It was probably the strangest stunt the CIA ever attempted. The United States needed to win the hearts and minds of Pro-Soviet leftists in Europe during the Cold War. The agency’s weapon of choice? Modern art. And amazingly, it worked.
Oh my God. We’ve got to do something.
That was the recurring thought in Tom Braden’s mind. It haunted him late into the nights and galvanized him in the mornings.
He was living in frightening times. It was the early years of the Cold War, and there was a real fear the West would lose. Soviet spies had stolen our atomic secrets. President Harry Truman announced the U.S. expected a Soviet attack—at any time. North Korean communists invaded South Korea. A headline in The New York Times revealed a Soviet plan to “rule all of Germany” and start “a civil war.”
More than most people, Braden was consumed by these events. He had a job that demanded he do something about them.
Braden would become a liberal newspaperman and launch the CNN political talk show Crossfire, which he co-hosted with Patrick Buchanan for almost a decade.
He was best known as the inspiration for the sweater-vest-clad father on TV’s Eight Is Enough. The series was adapted from Braden’s best-selling 1975 memoir about life as the father of eight children, and at one time it had more viewers than Monday Night Football and Charlie’s Angels.
But before he became any of these things, Tom Braden was a spy.
There is no shortage of rumors and legends about the Central Intelligence Agency. There was the MK-Ultra program, an experiment in which unsuspecting human subjects were kept hopped up on LSD so the agency would know how to use the drug on the enemy. There were the exploding cigars and a wet suit specially lined with bacteria to kill Fidel Castro; chemists even readied a thallium-salt delivery device to make his beard fall out. Some agency ventures were just wacky. The recently declassified Acoustic Kitty was the CIA’s plan to turn a cat into a secret agent by surgically implanting a microphone in her ear and a radio transmitter by her skull. This furry spy was sadly “squashed by a taxi” on her first mission, as reported in Popular Science.
Braden regarded these schemes as “college boy stuff.” Speaking of his former colleagues, he told author Evan Thomas, “They had a lot of screwy ideas.”
I met Tom Braden in 2001. About the CIA, he told me, “I left before the fall. By ‘fall’ I mean the Bay of Pigs.” Braden wondered how men who were so intelligent and bright could let the “covert plan for Cuba,” as he called it, happen. In 1961 agency leaders convinced President John F. Kennedy to sign off on a proposal to invade the tiny country and overthrow Castro’s communist regime. They recruited 1,400 “high-minded, young, able, patriotic Cubans,” in the words of director Allen Dulles, to take back their native country. In the dead of night the CIA landed the Cuban exiles on beaches at the Bay of Pigs. The mission was a disaster. More than a hundred exiles were killed by Castro’s forces. Afterward, Castro had a stronger hold on the country than ever before. Braden regarded it as an “unrealistic, silly, stupid adventure.”
But the Battle for Picasso’s Mind—as Braden would call his plan—was not the typical cloak-and-dagger operation. It was subtle. It was ingenious. Braden’s covert masterpiece invigorated the modern art movement and helped turn the tide against Soviet communism in a way that traditional clandestine tradecraft never could. It was the kind of outside-the-box thinking that suited Braden perfectly.
Unlike other CIA recruits, Braden didn’t have a pedigree that made a top government job a foregone conclusion. He hadn’t gone to an exclusive prep school. He hadn’t graduated from high school. He was born in 1917 on a bench in a train station in Greene, Iowa. “My mother was on her way to Dubuque to have me,” he said in a 1975 interview. “There was a snowstorm, and she didn’t make it to the hospital.” He grew up during the Great Depression, and his father told him he could look forward to a job in a tie store. “Hearing that, I was on the next Greyhound bus for New York,” he said. There he became a printer’s devil, working in a print shop and cleaning commodes. When his grandmother died and left him $1,000, he quit to go to college. He found out Dartmouth would consider students who didn’t have high school diplomas. He applied, was accepted and excelled, especially at journalism—he was elected editor of The Dartmouth, the daily campus newspaper. He made perhaps a fateful choice to invite the general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Earl Browder, to speak so students could hear the party line firsthand. This decision got him noticed by Nelson Rockefeller, a Dartmouth trustee and Republican powerhouse, whose family had built the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He asked to meet this young provocateur named Tom Braden. Impressed, he gave Braden a job working at Rockefeller Center, editing the building’s newsletter. As the world marched toward war, Braden volunteered for the British army. Eventually he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, America’s wartime spy agency, and became part of an elite corps that parachuted behind Nazi lines into Italy. But it was Braden’s efforts after the war, when he became Dulles’s first “bright young man” of the CIA, that would make the biggest impact.
