‘Rockers and spies’ – how the CIA used culture to shred the iron curtain

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Musicians and artists were all enlisted to assert US power in the cold war. A new podcast explores the part the agency played

Two memories: one, from November 1989, of a crowded bar at 3am in Berlin, not far from the wall breached just 36 hours beforehand. My brother and I are in town for the craic and biggest street party of all time. An awful band called Eurocheque strikes up a cover of the Scorpions’ Big City Nights and, inebriated, the crowd joins in. An elderly couple from the eastern sector two-steps to the beat. It’s very moving. A few months earlier, the Scorpions had played a music festival in Moscow, and were already working on their most famous song: Wind of Change.

Second memory: the less epic surroundings of Mote Park, Kent, three decades later. The Scorpions, this time for real, with bedazzling lightshow and backdrop of peace signs on a holograph of the Berlin Wall; Klaus Meine – born 1948, year of the Berlin blockade – singing Wind of Change through a chilly night. “The world is closing in/ Did you ever think/That we could be so close, like brothers … ?

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Two memories: one, from November 1989, of a crowded bar at 3am in Berlin, not far from the wall breached just 36 hours beforehand. My brother and I are in town for the craic and biggest street party of all time. An awful band called Eurocheque strikes up a cover of the Scorpions’ Big City Nights and, inebriated, the crowd joins in. An elderly couple from the eastern sector two-steps to the beat. It’s very moving. A few months earlier, the Scorpions had played a music festival in Moscow, and were already working on their most famous song: Wind of Change.

Second memory: the less epic surroundings of Mote Park, Kent, three decades later. The Scorpions, this time for real, with bedazzling lightshow and backdrop of peace signs on a holograph of the Berlin Wall; Klaus Meine – born 1948, year of the Berlin blockade – singing Wind of Change through a chilly night. “The world is closing in/ Did you ever think/That we could be so close, like brothers … ?

Now, it turns out, that sparkler-swaying anthem may have been contrived by US intelligence as cultural subversion of communism. An upcoming podcast series, Wind of Change, by the New Yorker’s Pat Radden Keefe, investigates whether it was – as the journalist was told a decade ago – actually a CIA-crafted confection.

The producers can be sure of an audience for Keefe’s exploration of “the dark byways of cold war history and … nearly a hundred interviews in four countries with rockers and spies”. But if the song was created by the agency, this was nothing new – indeed, it would have been a late arrival to a policy and practice almost as long-established as the Berlin Wall itself.

The CIA had built a facade of front structures, in pursuit of American cultural hegemony

As the United States and Soviet Union amassed sufficient nuclear arsenals to blow the world up several times over, and – respectively – installed murderous dictatorships across Latin America and colonised Eastern Europe, each also stirred riptides of cultural subversion, one of the other. It wasn’t until 1990 that a book by Joseph Nye gave all this a name: Soft Power, exerted “when one country gets other countries to do want what it wants”.

From 1947, Voice of America radio diverted its attentions from wartime to cold war, broadcasting to the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries. But the CIA had also built a facade of front structures in pursuit of American cultural hegemony, beginning with the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which claimed indirect influence over 800 publications, and in 1950 the International Organisations Division under a former secretary general of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Thomas Braden.

Appalled at the appeal of communism in Europe, these agencies waged cultural cold war against serial Soviet “peace initiatives”. A CIA-run Congress for Cultural Freedom was coordinated by Russian composer and writer Nicolas Nabokov, exiled in the US, with offices in 35 countries, funded and tasked to mount exhibitions, stage concerts and sponsor anti-communist activity, in intellectual disguise.

Among its apparently benign charges was the vibrant, impeccably liberal, Encounter magazine, based in London and edited by Stephen Spender.

Music, even before the Scorpions, was always central. Modernist orchestral music was anathema to the Soviets, and the imposition of classical forms a pillar of domestic cultural orthodoxy. At the centre of the tussle was the 20th century’s greatest composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, who worked on a knife-edge dais between innovation and censorship for what the communist cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov called “formalism” from the decadent west. The CIA was among many trying to secure his defection when Josef Stalin released Shostakovich to address the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York in 1949.

But Shostakovich frustrated and confounded his western supporters. He returned to Russia and enabled the USSR to present him as a loyal comrade, a claim as outrageous as attempts in the west, from the mid-1970s until the present, to ventriloquise Shostakovich as a political dissident.

Soviet contempt for western modernism was an invitation to US intelligence to promote such music. Accordingly, in 1952, the CCF coordinated the Festival of Twentieth-Century Masterpieces of Modern Arts, in Paris. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was flown at State Department expense to perform Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; Braden remarked that the performance “brought more acclaim for the US than Dwight Eisenhower could in a hundred speeches”.

Russia was equally canny: the Leningrad Philharmonic toured the BBC Proms and other venues in 1971 (I was among those who gratefully benefited) and even kept its “touring conductor”, Arvid Jansons, on hand as principal guest conductor at the Hallé orchestra in Manchester.

