THE MIGHTY WURLITZER…how the CIA played the simple-minded American people

The Mighty Wurlitzer



A Review by David Edwards

The Mighty Wurlitzer : How The CIA Played America by Hugh

This well researched investigation by Hugh Wilford, published in
2008, reveals the extent of the covert front organisation network,
which the Central Intelligence Agency ran from its inception during
the Cold War.

“… from behind the scenes, the spies exercised complete control
over the recipients of their covert largesse. …”

Dubbed ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer’, by its architects and critics alike, the
intended implication by the Agency would have been one reflected in
the above quote. A desired projection into the current time, would be
one of an omniscient CIA and it’s larger apparatus, manipulating and
steering the unwitting American public to its ‘merry’ tune.

However, as Wilford’s book shows, in a ‘group by group’ analysis,
control over the various social, political, and labour movements,
which the CIA funded via various dummy foundations and front
groups, was not an easy task to maintain indefinitely. The Cold War
‘counter-intelligence’ network largely collapsed towards the end of the
1960s, with the Cold War consensus fragmented along ‘racial,
generational, and gender lines.’ It is up to this point where this book
inquires into the CIA’s shady past.

Of course the difficulty in investigating the history and scope of a
network shrouded in secrecy, presents its own distinct set of
problems for any researcher. Wilford himself addresses this issue in
his introduction, and the extensive appendices included in the volume
reinforce the factual basis of his analysis, where many others would
be tempted to wildly speculate on such a topic.

“… It is highly likely that we still do not know the identity of all the
groups that received covert subsidies. … it would be impossible to
discuss in detail between the covers of a single volume every
committee and project that is known to have been CIA
financed. Instead, what I have chosen to do is identify the main
groups within American society that participated in the covert

The groups analysed, and broken down by the author into chapters,
are as follows:

-Writers, Artists, Musicians, Filmmakers
-African Americans

The inspiration for the U.S. use of front organizations in 1948, and
their use for clandestine agitation against the ‘Soviet Threat’ of the
Cold War, took its inspiration from Willi Munzenberg’s ‘Innocents
Clubs’ of the early 1920s to 1940s. These were Trotskyist Socialist
Groups (financed and initiated by Munzenberg), which presented a
united bolshevik front against Fascism and Imperialism. Marxist
intellectuals, united around the exiled figure of Lenin in Zurich, set
about through the use of these front groups in 1917 in leading the
West , and eventually Russia, in a bolshevik led revolution.

“…Munzenberg’s first major assingment was to raise money for
victims of the ghastly famine that swept the Volya region of Russia in
the early 1920s. … Munzenberg’s famine appeal was a propaganda
coup, generating considerable sympathy for the Bolshevik regime,
not least in the United States…
… Out of these early efforts grew the so-called Munzenberg trust, a
vast media empire of newspapers, publishing houses, movie houses,
and theaters which ‘on paper at least,’ stretched from Berlin ‘to Paris
to London to New York to Hollywood to Shaghai to Delhi.’ The
financial profitability of these ventures has probably been
overestimated… but their effectiveness as instruments of propaganda
has not. Particularly successful were Munzenberg’s various ‘front’
groups, committees superficially devoted to some undeniably benign
cause, such as anti-imperialism, peace or anti-fascism, whose real
purpose was to defend and spread the Bolshevik revolution. …
… the front groups would never have got off the ground if they had
not also reflected the particular values and needs of the groups they
represented. …”

In the postwar period of the late 1940s, when the U.S. realised it had
a formidable ideological enemy in Stalin’s U.S.S.R, the world had
cooled into a divided and polarised situation. The Marshall Plan came
into effect in an attempt to rebuild Europe, and prevent any further
spread of communism westward. It was here that the U.S. took
inspiration from Munzenberg’s earlier model, and the Office of
Strategic Services found a new incarnation in the fight against this
new existential threat to U.S. ‘democratic’ interests.