In 1948 the United States was losing intellectuals and artists to communist ideology, especially in Europe. Trying to crawl out from under the ashes of World War II, they were being swayed by Soviet propaganda promoting harmony. In Paris, 30,000 people gathered for a “world peace conference,” many unaware it was a Kremlin-backed rally to undermine American opposition to communism. Musicians, writers and artists were there to support peace. Pablo Picasso was among them.
Thousands of miles away in Manhattan, two of Picasso’s works hung on the walls of MoMA: Dog and Cock and Girl Before a Mirror. Starting in December 1948 Braden saw them almost every day for a year and a half—Rockefeller had made him secretary of the museum.
It was there that Braden first envisioned a program focused on “threats to creativity.” His immediate mission was to fight back against the forces that were “attacking everything new or original.” Those elements, he wrote in a 1948 letter, “seem to have found a particular target in modern art.” In the Soviet Union, modern artists were under attack by the state. Picasso was labeled as subversive. (Ironically, he was a communist.) Wassily Kandinsky, whose SeveralCircles painting was pathbreaking, fled as the Soviet regime was coming into power. Painting modern art was considered a vice—the regime saw such work as reflective of “Western decadence” and “petit bourgeois democracy.” Artists whose work failed to reflect socialist realism—a style that glorified the Red Army, Stalin, Lenin and the proletariat worker—were prevented from working in their chosen profession, and many were “liquidated.” Braden found this abhorrent. He wanted people to understand the connection between creativity and its “peculiar relationship to democratic government and to private enterprise.” This was Braden’s blueprint for what he would carry out at the CIA.
Braden was shocked when he received a call from William J. Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services. To veterans such as Braden, Donovan was a living legend. He admired Donovan’s approach to battle: It was “like pouring molasses from a barrel onto the floor. It will ooze in every direction, but eventually he’ll make it into some sort of pattern,” Braden wrote. In time that pattern coalesced into resistance and intelligence.
Donovan wanted Braden to run his newly formed organization, the American Committee on United Europe, a group of leading Americans who promoted the idea of European federalism. But, as Donovan wrote in a letter, it was really about solving “the problems the country is up against,” meaning those created by Soviet communism. “My view is that we are in a war and I say let’s win that war,” Donovan declared. Braden signed up. From the committee’s offices on gleaming Fifth Avenue, Braden was surrounded by an array of cold warriors, including Dulles, the committee’s vice president and also the architect and future director of the CIA.
Although the organization existed mostly on paper, former statesmen and prominent figures attended meetings and raised money to promote European unity. There was bourbon and gin martinis. “It was exciting and fun,” said Braden. After a while, however, the committee ran out of money. Braden explained, “All of a sudden some guy named Thompson walks into my office with a huge sack. ‘My name is Pinky Thompson,’ he said. ‘This is for you,’ and plonked it down. It was $75,000. Donovan had arranged it. Well, it turns out Pinky Thompson was some kind of vice president of a Philadelphia bank, but he was working for the CIA. That was my initiation to the fact that we were not what we said we were.”
The revelation didn’t scare Braden away from the post, which amounted to a training ground for the CIA. In fact he did so well running the committee, he was soon offered a new job.
Within a year Tom Braden was packing his bags and leaving New York for Washington. He would be Allen Dulles’s assistant at the Central Intelligence Agency.
If you drive up Foxhall Road in the northwest corner of Washington, you’ll find sections that wind up and down the hills of the district through a landscape that appears pretty much as it was in the 1950s, almost bucolic. At the intersection of Foxhall and W Street, just before the prestigious Field School comes into view, sits a two-story brick house painted white with green shutters and shaded by trees. Back then the house was just like every other house on the edge of D.C., except a spy with a code name—Homer D. Hoskins—lived there with his cyanide “death pill,” to be swallowed in case of capture. This was Braden’s home in 1952.
