Hey! Randy

Off Key

Posted by heyrandy on July 31, 2009

The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, Hugh Wilford, Harvard University Press, 2009. 342p

I am beginning to think the creation of the CIA is the worst thing to happen to America.  First I read Proudy’s The Secret Team (reviewed here).  Then I read the Invisible Government. Now I get music lessons.

The Mighty Wurlitzer details how from 1947 to 1968, the so called golden years of  American espionage, the CIA used front organizations to fund its Cold War propaganda operations.  The name comes from Frank Wisner, a major CIA officer, who made the  statement that the Agency had a system of front organizations that like a giant organ could play any propaganda tune.

It played many tunes, mostly with sour notes.  There was almost no aspect of American life that did not have a chord in this performance.  The Agency used various foundations to fund everything from labor unions to student associations.  It used Catholic priests, Africian-American dissidents, and a lot of news organizations.

Most of the people used did not know the true source of their funding.  Only the most senior officers of these front organizations were, in CIA language, “witting.”  However, a good many of the “unwitting” suspected that the immediate source of funding was not the ultimate source.  Few objected to taking the money.

The golden age ended and the Wurlitzer fell silent, sort of, when an upstart, iconoclastic publication, Ramparts, published a story about the real funding of the National Students Association.  A former head of the Association, recently disaffected by the CIA’s use of his group, told Ramparts’ editor of the matter.  The magazine conducted an investigation, found out the truth, and published it.

The CIA had found out that the story was due in the next issue, of the Agency went into defensive mode.  When there were prior exposures of Agency involvement, the Agency and the organization affected strongly denied the claims until both parties had to admit the claims were true.  Denial was not going to work this time.  By the late 1960’s the mood of the country had changed.  The Agency new it had to do something different.  It chose damage control.  The idea was to emasculate  the magazine’s story by making it old news.  The National Students Association would simply hold a press conference admitting to the taking of Agency money.  It would also say that it no longer took such funds (this is true).  But Ramparts had informants inside the Association and knew of the plan.  To counter this, the magazine took out full page newspaper ads promoting the the story.  In a sense the magazine scooped itself.

This stratagem worked very well.  There was enormous media coverage of the story.  The Agency was embarrassed.  This was the real end of the Wurlitzer.  The major news organizations had long cooperated with the Agency, running stories favorable to the Agency and suppressing stories the Agency didn’t want published.  No more.  Or so we are told.

I found Wilton’s story interesting, but his writing style is dull.  There frequent usage of the tried and true cliche.  There are modifiers that are throughout the book misplaced.

The Wurlitzer had a long recital, but played the wrong tune.  The Agency spent millions in this propaganda effort, yet the results were minimal.  Given the Agency’s support of even more nefarious projects, the Wurlitzer concerts are just a minor cacophany.

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