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The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America

4.0 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674026810
ISBN-10: 0674026810
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Well before the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union achieved a series of propaganda successes by using front organizations that ostensibly served independent purposes but were orchestrated by Moscow. In the late 1940s, Frank Wisner, chief of political warfare for the newly created CIA, proposed a U.S. version: a mighty Wurlitzer that like its namesake would play the music America desired. California State–Long Beach professor Wilford describes the Wurlitzer as most successful in supporting Western Europe's noncommunist leftist unions, students and intellectuals during the 1950s. As the Cold War spread, the CIA organized programs in the Third World combining development with anticommunism. The CIA was more a source of funding and fine-tuning than the master player its organizers intended; few of its front groups were unaware of the connection. What made the system work was a shared, principled and intense anticommunism combined with trust in America's intentions and capabilities. As these eroded during the Vietnam era, the Wurlitzer's music grew discordant, then ceased altogether. Wilford's conclusion that winning hearts and minds is best left to overt processes and organizations is predictable and defensible. Still, Wisner's Wurlitzer helped level the playing field at a crucial period of the Cold War. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


An outstanding book: lively, engaging, thoroughly researched and beautifully written. It provides a clear view of the many activities of the CIA to gain the support of Americans during the Cold War, and raises important questions about the place of such secret efforts to mobilize popular opinion in a democracy.
--Allan M. Winkler, Miami University

Fusing the perspectives of intelligence and social history, Wilford has written the first authoritative overview of the CIA's recruitment of private American citizens to fight communism. Combining meticulous scholarship with a fluent narrative style, he tells a story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. His argument, that American individualism frustrated the CIA's efforts to control, will provoke debate for years to come.
--Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, author of The FBI: A History

Wilford's book is superb, by far the most comprehensive work to date on the front groups through which the CIA sought to project U.S. cultural and political influence. He has an inviting, perceptive, allusive style that pulls in the reader, humanizes and harmonizes the material, and in the end generates the incisive moral or historical point. It was a pleasure to read.
--Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara

By turns hilarious and horrifying, the story of the CIA's attempts to disseminate anticommunist propaganda through a variety of front organizations...This superb account will provide CIA aficionados with some welcome comic relief. (Kirkus Reviews 2007-10-01)

Hugh Wilford has unearthed from archives the myriad links between the CIA and various citizen front groups attempting to counter communist influence in The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. Coming forty years after the magazine Ramparts exposed the CIA propaganda program, this book is sure to be relevant to our own era of "hearts and minds" campaigning. (Bookforum 2007-12-01)

[An] elegantly written, diligently researched examination of the CIA's glory days...The fronts that Wisner built were more errors than terrors, shrill tunes on that tin whistle--which Hugh Wilford plays with sentient skill.
--Peter Preston (The Observer 2008-02-03)

[A] brisk yet thorough narrative...No one has written a more comprehensive or sophisticated account of the pro-American fronts from their creation in the late 1940s to the investigative report 20 years later in Ramparts magazine that first exposed the CIA's cultural offensive and left people such as [Gloria] Steinem with a bit of explaining to do.
--Michael Kazin (Washington Post Book World 2008-01-27)

Hugh Wilford has given us the first comprehensive and thorough report of how the CIA--modeling its policies on the Comintern's creation of Communist front groups--created their own fronts, with recipients who included not only the white male writers and artists who made up much of the postwar cultural establishment, but women, African-Americans, students, the labor movement, Catholics, and journalists. Mr. Wilford undermines rather than bolsters the boast made by CIA man Frank Wisner, who called his agency a "Mighty Wurlitzer," a mass of information and intelligence capable of playing the tunes the rest of the world would dance to. The old view, that the Agency was composed of "puppet masters" and that its recipients were simple marionettes, is not only inaccurate, but highly misleading. Mr. Wilford carefully shows that in almost all the cases, those funded understood the high stakes of the Cold War with the Soviets. Rather than following CIA orders, most used whatever funds they received to carry on the work they had already started, and often discarded the advice of the Agency handlers...[A] first-rate book. It is doubtful whether another survey of this subject will ever be necessary. One can differ with his own conclusion that covert funding "stained the reputation" of America and still find the book of immeasurable merit.
--Ronald Radosh (New York Sun 2008-02-06)