He looked exactly as a reporter once described him: “a wiry, sandy-haired man” with a “craggy handsome visage that could be a composite of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Frank Sinatra.” Braden’s goddaughter Elizabeth Winthrop Alsop said, “He had that leathery face and those blue eyes and he was very charming—definitely a ladies’ man.” Braden wore a trench coat. He smoked Camels (unfiltered) and a pipe.
At the CIA one of Braden’s first objectives was to keep the labor unions in Europe from being sucked into Moscow’s black hole. Like most of Europe, they needed money. Braden became the bagman. Fifteen thousand dollars got unions in France to stop communist maritime workers from dumping U.S. supplies into the sea or burning them at ports. “We subsidized the unions to make sure it didn’t happen anymore,” he said. He also bribed communist dockworkers. “If we didn’t bribe them, we wouldn’t have gotten our supplies landed,” he recalled. “It was also my idea to give cash, along with advice, to other labor leaders, to students, professors and others who could help the United States in its battles with communist fronts. I personally went to Detroit and gave the leader of the auto workers’ union $50,000 in $50 bills to influence labor unions in Germany.” The union chief gave the cash to his brother, who “spent it with something less than perfect wisdom,” Braden said.
“I could hand over $50,000 and never account to anybody. The CIA could do exactly as it pleased. It could hire armies. It could buy bombs. It was one of the first multinationals,” he wrote in a letter to author Ted Morgan. In fighting the Soviets, it was the Wild West.
But Braden was most concerned about losing the battle among European sophisticates. “I was much more interested in the ideas which were under fire from the communists than I was in blowing up Guatemala,” he said. “I was more an intellectual than a gung-ho guy.
“We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, and all the people who follow those people—people like you and me who go to concerts or visit art galleries—to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement without any rigid barriers as to what you must write and what you must say and what you must do and what you must paint—which was what was going on in the Soviet Union,” Braden said in a 1994 interview with Frances Stonor Saunders, a British documentarian and author of a groundbreaking book on the CIA, Who Paid the Piper?
The Soviets had the bomb, and their military capabilities were immense—the CIA had those facts cold. But the consequences of a culture dictated by Stalin were beyond comprehension. “The idea that the world would succumb to a kind of fascist or Stalinist concept of art and literature and music—that this was to be the wave of the future—as you look back on it even now, it’s a horrifying prospect,” Braden said.
And so with that in mind, early one evening, after the secretaries had gone home, Braden marched over to Dulles’s office and proposed a new way to take on the Soviets.
“You know,” Dulles said, “I think you may have something there. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re losing the Cold War. Why don’t you take it up down below?”
“Down below” was Frank Wisner, a Southerner from Mississippi who had been a track star at the University of Virginia and was then head of covert operations at the agency. “In my view, he was a hero, an authentic American hero,” Braden wrote in the Saturday Evening Post. For three months he developed a plan to convince Wisner and his chiefs who represented various sections of the globe. At last the hour of the meeting arrived. “I began by assuring them that I proposed to do nothing in any area without the approval of the chief in that area,” Braden recalled. “I thought when I finished that I had made a good case.” But the chief of Western Europe objected.
“Frank, this is just another one of those goddamned proposals for getting into everybody’s hair.”
All the others fell into line, vetoing Braden’s plan. (The only chief who supported Braden was Richard Stilwell, who ran the CIA’s Far East division. He was a badass. He had crawled up the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and would later serve in Vietnam as deputy commanding general of the Marines.) Braden waited for Wisner’s decision. “Well, you heard the verdict,” Wisner said, acquiescing to the others.
Braden walked down the long hall at the CIA’s E Street headquarters. Now he had to face his men, defeated. The plan was a no-go.
“Then I went to Mr. Dulles’s office and resigned.”
Dulles was furious. “He raised hell,” Braden recalled. Dulles rang up Wisner, challenging him to defend his position. “Allen was all over Wisner. He took my side completely.” And he refused to accept Braden’s resignation.
“The International Organizations Division of the CIA was born,” recalled Braden, “and thus began the first centralized effort to combat communist fronts.” Tom Braden was finally in business. Now he could fight the Cold War his way.
“Braden was sharp,” says Michael Warner, the CIA’s historian. “He knew how to deal with people. He knew important people who could get things done. He knew whom to call and could get his phone calls returned. Braden knew whom to get buy-in from and how to build buy-in.” Warner has studied internal documentation and says Braden found perfect common cause with others who shared his view of a new, nonmilitary strategy. “And he showed how to make it work.”
