AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We've been hearing this week about a program called ZunZuneo. That's Cuban slang for a hummingbird's tweet. ZunZuneo is also a Twitter-like project created and run by USAID in Cuba from 2009 to 2012. During a congressional hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy called it a cockamamie idea to destabilize Cuba's government, but it's not a new idea. For our series This Week's Must Read, writer and editor Paul Reyes explores some similar stories in our country's history.
PAUL REYES: This isn't the first time we've tried to plan this kind of thing: poisoned cigars, an infected scuba-diving suit. Once, we even planned to slip Fidel Castro drugs during a radio broadcast so he'd sound like a fool. And on other Cold War fronts, we enlisted the arts. Frances Saunders chronicled those stories in her book, "The Cultural Cold War." She also explains that whether they knew it or not, a lot of American artists and writers participated.
In 1950, the CIA created the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Its goal was to use art to nudge the intelligentsia of Western Europe towards a view that was accommodating of the American way. They secretly funded literary magazines, exhibitions and performances. A lot of artists and writers benefited - people like Mary McCarthy, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Schlesinger.
My favorite story from the book is about the spring of 1962, when the U.S. needed some goodwill in Latin America. The CIA assigned the poet Robert Lowell to Argentina as a kind of cultural ambassador. He got a CIA handler, and a schedule of readings and parties. As Saunders tells it, it was in Buenos Aires that the trouble started. Lowell threw away the pills prescribed for his manic depression, took a string of double martinis at a reception in the presidential palace, and announced he was Caesar of Argentina. A quick speech about Hitler, then off with the clothes, running through the city and finally, climbing onto the statue of a horse. This went on for days until the handler had enough and ordered Lowell straitjacketed into a mental hospital.
Is ZunZuneo any more embarrassing than the stories in this book? At least it put the art of self-expression in the hands of everyday people for a while. Either way, it now belongs to the narrative, to the long and weird tradition of cultural espionage gone ridiculously wrong.
CORNISH: The book is "The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters," by Frances Saunders. It was recommended by Paul Reyes, deputy editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He's also author of the book "Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.