Remarkably detailed and researched...There were indeed fronts directly established by the C.I.A. for a particular goal, and the story Wilford tells of them in The Mighty Wurlitzer is fascinating, involving a surprising collection of well-known figures in American life...There is a great deal to be learned from this book. Wilford has consulted an astonishing number of scholarly and popular accounts, along with the papers and records of some of the central participants and organizations. He's done a remarkable job of research...Wilford has mastered an enormously complex tale in almost every detail.
--Nathan Glazer (New York Times Book Review 2008-01-20)

[A] superb new account of the underground combat in ideas and checkbooks that unfolded in the 1950s and early '60s...One important insight Wilford brings to this history is that it wasn't necessarily ignoble to promote American values in the face of a menacing communist alternative in those two decades.
--Charles Trueheart (Bloomberg.com 2008-02-22)

Wilford provides a comprehensive account of the clandestine relationship between the CIA and its front organizations, tracing the rise and fall of America's front network from its origins in the 1940s to its collapse in the 1960s. (Times Higher Education Supplement 2008-02-28)

The term "Mighty Wurlitzer" was coined by CIA agent Frank Wisner to describe the network of small organizations and magazines that the agency used to propagate its message during the Cold War. With meticulous research Hugh Wilford has unpicked the seams of CIA cultural influence, revealing a surprisingly complex picture of divided loyalties and tangled motives. (London Review of Books 2008-03-06)

An astonishing account of the CIA's front operations in the United States during the Cold War.
--Will Podmore (Tribune Magazine 2008-04-11)

In framing my review or observations, I would like to ask Frank Wisner what he thinks of this book. My feeling is that he would give it a High Pass...Mr. Wilford’s index is tantalizing. It invites our interest and suggests that if we spend the time to decode it, we might deduce the substance and flair undertaken in his research and the breadth of his own investigative skill...Mr. Wilford writes clearly and without the inbred pomposity of so many popular historians and journalists.
--Dan Pinck (ossreborn.com 2008-04-11)

Fascinating...The book represents a sophisticated integration of intelligence history with social and cultural history. Above all it is very well written; it engages the reader from the outset through clandestine operations to the heights of culture and celebrity.
--David Ryan (International Affairs 2008-07-01)

The title of Wilford's engaging book comes from CIA official Frank Wisner's comment that his operation was a "mighty Wurlitzer" organ on which he could play any propaganda tune. Wilford traces the history of how the CIA funded and employed front groups in its contest against the Soviet Union from the inception of George Kennan's Office of Policy Coordination under Wisner in 1949 as the prime instrument of psychological political warfare through the exposure of these clandestine activities by the radical muckraking Ramparts magazine in 1967. The book discusses the colorful characters that designed, created, and implemented the various programs, and the different venues targeted and used--including the postwar émigré community, labor organizations, journalists, intellectuals, artists and others of the cultural front, student organizations, women, blacks, Catholics, and others. The expense in dollars was considerable, but the author also considers the costs to democracy, the nation's reputation, and individual lives far too great a price to bear.
--J. P. Dunn (Choice 2008-09-01)

In contrast to most previous discussions of the CIA's front-group operations, which have tended to concentrate narrowly on culture and the arts, The Mighty Wurlitzer covers a much wider range of activities. Wilford is especially good, for example, on the agency's dealings with sympathetic American journalists like the political columnist Joseph Alsop and Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who served as publisher of the New York Times from 1935 to 1961.
--Terry Teachout (Commentary 2008-03-01)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674026810
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674026810
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #682,676 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
How is it that many within the CIA were considered "liberal" by many within the FBI and their friends in the right-wing 'China Lobby' The answer is psychological warfare. Many within the CIA were affiliated with ostensibly liberal internationalist efforts, such as World Federalism, for which Agency media guru Cord Meyer showed enthusiasm.