“It was really a pretty simple device,” Braden said, recalling how the CIA funded its secret programs to promote modern art. “We would go up to somebody in New York who was a well-known rich person, and we would say, ‘We want to set up a foundation.’ And 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 it would be a foundation.”
To build the necessary cover in Europe, agents rented an office in a classic 19th century building with floor-to-ceiling windows at 104 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. They called it the Congrès Pour la Liberté de la Culture, or the Congress for Cultural Freedom, hung out a shingle, printed letterhead and were in business.
To run its newly established front, the CIA installed two agents who looked the part of cosmopolitans. There was Michael Josselson, a 43-year-old Estonian who spoke four languages flawlessly. Few outside the CIA knew Josselson’s full history: His family had been murdered by the communists, and he’d also lived in Germany, working in the intelligence section of the Psychological Warfare Division of the U.S. Army.
Josselson brought in 48-year-old Nicolas Nabokov, a tall Russian with white hair, as impresario. He introduced himself as a composer and offered his business card: Music Director, American Academy. Rome. Nabokov also had a hidden past: a family that had fled the Bolshevik Revolution and a stint on a special panel authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt to be based in Germany following the war. Nabokov’s assignment there was to “establish good psychological and cultural weapons with which to destroy Nazism and promote a genuine desire for a democratic Germany.”
Josselson and Nabokov were ready. “We will show that we’re the creative ones,” they said. But crucial to the success of the Congress for Cultural Freedom was its legitimacy: To “protect the integrity of the organization,” the CIA did not require it “to support every aspect of official American policy,” Braden explained. At one point the agency funded the congress as part of the Marshall Plan, an American aid program (named for General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II) that funneled money to Europe to help it rebuild after the devastation of the war. The CIA also used its newly created American “foundations.” To hide their connections to the agency, Braden had another rule: “Limit the money to amounts private organizations can credibly spend.”
With the setup complete, the Paris office polished to a fare-thee-well and funding in place, Braden launched his first mission.
Motivated to show that the United States stood for freedom of expression, he imagined the impact of exposing European artists and intellectuals to America’s foremost talents. That could change the battlefield, he thought, maybe even swing them to our side. The first mission had to be bold and unforgettable.
Nabokov concurred. “I wanted to start off [the] activities with a big bang and in the field of 20th century arts,” he later wrote.
With Braden’s blessing, Josselson and Nabokov announced that their Congress for Cultural Freedom would be hosting an exposition, XXth Century Masterpieces. They worked rooms in Europe’s major cities, talking to tastemakers and creative types, promoting the hell out of their production. Starting in Paris and then moving across Europe, they said, the congress would be showcasing opera, ballet, drama, literature—with a special focus on art. “Narrow restrictive rules have sought to transform the artist into an instrument of the state, producing works tailored to the utilitarian needs of totalitarian regimes,” said Nabokov. “Free creative imagination of the poets, painters and composers has produced an abundant flow of master-pieces in all the arts.”
A showpiece of this exhibition was the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was exactly what Braden had in mind. The CIA would send musicians into the nexus of Europe’s cultural world. Yes, musicians. For a mere $175,000 (more than $1.5 million in today’s dollars), Braden could send all 104 members of the orchestra to perform in Europe’s vaunted concert halls. They would be guests of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
In the spring of 1952, the musicians departed the U.S., unaware that everything was unfolding on the CIA’s dime. In Paris, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, they performed Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. The audience of usually staid Parisians roared its approval, calling the conductor back 20 times. Resplendent Boston Symphony Astounds The Parisians, declared a headline in the Paris-Presse L’Intransigeant. For the next four weeks the American musicians performed in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and England. But the dark shadow of the Soviet Union was lurking. When their train went through checkpoints, the musicians were instructed by Army personnel to keep the shades drawn. Nevertheless, the tour was a triumph. “No American artistic group has been received in France with such warmth and enthusiasm in recent times,” said one news account. An article about the concert in Strasbourg said the American musicians left the audience “trembling with joy.”
Back at CIA headquarters, Braden was elated. His first cultural mission was a success. “The impact from that tour—people said, ‘Heavens! The Americans! Look what they do.’ The Boston Symphony Orchestra won more acclaim for the U.S. than John Foster Dulles or Dwight D. Eisenhower could have bought with a hundred speeches.”
