Look back 70 years and remember one of the 20th century’s most obnoxious betrayals of public trust
RIP: Encounter magazine 1953-1991:
The cultural-political monthly Encounter magazine was published from 1953 to 1991. Seventy years after its foundation, it is best remembered because of stunning revelations that, for the first 14 years of its existence, it was funded by the CIA (via the Congress for Cultural Freedom or CCF) and the British Foreign Office (via its covert propaganda unit, the International Research Department or IRD). TREVOR GRUNDY looks back and highlights aspects of one of the last century’s great betrayals of public trust.
Super-spook Kim Philby knew a thing or two about hiding your real identity and intentions behind the façade of a smiling mask.
Writing in a manual for would-be British spies and agents in 1943, the most successful Soviet agent ever employed by the British Foreign Office said – “The reader of propaganda should never be allowed even to suspect that he is reading propaganda.”
Had Philby got the top job at M16 (that was on the cards in the early 1950s) I doubt any of us would have heard of the Cambridge Spies.
I also doubt that many of us would have found out that one of the English-speaking world’s most influential cultural magazines was set- up, financed and distributed by people working for the CIA in America and M16 in Britain.
What fun Kim Philby and his Cambridge University pals would have had spooking for the Soviets while making sure an anti-Soviet magazine, which attracted some of the world’s best known anti-Stalinist leftists, thrived and expanded.
On the one hand, the West would be seen as the champion of the oppressed seeking freedom while, on the other, the names of all significant anti-Communists would be known by the magazine’s editors who, of course, would never pass them on to anyone else.
But as Robert Burns reminds us – “The best laid schemes of mice and men/Gang aft awry. “
The former world heavyweight boxing champion, Mike Tyson, said less poetically – “Everyone has a plan until you hit them in the mouth.”
Stephen Spender (centre ) with friends – WH Auden (left) and Christopher Isherwood
Encounter was launched in October 1953. It described itself as a monthly Anglo-American journal of culture and politics.
It was sponsored by the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an organisation of centre-left artists and intellectuals founded in 1950.
The aim of CCF was to counter, on behalf of the non-Communist world, the overtures and influence spreading from the Soviet Union which in 1950, was still ruled by Stalin.
Three years later, in March 1953, he was dead and for a while the world breathed more easily.
Communism without Stalin – a dream come true for liberal leftists around the world.
The choice of the first two “Encounter” co-editors raised no eyebrows for they were men of impeccable liberal credentials – the American Irving Kristol and the English poet, Stephen Spender.
The former edited political articles.
The latter, with his contacts in the world of literature, looked after the rest of the magazine.
At the time, Spender was 44. He was one of England’s leading men of letters, a friend of the some of the century’s literary greats, including T.S. Eliot, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice, C. Day Lewis and a host of others.
Between 1953-1958, Kristol was seen as a leading American liberal. Few people realised he was building the foundation upon which he stood for the rest of his life when he became known as the godfather of neo-conservatism.
Jokers said that the magazine was like a pantomime horse: the front half devoted to heavy politics, the back handed over to books ancient and modern, reviews of poems, plays, paintings and snippets from Asiatic religions, little known in post- Christian Europe.
During his short time as a Communist in the 1930s, Spender served on the anti-Franco side of the Spanish Civil War. He later contributed to the 1949 essay collection The God That Failed: its other authors included Louis Fischer, Andre Gide, Arthur Koestler Ignazio Silone and Richard Wright who all wrote for “Encounter” magazine.
From the start, Koestler and Silone became two of its most regular contributors, drawing in readers who admired them and their enlightened views.
Spender’s range of contacts during the first fourteen years of the magazine’s existence (1953-1967) brought in some of the world’s best-known poets, short-story writers, novelists, critics and journalists from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
They also included prominent historians including Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper who went on to authenticate the phoney Hitler diaries and who levelled attacks on historians who saw the world through their own and not his eyes – men including AJP Taylor (author of The Origins of the Second World War) and Professor Arnold Toynbee (author of the 10-volumes Study of History)
Although “Encounter” provoked controversy, with some British commentators arguing the magazine took an excessively deferential stand towards USA foreign policy, it was seen by most readers as a publication of value which reflected, and sometimes led, their advanced Centre of Left opinions.
Thanks to this galaxy of glittering artistic stars, the early 1960s proved to be the high- water mark to this great cultural magazine’s time on the world news-stand. In 1963 it published a 65- page anthology called New Voices in Russian Writing. Articles by Russians were shaped by W.H. Auden, Robert Conquest, Staley Kunitz and Richard Wilbur. They issue contained essays and poems by a collection of new of post-Stalinist artists, including Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko (most famous for his poem Babi Yar) .
The magazine’s true sponsors must have thought it would go on like that for years to come.
Pity about the whistle-blowers.
The tormented author of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler
Rhodri Lewis writing in “Prospect” (July 2, 2022) tells us that on February 14, 1967 the “New York Times” published a front-page story saying that the National Student Association had taken money from the Langley-USA based CIA in exchange for steering its members towards an anti-Soviet position.
Over the next two months there were revelations in that newspaper about the CIA’s cultural-political activities.
When two of the magazine’s founding co-editors Frank Kermode and Stephen Spender learned what was going on, with the CIA using its money and power to “persuade” civic organisations in USA and everywhere else to commit themselves to Western democracy and opposition to the Soviet Union both men went into a state of shock.