The liberal label could be misleading, however, if the right meant that the CIA "liberals" were at odds with US Cold War foreign policy goals. Just the opposite was true. The CIA liberals had done their communications research howework, as Christopher Simpson has pointed out in his essential and skinny volume The Science of CoercionScience of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960. They realized that special publications would be needed to tame left-liberal dissent from US global ambitions.

And so publications like Encounter Magazine were created. Five of six articles would be left liberal, to win over this small BUT INFLUENCIAL group of tweedy professors and quasi-professionals who were capable of footnoting their bad moods. Once they thought that "this magazine is on our side' they would be more suceptible to the raison d'etre of the whole glossy: the monthly gatekeeping article that would keep this caffinated crew from openly opposing US Cold War Foreign Policy objectives.

Just so was the intention behind CIA subsidies for domestic front groups such as labor unions, art critics, and journalists within the US. The author deals skillfully with the individuals involved: many of the individuals did not know that their organizations were being supported by the CIA.
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Format: Hardcover
Hugh Wilford, previously of the University of Sheffield, now at California State University, Long Beach, has written an astonishing account of the CIA's front operations in the USA during the Cold War. In 1967, research by Ramparts magazine exposed this covert system, which broke the law banning CIA operations in the USA.

The CIA funded front organisations within trade unions, New York intellectuals, émigrés, writers, artists, musicians, Hollywood, the National Student Association, aid workers, civil rights activists, clergy, women, and black nationalist groups like the American Society of African Culture. For example, Harvard University got $456,000 in disguised subsidies from the CIA between 1960 and 1966. The CIA collaborated with the major news media, particularly the New York Times, the Reader's Digest, Columbia Broadcasting System and Time magazine.

The CIA backed and funded the American Committee for a United Europe, which backed the emerging EEC. The CIA had a secret alliance with US Catholicism, for instance, between 1959 and 1966 it funded the Family Rosary Crusade's operations in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Australasia and Africa.

Associations that accepted covert state patronage violated their own proclaimed principles of voluntary association. Many members of these organisations knew about the CIA's role, but many did not. Americans were systematically deceived by the state. And the CIA's undemocratic covert activities did not cease with the 1967 exposures, or with the end of the Cold War. Even now the CIA is `a growing force on campus', as the Wall Street Journal recently noted.

This book exposes the CIA's role in the USA and leaves one asking what it did and does in Britain.
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There were so many acronyms and initialisms in this book that I'd forget what they stood for every time I picked it up after setting it down. The style and subject also became tedious at times. Otherwise, a good volume.

Descriptions of the CIA and the organizations it backed reminded me of my college days, when I roomed with the president of SDS. (Since I was apolitical, I was the only one who'd split the rent with him.) Little did I know that the other side was behaving equally immaturely.

I thought I heard the strains of The Mighty Wurlitzer recently when Frank Wisner's son visited Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and (rightly or wrongly) I was not at all surprised to learn that organized counterdemonstrations materialized the next day. After reading Wilford, Marchetti, Prouty, and Hunt, I'm amazed at how many people refuse to see the CIA in the honey trap set for Julian Assange, or in the cyber attacks on his site. The CIA did publically announce an anti-Assange team, after all. (Not that the book is about espionage, but it *is* partly about infiltration, demonstrations, manipulation and dirty tricks.)

In summary, if you don't mind appearing paranoid to the unwitting, and if you don't mind a slow read, the book is quite revealing. Don't worry. There are no CIA fronts at all anymore... and the nonexistent fronts are so obvious by now that it doesn't really matter.

OK. Maybe I *am* paranoid, but then so was James Jesus Angleton, and he was on the inside, so his delusions must have been well-founded. Also, the book clearly wasn't meant to have this effect. It was just meant to be dull and studious. But Hey! There you are.
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