But there was trouble at home—trouble about the art. Modern abstract expressionist art, the very art Braden and his Paris agents sought to advance as a vehicle for Western freedom, was under attack by American politicians. George Dondero, a Republican congressman from Michigan, called the paintings “depraved” and “destructive.” He charged they were part of the communist conspiracy. He even asserted that one painting was a map revealing U.S. military installations.
In an eerie echo of an announcement in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, Dondero said, “Art which does not glorify our beautiful country in plain, simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction. It is therefore opposed to our government, and those who create and promote it are our enemies.” In Dondero’s view, abstract expressionist painters and the art critics who supported them were “germ-carrying vermin” and “international art thugs.” Dondero’s views were also supported by others in Congress, including Democrat Francis Walter, the vocal chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Dondero’s campaign was reminiscent of the reaction to the disastrous 1946 State Department exhibit Advancing American Art, which had sought to elevate America’s cultural status. It too came under attack from right-wing corners for being red. The charges became so intense that then secretary of state George C. Marshall shuttered the exhibit. “No more taxpayers’ money for modern art,” he declared.
The American opposition to modern art as “communist” meant Braden’s plan had to remain clandestine. The mission was to win intellectuals and artists to the American side, but those people had little respect for the U.S. government and “certainly none for the CIA,” as retired agency officer Donald Jameson put it in an interview. Revealing that the CIA was behind the program would have been disastrous. This was the era when Senator Joseph McCarthy was riding high, making reckless accusations about alleged communists in the government. The idea that a high-ranking CIA official would have anything to do with creative types was seen by some as communistic.
“You have always to battle your own ignoramuses—or, to put it more politely, people who just don’t understand.… It was nonrepresentational, and therefore it shocked some Americans,” Braden later explained.
Braden pressed on. On a mild April morning in 1952, the S.S. Liberté, a luxury French ocean liner, departed the Port of New York. Few of the passengers knew that packed securely in the cargo hold below were more than 200 paintings—a veritable trove of what the future would look like. The artwork was handpicked by James Johnson Sweeney, an art critic and a former director of the Museum of Modern Art, where Tom Braden had first seen the difference modern art could make.
Braden would never forget the day he interviewed for his job at MoMA. While waiting in museum president Nelson Rockefeller’s office, he met “the prettiest girl I had ever seen in my life.” She was 26-year-old Joan Ridley, and she had a “marvelously fresh and open face and freckles and curly brown hair.” Her green dress “swirled.” Braden later married her, and they had eight children. “You’d have to work very hard not to have babies if you were married to Joan,” he wrote. It was their eight babies who became the foundation of Eight Is Enough, the book and TV series that introduced millions to Tom Braden in the 1970s.
At the beginning of the book Braden recounts his response to a maddening incident when he was trying to corral his five girls and three boys for a Caribbean vacation. By the end he has come to terms with the chaos of family life, experiencing fatherhood “with the mixture of pride and affection, protectiveness and hope which is…what makes a father go on being a father.” The best-seller was the basis for a TV series that debuted on the same night and channel as Three’s Company, in 1977. (Both would become crown jewels of ABC’s prime-time schedule.) A one-hour show with a laugh track, Eight Is Enough depicted family dilemmas with a gentle father—“Tom Bradford,” played by Dick Van Patten—as the head of the household.
Bradford is portrayed as a newspaperman, which Braden was, but as less commanding and confrontational than the real Tom Braden. “He came into the room with more balls than a pool table,” says screenwriter William Blinn, who developed Braden’s book for Hollywood. “He had a built-in edge about him.” Even the opening credits offered a point of contrast. They feature Tom Bradford playing football with his wife and kids. As Bradford prepares to throw the ball, one of the boys whips by and steals it. When I told Van Patten I knew Tom Braden, Van Patten said, “Tell him hello. Playing him on TV bought me my house.” When I told Braden I’d met Van Patten, he said, “I would have made the pass.”
Despite all the hot-button issues and “new morality” (as Braden called it) of the 1970s that Eight Is Enough addressed, the series never delved into his espionage background. Most Americans associated him with the father-figure journalist. Braden’s own children grew up around the residue of his clandestine life, always trying to connect the dots. From an early age, Braden’s daughter Elizabeth loved art. She is an alumna of the Rhode Island School of Design and is now an art teacher. When I ask her about modern art, she replies, “Dad said it was all about fighting the communists, trying to win the Cold War.”
