National Security & Defense

Ramparts, the CIA, and Cold War Revisionism

In looking for liberal turncoats, Patriotic Betrayal ignores George Kennan and Cold War realism.

The cover of Karen M. Paget’s Patriotic Betrayal consists entirely of an extraordinary advertorial instructing readers how they should think about the book’s revelations. The text declares that in February 1967, “CIA director Richard Helms had, as he would later recall, ‘one of my darkest days,’ when President Lyndon Johnson told him that the muckraking magazine Ramparts was about to expose one of the Agency’s best-kept secrets: a covert project to enroll American students in the crusade against communism.” Asserting that the Ramparts article revealed only “a small part of the story of the CIA’s two-decades-long effort to ensnare the National Student Association,” the cover then boasts that Paget “tells the rest of the tale, which reads like a John le Carré novel, filled with self-serving rationalizations, layers of duplicity, and bureaucratic double talk.” It also claims that Paget “throws a sharp light on the persistent argument, heard even today, about whether America’s national-security interests can be secured by skullduggery and deception.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I winced when I read those words. That’s because I was one of the editors of Ramparts and the principal author of the article exposing the CIA’s covert funding of the NSA, only one part of an elaborate web of anti-Communist citizen groups supported by the spy agency during the first decades of the Cold War. Other recipients of CIA funds were intellectual magazines such as The New Leader and Encounter; several American labor unions; and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, founded in 1950 by a group of public intellectuals that included Arthur Koestler, Sidney Hook, and James Burnham.

I don’t dispute the book’s contention that my 9,000-word article didn’t tell the full story of the CIA/NSA relationship. Paget’s 500-page volume certainly provides lots of new and interesting details — as well it should, since the author devoted almost two decades to researching and writing her version of the affair. During that time she obtained access to thousands of pages of newly declassified U.S.-government documents, read through all the student group’s internal archives, and interviewed more than 150 of the major players from the CIA and the NSA. (Generous funding for Paget’s project was supplied by George Soros’s Open Society Institute.)

Paget relentlessly pursued the story for all those years in part because she felt personally damaged by the CIA operation. Fifty years ago she was an idealistic college student from Iowa who was active in student government on her campus. She then began attending NSA conventions, and after her husband became an officer of the student group, the young couple moved to Washington, D.C. As Paget recounts, one day, completely out of the blue, she was summoned to meet with someone who announced that he was her husband’s CIA case officer and that the agency was secretly funding the NSA. She was told that her husband had already signed a non-disclosure agreement, and she was asked to do so as well. Paget was then warned that violation of the agreement’s secrecy clause could lead to criminal penalties. With no time to think about all the implications, she agreed to sign the document.

Paget came to believe that she had been duped by her own government for the purposes of an illegitimate anti-Communist political crusade. She portrays herself as one of the hundreds of innocent young people victimized by the CIA. But her indictment goes far beyond making the case that the Truman administration’s decision to secretly use American students in the Cold War struggle against Communism got out of hand and undermined America’s constitutional principles. Instead, she insists that it was the political ideology of “liberal anti-Communism” that constituted the original sin leading to the “betrayal” of democracy alluded to in the book’s title. Paget tracks this political aberration all the way back to the late 1930s, when leading American liberals allegedly abandoned their principles and began purging Communists from the ranks of “progressive” organizations.

Despite all the additional CIA secrets the author has unearthed, this is very bad history. It is Cold War revisionism at its worst, with Paget’s scholarship focused almost entirely on the deceptions of American policymakers, with virtually no scrutiny of the intentions and policies of those on the other side of the Cold War. Proof of this is the fact that, among the hundreds of names of key actors from the U.S. government, the CIA, and the NSA cited in Paget’s book, there is not a single reference to George F. Kennan. This is a little like writing a history of the Protestant Reformation without mentioning Martin Luther.

Let’s consider some essential facts of Cold War history that seem to have escaped Paget.

It was not a “liberal anti-Communist,” but rather Kennan, a professional diplomat, who provided the political analysis that convinced the Truman administration to create covert programs to counteract Communist front organizations in Europe. Kennan was the most knowledgeable observer of Soviet affairs in the U.S. diplomatic service. As World War II ended, he held the No. 2 position in the American embassy in Moscow. In January 1946, his State Department superiors asked him to provide an evaluation of Soviet intentions in Europe. Kennan drafted a prescient memorandum declaring that the Stalinist dictatorship was committed to a course of territorial expansion that could not be countered by the United States through traditional diplomacy or the negotiation of treaties.

