How's this for classified intelligence? Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak's seminal novel, was used as a propaganda tool during the Cold War. Initially condemned by the Soviet government as a criticism of the 1917 revolution, the book was never released in the USSR. Never ones to miss a trick, the CIA smelled an opportunity: they wanted to covertly distribute the book to force USSR citizens to question why their government had banned it, and stir unrest as a result.
"We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government," reads a recently disclosed CIA document, "when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read." The novel later won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was adapted for film starring Julie Christie.
But illegally distributing Dr Zhivago isn't the only shady deed the US has carried out in the name of propaganda: last week, it was reported that a government agency had invested an estimated $1.6 million to create Cuban Twitter, a communications network designed to undermine the communist Cuban government. The young Cubans using the network had no idea they were part of a US propaganda campaign. So how else has the CIA used culture to influence the rest of the world?
This might seem completely improbable due to the American backlash against modern art in the 50s and 60s, but the CIA actually promoted the avant-garde art movement, Abstract Expressionism (proponenets of which included painters like Jackson Pollock and Rothko) around the world to reinforce America's status as the world's leading cultural country, a land of free artistic expression and new ideas. The message: Russian art, restricted by communism and the looming influence of Socialist Realism, could never compete with the free-spirited, renegade approach of American artists.
In 1950, the CIA set up the International Organisations Division, led by Tom Braden. It also supported American jazz musicians, opera, intellectual journals, and funded the Boston Symphony's Orchestra's world tour. Braden told the Independent in 1995: "We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War."
The CIA have been helping Hollywood out for years. In Tricia Jenkins' book The CIA in Hollywood, she reveals how the government spy agency have served as production advisors on films as recent as Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. It makes sense – for the sake of realism, directors of military or spy films need access to equipment and insider knowledge. But it also works both ways: as Paul Barry, a CIA liason to the entertainment industry, puts it in the book, "Hollywood is the only way the public learns about the Agency."
But the CIA won't throw cash and consultants at any old script – and certainly not Matt Damon's agent-gone-rogue Bourne trilogy. One of the CIA consultants ended up denying assistance to The Bourne Supremacy, noting that the script was an "ugly" and "egregious misrepresentation" of the Agency's work. The script wound up being chucked in the CIA "burn bag", but the movie still ended up being made.
Sometimes, prime examples of US propaganda can have very contemporary political implications. Rocky IV, which chronicles Rocky Balboa's fight against the USSR's Ivan Drago, is often held up as a characteristic piece of adrenalin-pumping, anti-Soviet cultural propaganda and became the highest-grossing film in the Rocky franchise. But the film also has cultural resonance today: in February, US Foreign Secretary John Kerry warned Putin off interfering in Ukraine, telling Putin that "this is not Rocky IV". Wonder who'll win this time.
I Led Three Lives was an American TV show based on the life of Herbert Philbrick, an FBI informant who spent nine years undercover with the US Communist Party (it was also apparently Lee Harvey Oswald's favourite show). Philbrick became a right-wing American hero when he testified against the party in 1949. The show's content was considered so sensitive that the FBI and Edgar J Hoover screened each episode prior to transmission.
The CIA's hand in television didn't end in the 50s, either – CIA representatives acted as consultants for TV shows as recently as Alias, the J.J. Abrams TV show starring Jennifer Garner as an undercover agent. In 2004, Garner even repaid the favour by starring in a recruitment video for the Agency.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot
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