“… The briefly fluid international situation of the immediate postwar
period had frozen into a bipolar world order in which two ideologically
opposed enemies used every means available to them, short of
direct military confrontation, to frustrate the ambitions of the other. It
was against this background of deepening international tension that
the Central Intelligence Agency was conjured into being. …
… American politicians needed to overcome the ‘popular attachment
to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war’ and
‘recognize the realities of international relations.’ … Doing so might
come easier if they realized that they were already engaged in an
overt form of political warfare without knowing it … Covert operations
of whatever kind – ‘clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements,
‘black’ psychological warfare, and even encouragement of
underground resistance in hostile states’ – were in this sense merely
an extension of existing U.S. government policies. …
… National Security Council directive 10/2, approved on June 18,
1948, superceded NSC 4-A by creating an Office of Special Projects
endowed with powers to conduct ‘any covert activities’ related to
‘propaganda, economic warfare; preventitive direct action, including
sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures;
subversion against hostile states, including assistance to
underground resistance movements, guerillas and refugee liberation
groups, and support of indigenous anticommunist elements in
threatened countries of the free world.’ …”

Many of the propaganda methods used in Europe in the 1950s
bordered on the ridiculous, for example a program involving the
spreading of anticommunist leaflets over the Iron Curtain via
balloons, almost resorted to dispersing extra large condoms marked
as ‘U.S. medium,’ in an attempt to project the perception that
American men were ambitiously well endowed. The ludicrous idea
was shelved in favour of other methods of ideological dissemination.
Another CIA propaganda method, deriving inspiration from the
Munzenberg’s bolshevik networks, was the use of radio. On July 4,
1950, the CIA funded station ‘Radio Free Europe,’ began
broadcasting U.S. propaganda through the airwaves in
Czechoslovakia. It’s success inspired various offshoots, including
‘Radio Liberation’ in Germany, and the now infamous ‘Voice of
America.’ Staffed by emigres recruited to the anticommunist cause,
the CIA funded radio stations agitated resistance against the Soviets,
sometimes leading to tragic consequences, such as the failed
uprising in Hungary in 1956, which turned into a massacre. This had
been due to disinformation, broadcasting the a promise of direct U.S.
military intervention in the country in support of the burgeoning
resistance. The ensuing body count amongst the Hungarians and
Soviet soldiers involved in the subsequent fighting was exceptionally

The use of European emigres and defectors in the anticommunist
cause, was problematic as these groups sought autonomy from
Washington, and wished to avoid direct American influence in their
efforts. All retained their left or right leaning sympathies, ethnic
differences caused increasing friction, and they also talked to
conservative U.S. congressmen. This caused a lot of awkward
inquiries, particularly during the Senator McCarthy ‘Red Scare’ witchhunts
of the 1950s. There was a congressional rejection of the use
of Radio Free Europe to broadcast coded signals (as occurred in
Poland), in favour of more overt propaganda in the form of prowestern
news stories.

Echoing Munzenberg’s own eventual resentment of his ‘innocents
clubs’, the National Committee for a Free Europe and its Office of
Policy Coordination handlers began to resent these emigre networks
and their prejudices against the U.S. hand that fed them. The
networks were also easily infiltrated by communist agents, which
presented a security nightmare of counter-productivity. The idea
became rapidly apparent that the situation needed to be brought
under more direct control of Washington. In January 1951, ‘The
American Committee for Liberation for the Peoples of the U.S.S.R’
was established to handle emigres from the Soviet Union.

“… The trouble was that the Soviet emigres proved no less conflict
ridden than the exiles from the satellite countries. …”

Amongst the emigres there was common ground in the outright
rejection of Stalinism, but the Mensheviks and intellectuals with a leftwing
bias wanted to retain the ideological beliefs of Marxism. This
caused problems amongst emigres with a right-wing bias, and this
polarisation caused obvious partisanship within the larger collective
of organisations, and a distinct lack of unity, except against the
common enemy of bolshevism. There was even flirtation with neofacism
amongst groups such as the National Union of Labor
Solidarists, who gained popularity for a while in the 1950s.

“… Together, these various groups constituted a political powder keg,
with their would-be American patrons poised to light the fuse. …”

Control over the many social groups receiving covert subsidies from
the Agency, seemed tentative at best, yet the Cold War method of
the front group subsidy continued for over a decade via the dummy
foundations and committees.