Kennan’s analysis was published a year later in the influential journal Foreign Affairs under the title “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” The pseudonymous article (the byline was “X”) proposed that the United States embark on “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.”

Kennan also made this bold prediction:

The United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.

(Emphasis added.)

Kennan stressed that the new threat facing the United States had more than a military dimension. The international Communist movement had become adept at advancing Soviet interests through the use of front organizations operating freely within the Western democracies. These “progressive” groups spoke in innocent-sounding slogans about the need for disarmament, world peace, and social justice, while hiding the fact that they were controlled by Moscow. If the new policy of containment was to be effective, it would have to supplement Western military preparedness with a program to mobilize pro-democracy civic groups in the U.S. and Europe (e.g., students, labor unions, artists, and writers) to oppose the Communist propaganda machine. Anticipating the problems that might be created for these ostensibly independent citizen groups if it became known that they were accepting subsidies from the U.S. government, Kennan recommended that they be funded covertly.

Kennan’s containment theory assumed that America would be able to block any Soviet military encroachments while carrying on the anti-Communist struggle in the political, economic, and cultural spheres. If the U.S. succeeded, Soviet Communism could ultimately be defeated without risking nuclear confrontation. Kennan’s analysis helped turn the tide within the upper reaches of the Truman administration toward a more aggressive policy toward the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Foreign Affairs article might have had more influence on the emerging Cold War consensus in Washington than even Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech, delivered in Fulton, Mo., in March 1946.

Kennan was soon called back from Moscow and promoted to the position of director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff. The diplomat-turned-cold-warrior then established a new subagency, called the Office of Special Projects (soon changed to the Office of Policy Coordination), and was given the green light to develop initiatives to counteract the Soviets’ international front groups. That’s how the CIA’s secret funding of the NSA began.

Thus the historical record is quite clear: The person most responsible for inspiring the government’s secret funding of the NSA was not a “liberal anti-Communist.” Kennan was a foreign-policy “realist” who was thinking of how best to advance the national interests of the United States. (Whether he was right or wrong is another matter.) The trouble is that Paget writes Kennan out of her history altogether. Instead, she begins her book with an irrelevant, almost silly account of Eleanor Roosevelt’s anti-Communist political activities in the late 1930s. Poor Eleanor is fingered by Paget for trying to expel Communists from progressive student groups after the signing of the Nazi–Soviet pact.

According to Paget, “the emergence of a liberal anticommunist doctrine between 1939 and 1946 reshaped the American political landscape. It caused Democratic President Harry S. Truman to fire his secretary of commerce, Henry Wallace, formerly Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, for advocating cooperation with the Soviet Union.” Paget then concludes that this poison of liberal anti-Communism led directly to “swelling the ranks of Cold Warriors willing to combat the Soviet Union by any means necessary.”

Paget is nostalgic not only for the late-1930s popular front, in which liberals and Communists worked side by side to combat fascism and reaction, but also for the fellow-traveling Henry Wallace. Yet she does not provide a shred of proof linking the liberal anti-Communism of the late 1930s to the Truman administration’s post–World War II policy decision to fund groups such as the NSA. That neglect of evidence makes this book another one-sided Cold War history in the tradition of the radical popular historian Howard Zinn.

If Paget is wrong in identifying the origins of the CIA/NSA relationship, she’s even farther off the mark in describing the end of the affair. You might think that any serious historical evaluation of the CIA’s covert-funding operations would at least take into account the fact that the United States won the Cold War — exactly as George Kennan predicted in 1947. Forty-two years after the Foreign Affairs article, the Berlin Wall came down. A few years after that, the world witnessed the “breakup” of the Soviet Union that Kennan also predicted. Neither of these seismic political events is even mentioned by Karen Paget.

Instead, she ends her book with a melodramatic account of how the CIA mounted one last covert operation intended to head off publication of the Ramparts article. She titillates readers with excerpts from declassified CIA files, which discuss efforts to intimidate or discredit the magazine’s editors. Paget confirms something that my Ramparts colleagues and I had always suspected: Our personal income-tax records were examined and our editorial offices in San Francisco were bugged. Various other “dirty tricks” against the magazine were also discussed by CIA and FBI officials in Washington, D.C. Paget makes it sound even more sinister by quoting one of the young researchers working on the Ramparts story as saying he feared for his life because of the work he was doing for the magazine.

