from the outset through clandestine operations to the heights of culture and celebrity.
Choice - J. P. Dunn
The title of Wilford's engaging book comes from CIA official Frank Wisner's comment that his operation was a "mighty Wurlitzer" organ on which he could play any propaganda tune. Wilford traces the history of how the CIA funded and employed front groups in its contest against the Soviet Union from the inception of George Kennan's Office of Policy Coordination under Wisner in 1949 as the prime instrument of psychological political warfare through the exposure of these clandestine activities by the radical muckraking Ramparts magazine in 1967. The book discusses the colorful characters that designed, created, and implemented the various programs, and the different venues targeted and used--including the postwar émigré community, labor organizations, journalists, intellectuals, artists and others of the cultural front, student organizations, women, blacks, Catholics, and others. The expense in dollars was considerable, but the author also considers the costs to democracy, the nation's reputation, and individual lives far too great a price to bear.
Commentary - Terry Teachout
In contrast to most previous discussions of the CIA's front-group operations, which have tended to concentrate narrowly on culture and the arts, The Mighty Wurlitzer covers a much wider range of activities. Wilford is especially good, for example, on the agency's dealings with sympathetic American journalists like the political columnist Joseph Alsop and Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who served as publisher of the New York Times from 1935 to 1961.
Bookforum
Hugh Wilford has unearthed from archives the myriad links between the CIA and various citizen front groups attempting to counter communist influence in The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. Coming forty years after the magazine Ramparts exposed the CIA propaganda program, this book is sure to be relevant to our own era of "hearts and minds" campaigning.
The Observer

[An] elegantly written, diligently researched examination of the CIA's glory days...The fronts that Wisner built were more errors than terrors, shrill tunes on that tin whistle—which Hugh Wilford plays with sentient skill.
— Peter Preston

Washington Post Book World

[A] brisk yet thorough narrative...No one has written a more comprehensive or sophisticated account of the pro-American fronts from their creation in the late 1940s to the investigative report 20 years later in Ramparts magazine that first exposed the CIA's cultural offensive and left people such as [Gloria] Steinem with a bit of explaining to do.
— Michael Kazin

New York Sun

Hugh Wilford has given us the first comprehensive and thorough report of how the CIA—modeling its policies on the Comintern's creation of Communist front groups—created their own fronts, with recipients who included not only the white male writers and artists who made up much of the postwar cultural establishment, but women, African-Americans, students, the labor movement, Catholics, and journalists. Mr. Wilford undermines rather than bolsters the boast made by CIA man Frank Wisner, who called his agency a "Mighty Wurlitzer," a mass of information and intelligence capable of playing the tunes the rest of the world would dance to. The old view, that the Agency was composed of "puppet masters" and that its recipients were simple marionettes, is not only inaccurate, but highly misleading. Mr. Wilford carefully shows that in almost all the cases, those funded understood the high stakes of the Cold War with the Soviets. Rather than following CIA orders, most used whatever funds they received to carry on the work they had already started, and often discarded the advice of the Agency handlers...[A] first-rate book. It is doubtful whether another survey of this subject will ever be necessary. One can differ with his own conclusion that covert funding "stained the reputation" of America and still find the book of immeasurable merit.
— Ronald Radosh

New York Times Book Review

Remarkably detailed and researched...There were indeed fronts directly established by the C.I.A. for a particular goal, and the story Wilford tells of them in The Mighty Wurlitzer is fascinating, involving a surprising collection of well-known figures in American life...There is a great deal to be learned from this book. Wilford has consulted an astonishing number of scholarly and popular accounts, along with the papers and records of some of the central participants and organizations. He's done a remarkable job of research...Wilford has mastered an enormously complex tale in almost every detail.
— Nathan Glazer

Bloomberg.com

[A] superb new account of the underground combat in ideas and checkbooks that unfolded in the 1950s and early '60s...One important insight Wilford brings to this history is that it wasn't necessarily ignoble to promote American values in the face of a menacing communist alternative in those two decades.
— Charles Trueheart

Times Higher Education Supplement
Wilford provides a comprehensive account of the clandestine relationship between the CIA and its front organizations, tracing the rise and fall of America's front network from its origins in the 1940s to its collapse in the 1960s.
London Review of Books
The term "Mighty Wurlitzer" was coined by CIA agent Frank Wisner to describe the network of small organizations and magazines that the agency used to propagate its message during the Cold War. With meticulous research Hugh Wilford has unpicked the seams of CIA cultural influence, revealing a surprisingly complex picture of divided loyalties and tangled motives.
Tribune Magazine