Non-Governmental Organisations and their use as ‘fronts’ for covert
operations, gave (and still give) a huge amount of potential for
administrative ‘plausible deniability’, in the face of scrutiny. A good
example of this mechanism was the National Committee for a Free
Europe, masquerading as an organisation set up and funded by
private individuals. The reality of the Committee was that it was a
clandestine front, through which covert government subsidies were
channelled to propaganda and destabilisation ventures against
Soviet efforts in Europe, and eventually against these same Soviet
efforts in the developing world.

“… The obvious wealth of the National Committee for a Free Europe
created an urgent need for a cover story. This was provided by the
‘Crusade for Freedom,’ a public fund-raising drive devised by Abbot
Washburn, an ex Office of Strategic Services officer and public
relations expert who was seconded from food conglomerate General
Mills for the purpose. Earlier in the century, the Public Relations
genius Edward L. Bernays had adapted such covert techniques as
the front organization for commercial purposes, creating, for
example, the Tobacco Society for Voice Culture, an apparently
independent group dedicated to promoting the message that smoking
improved people’s singing, on behalf of one of his clients,
Chesterfield cigarettes. During World War 2, the U.S. public relations
industry was pressed into the cause of strengthening civilian morale
through the War Advertising Council (later renamed the Advertising
Council), which encouraged the public to buy war bonds and
conserve war materials. Now, Washburn was being invited to draw
on this tradition of secret salesmanship and government service in
order to ‘sell’ the Cold War to the American public – and, in doing so,
provide a plausible explanation for the large sums of cash sitting in
the coffers of the National Committee for a Free Europe. …”

One could argue that this model of covert influence and agitation
against an ‘ideological enemy’ is still in use today in countries where
U.S. interests such as resources and continued access to them are
at stake.

The functioning of these operations depended greatly on
compartmentalisation, and those in the various groups who were
made aware of the true source of the funding (i.e. the U.S.
government via CIA conduits and its ‘dummy’ foundations) were
sworn to secrecy as they were made ‘witting’ by their CIA
handlers. The ‘unwitting’ members of these groups, usually attracted
to the various causes for anticommunist sentiments, found a deep
sense of betrayal and embarrassment when the cover of the fronts
became inevitably blown. Most radical elements preferred to believe
in some semblance of autonomy from government intervention in
their efforts. Inevitable exposure of the antithesis of their
expectations, deepened the general sense of resentment, paticularly
regarding perceptions of any group’s independence and Western
‘democracy’ as a whole. It must be crushing to realise that one’s
perceived mission has all been in the name of propaganda and
almost childish ideological antagonism.

A much lauded example of the scope of this CIA-led interfering and
manipulation is the witting part played by the great champion of
feminism, Gloria Steinem, in the Independent Research Service.

“… It was a sense of an idealistic, dynamic, even noble cause that
Steinem tried to articulate in 1967, when CIA funding of the
Independent Research Service was revealed. Among the many
individuals named in that year of revelations, Steinem was one of the
most forthright in acknowledging her wittingness and explaining the
reasons why she had become involved in a front operation. …
… more distressing for Steinem personally was the ressurection of
the episode within the women’s movement during the 1970s, when
radical feminists who objected to her relatively moderate position in
the sex war seized on it as evidence that she was a secret agent of
the patriarchal power structure. …”

The Committee of Correspondence was a 1950s women’s movement
which was co-opted by the CIA and funded via the Dearborn
Foundation. It’s story, outlined in the book, would further reinforce
those critics of Steinem, as women manipulated by an extension of
patriarchal oppression. This echoes Edward Bernays’ manipulative
use of debutantes to market cigarettes to women in his infamous
‘torches of freedom’ stunt.

Many instances such as this serve to reinforce the growing
perception that many modern ‘grassroots’ movements, such as
radical feminism and other ‘social justice’ groups, have at their heart
the shadow of clandestine funding and covert direction from think
tanks, foundations and intelligence agencies. This would reflect the
potential and continued use of the CIA ‘front,’ to enact desired social
change for globalised corporate hegemony, using unwitting dupes
such as these as the vehicle. Or maybe this perception was the
intention of such covert backing, and its inevitable exposure, to sow
confusion and destroy trust in such movements?

