CIA money laundering during the Cold War to finance modern art

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CIA money laundering during the Cold War to finance modern art

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Julius Fleischmann made his fortune in a fashion increasingly common in the first half of 19th-century America: he inherited it. The family’s business in gin and yeast allowed Fleischmann to ascend social ladders and become a wealthy businessman. Apart from being a millionaire, he was also one of the first members of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), an organization created under the Truman government in 1948 and was in charge of leading the unofficial psychological war against the Soviet Union.

Fleischmann’s selection by the CIA to become the face of one of its front organization was not random: he was passionate for the arts. He helped finance the launch of The New Yorker before starting various patronages. He was the director of the Metropolitan Opera of New York, as well as a member of the Royal Society of the Arts in London. He also was a board member of Yale Drama School, and one of the directors for the Ballet Foundation in New York. Finally, and somewhat ironically considering his position at the OPC, Fleischmann was one of the directors for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe.

Thanks to his numerous high-ranking positions in American and European cultural spheres, Fleischmann was considered by the CIA as the ideal representative one of the Agency’s front organizations called the Farfield Foundation. But his being a millionaire was also a major asset since it would be used to cover up important money transfers from the CIA to the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF), an organization set in place by the agency in Europe in order to fight its psychological and cultural war against the Soviet Union. The CIA agent in charge of the CCF, Michael Josselson, would even call him “The American Maecenas for the world of culture” referencing the Roman benefactor of Horace and Virgil.

In reality, the CIA wanted Fleischmann to be the Maecenas of the Farfield Foundation. Founded in 1952 in New York, and listed as a non-profit organization, the group defined itself in its brochure as having been created by American citizens –or should we say by CIA agents- for whom it was essential to preserve “the cultural heritage of the free world and encouraging the constant expansion and interchange of knowledge in the fields of the arts, letters, and sciences.

In this quote, we can find the central themes that drove American ideological propaganda developed by the CIA. The term “free world” implies that there is an opposition with a world that is authoritarian, which is to say the Eastern part of the globe represented by the Soviet Union, with America indirectly presented as the leader of the free world. Furthermore, the words “cultural heritage” are carefully used to attest to the fact that the United States were then trying to move away from the image of a country without a “real” cultural heritage, unlike Europe. The U.S. government wished to suppress the idea that America was a mere representative of mass culture through instruments like these.

As it turns out, the Farfield Foundation was only a part of a larger network of foundations set up by the CIA to cover financial transfers being made between them and the CCF in order to finance cultural programs. However, the Farfield Foundation was by far its biggest “donor”, which attests to the unspoken implication of the CIA. Former CIA agent Tom Braden explained how easy it was for the Agency to set up dummy fronts similar to the Farfield Foundation:

We would go to somebody in New York who was a well-known rich person and we would say, ‘We want to set up a foundation.’ We would tell him what we were trying to do and pledge him to secrecy, and he would say, ‘Of course I’ll do it,’ and then you would publish a letterhead and his name would be on it and there would be a foundation. It was really a pretty simple device.

The process was so effective that it became effortless for the CIA to launder money for the CCF and other propaganda activities targeting the European continent. Among their many actions we can count the promotion of abstract expressionism and abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and De Kooning. Such promotion of modern art was, of course, officially conducted by organizations that were not affiliated to the agency.

But why was the promotion of modern art that important to the CIA? In her article “Modern Art was CIA Weapon” Frances Stonor Saunders upholds the theory that “(…) this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.” Like many instances during the cultural cold war, we return once again, to the opposition between America and the Soviet Union. Modern art had to embody American artistic creativity and renewal at the international level.

According to former CIA agent Donald Jameson, abstract expressionism “(…) was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was. And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions.” In her mind, this artistic movement explains the CIA’s financial support in favor of modern art because it shattered strict artistic rules put in place in the Soviet Union. Consequently, abstract expressionism was the agency’s weapon-of-choice in its cultural war against the Soviets: “In a way our understanding was helped because Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of non-conformity to its own very rigid patterns. And so one could quite adequately and accurately reason that anything they criticized that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another.

Of course, money laundering in order to finance modern art was a way for the CIA to act under the cover of secrecy to fight the Soviet ideology. But paradoxically, it was as well a way to promote artistic freedom and consequently freedom of expression. Evidences point to the fact that the agency manipulated the arts during the Cold War, but it also fought on a larger scale to deliver freedom of speech at an international level. By operating covert actions in the artistic spheres of both America and Europe, the CIA did use illegal means to promote modern art. But such actions were put in place to serve a greater cause: the one of freedom.

Header image: http://www.historiadetudo.com/guerra-fria

Marion Valentin
Marion Valentin is a cum laude graduate from La Sorbonne, where she received her master’s degree in English. She also graduated cum laude with a master’s degree in political science from the Catholic Institute of Higher Studies. Her research interests include the role of culture in the Cold War and use of French culture to combat ideological extremism within the francophone world. A lifelong traveler, she has lived in nine countries and four continents. She currently works as a teaching and pedagogical intern at the Alliance française de Canberra in Australia.

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