Joel Whitney Talks Finks, His New Book Revealing “How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers”Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan Books Features Joel Whitney
The CIA’s mystique during the Cold War was undeniable, as the Agency became a symbol for indiscretions in the name of advancing the United States’ international influence. In Joel Whitney’s new book, Finks, the author explores the CIA’s specific role in combating Soviet propaganda by creating its own. The text chronicles the relationships between the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) and the literary community, revealing how the Agency helped fund literary magazines around the world, including The Paris Review.
During the process of launching the magazine Guernica, Whitney had often encountered an idea that politics and literature should be separate. It was something that stuck with him.
“It never landed right and I never forgot about it,” Whitney says in an interview with Paste.
Then he learned something that seemed to counter that very thought while watching Immy Humes’ documentary about her father and The Paris Review co-founder H.L. “Doc” Humes. The film discusses the CIA’s role in establishing the supposedly apolitical magazine, so Whitney decided to do some digging. What he discovered was a network of funding and operatives that connected the Ivy League, some of literature’s biggest names and the CIA’s propaganda machine.
Although arrangements varied, the case of The Paris Review stands out. The CCF paid the magazine’s founders—Humes, Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton—a fee in exchange for their famed Art of Fiction interviews, which would then be syndicated in other publications. The CCF also funneled money to the founders through various organizations, and in turn the magazine’s editorial policy was apolitical in name but aligned with the CIA’s larger mission of promoting American culture. Elsewhere, editors involved with the CIA published anti-Soviet works, like Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, and also suppressed work seen as too critical of U.S. policy, including that of Dwight MacDonald and Emily Hahn.
Funding played a key role in these arrangements, just as it does for publications today. The question of how to secure funding for niche publications is nothing new, and it’s something that Whitney himself has experienced. That perspective lends the book a nuance that many in publishing will likely find familiar, as famed writers and editors had to decide what they were and weren’t comfortable with in the name of a paycheck.
“I have a lot of sympathy for individual artists and creators who are trying to find their way and find funding,” Whitney says, noting that he supports robust government funding for the arts when the lines between the funding source and creative side are clearly drawn and respected. “I’m pretty far from a purist. As a founding board member of Guernica, I am always sympathetic to people who want to make a magazine legacy last by securing stable funding.”
Like many writers and editors who might see some of their own moral dilemmas reflected back to them—albeit on a much grander level—Whitney comes to the topic with a duality of experience.
“It involves my different selves,” he says. “One day I’m a writer who is doing a sort of dissenting take on the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and the next day I’m a Guernica board member thinking with my board to figure out where our next meal will come from.”
Perhaps most surprising, though, is that one gets the sense that none of the CIA’s arrangements were much of a secret.
“It seems to be that it was discussed in private among friends more than it was discussed in public, but that’s the nature of an open secret,” Whitney says, although there were a few exceptions.
But Finks isn’t a cut-and-dry case of black and white. Although the CIA’s use of unwitting authors in their propaganda wing is unsettling (and many of their tactics far more chilling), the context in which these relationship developed complicates matters. As Whitney points out, the fear of the Soviet threat was gripping in the 1950s, even though we now understand it to have been greatly overstated. But that fear acted as a motivator for the CIA to use all of the tools at their disposal to fight the enemy, including cultural soft power.
“The takeaway for me was how terrible long-term decisions can be made in a moment of terror, because eventually that terror can go away and can be seen as overblown,” Whitney says.
Among those decisions made in fear was censorship. Editors at publications like The Paris Review and The Kenyon Review acted as gatekeepers who adhered to a vague set of guidelines and determined what was “responsible” to print. In the case of Emily Hahn, who wrote a piece on U.S. policy in China that was deemed too critical to publish, there’s a paper trail that shows what direct censorship looked like.
“Emily Hahn’s example made some of Congress for Cultural Freedom brass so annoyed that they went on the record behind the scenes in a letter—which survived—reminding their operatives or editors that anything controversial had to be shown to the CIA brass,” Whitney says. “That doesn’t speak well for the CIA’s notion of cultural freedom if they thought they needed to censor the editors they had selected.”
To further complicate the narrative, the work being done by publications like The Paris Review has always been strong, even when hemming to the CIA’s line. As Whitney explains, the writers who were championed by these publications are still among the most celebrated of our time, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway and James Baldwin.
But Finks demonstrates, there was an eventual backlash in the literary community against these arrangements with the CIA. As the Agency’s image became tainted by covert operations around the globe, many left-leaning writers and editors began opting out of the propaganda machine they had once turned to for funding. The irony, of course, is that by turning away from the CIA, many writers became the best case for the very values the CIA had hoped to promote through the CCF.
“A lot of the ones we still admire and want to admire for their work came out on the right side of this,” Whitney says. “If they kept their independent thought intact and kept their ability to dissent, then they were the best exemplars of American freedom of thought and cultural freedom.”