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What Gloria Steinem, Henry Kissinger Have in Common: CIA Pay

Bloomberg | February 22, 2008

The front organization was one of the earliest and most trusted weapons in the psychological Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

These seemingly independent and high-minded anticommunist entities were often created or co-opted by the bright young spies who became the founding fathers of the Central Intelligence Agency. Together, the groups formed what one U.S. agent called a ``Mighty Wurlitzer,'' an organ for playing variations on an anticommunist fugue.

Hugh Wilford takes that phrase as the title for his superb new account of the underground combat in ideas and checkbooks that unfolded in the 1950s and early '60s. In ``The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America,'' he explains that the U.S., in bankrolling front groups, was tacitly emulating a Soviet technique for manipulating elite and popular opinion.

Aiming to thwart the appeal of communism, the CIA and its forerunners co-opted labor unions, magazines and universities. They created scores of bogus committees and phony associations -- groups of Soviet-bloc emigres, artists and intellectuals, students, blacks and women.

The galaxy of early Cold War front organizations is studded with acronyms, conferences, disputes, conspiracy, lore and still- classified information. Wilford heroically resists getting bogged down in marginalia, keeping his narrative at a relatively high altitude over the voluminous material.

Kissinger Lures Emigres

He enlivens every chapter with sketches of larger-than-life figures: Frank Wisner, for example, was the half-mad genius who coined the Wurlitzer image; he devised elaborate subterfuges to champion freedom. Henry Kissinger, for his part, lured young emigres to Harvard seminars with government funds, Wilford says.

What of the patriotic volunteers? Gloria Steinem, the future feminist, has acknowledged that she worked for a CIA front, the amusingly named Independent Service for Information, whose purpose was to undermine a Soviet-bloc youth festival in Vienna. Tom Dooley, the celebrated humanitarian doctor in 1950s Vietnam, had no issues with his CIA cash, Wilford reports.

Neither did Eugene Groves, the president of the National Student Association -- until he finally decided the organization could no longer live a lie. The outing of that program by Ramparts magazine and its crusading editor, Warren Hinkle, exposed a spectrum of suspected front organizations, embarrassed the U.S. government and blemished the CIA for a generation.

Collateral Damage

Hypocrisy aside, the damage wasn't just to those exposed as front organizations and to the agency responsible, as Wilford reminds us. It was to all the other organizations that are truly independent and reflected genuine engagement and opinion. To this day, NGOs, charities and media organizations struggle to maintain their credibility as neutral actors against suspicions of collusion first planted in the days of the Mighty Wurlitzer.


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