An astonishing account of the CIA's front operations in the United States during the Cold War.
— Will Podmore

Nathan Glazer
The Mighty Wurlitzer is fascinating, involving a surprising collection of well-known figures in American life…Wilford has consulted an astonishing number of scholarly and popular accounts, along with the papers and records of some of the central participants and organizations…Wilford has mastered an enormously complex tale in almost every detail.
—The New York Times
Michael Kazin
Wilford, who was educated in Britain and teaches history at California State University Long Beach, is hardly the first author to tell such tales. But no one has written a more comprehensive or sophisticated account of the pro-American fronts from their creation in the late 1940s to the investigative report 20 years later in Ramparts magazine that first exposed the CIA's cultural offensive and left people such as Steinem with a bit of explaining to do…Wilford writes with smoothness and wit.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Well before the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union achieved a series of propaganda successes by using "front" organizations that ostensibly served independent purposes but were orchestrated by Moscow. In the late 1940s, Frank Wisner, chief of political warfare for the newly created CIA, proposed a U.S. version: a "mighty Wurlitzer" that like its namesake would play the music America desired. California State-Long Beach professor Wilford describes the "Wurlitzer" as most successful in supporting Western Europe's noncommunist leftist unions, students and intellectuals during the 1950s. As the Cold War spread, the CIA organized programs in the Third World combining development with anticommunism. The CIA was more a source of funding and fine-tuning than the master player its organizers intended; few of its front groups were unaware of the connection. What made the system work was a shared, principled and intense anticommunism combined with trust in America's intentions and capabilities. As these eroded during the Vietnam era, the Wurlitzer's music grew discordant, then ceased altogether. Wilford's conclusion that winning hearts and minds is best left to overt processes and organizations is predictable and defensible. Still, Wisner's Wurlitzer helped level the playing field at a crucial period of the Cold War. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
By turns hilarious and horrifying, the story of the CIA's attempts to disseminate anticommunist propaganda through a variety of front organizations. Since the agency's inception in 1947, writes Wilford (History/California State Univ., Long Beach), its leaders envied communist-front organizations that (they believed) accepted KGB money, slavishly carried out its wishes and won hearts and minds throughout the world. To counteract this, the CIA began funneling funds to students, unions, women's groups, political parties, governments-in-exile, arts organizations and anticommunist left-wing periodicals. Readers' jaws will drop at the Who's Who of prominent Americans who took the agency's money: Richard Wright, Gloria Steinem, a young Henry Kissinger, AFL president George Meany and the UAW's Reuther brothers, among many others. Until the mid-1960s, if an international gathering of students, women, writers, blacks or journalists took place, the CIA probably footed the bill for the American delegation. This was not viewed as hypocritical in the way it would be today, argues Wilford, whose previous scholarly publications have also dealt with the complex relationships between government agencies and private organizations. Members of the cash-strapped avant-garde and activist groups funded by the CIA were usually idealists with admirable goals. More liberal than most government departments, the agency refused McCarthy's demand to fire ex-communists and homosexuals, and the beneficiaries of its largesse often ignored the suggestions that accompanied it. Amusing passages describe CIA fronts feuding with other CIA fronts and activists on CIA expense accounts who traveled the world denouncing U.S.policies. Everything unraveled in 1967, after a series of exposes sparked by a Ramparts magazine article converted chronic rumors into headlines and Congressional investigations. Those who accepted CIA money had always worried that revelation of this link would convert their good work into a public-relations catastrophe, and that is precisely what happened. Everyone now agrees it was a bad idea from the start. Unlike Tim Weiner's brilliant Legacy of Ashes, whose litany of disastrous covert operations makes for painful reading, this superb account will provide CIA aficionados with some welcome comic relief. Agent: Felicity Bryan/Felicity Bryan Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674032569
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2009
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 637,067
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Hugh Wilford is Associate Professor of History, California State University, Long Beach.
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Table of Contents

Introduction

1. Innocents' Clubs: The Origins of the CIA Front

2. Secret Army: Émigrés

3. AFL-CIA: Labor

4. A Deep Sickness in New York: Intellectuals

5. The Cultural Cold War: Writers, Artists, Musicians, Filmmakers

6. The CIA on Campus: Students

7. The Truth Shall Make You Free: Women

8. Saving the World: Catholics

9. Into Africa: African Americans

10. Things Fall Apart: Journalists

Conclusion

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

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  • Posted September 15, 2011

    Interesting and well researched

    I bought this book to complete a paper for a class. I found it interesting. The references I found in other books and articles backed up this content. I like nonfiction reading and I recommend this to better understand the media control programs funded directly or indirectly by the CIA.

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