Propaganda comes in many disguises - a patriotic musical lyric or a heroic and almost impossible win for the ‘good guys’. Sometimes the spin is so subtle artists and audiences don’t even notice spies are pulling the levers behind the scenes.
Americans and the British aren’t the only propaganda artists around, of course. They just happen to be more talented than most. From the animated film Animal Farm to Louis Armstrong’s jazz and Jennifer Garner’s Alias, SPYSCAPE gives the intelligence agencies their close-ups.
The CIA secretly funded the classic movie Animal Farm (1954), bankrolling American film producer Louis de Rochemont with $500,000. He produced a brilliant piece of Cold War anti-communist propaganda about a barnyard revolution, an allegory recounting events of the Russian Revolution with a very different ending than George Orwell’s 1945 book. Sonia Orwell granted the rights to her late husband’s work with one condition - she wanted to meet Clark Gable. Animal Farm is among the most important works of animation in British cinema history. The film was widely praised - The British out-Disney Disney, read one headline.
Modern art as a Cold War weapon
American painters Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and other abstract expressionists were unknowingly part of the Cold War effort. The CIA pulled the strings at the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a front group that promoted non-communist leftist artists - the implication being that the Soviets would throw avant-garde painters into Lubyanka's prison cells, whereas freedom-loving Americans celebrated them. Spies operated a 'long-leash' policy using galleries and museums to promote painters. The ruse allowed the CIA to sidestep artists who might object to having their exhibitions funded by the government.
The CIA has been working with Hollywood since its inception in 1947, offering favors and access to Langley HQ for productions that portray the agency favorably - Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty, and Black Hawk Down among them. The CIA even had script approval during the filming of the TV series The Americans. While shooting the Tom Clancy thriller The Sum of all Fears, CIA film liaison (yes, the agency has a film liaison) Chase Brandon advised on the set and he was also frequently around during the shooting of Alias, the espionage series starring Ben Affleck’s ex-wife Jennifer Garner. Garner even filmed a CIA recruitment video and Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo was the first movie permitted to film inside Langley.
FBI film consultants
When director Henry-Alex Rubin asked the FBI to look over a draft script for his 2012 cyber-drama Disconnect he expected a few fact-checking corrections. Instead, the FBI suggested changes to a scene where two agents aggressively question a journalist. Like the CIA, the FBI aims to polish its image by consulting on projects like the Miley Cyrus film So Undercover and the Watergate biopic Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. The FBI has had an uneasy relationship with Hollywood. Former director J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with rooting out communists and censoring movies - even Jimmy Stewart’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life was considered Soviet propaganda at one stage.
Britain's secret War Propaganda Board
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t just write Sherlock Holmes’ detective stories, he wrote propaganda for the British during WWI. The government asked Conan Doyle to help with the war effort so he wrote a national appeal, To Arms! The UK also enlisted other prominent writers for His Majesty’s Government’s War Propaganda Board. More than 50 of Britain’s leading authors - including H.G. Wells and Thomas Hardy - also signed an Authors’ Declaration, a manifesto declaring that the German invasion of Belgium was a crime and that Britain could not idly stand by.
It’s only rock ‘n roll
Was the Scorpions’ power-ballad Winds of Change a CIA rock anthem crafted to bring down the Iron Curtain? The song was written in September 1989, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with lyrics promoting the desire for change: ‘The world is closing in / Did you ever think / That we could be so close, like brothers?’ croons Klaus Meine, frontman for the West German heavy-metal band. Meine denied he was also a frontman for American spies but US investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe argues the point in his Winds of Change podcast - albeit without much evidence.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the US State Department had a strategy to introduce American music internationally - winning audiences over as ideological Cold War allies in the process. The David Brubeck jazz quartet performed in Poland, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. Music legends Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie were 'jazz ambassadors' in Africa and Asia, promoting America as a symbol of racial progress. The plan didn’t always work. Armstrong criticized President Dwight Eisenhower during the 1957 school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas when the National Guard prevented black students from integrating into Little Rock High School. Armstrong even abandoned his ‘ambassadorship’ periodically to drive home his point.
A propaganda tool?
Somerset Maugham, the celebrated British author, is one of the first espionage writers to actually work as a spy. Maugham was assigned to Geneva, Switzerland as a WWII Secret Intelligence Service officer disguised as a French playwright. He sent coded messages embedded in manuscripts. Maugham was supposed to be a propaganda tool for the British government but his effectiveness is debatable. In his foreword to Ashenden, Maugham writes: The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless.
In 1960, Americans found that mail posted to Czechoslovakia was being returned unopened. The problem? The envelopes carried a US postage stamp of Tomáš Masaryk, the Czechoslovakian independence leader who led the struggle for political freedom. Communist Czechoslovakia was not amused. The spy games worked both ways, however. In 1954, the CIA issued an intelligence report called: Belief That Communists Are Using Von Schill Postage Stamp in Propaganda Effort to Foster German Nationalistic Feeling Against France.
Do spy agencies always win the cultural wars? The CIA commissioned its own network TV show in the 1990s: The Classified Files of the CIA. The plan was for Langley to feed ‘fact patterns’ to producers to use for storytelling. Producers Aaron Spelling (Beverly Hills 90210, Charlie's Angels) and Steve Tisch (Forrest Gump) soon cited ‘creative difference’ and parted ways. According to Tricia Jenkins’ book The CIA in Hollywood, the two-hour pilot was a masterclass in humorless propaganda and how to create a failed TV show.