What bothered them most was that they had been lied to by two of their co-editors, Melvin Lasky and Michael Josselson being the latter the executive director of the CCF.
When newspaper reports made it clear that their magazine was financed and run by the CIA and a publishing arm of the British Foreign Office, the news hit them like a thunderbolt.
On March 29 Kermode wrote to Lasky demanding to know the exact date of when he learned of a CIA/M16 connection.
Melvin Lasky – the Godfather of American conservatism
On April 3, Lasky visited Kermode in Bristol, England, and the two men talked for several hours. Finally, Lasky admitted that he had known about the CIA/MI6 connection for a number of years. Josselson had told Lasky all about it but (take a deep breath) Lasky did not tell Kermode or Spender because he wanted to protect them from what he called “the burden of knowing.”
Kermode and Spender insisted on meeting the “Encounter” trustees. A meeting was scheduled for April 20. However, before that took place the two Britons came up with a plan to solve the problem. It would, they argued, be best if Lasky resigned and left them to run Encounter – ideally with a professional managing editor to handle day to day affairs.
That way, they would keep their jobs and salaries and run thing their way without interferences.
The April 20 meeting was heated and Lasky accused Spender of hypocrisy for getting heated about CIA /MI6 revelations when his own salary had been paid for years by a wing of MI6, the British IRD.
Spender stormed out.
The meeting was inconclusive.
Lasky was on the point of resigning but then he decided to stay on and another meeting was scheduled for May 5 in the offices of the mass-circulation newspaper the Daily Mirror whose proprietor was Cecil King, chairman of the International Publishing Corporation (IPC).
The CCF had passed ownership of “Encounter” to King in 1964.
The intention as to protect “Encounter” from attacks that it was effectively run by the CIA and M16. It was a cosy arrangement because King has extremely close links with intelligence agencies in America and Britain.
At that time, IPC was the biggest publishing empire in the world. In 1968, Cecil King was also a director of the Bank of England.
Readers were re-assured that the CIA and M16 would have nothing more to do with “Encounter,” and that it was now in “safe hands” – the hands of Cecil King, a nephew of the late Lord Rothermere whose Daily Mail supported Oswald Mosley when he formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in October 1932.
Sir Oswald Mosley – ‘Europe a Nation / Africa the Empire.’
In his acclaimed book Blackshirt – Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (Penguin Books, 2006) the historian Stephen Dorril writes that in 1967 Cecil King was anxious to use his paper the Daily Mirror (circulation 5,282,137 that year) to get rid of Labour leader Harold Wilson and push Britain towards a leading role in a new set-up – the Nation of Europe.
Mosley’s post-war slogan when he was head of Union Movement was ‘Europe a Nation/ Africa the Empire.’
Dorril writes (page 637) that King wanted a strong man to take charge and that he turned towards Mosley.
Dorril says: “King suggested that the Mirror serialise Mosley’s autobiography (My Life, Nelson, 1968) and wanted to take him to lunch. Hugh Cudlipp (editor of the Daily Mirror) thought the idea ’abhorrent’. Cecil King wanted advice to sound out Mosley as the head of a military-backed government. Lord Mountbatten, the country’s highest- ranking military officer, was his next choice.”
Lord Mountbatten was the cousin of Queen Elizabeth 11.
Cecil . . . King of the right-wing media circus in Britain.
King met Mosley many times and lunched with him at the Ritz in London and told friends and newspaper colleagues that Mosley was the most dynamic politician to emerge after the First World War.
As stated, Cecil King with his “safe hands” was the man who would guarantee transparency and objectivity at “Encounter.”
Also, that year (1968) it was revealed that the most popular and widely read literary magazine in Africa, a monthly called “Transition,” founded by 22-year- old Rajat Neogy, was financed by the CCF.
“Transition” attracted many of Africa’s top writers and poets at a time when the Cold War raged throughout the world’s largest and hungriest continent.
Neogy, a Ugandan of Indian descent, was educated in Britain and the USA. He said he knew nothing about the literary journal’s association with the CIA.
The magazine was shut down in Uganda on the order of the socialist-minded President Milton Obote.
It moved to post- Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana in 1969 and to Nigeria in 1973.
In 1990, the magazine was given an editorial and financial facelift when it fell under the auspices of the WED Du Bois Institute and the Hutchins Centre of African and African American Research at Harvard University (see link below)
Neogy died in San Francisco at the age of 57. He lived in USA during the last 20 years of his life.
But so much is hidden away and will remain that way until all the key players in a series of sordid media dramas are dead.
Transition magazine with the Afro-American literary legend James Baldwin on its cover
So, it’s PhDs by the dozen awaiting African historians with the courage and the ability to reveal just how many of their continent’s magazines (many of them printed in London and edited by socialist-minded Europeans in the 1960s and 1970s) were financed by people other than their readers and advertisers.
We don’t know how long it will take to pull that off.
What we do know is that a safety curtain fell on the stage of “Encounter” in 1991 and that its fall coincided with of destruction of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War.
So many of the great and the good from the literary world were told to pocket their pens and kindly leave the stage, while polishing their OBE and MBE gongs while on the road to somewhere else.
Truth and transparency would be the golden mantras for a new age.
No more money from secret organisations with special agendas.
Never. Not ever again.
Philby would have smiled.
(This article first appeared in the October, 2023 issue of the Canadian online magazine Coldtype which is edited by Tony Sutton at www.coldtype.net)