The visual arts scene was also fertile terrain. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine a world divided between socialist realism in the Soviet Union and abstract expressionism as a tool of the CIA in defence of the west. But that is how the agency saw innovations pioneered by Jackson Pollock and others.

Abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock in his studio in 1953. Photograph: Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images

Joseph McCarthy’s acolytes in purging the American left found abstract expressionism “unAmerican”. But the CIA begged to differ, finding in the new art an assertive individualism – in stark contrast to the collectivist confinements of socialist realism.

The centre of gravity in fine art shifted from Paris to New York. In her book on the cultural cold war, Who Paid the Piper?, Frances Stonor Saunders says the CIA deported itself “in the manner of a Renaissance prince, except that it acted secretly”.

The artists – Pollock especially, but also Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning – benefited from CIA-backed international promotion, despite their political views.

The same irony applied to jazz, still largely black music in the US, where artists’ tours, like everything else, were segregated. But the racial origins of jazz had been used in propaganda against Nazi Germany, so why not red Russia?

The genius of Louis Armstrong was pounced upon, and the trumpeter appointed a “goodwill jazz ambassador”, dispatched on government-funded tours of Europe and Africa, while Jim Crow laws applied at home.

Jazz “ambassadors”, however, proved less manageable than the painters. Armstrong withdrew from the post – reneging on what was intended to be a showcase tour of the USSR – after President Eisenhower refused deployment of troops to enforce desegregation laws of 1957. “Satchmo” resumed tours when the policy was reversed and a division mobilised in Arkansas.

Louis Armstrong playing at Lucerna Hall, Prague, in 1965. Photograph: Vaclav Chocola/All Out Productions

Dizzy Gillespie joined the first State Department-organised tour in 1956, but wouldn’t attend official briefings, saying he “wasn’t going to apologise for the racist policies of America”. The white jazz pianist Dave Brubeck was another “ambassador” for US cultural policy, dispatched much later, on a 13-concert tour of the USSR in 1985.

The CIA’s most infamous meddling with literature concerned Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. Copies of the former – deemed anti-communist commentary - were carried across the Iron Curtain by air balloon, while the French Communist Party ordered its members to mass-purchase, then destroy, copies.

Everyone knows that Orwell held dictatorships of all political colours in equal contempt, and that the closing scene in Animal Farm featuring humans and pigs can refer to both systems.

But Stonor Saunders’ book uncovered a scheme by the CIA to secure film rights to Animal Farm in order to doctor its ending, and show a revolt against the pigs, with the other tyrants – humans – omitted.

The CIA also changed the ending of the movie version of 1984, in defiance of Orwell’s instructions. In the novel, the protagonist Winston Smith is cowered by the generic totalitarian regime; its last line is: “He loved Big Brother.” But in the film Winston and his lover, Julia, are shot down after the former declaims: “Down with Big Brother!”

Significantly, though, whatever impact the CIA’s efforts may or may not have had, they were overtaken by the avant-garde’s own potency. By the late 1960s, cultural foment was off the leash worldwide, and the new music – integrated into protest and peace movements antagonistic towards both capitalism and communism – cut both ways in terms of the cold war. And where rock ’n’ roll culture was eroding the latter, it needed little help from US intelligence.

Although the Prague Spring of 1968 was crushed, a band called Plastic People of the Universe chipped away at the edifice of Czech communism, only because, as keyboard player Joseph Janiček told me: “In Prague in 1968, if you wanted to play your own music you became political whether you intended it or not, because the authorities deemed that you were a threat to their ‘official’ culture.” The eventual “Velvet” revolution was so-called not because of any CIA shenanigans, but in part the influence of the Velvet Underground on the Plastics and their champion, Václav Havel.

By the time Bruce Springsteen played Chimes of Freedom in East Berlin in 1988 – one of the most politically charged performances ever – no one was in any doubt what was happening: the CIA was irrelevant.

But then, after that festival in Moscow in August 1989, the Scorpions released Wind of Change, with its references to the Moskva river and Gorky Park. This lyrical celebration of the proclaimed new world order sits oddly in the band’s other material from that time, markedly Crazy World, with its disillusionment: “Spend your dollars and roubles / Buy a piece of the wall … I’m so sick of it all”.

So we’ll see what Keefe’s podcast turns up. Meanwhile, the British writer Robert Winder is about to publish a book about soft power in a post-Scorpions world, and he wonders: “It is hard in these Trump-damaged times even to recall the cultural moment when a pianist, Dave Brubeck, could be told, on a 1958 tour of Poland: ‘What you brought wasn’t just jazz. It was the Grand Canyon. It was America’.”


The first of eight episodes of Pat Radden Keefe’s podcast, Wind of Change, will be broadcast on Spotify on 11 May.


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