President Barack Obama’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran has prompted concerns from conservatives who say its government can’t be trusted to adhere to the negotiated terms. But leftist hawk Paul Berman had a different reaction. He praised the deal for thawing relations, thereby creating the conditions for “an ideological de-toxification campaign” like those of the Cold War, when, he writes, "the liberal journalists and intellectuals in the old Committee for Cultural Freedom and the Congress for Cultural Freedom used to put up serious arguments against the totalitarian currents of the day, and there is no reason why this couldn’t be done in our own day."

Berman is not the only thinker in recent years who has hoped to reproduce the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-totalitarian organization founded in 1950. Late last spring, then-New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and some of his friends, such as the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, converged on Kiev for a conference called “Ukraine: Thinking Together,” with the premise that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was “one of the proving grounds of principle in our time.” Intellectuals must make a stand against the tyranny of Putin, in the manner that the CCF stood against Stalin in the early 1950s, Wieseltier said, noting that the idea for the conference came about when he realized that he had “Congress for Cultural Freedom envy.” And ten years ago, after the release of the 9/11 Commission report, David Brooks wrote in his New York Times column that in order to confront the ideology of Islamic jihadism, “We need to set up the sort of intellectual mobilization we had during the cold war, with modern equivalents of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, to give an international platform to modernist Muslims and to introduce them to Western intellectuals.” It is a trope that resembles the product pitch of “Uber, but for [insert un-disrupted industry here]”: “The Congress for Cultural Freedom, but for [insert hostile regime here].”

For liberal hawks and neoconservatives, the idea of the Congress for Cultural Freedom is an appealing fantasy. It evokes the time at the beginning of the Cold War when intellectuals played a serious role in politics because the world seemed not just caught up in a battle of armies but in a battle of ideas. Beginning in 1950, it brought together a diverse array of thinkers who, under the rubric of anti-totalitarianism, agreed that the freedom to think and write was inviolable. Its raison d’etre was anti-Communism; it sought to reduce the influence of Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals, first concentrating on Western Europe but later expanding all around the world. In the words of one of its historians, “It was America’s principal attempt to win over the world’s intellectuals to the liberal democratic cause.” In seeking to influence left-wing intellectuals, it steered away from conservative thinkers. In Europe and elsewhere it featured social democrats, Christian Democrats, and even dissident Marxists. In the United States, its most active boosters were liberals, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Daniel Bell, and former Marxists moving in neoconservative directions, such as Sidney Hook. The CCF defended pluralism, democracy, and even socialism, so long as it was anti-Communist. (Even late in life, both Bell and Hook still thought of themselves as socialists, at least on economic questions.) It had a sophisticated publishing operation, amplifying voices critical of Communism. It arranged, for example, for the publication of the Yugoslavian ex-Communist Milovan Djilas’s The New Class, which argued that the Soviet Union was not in fact a classless society but one in which class privilege accrued based on proximity to the state bureaucracy. The CCF also operated a stable of high-quality literary and political magazines, among them Encounter in London, Der Monat in Germany, Jiyu in Japan, and Mundo Nuevo in Latin America.

The fantasy of the Congress for Cultural Freedom is easy to grasp. Stalinism was a great evil, and a few intellectuals had the courage to stand alone and say so—with eloquence and erudition, no less. In the end, the CCF, representing the best of “Western values,” triumphed over an evil ideology. It’s no wonder that some today suffer from envy: The opportunity to fight evil through the war of ideas is seductive, especially in a world as complex as the one we occupy today. But the clarity they impose on the past is an illusion, and their envy is delusion.

