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date: 10 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each sought to portray their way of organizing society—liberal democracy or Communism, respectively—as materially and morally superior. In their bids for global leadership, each sponsored “front” groups that defended their priorities and values to audiences around the world. These campaigns frequently enrolled artists and intellectuals, whose lives, works, and prestige could be built up, torn down, exploited, or enhanced through their participation in these groups. Alongside overt diplomatic efforts, the United States funded a number of organizations secretly through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These efforts are often described as belonging to the “Cultural Cold War,” although the programs in fact supported overlapping networks that did anti-Communist work among labor unions, students, and others in addition to artists and intellectuals. The major CIA-sponsored group of intellectuals was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, established in 1950, and the “freedom” in its name was the major concept deployed by United States–aligned propagandists, to emphasize their differences from totalitarianism. The Cultural Cold War, as a program of psychological warfare conducted by the US government, grew out of the intersecting experiences of the left in the 1930s and the security apparatus of the United States at the dawn of the Cold War. The covert nature of the programs allowed them to evade scrutiny from the US Congress, and therefore to engage in activities that might otherwise have been stopped: working with people with radical political biographies or who still identified as “socialists,” or sponsoring avant-garde art, such as abstract expressionist painting. The programs spanned the globe, and grew in scope and ambition until their exposure in 1967. Subsequently, the United States has developed other mechanisms, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, to promote organizations within civil society that support its interests.

Keywords: Cultural Cold War, Central Intelligence Agency, Congress for Cultural Freedom, propaganda, US foreign policy, front groups, cultural diplomacy, abstract expressionism, ideology, psychological warfare

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