R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, now acknowledges the legacy of Braden’s program. He says its genius was in exposing the essence of the American and Soviet systems. “If you compare socialist realist art—the muscled worker in the Soviet Union pressing forward into the future—to Jackson Pollock’s art, you have to ask yourself, Which society is freer? Pollock has three-dimensional canvases, really interesting patterns and—wow!—all these colors,” Woolsey says. “Then you look at the socialist realist art, and it’s crap—propaganda crap. That can’t help but have some resonance, especially among intellectuals. It doesn’t win the war itself, but it communicated that people were free to read and paint what they wanted to in the United States, and they were not free to do that in the Soviet Union.”
Last summer, at lunch with Braden’s son Nicholas, I asked, “What did your dad tell you about the art?” He paused, smiled and answered, “You mean that MoMA was a front for the CIA?”
The history of the Central Intelligence Agency is rife with conspiracies, but was the Museum of Modern Art really a cover for spies?
In part, yes. A trail of evidence shows there was an organized program by the CIA to influence European intellectuals. MoMA, with Braden in place at the CIA, was essential to the operation. Museum administrators and others in the art world, including the artists themselves, were mostly unaware of this collaboration. In other words, Braden and other spooks pulled off one of the greatest capers in history.
On one wall was Dutch Interior by Joan Miró, then Black Lines by Kandinsky, The Bride by Marcel Duchamp and a mobile, Red Petals, by Alexander Calder—all an explosion of colors, lines, shapes and shadows. These were just a few of the modern works in the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s XXth Century Masterpieces exhibition.
As Aline B. Louchheim, arts editor of The New York Times, observed about such art, “There are many paintings which seem to say to you, ‘Look, stop and look at me. I am addressing you. Look at what I am saying.’ And having thus claimed you, they manage to banish other considerations, to pull the mind away from speculation or daydreams and to fill the eye only with the urgency of their particular visions. Some are big, some are blatant, some are small, some speak quietly.”
The paintings seemed to exclaim, “This is what absolute and total freedom looks like.”
The opening of this exhibition, on April 30, 1952, was attended by “a large throng of invited guests,” reported a press account. In its “Letter From Paris,” The New Yorker wrote that the exhibit “spilled such gallons of captious French newspaper ink, wasted such tempests of argumentative Franco-American breath and afforded, on the whole, so much pleasure to the eye and ear that it can safely be called, in admiration, an extremely popular fiasco.” Herbert Luethy recorded in Commentary, “It proved to be one of the most dazzling expositions of modern art ever brought before the public.” And this was just the beginning.
MoMA and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris sponsored a 1953 exhibition, Twelve Contemporary American Painters and Sculptors, which represented “different regions and trends of art in the United States,” The New York Times reported. The account also noted that the Paris museum delayed other exhibitions to display the high-quality works, including ones by abstract expressionist painters Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky. The money and publicity for the show were provided by the Association Française d’Action Artistique, an organization that was a donor to the Congress for Cultural Freedom and whose director was a CIA contact at the French Foreign Office.
Word of this unique atmosphere traveled. It attracted Frances FitzGerald, a fresh-faced Radcliffe graduate and aspiring writer. Her father, Desmond FitzGerald, a CIA officer, sent her to the Farfield Foundation—one of Braden’s CIA fronts—in New York for a job. “The foundation was one room with one person in it,” she recalls. She was told that because of reorganization, the job didn’t exist anymore. “But then my mother, Marietta Tree, called her friend Nicky Nabokov, and he said, ‘But of course your daughter can have a job.’ ” FitzGerald moved to Paris and began working at the congress. “My father must have been furious, but he didn’t say a word to me. In fact, the job didn’t exist, as the man in the office said. So the congress had to scramble to find me something to do,” she says. “I sharpened pencils.” (FitzGerald went on to cover the Vietnam War for Atlantic Monthly and to write Fire in the Lake, a 1972 book that won a Pulitzer.)
Jointly, the congress and MoMA sponsored six Americans to represent the U.S. at the Young Painters show in 1955, which was displayed in Rome, Brussels, Paris and London. The show included approximately 170 paintings, almost all abstract, by artists from around the world. The Congress for Cultural Freedom gave out cash prizes to the three best paintings, and all the money for this show came through the Farfield Foundation.
