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The Battle for Picasso’s Mind
  • October 18, 2013 : 03:10
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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.”

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read more: News, politics, art, issue november 2013

2 comments

  • patb2009
    patb2009
    1) If the official policy of the US Government was not to support Modern Art in the 1950s, then it's bad governance for a secret division to go against public policy.2) If the US Government wants to support Modern Art and Cultural Enterprise, it's cheaper and more efficient to do it through the State Dept, NEA, NEH, or via UNESCO, then to do it through black bag jobs, mechanics and front entities.3) "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." Um, With all due respect to Mr Braden, he was a Career Civil Servant with 8 kids and a stay at home wife, how did he afford this? I knew plenty of high level civil servants in Montgomery county with 5 kids living in 3 bedroom houses.
  • la2013
    la2013
    Um...with all due respect, Braden owned a newspaper for 10 years, which he sold for a lot of money, wrote a best selling book that was turned into a hit TV series, worked as a journalist in DC and co-hosted Crossfire - the number one cable political talk show for almost a decade. Joan had various jobs, but almost always worked. I'd say he could afford a house.
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