It’s all part of an aura Paget is trying to create of an out-of-control secret government working to silence independent journalists, which, as she tells it, led to the “suppression of dissent and pursuit of the dissenters.” According to Paget, this was inevitable, all part of the bitter, anti-democratic legacy of Cold War liberal anti-Communism.

But Paget seems to have missed the true political significance of the Ramparts story. Contrary to her insinuations, we Ramparts editors weren’t harmed in the least by the “secret government.” If truth be told, we all prospered, both individually and in advancing our radical political agenda. We were instantly treated as heroes by the liberal establishment, the same one that Paget faults for its allegedly rigid anti-Communism. The New York Times ran a laudatory story about Ramparts on its front page, along with a picture of me, editor Warren Hinckle, and managing editor Robert Scheer. We then won the prestigious George Polk Award for investigative reporting. The magazine’s newsstand sales shot up to more than 200,000 per issue, an unheard-of number at the time for a leftist publication. Paid advertising also picked up, and several wealthy liberals came forward, eager to invest in our exotic media venture.

Robert Hinckle, author Sol Stern, and Robert Scheer

Ramparts’ rise to celebrity status heralded a new era marked by the media’s tilt to the left. After we published the NSA story, Tom Wicker, the Times’s prize-winning D.C. bureau chief, assembled a team of experienced reporters to follow the money trail from the CIA-connected foundations we named in the article. The Washington Post jumped in with its own reporting team. Turning up new connections almost every day, the newspapers described how legitimate tax-exempt foundations laundered millions of dollars from the CIA and passed the funds to the NSA and other citizen groups.

Looking back now, I see the Ramparts story as one of the crucial turning points in the real history of postwar American liberalism. In the face of the assault on the liberal worldview by the New Left radicalism of the 1960s, of which Ramparts was just one prominent example, liberals quickly lost their nerve. Instead of celebrating their own movement’s contributions to the many successes of U.S. Cold War policy — i.e., blocking Soviet expansionism and preserving Western Europe’s freedom — many prominent liberals now began to accept our radical critique of American foreign policy and to feel guilty about the excesses of the Cold War. It was the beginning of the liberals’ shift from stalwart anti-Communism to anti-anti-Communism.

The publisher’s boast that this book is as readable as a John le Carré thriller is risible. There’s too much tedious detail in Paget’s narrative for any such comparison. But there is another sense in which le Carré is a very appropriate point of reference for what Paget is trying to do. For John le Carré’s spy novels are perhaps the most eloquent expression of the Cold War exhaustion expressed by sophisticated liberal opinion beginning in the 1960s. To wit, the CIA is no better than the KGB. They spy, we spy. They manipulate their students and intellectuals for narrow national advantage, and so do we. Logically, then, it is not our Cold War enemies, but the very act of fighting the Cold War that becomes the greatest threat to our democratic values.

It is exactly in this vein that Paget’s book cries out: If only the popular front had been reconstituted after World War II, if only Henry Wallace had stayed on as Roosevelt’s vice president, then all the ugliness of the CIA/NSA covert operation would not have happened. Yet Paget is not content to merely present a historical critique of Cold War liberalism. She also wants her book to serve as a cautionary tale for our own turbulent times, a warning to “those who believe that the kind of Cold War operations documented in this book should be replicated to fight radical Islam.”

Unfortunately, there’s not much danger of anything like that happening right now. The liberals who currently make foreign policy for the United States, and who have cleansed themselves of the historical sin of rigid anti-Communism, aren’t about to be tempted to use any of those old Cold War methods against America’s new foreign enemies. And it certainly won’t happen as long as the president of the United States refuses to even name those enemies. We can only hope that another George F. Kennan emerges to make the case for an aggressive new containment policy against the forces of radical Islam and sells it to the next administration — including the mobilization of pro-democracy citizen groups willing to take up the long struggle against the new totalitarian threat to our civilization and our freedoms.

— Sol Stern is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

Sol Stern — Tim Worstall is an occasional Times contributor and freelance writer whose work has appeared in TCS Daily, The Press Gazette, The Daily Telegraph, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications.


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