The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America

by Hugh Wilford

In 1967 the magazine Ramparts ran an exposé revealing that the Central Intelligence Agency had been secretly funding and managing a wide range of citizen front groups intended to counter communist influence around the world. In addition to embarrassing prominent individuals caught up, wittingly or unwittingly, in the secret superpower struggle for hearts and minds, the revelations of 1967 were one of the worst operational disasters in the history of American intelligence and presaged a series of public scandals from which the CIA’s reputation has arguably never recovered.

CIA official Frank Wisner called the operation his “mighty Wurlitzer,” on which he could play any propaganda tune. In this illuminating book, Hugh Wilford provides the first comprehensive account of the clandestine relationship between the CIA and its front organizations. Using an unprecedented wealth of sources, he traces the rise and fall of America’s Cold War front network from its origins in the 1940s to its Third World expansion during the 1950s and ultimate collapse in the 1960s.

Covering the intelligence officers who masterminded the CIA’s fronts as well as the involved citizen groups–émigrés, labor, intellectuals, artists, students, women, Catholics, African Americans, and journalists–Wilford provides a surprising analysis of Cold War society that contains valuable lessons for our own age of global conflict.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (May 1, 2009)

From Publishers Weekly


An outstanding book: lively, engaging, thoroughly researched and beautifully written. It provides a clear view of the many activities of the CIA to gain the support of Americans during the Cold War, and raises important questions about the place of such secret efforts to mobilize popular opinion in a democracy. (Allan M. Winkler, Miami University)

Fusing the perspectives of intelligence and social history, Wilford has written the first authoritative overview of the CIA’s recruitment of private American citizens to fight communism. Combining meticulous scholarship with a fluent narrative style, he tells a story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. His argument, that American individualism frustrated the CIA’s efforts to control, will provoke debate for years to come. (Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, author of The FBI: A History)

Wilford’s book is superb, by far the most comprehensive work to date on the front groups through which the CIA sought to project U.S. cultural and political influence. He has an inviting, perceptive, allusive style that pulls in the reader, humanizes and harmonizes the material, and in the end generates the incisive moral or historical point. It was a pleasure to read. (Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara)

By turns hilarious and horrifying, the story of the CIA’s attempts to disseminate anticommunist propaganda through a variety of front organizations…This superb account will provide CIA aficionados with some welcome comic relief. (Kirkus Reviews 2007-10-01)

Hugh Wilford has unearthed from archives the myriad links between the CIA and various citizen front groups attempting to counter communist influence in The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. Coming forty years after the magazine Ramparts exposed the CIA propaganda program, this book is sure to be relevant to our own era of “hearts and minds” campaigning. (Bookforum 2007-12-01)

[An] elegantly written, diligently researched examination of the CIA’s glory days…The fronts that Wisner built were more errors than terrors, shrill tunes on that tin whistle–which Hugh Wilford plays with sentient skill. (Peter Preston The Observer 2008-02-03)

[A] brisk yet thorough narrative…No one has written a more comprehensive or sophisticated account of the pro-American fronts from their creation in the late 1940s to the investigative report 20 years later in Ramparts magazine that first exposed the CIA’s cultural offensive and left people such as [Gloria] Steinem with a bit of explaining to do. (Michael Kazin Washington Post Book World 2008-01-27)

Hugh Wilford has given us the first comprehensive and thorough report of how the CIA–modeling its policies on the Comintern’s creation of Communist front groups–created their own fronts, with recipients who included not only the white male writers and artists who made up much of the postwar cultural establishment, but women, African-Americans, students, the labor movement, Catholics, and journalists. Mr. Wilford undermines rather than bolsters the boast made by CIA man Frank Wisner, who called his agency a “Mighty Wurlitzer,” a mass of information and intelligence capable of playing the tunes the rest of the world would dance to. The old view, that the Agency was composed of “puppet masters” and that its recipients were simple marionettes, is not only inaccurate, but highly misleading. Mr. Wilford carefully shows that in almost all the cases, those funded understood the high stakes of the Cold War with the Soviets. Rather than following CIA orders, most used whatever funds they received to carry on the work they had already started, and often discarded the advice of the Agency handlers…[A] first-rate book. It is doubtful whether another survey of this subject will ever be necessary. One can differ with his own conclusion that covert funding “stained the reputation” of America and still find the book of immeasurable merit. (Ronald Radosh New York Sun 2008-02-06)

Remarkably detailed and researched…There were indeed fronts directly established by the C.I.A. for a particular goal, and the story Wilford tells of them in The Mighty Wurlitzer is fascinating, involving a surprising collection of well-known figures in American life…There is a great deal to be learned from this book. Wilford has consulted an astonishing number of scholarly and popular accounts, along with the papers and records of some of the central participants and organizations. He’s done a remarkable job of research…Wilford has mastered an enormously complex tale in almost every detail. (Nathan Glazer New York Times Book Review 2008-01-20)

[A] superb new account of the underground combat in ideas and checkbooks that unfolded in the 1950s and early ’60s…One important insight Wilford brings to this history is that it wasn’t necessarily ignoble to promote American values in the face of a menacing communist alternative in those two decades. (Charles Trueheart 2008-02-22)



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