Fifty Years of Art in the United States, a 1955 Musée d’Art Moderne exhibition, was the largest representation of American art yet. Although met with mixed reviews by French critics, the two-month show was widely attended. Afterward, French galleries started to take note of these new American painters. In the fall of that year, the Right Bank Gallery was beginning to introduce France to “informalists,” including artists such as Pollock.
It’s likely this second show was also sponsored or paid for by the Congress for Cultural Freedom—but even if it wasn’t, it meant Braden’s plan was working: Europeans were taking notice of American modern art. And the shows continued.
Braden left the CIA in the mid-1950s, but his program carried on with his deputy Cord Meyer leading it. By the end of the decade it had taken hold. MoMA would host more than 450 separate exhibitions in more than 35 countries. A 1958 Esquire cover proclaiming “The Americanization of Paris” depicts powdered “instant vin rouge” being poured into a water-filled wineglass (for better or worse).
By 1959, abstract expressionist art was on a roll. John Berger, a Marxist art correspondent for New Statesman, declared, “Abstract expressionism…is sweeping the field. Nowhere in Western Europe is there a realist stronghold left.”
Nabokov’s secretary, in a letter to a MoMA trustee, described an exhibition promoted by the Congress for Cultural Freedom and MoMA planned for the Biennale de Paris in 1959. She explained that word “swept through the artistic circles like a tornado. Every young painter in Paris, every gallery director, every art critic are telephoning to find out what it’s all about. It’s going to be a terrific hit.”
Braden’s operation was a success. One of the world’s most famous and influential painters, Gerhard Richter, would later attribute his defection from East Germany to his viewing of abstract expressionist art. In 1959, at documenta II, an art show started in 1955 by a West German artist and professor to display modern artwork suppressed by the Nazis, Richter viewed work by artists including Pollock. Afterward Richter realized, “There was something wrong with my whole way of thinking…expression of a totally different and entirely new content.” In a letter to his former art teacher in East Germany, Richter explained why he risked his life: “The reasons are largely due to my career.… When I say cultural ‘climate’ in the West offers me and my artistic endeavors more, that is more compatible with my way of being and my way of working than the East, I am pointing out the main reason behind my decision.”
As a further marker of success, numerous major American modern artists—William Baziotes, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Pollock—became outspoken in their denunciation of the Soviets. Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, once communists, broke ranks with their comrades and formed an anticommunist artists’ organization.
Picasso was never persuaded to abandon his loyalties to the French communists, but MoMA’s archives contain evidence that there was an attempt to do so. Braden said that though there were efforts to turn Picasso, clearly it was more of a metaphor.
By 1975 modern art had made its way into the Soviet Union, in a display at a Moscow museum, despite attempts to censor it.
“I’m glad the CIA is ‘immoral.’ ”
That’s what Braden wrote when reporters uncovered his plan. There had always been a pervasive nervousness that someone would find out.
By 1966 Braden’s secret operation had run out of time. Editors at The New York Times deployed more than 20 correspondents to investigate the far-flung operations of the CIA. They discovered the agency was behind the Congress for Cultural Freedom and announced it in a front-page story. Sleuths for the left-wing magazine Ramparts and the French newspaper Le Monde commenced further investigations. Such revelations—deemed “scandalous” by the press—came as the media’s opposition to the Vietnam War reached a fever pitch and the whole country appeared to be growing weary of the Cold War, at least according to the way the news media portrayed it.
“I didn’t care,” FitzGerald says today, remembering when the news broke. “The revelations weren’t good for the French—a lot of them got very upset. They thought the congress was independent and that they were being used. But they weren’t. When they were involved with the congress, they were doing what they wanted.”
As criticism rained down, a CIA officer working in the Paris office of the congress scrambled to draft a statement for the press, claiming the congress was never influenced by any of its donors. Braden went in another direction and stuck his neck out. He wrote a staunch defense of his actions. “The Cold War was and is fought with ideas instead of bombs. And our country had a clear-cut choice: Either we win the war or lose it.”
The worldwide coverage of Braden’s defense eclipsed the original bombshell. He explained the project in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. It was started to counter the Russians, he said, who “were spending $250 million a year on international front organizations.”
