Every six months or so, an article called “Modern Art was CIA ‘Weapon’,” by British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders, makes the rounds on Facebook. Despite having been first published in 1995, the piece never fails to elicit surprise. The Central Intelligence Agency funded art? Why would an intelligence agency do that?
To win the Cold War, of course. And art wasn’t the only kind of culture the U.S. government sponsored in hopes of winning global hearts and minds. Between 1950 and 1967, when blown covers and international opposition to the Vietnam War spelled the end of Cold War cultural diplomacy, the CIA and the U.S. Department of State took on writers, artists, musicians, athletes, scientists, businessmen, church leaders, women’s groups—really any group of private citizens who might plausibly represent American values—as junior partners in U.S. propaganda campaigns.
Uncovering the history of this rather unlikely branch of U.S. foreign relations has become a major preoccupation for diplomatic historians. The study of cultural diplomacy, with its focus on jazz musicians, women’s activists, and leftist writers, has breathed new life into a field long associated with “uncle books.” Because the success of cultural diplomacy programs depended on participants’ perceived independence from the government, foreign policy officials gave private citizens a surprisingly wide berth in determining the content of their programs, so long as they advanced U.S. interests. Just how much freedom an intellectual or artist working on a government propaganda project can really have, though, has been a major question for historians working in this field. Other scholars attempt to group participants into camps of “witting” and “unwitting” participants, or distinguish between overt (acknowledged) programs, like those run by the U.S. Information Agency, and covert programs, like those sponsored by the CIA.
Here, then, are ten books to help you sort it all out.


Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA And the World of Arts and Letters (2000). The book-length version of Saunders’ 1995 article is the most accessible history of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the most notorious of the CIA’s covert cultural organizations. Originally published in the UK with the title, Who Paid the Piper?, Saunders traces the role of the CIA in sponsoring art exhibitions, music festivals, literary journals, and countless conferences on several different continents. As the original title suggests, Saunders portrays the Congress’s associated intellectuals as sometimes willing dupes in the CIA’s schemes.

Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008). Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer is the foil to The Cultural Cold War. Despite a subtitle that suggests otherwise, Wilford convincingly argues that the CIA’s partners, whether witting or not, used the government’s support to further their own ends. It’s the most comprehensive book on the CIA’s covert cultural programs, covering everything from race and religion to women and journalists.

Laura A. Belmonte, Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War (2008). Not all of the U.S. cultural programs were secret. Belmonte’s Selling the American Way focuses on the U.S. State Department’s “information”—aka, propaganda—campaigns, many of which focused on the accomplishments of “regular Americans.” As a more scholarly book than either The Mighty Wurlitzer or The Cultural Cold War, the notes in Selling the American Way double as an introduction to the field.


Penny M. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (2004). Scholars have produced dozens of case studies of cultural diplomacy programs. Satchmo Blows Up the World is one of the best. The storytelling is great, but read it for Von Eschen’s attention to how jazz diplomacy played (sorry!) in the postcolonial world. Particularly in Africa, local audiences pressed touring musicians to explain the dismal U.S. record on race. Their responses were not always what the State Department had in mind.

Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (2000). Dudziak looks at the same problem as Von Eschen, but from the other side: How did concerns about the U.S. image shape domestic policy on civil rights? When diplomats from newly independent African nations couldn’t find hotel rooms in segregated Washington, D.C., the State Department knew it had an image problem. It’s a model study of how foreign policy and domestic policy relate.


Patrick Iber, Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (2015). Iber’s Neither Peace Nor Freedom, which looks at the role of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other covert cultural programs in Latin America, represents a new willingness to consider actors’ involvement with CIA programs in shades of gray. What if Latin American leftists who worked with the CIA were neither dupes nor sellouts, but thoughtful agents hoping to foster a Democratic Left? It’s a refreshing contrast to the obsessive moral accounting more typical of works on this topic.

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book (2014). More than twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. government is finally declassifying vast swaths of materials related to its propaganda campaigns. This finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award uses newly released materials to trace the CIA’s role in publishing Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.


Vincent Giroud, Nicolas Nabokov: A Life in Freedom and Music (2015)Nicholas Nabokov was not only the cousin of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov; he was also a well-connected composer and the Secretary General of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. In that role, Nabokov organized festivals and performances across Europe for more than fifteen years. This lively biography provides terrific context for the intellectual and cultural scene in which the Congress for Cultural Freedom operated. 

Karen M. Paget, Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade against Communism (2015). In 1967, Karen Paget learned that the National Student Association—a group she was involved with—was being used as a cover organization by the CIA. Patriotic Betrayal tells the story of how and why the CIA attempted to use student groups in the battle against global Communism from the perspective of one of the participants.