WHO PAID THE PIPER? by Frances Saunders
This is a hugely significant book but don’t expect it to be an enjoyable read. Not that the author is not a competent writer; she is. She is also quite obviously a painstaking researcher. Nevertheless the reason this book reads like molasses is because of the subject matter: Ms. Saunders is writing about CIA intelligence operatives, essentially, and people like that are first handpicked for the job because of a nondescript nature, which is then (I suppose) trained and drilled and trained again to become even more nondescript, such is the requirement of a career in espionage. So Ms. Saunders is writing about people who excel at camouflaging themselves, at not standing out from the crowd, and this invariably makes for tedious reading. Still, this is extremely important and most troubling hidden history regarding America’s use of propaganda during the height of the Cold War.
Basically, the gist of the book is this: The CIA got a group of middling-to-fairly-high-level agents together, provided them with seemingly unlimited funding from the Ford Foundation and others (and many of those “others” were CIA dummy storefront operations created for the sole purpose of laundering large amounts of money), told them to round up all the intellectuals in Europe, wine and dine them, win them over to “our side,” set up a bunch of conferences about “freedom” and “democracy,” put together a few patriotic, well publicized operas, and then above all to publish CIA/Ford Foundation-funded propaganda magazines where the works of those European intellectuals who “saw the light” about the virtues of “American capitalism” and “democratic freedom” could get their stuff published and disseminated all over Europe. In short, the book documents American propaganda efforts in Europe during the height of the Cold War.
Again, it is a book that needed to be written, but again, it’s not a very fun one to read. None of these CIA characters were compelling, and some of them were inveterate scumbags, albeit boring, nondescript scumbags.
Easily the most interesting parts of the book occur when Ms. Saunders documents the extraordinary and little-known historical fact of how the CIA came to hijack the central message of George Orwell’s last two masterful novels, Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell’s message had clearly been that BOTH communism AND capitalism inevitably degenerate into what he called “oligarchical collectivism.” It might fairly be said of Orwell that he gave his very life trying to show the world, through his writing, that the Cold War was a fraud and there was no “right side” in the contest. But that did not stop the ubiquitous and amoral E. Howard Hunt and the CIA from hurriedly purchasing the film rights to Orwell’s work from Sonia Brownell, whom Orwell had recently married three months prior to his death (or murder?). Sonia Brownell, who possibly was the inspiration for Orwell’s wanton and cleverly pragmatic character “Julia” in the novel 1984, ironically sold the film rights to the CIA boys for some quick cash and a base promise that she would get to meet actor Clark Gable. (Note: Everyone agrees on the Clark Gable thing, even those who defend Brownell as a “dogged defender” of Orwell’s legacy. For this reader, this incident pretty much tells what kind of mettle this woman was made of.) Having obtained the film rights to both Animal Farm and 1984, the CIA then set about spending gads of foundation money in making film versions of both, both of which completely distorted Orwell’s main message in order to make the “capitalistic West” look like the good guys, and only Communist Russia the bad guys. If ever there was a time to use that old cliche “so-and-so must be rolling in his grave,” this was it, because Orwell’s express wishes and central message had been 180 degrees perverted; instead of his work serving to shine a light on the bogusness of the Cold War, it had been hijacked and perverted in order to serve as propaganda to fuel the very Cold War he had been trying to warn against.
As revealing as this book is, coming from a major book publisher as it does, those with discernment would expect to find occasional moments of staggering naivete on the part of the author, and boy do we ever find that. Here are a few:
1) On pages 294-295, Saunders cites that TS Eliot and another writer criticized Orwell for “faults and inconsistencies” in the plotline of Animal Farm. She seems to even takes sides with them. What she, and Eliot, didn’t do is give Orwell the benefit of the doubt for knowing exactly what he was doing when writing Animal Farm.
2) On page 303, Saunders actually swallows the CIA’s lie about the CIA not knowing what was happening during the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.
3) On pages 424-426, Saunders shows she actually believes the major media lies about the “accidental death” of former CIA director William Colby in the 1990s, and the “suicide” of Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in the 1950s. Balderdash.
Rating: Δ Δ Δ Δ