Early on in her work, Karen Paget notes that many on the sixties’ far left misunderstood liberal anticommunism, and hence lumped it in with the Right. Although she does make distinctions between both varieties of anti-communism, she succumbs to sixties’ era views of the CIA as fascist. She treats her portrayal of the CIA penetration of the National Student Association, from 1950 to its outing by Ramparts in 1967 as a “gotcha” moment, where the very existence of said partnership is in and of itself damning.
She does acknowledge that liberals had been burned by student unions dominated by secret communists. Perhaps the most famous dupe of all, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939 championed the American Student Union, a coalition of liberals, socialists, and to her ultimate horror, knee-jerk Stalinists, by sitting behind its president, Joseph Lasch, while he was being grilled by the House Un-American Activities Committee, a group tasked with outing secret communists.
But the blanket support by closet communists in the ASU (who swore to her they were not Party members) for the Hitler-Stalin military partnership in 1939, emphasized to her and other liberals that student associations were objects of communist penetration and needed to be combated.
Fast forward to 1950. While Joseph McCarthy was beginning his disastrous crusade (one ultimately harmful to the cause of legitimate, non-self-serving anticommunism), the CIA funded the National Student Association to sway students abroad who were on the Cold War fence, and penetrate those with dubious associations. Much of the attraction for the Agency was that the NSA resided in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where two years before the Soviets brutally installed a puppet regime.
Paget takes the standard leftist view of clandestine operations as evil. But she neglects to mention the more irresponsible alternative, backed by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, of “massive retaliation”, that is, that any actions by the Soviets would provoke a nuclear response. Intelligence operations had the more responsible actions, with its low body counts and eschewal of emptying the silos. Not satisfied with castigating these actions as undemocratic, she also denounces them as counter-productive. A recipient of NSA help, the leaders of the “Prague Spring” of 1968,in which members of the new government sought to cuts it ties to Soviet control and establish a more humane socialism, attributed their independent respect for the law rather than any democratic teachings by the NSA as the impetus for their rebellion.
One of the major faults of this book is in how she sets up a strawman. She spells out that she is writing this book as a warning against covert operations in the War On Terror as ultimately ineffective. However, when the CIA does succeed in its covert operations—ousting pro-Soviet leaders in Iran and Guatemala, aiding the Solidarity movement in Poland, a key group that would ultimately topple the Soviet government–it is undemocratic.
In these days of water-boarding, it is hard to recall that the CIA was once viewed as a liberal organization in the Cold War. And it was not always out of control and ridiculous, as it was when it hatched the scheme to make Castro’s beard fall out and thus call his masculinity into question. Its policies were shaped by both avoiding nuclear war and battling the Soviets in the back alleys of Europe. Paget sidesteps this portrayal and cannot shed her biases.