Where the front system really seemed to fall apart was its
involvement with journalists. It was the exposure of the extent of CIA
involvement, within the National Student Association in the U.S.
press, which brought the house of cards crashing down. The closing
chapter of the book deals largely with the sequence of events which
led to such exposures in the 1960s, when the American public began
to realise the extent which they had been played by the Mighty

The student associations were a rife recruiting ground for potential
CIA operatives, with many of the officer class fed into the system
from Ivy League schools. The neoconservative movement, it would
also seem, also had some of its roots in CIA fronted student
activism. The author gives a detailed account of Henry Kissinger’s
pivotal role in the co-opting of student activism by the CIA. There is
no doubt that he was ‘witting’ as to the extent of these operations.

“… it does seem probable that someone of Kissinger’s political
acumen could have dealt as extensively as he did with the CIA
without having some inkling of just whom he was doing business
with. …”

Another neoconservative policy-maker who had an active role in the
CIA student front operation, whose ideas have shaped the current
geopolitical landscape, is Zbigniew Brzezinski. An anecdotal retelling
of his anticommunist hijinks whilst at an international student
conference, gives a hint as to his ‘wittingness’ with regards to CIA
involvement in student affairs.

The use of this ‘front’ system does bear the hallmarks of syndicated
crime. The more the reader discovers in Wilford’s book, the harder it
is not to see this kind of structural metaphor applied to the way the
Agency has gone, and in all likelihood still goes, about its business.

The application of the ‘front’ model, originally intended for use
regarding eastern bloc ’emigres’, evolved far beyond mere
‘intelligence gathering’ and counter-espionage. The chapter on the
‘Cultural Cold War’, gives insight into the Agency’s use of writers,
artists and film-makers to combat Soviet movements in similar
fields. Indeed, the funding and covert encouragement of the
modernist movement in painting, was a direct response to Soviet
officials derogation of American culture as unintellectual. The CIA’s
direct commissioning of an animated version of George Orwell (Eric
Blair)’s ‘Animal Farm’, went far beyond the mere assigning of funds,
as Agency operatives dictated creative decisions, and even rewrote
the ending of the story. It would appear that this adaptation was the
Agency’s only direct film project, but there was, and still continues to
be, involvement and even censorship on the part of the CIA in the
form of ‘advisers’ within the Hollywood system.

This book offers many fascinating insights into the known methods,
which an intelligence agency such as the CIA used, of covert
manipulation of social ‘activism’ during the Cold War. It would be
naive to think that such activities have wholly ceased in our time, but
with the veil of official secrecy it is difficult to have a current and
objective view as to the level of manipulation that affects our
society. It seems counter productive, in what is perceived to be an
open and free society in the West, to have to protect ‘freedom’
through manipulating in secret. This would indicate a more sinister
agenda of social control at work, and it is certainly worth considering
whether it is worth supporting, if these are the methods needed to
propagate it.

“… There is perhaps a lesson to be learned here by those currently
concerned about improving the United States’s image
abroad. Indeed, a number of the issues raised by the history of the
Mighty Wurlitzer are very much alive today, at a time when the CIA
still holds a large stake in areas of American civil society. …
… If anything, these practices have intensified in recent years, with
the ‘war on terror’ recreating the conditions of total mobilization that
prevailed in the first years of the Cold War. …
… The front group also has in recent years undergone a revival of
sorts. Neoconservative intellectuals have employed tactics and
techniques first used on American soil by the old Left during the
1930s, which were then resurrected by a CIA front, the American
Committee for Cultural Freedom, during the 1950s. Ventures such
as the Project for a New American Century prosecute
the neoconservatives’ notion of a ‘global democratic revolution’ in the
Middle East. …
… the fact remains that the front tactic was based on secrecy and
deception, making it all the more problematic when undertaken in a
nation avowedly dedicated to the principles of freedom and
openness. …”