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, ondero 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.