What those who seek to resurrect something like the Congress for Cultural Freedom have failed to learn is, in fact, the most important lesson it has to offer our own time. For the CCF was not simply a group of heroic intellectuals standing alone against Communism; they stood “alone” with the force of the U.S. government behind them. Throughout much of its life, the CCF was funded primarily by the CIA; a fact that, when revealed definitively in 1966 and 1967, caused its downfall and discredited its participants. (Those who call for a new CCF also always somehow fail to mention this.) CIA officers occupied its highest offices, and the number of people who knew about the connection was high—and certainly included Schlesinger, Hook, and Bell. They tended to dismiss the connection as relatively unimportant, insisting that they had always maintained their intellectual independence. One liberal CIA official who helped to arrange early funding later defended it by saying that it had to be covert: There was no other option because “the idea that [the U.S.] Congress would have approved many of our [left-wing] projects was almost as likely as the John Birch Society’s approving Medicare.” But once the CIA connection was established, there was really no possibility that it would not influence the organization. CIA officials made budget, personnel, and publishing decisions. 

To be sure, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was a complex organization. Its participants, even when they knew of the connection to the CIA, were not simply CIA pawns. They came by their opinions through experiences with Communism that generally predated the Cold War and the existence of the CIA and they sometimes succeeded in pushing the CIA to do things that they wanted, rather than only the other way around. But the inescapable fact is that the CCF, whatever else it was, was also an instrument of American power. It would not have been funded if it had not been. And that raises troubling questions. Frances Stonor Saunders, a journalist who spent years writing a history of the organization, argues that its purpose was not exactly the defense of liberal democracy from totalitarianism, but the creation of an intellectual community that was “more accommodating of ‘the American way.'” Anti-Stalinism as an intellectual position was perfectly justified, but anti-Communism as a priority of state also led the U.S. to commit atrocities and undermine democracies around the world. However pure its motives, and they were not always pure, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was an accessory to U.S. power during the Cold War. That would seem to be the most potent lesson its history has to offer the world today: what seemed like moral clarity was in reality a deeply compromised position. 

Those who wish to resurrect something like Congress for Cultural Freedom to fight Russian imperialism or Islamic radicalism may have good intentions. They often see ideological engagement on the CCF model as a superior alternative to war. But historically, the CCF was not an alternative to war; it was part of the Cold War. The rhetorical work to make official enemies into the embodiment of evil often accompanies the drive to war; that it comes from ostensibly liberal voices, like those of the CCF or the New Republic during Wieseltier's tenure, helps provide bipartisan cover for U.S. interventions. Paul Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism, which argued that Islamic fundamentalism was an ideological threat on the same order as fascism had once been,tried to play that role for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Reviewing that book, Josh Marshall identified what he called the “Orwellian temptation”: 

George Orwell not only epitomized what an intellectual can and should be. He has also become the symbol of the role the best intellectuals played in those critical mid-century years. Along the way, however, the image he cast—or rather his ghost, or his shade—has also become part of the pornography of intellectuals…For intellectuals…there is always a temptation to take momentous, morally serious questions and make them out to be slightly more momentous and world-historical than they really are. 

But the temptation to play Orwell is a risky one—even for Orwell, who in 1949 gave British intelligence a list of people he considered untrustworthy “crypto-Communists” and “fellow travelers.” 

The Congress for Cultural Freedom fantasy is about more than the hope of having the experience of being morally right. It is about intellectual work being of value in epoch-defining conflict. But the dark side of that value is that it comes with sponsorship—the support of governments and foundations. Many intellectuals with Cold War nostalgia would love for their ideas to matter enough for the CIA to fly them to a conference in Rome or Paris every couple of years. But they should remember that government money defends interests, not ideals. Even if it were not sponsored by the CIA in the way that the CCF once was, any new version of the CCF would also be an accessory to American power. There may be worse things out there than American power—I make no apologies here for Stalin, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. But if there are worse things than American power, there are none more powerful. And the U.S.’s record of transforming societies for their benefit is not a happy one, to say the least. Neoconservatives and liberal hawks pine to recreate the moral clarity of the days of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. But if they had truly learned the lesson of its history, they would understand that their efforts to confront one kind of evil makes others possible, and that moral certainty must be leavened with intellectual humility.