Former CIA director R. James Woolsey says, “Remember, this was the period when France and Italy were close to going communist, and communists had a good deal of cachet in many circles because they had—at least with the exception of the period from 1939 until 1941—been the enemies of the fascists and Nazis.”
Braden explained to the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t think it’s immoral or disgraceful to help one’s country.… It seems to me that a man who does this for the CIA is in the same position as a soldier fighting in -Vietnam.”
“I think Tom meant well.”
That’s what Cord Meyer wrote to Allen Dulles in the wake of Braden’s disclosures. “Obviously it is going to be very damaging. I really can’t understand why he did it.” Dulles biographer Peter Grose contends that Dulles was also bewildered. At a party in Georgetown, Dulles reportedly accosted Braden’s wife, Joan, with a stinging rebuke. The next day, she wrote, “What you said hurt more deeply than perhaps you know. Disagree with [Tom’s] judgment but not with his motive.” It took Dulles more than a month to respond. “You speak of his feelings for me, and your own, but if what you say about Tom is true, why, oh why, did he have to do this without any consultation or without attempting to find out what those with whom he had worked so closely, and who had vouched for him in the past, would feel about his action.… He has hurt many of us, and my feelings for Tom have been deeply affected.” After that, Grose recorded, “Allen never spoke another word to Tom Braden.”
Braden spent the summer of 1967 at Lake Tahoe, trying to determine his next act. When he contacted longtime CIA officer Richard Bissell for suggestions, Bissell replied, “If you develop any brilliant ideas for an independent enterprise, let me know. I might like to apply for an opportunity to join you.” Apparently some CIA men were more forgiving than the old spymaster.
“From the left, I’m Tom Braden.”
That was his nightly sign-off on Crossfire for most of the 1980s. In contrast to other CIA men, Braden didn’t spend his post-agency years in obscurity. The man who once said, “I’ve always wanted to do things, be involved”—well, he lived the remainder of his life in the most public way possible, first as the author of a best-selling memoir (which was not always flattering about his parenting skills), then as the basis for a TV character and finally as himself on Crossfire. He seemed to hate the CIA of the post-Vietnam era, regarding it as arrogant and too powerful. “I would shut it down,” he wrote in the Saturday Review in 1975. Braden argued that the agency’s intelligence activities ought to be farmed out to the State Department. “Scholars and scientists and people who understand how the railroads run in Sri Lanka don’t need to belong to the CIA in order to do their valuable work,” he wrote. Ironically, Braden’s daughter Susan would go on to work at the agency for more than a decade, starting in the 1980s. She tells me she regards the shadowy world of the CIA as something of an incongruity in her father’s life, that he was a man who didn’t like secrecy. “That’s why he had no reluctance to exposing the operation,” she says as she recalls the bravado with which her dad spoke of those days. “He thought people should know what they did.” This is part of what people mean when they say Braden was a man of complexity.
In 1983, a representative of the right-wing John Birch Society appeared on Crossfire to debate President Ronald Reagan’s policy toward the Soviets. About five minutes into the live broadcast, the guest attacked Braden: “In the 1950s…we had a thing called the Braden Doctrine where America poured $2 million a year into left-wing activities under the guise of fighting communism.” Incensed by having what he’d done at the CIA critiqued and his loyalty questioned, Braden grew furious and replied, “I was taking on communism when you were in knee pants, for heaven’s sake. The CIA licked Joseph Stalin’s last great offensive in Western Europe, and it did it by helping liberals, intellectuals and socialists.” Braden glared at the guest and declared, “You don’t know anything about fighting communism.”
Finally, at the end of the decade, news broadcasts flashed an astonishing report: “The Berlin Wall doesn’t mean anything anymore—the East German media chief in the Communist Party said a short while ago that anyone who wants to leave East Germany and go anywhere in the world is free to do so,” announced Peter Jennings on ABC, November 9, 1989. As the Wall crumbled, Braden watched the bulletins from the den of his 11-bedroom yellow house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with modern art decorating the walls.
“When my dad died and we began dividing up his things for the family, my wife and I got a small painting by Picasso,” Nicholas Braden told me. “I never knew what it all meant.”
This article was originally published in the November 2013 issue of Playboy. Check out more from the issue at playboy.com/magazine.
Photos: Tom Braden in 1967; Braden's cultural assault on Europe caught the eye of Esquire in 1958