Image by Ansellia Kulikku.

In Greg Barnhisel’s review of my book, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, he makes a number of erroneous claims. The most churlish is his assertion that I wrote it to accuse The Paris Review of “nefarious puppeteering.” I made The Paris Review the lens through which to examine the cultural Cold War because the quarterly remains a familiar magazine to many in publishing. It was part of a milieu that the CIA’s propaganda front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, called its publishing “clearing house.” This was a cohort of friendly magazines, whose work the anti-communists approved of. Once a cover for Peter Matthiessen in his spying days, The Paris Review‘s membership in this cohort demonstrates how a legitimate news or cultural organization could be useful and have its levers pulled, much of the staff unaware, in the subtle game of the cultural Cold War. Unlike the official magazines of the CIA, more than two dozen of which were launched in the 1950s and 1960s, The Paris Review lives on—the rest perished in the decades after the CIA’s ties to them were revealed.

While unraveling layers of complexity in the book, I make no attempt to hammer the magazine for “nefarious puppeteering.” On page five of the prologue, in fact, I write, “Even if The Paris Review played only a small role in the Cold War’s marshalling of culture against the Soviets, the magazine’s history nevertheless opens a compelling window” onto the cultural Cold War. In the same section I describe the magazine’s as a “bit part,” instructive though it is. This doesn’t mean I don’t criticize. What’s notable about Barnhisel’s review is what he leaves out. In the final section of Finks, I write of The Paris Review‘s silence about its ties in light of several co-founders maintaining relationships with the instruments of state, which they did, and which their co-founder, Doc Humes, asked some of them to come clean about. Which they did not. Barnhisel ignores this plea from one of The Paris Review‘s co-founders, depicted in his own words, thereby ignoring one of the key controversies within The Paris Review’s own milieu.

I close the book with a coda chapter that shows one of The Paris Review co-founders, John Train, involved in media propaganda in Afghanistan, where he was part of a group that plotted to embed with the future warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and foreign jihadis to capture Soviet war crimes on camera for American networks . They also explicitly plotted to trigger those crimes. Well documented though it is, Dr. Barnhisel ignores these activities. He is evidently not interested in what the book says at all, and claims in the face of numerous cases like the one above that it contains nothing new.

Beyond the omissions, Dr. Barnhisel’s list of errata is itself repeatedly in error. The first rule of cherry picking is making sure it’s really a cherry. On page 29, I identify Senator Joseph McCarthy thus: “In the early 1950s, the House un-American Activities Committee and its Senate counterpart, led by Joseph McCarthy…” and so on. Because he has apparently cited the advance paperback, which left out the underlined phrase above, Barnhisel rightly points out that Senators didn’t run Congressional Committees. He would have found the correct identification of the senator if he looked at the hardcover.

The book suggests that some of the quarterly’s interviewees might have liked to know that their Paris Review interview was recycled into the official magazines of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. This recycling happened repeatedly, so much so that at one point they were negotiated en masse; that is, they were syndicated by a CIA front, and the Congress editors could run the interviews first, figure out a price later. I first raise this in the specific context of Hemingway, a leftist. Barnhisel counters that Faulkner published in Encounter, suggesting that the iconic writers who collaborated often did so on their own. This is not a complete non sequitur, of course, but it doesn’t address the Hemingway question. Would Hemingway have wanted to know? I also show that the interview syndication program led to discussions of a staffer being shared with the CIA’s cultural front. Candidates for the staff position would be vetted for a security and political clearance. Barnhisel ignores this.

In a section on the London magazine Encounter, all Dr. Barnhisel is capable of revealing only what he missed. Encounter was the jewel in the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s crown and distributed widely. The writer Frances Stonor Saunders, in her seminal book, Who Paid the Piper?, refuted the long-repeated defense of the Congress, which claimed that it never censored. She did this by showing multiple cases of censorship at Encounter. Where I built on this breakthrough by focusing on Encounter’s provenance, funding, and what it published, Barnhisel distorts my work: “Whitney flatly asserts that Encounter was a CIA mouthpiece, but in my own research in that magazine’s archives I found very few traces of any editorial intervention, and even [writer Frances Stonor] Saunders, whose research Whitney relies on, only points to three instances of the CIA actually spiking or planting stories in the monthly between its 1953 founding and the 1967 revelations of its CIA ties.”

This is his most significant, almost forgivable error. Saunders may only discuss three, or some relatively small number of pieces censored by Encounter. That doesn’t mean she only found three. Of these few discussed, one that she discusses in detail was by the writer Emily Hahn (see page 273). This matters most because it involved structural censorship, wherein the editorial staff was reminded by CCF leadership that anything controversial had to be run up the flagpole to CIA brass for approval, as agreed upon at the time of its launch. In one of her three examples, in other words, Saunders unraveled the spooks spiking content preemptively and systematically.

In an interview from February of last year (and cited in my sources) Saunders told me, further, that in her review of the Congress’s archives in Chicago she “found at least…twenty or thirty instances of direct intervention, stroke censorship, stroke editorial…. You know, the CIA acting as executive editors [of Encounter]. I think for the ones I found, there must be many, many more. I didn’t even look at Latin America….” Though Barnhisel claims I offered little beyond what Saunders found, I did look at Latin America. Barnhisel doesn’t mention what I cite there: that the CIA magazine in Costa Rica, Combate, was delayed for a year over an argument between its editors and CIA brass about the latter’s power to veto editorial content. Why does he leave that out? And why does he leave out what Congress collaborator Keith Botsford said about Cuadernos, another Latin America magazine funded by the CIA: that bosses repeatedly hamstrung it and censored it. This was the “fink magazine,” in Botsford’s words, where the book got its name.

Why doesn’t Barnhisel mention other examples of censorship I cite either, such as the suppression of John Berger’s first novel, A Painter of Our Time? Berger, who died this month, had his fiction suppressed for taking the wrong line on Hungary. And why does Barnhisel ignore the example of Garcia Marquez and the feeling of betrayal (a “cuckhold,” he called himself) that the future Nobel winner expressed to his editor after he learned that the magazine he graced with two excerpts from One Hundred Years of Solitude turned out to be a CIA asset?

Likewise, after Jean Paul Sartre’s magazines attacked the FBI for thwarting civil-rights activists, the Congress’s American branch tapped a writer named Ernest van den Haag to respond. As we now know, and as James Baldwin and Martin Luther King complained, the FBI had spied on, blackmailed, and otherwise penetrated civil-rights groups. And so Van den Haag would have engaged in disinformation, witting or no. The Congress activists in the US didn’t do much on segregation. And I quote one of them admitting as much. Why doesn’t Barnhisel mention any of this?

Dr. Barnhisel is a scholar with many publications on this and related topics rounding out his CV. It’s possible that Dr. Barnhisel doesn’t approve of these examples, if this explains his behavior. But that hardly gives him the right to ignore them wholesale or distort what I wrote. “I share Whitney’s rage,” Barnhisel writes of his views toward the CIA’s coups and overthrows. I don’t doubt Barnhisel’s capacity for rage. But after reading his take on my book, it’s his capacity for honest debate that would appear to be in question.

Joel Whitney

Joel Whitney is the author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World's Best Writers. A 2003 winner of the Discovery Prize, his work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. His essays have twice been notables in Best American Essays.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.