The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America

Hugh Wilford (Author)

Product Details

Harvard University Press
Publish Date
May 01, 2009
5.6 X 8.9 X 1.0 inches | 0.01 pounds

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About the Author

Hugh Wilford is Associate Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach.


An astonishing account of the CIA's front operations in the United States during the Cold War.--Will Podmore"Tribune Magazine" (04/11/2008)
An outstanding book: lively, engaging, thoroughly researched and beautifully written. It provides a clear view of the many activities of the CIA to gain the support of Americans during the Cold War, and raises important questions about the place of such secret efforts to mobilize popular opinion in a democracy.--Allan M. Winkler, Miami University
Wilford's book is superb, by far the most comprehensive work to date on the front groups through which the CIA sought to project U.S. cultural and political influence. He has an inviting, perceptive, allusive style that pulls in the reader, humanizes and harmonizes the material, and in the end generates the incisive moral or historical point. It was a pleasure to read.--Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara
Fusing the perspectives of intelligence and social history, Wilford has written the first authoritative overview of the CIA's recruitment of private American citizens to fight communism. Combining meticulous scholarship with a fluent narrative style, he tells a story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. His argument, that American individualism frustrated the CIA's efforts to control, will provoke debate for years to come.--Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, author of The FBI: A History
By turns hilarious and horrifying, the story of the CIA's attempts to disseminate anticommunist propaganda through a variety of front organizations...This superb account will provide CIA aficionados with some welcome comic relief.-- (10/01/2007)
Hugh Wilford has unearthed from archives the myriad links between the CIA and various citizen front groups attempting to counter communist influence in The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. Coming forty years after the magazine Ramparts exposed the CIA propaganda program, this book is sure to be relevant to our own era of "hearts and minds" campaigning.-- (12/01/2007)
[An] elegantly written, diligently researched examination of the CIA's glory days...The fronts that Wisner built were more errors than terrors, shrill tunes on that tin whistle--which Hugh Wilford plays with sentient skill.-- (02/03/2008)
[A] brisk yet thorough narrative...No one has written a more comprehensive or sophisticated account of the pro-American fronts from their creation in the late 1940s to the investigative report 20 years later in Ramparts magazine that first exposed the CIA's cultural offensive and left people such as [Gloria] Steinem with a bit of explaining to do.-- (01/27/2008)
Hugh Wilford has given us the first comprehensive and thorough report of how the CIA--modeling its policies on the Comintern's creation of Communist front groups--created their own fronts, with recipients who included not only the white male writers and artists who made up much of the postwar cultural establishment, but women, African-Americans, students, the labor movement, Catholics, and journalists. Mr. Wilford undermines rather than bolsters the boast made by CIA man Frank Wisner, who called his agency a "Mighty Wurlitzer," a mass of information and intelligence capable of playing the tunes the rest of the world would dance to. The old view, that the Agency was composed of "puppet masters" and that its recipients were simple marionettes, is not only inaccurate, but highly misleading. Mr. Wilford carefully shows that in almost all the cases, those funded understood the high stakes of the Cold War with the Soviets. Rather than following CIA orders, most used whatever funds they received to carry on the work they had already started, and often discarded the advice of the Agency handlers...[A] first-rate book. It is doubtful whether another survey of this subject will ever be necessary. One can differ with his own conclusion that covert funding "stained the reputation" of America and still find the book of immeasurable merit.-- (02/06/2008)
Remarkably detailed and researched...There were indeed fronts directly established by the C.I.A. for a particular goal, and the story Wilford tells of them in The Mighty Wurlitzer is fascinating, involving a surprising collection of well-known figures in American life...There is a great deal to be learned from this book. Wilford has consulted an astonishing number of scholarly and popular accounts, along with the papers and records of some of the central participants and organizations. He's done a remarkable job of research...Wilford has mastered an enormously complex tale in almost every detail.-- (01/20/2008)
[A] superb new account of the underground combat in ideas and checkbooks that unfolded in the 1950s and early '60s...One important insight Wilford brings to this history is that it wasn't necessarily ignoble to promote American values in the face of a menacing communist alternative in those two decades.-- (02/22/2008)
Wilford provides a comprehensive account of the clandestine relationship between the CIA and its front organizations, tracing the rise and fall of America's front network from its origins in the 1940s to its collapse in the 1960s.--Times Higher Education Supplement (02/28/2008)
The term "Mighty Wurlitzer" was coined by CIA agent Frank Wisner to describe the network of small organizations and magazines that the agency used to propagate its message during the Cold War. With meticulous research Hugh Wilford has unpicked the seams of CIA cultural influence, revealing a surprisingly complex picture of divided loyalties and tangled motives.-- (03/06/2008)
In framing my review or observations, I would like to ask Frank Wisner what he thinks of this book. My feeling is that he would give it a High Pass...Mr. Wilford's index is tantalizing. It invites our interest and suggests that if we spend the time to decode it, we might deduce the substance and flair undertaken in his research and the breadth of his own investigative skill...Mr. Wilford writes clearly and without the inbred pomposity of so many popular historians and journalists.-- (04/11/2008)
Fascinating...The book represents a sophisticated integration of intelligence history with social and cultural history. Above all it is very well written; it engages the reader from the outset through clandestine operations to the heights of culture and celebrity.-- (07/01/2008)
The title of Wilford's engaging book comes from CIA official Frank Wisner's comment that his operation was a "mighty Wurlitzer" organ on which he could play any propaganda tune. Wilford traces the history of how the CIA funded and employed front groups in its contest against the Soviet Union from the inception of George Kennan's Office of Policy Coordination under Wisner in 1949 as the prime instrument of psychological political warfare through the exposure of these clandestine activities by the radical muckraking Ramparts magazine in 1967. The book discusses the colorful characters that designed, created, and implemented the various programs, and the different venues targeted and used--including the postwar émigré community, labor organizations, journalists, intellectuals, artists and others of the cultural front, student organizations, women, blacks, Catholics, and others. The expense in dollars was considerable, but the author also considers the costs to democracy, the nation's reputation, and individual lives far too great a price to bear.-- (09/01/2008)
In contrast to most previous discussions of the CIA's front-group operations, which have tended to concentrate narrowly on culture and the arts, The Mighty Wurlitzer covers a much wider range of activities. Wilford is especially good, for example, on the agency's dealings with sympathetic American journalists like the political columnist Joseph Alsop and Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who served as publisher of the New York Times from 1935 to 1961.-- (03/01/2008)