The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America BY Hugh Wilford. Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 400 pages. $27.

The cover of The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America

As CIA books go, Hugh Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer does not give the agency the feel of a lethal fun house full of wild and crazy guys that is its indelible reputation. Not that the book is devoid of incidents of frightening nonsense:

Staff would travel to sites on the borders of the Soviet Union’s “satellite” nations and release balloons. Carried eastward on the prevailing winds, the balloons would explode once they had reached a height of 30,000 or 40,000 feet, showering propaganda materials—leaflets denouncing communist leaders, fake currency, and anticommunist “news­papers on the captive populations below. (One tongue-in-cheek proposal—to advertise the sexual prowess of American men by scattering extra-large, U.S.-manufactured condoms stamped “medium”—was abandoned at the planning stage.)

The nation and much of the free world might have been better off had a number of other projects been abandoned at the planning stage. Nevertheless, The Mighty Wurlitzer is not about CIA cock-ups. Instead, it concerns itself with the agency’s use of front groups, principally American front groups secretly sustained and often directed by this famous branch of the federal government.

The Wurlitzer of the title comes from a quote by Frank Wisner, said at a time when the Soviets had made subversion and espionage by front groups one of the darker art forms: “It was against this background,” Wilford writes, “that the CIA constructed an array of front organizations that Frank Wisner, the Agency’s first chief of political warfare, liked to compare to a ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’ organ, capable of playing any propaganda tune he desired.” To the extent there is one, Wisner is the star and central figure of this book.

As has so often been the case with agency personnel, Wisner was a lunatic. “For months on end,” writes Tim Weiner in Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, “Frank Wisner had been brooding in his lovely house in Georgetown, drinking from cut-glass tumblers filled with whiskey, in a dark despair. Among the CIA’s more closely held secrets was that one of its founding fathers had been in and out of the madhouse for years. Wisner had been removed as chief of station in London and forced to retire after his mental illness overtook him once again in 1962. . . . On October 29, 1965, Wisner had a date to go hunting at his estate on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with an old CIA friend, Joe Bryan. That afternoon, Wisner went up to his country house, took down a shotgun, and blew off his head.” Wilford also discusses Wisner’s mental health, or lack thereof, but without the color and force Weiner provides; then again, Wilford is an academic (he teaches history at Cal State, Long Beach), and the strictures of his profession may have put him on guard against an overabundance of verve.

Whether fathered by insanity, the top people’s innate poor judgment, or a rashness emboldened by utter unaccountability, the CIA repeatedly launched itself into endeavors that were futile or worthless or wasteful or tragic or unconstitutional. Given current concerns about the place of religion in government and public life, for example, Wilford’s unearthing of the CIA’s subsidy of the Family Rosary Crusade is of more than passing interest. Started in the 1940s by Patrick Peyton, a Catholic priest in the Holy Cross Congregation, the Crusade was an immediate success, with its motto “The family that prays together stays together.” Its major activity was staging what might be described as a Catholic version of Protestant revival-tent meetings.

When Peyton took the Crusade to South America, the CIA may or may not have bruised the First Amendment’s establishment clause in backing the priest’s project with hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret contributions. Judged only by the numbers attending these revivals, the effort was a success: Wilford tells his readers that “when Peyton preached in [Rio de Janeiro] on Decem­ber 16, 1962, 1.5 million Brazilians came to listen. A year later, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8, 1963), also declared Family Day by President João Goulart, the Crusade sponsored an hour-long television broadcast from Rio that featured, among others, Bing Crosby, soccer superstar Pelé, and Agostinho dos Santos, the self-styled ‘bossa nova king of Brazil,’ who performed a Samba version of ‘Ave Maria.’” Whether or not these mass manifestations of faith frustrated Soviet ambitions in South America, Wilford says that the general who subsequently led the coup against Goulart credited the Crusade with paving the way to replacing democracy in Brazil with a dictatorship that kept the country in a deep freeze for years afterward.

As the insane Wisner up in his dark cockpit touched the pedals and hit the keys of his Wurlitzer, the CIA was furtively inserting itself into countless organizations and areas of American daily life that had heretofore been held to be none of the government’s business. The agency found it impossible to subsidize organizations whose activities were useful in waging the cold war without, to some extent at least, shaping and controlling what they did and when and where they did it. In the case of the Crusade, for instance, the agency, as much as Peyton, decided where in South America this religious razzmatazz show would travel.

Peyton was, to use an expression of the times, “witting.” That was not true of other fund recipients or organizations such as the National Student Association, arguably the largest-ever student group in American history. Only a small number of the top officers, all of whom took oaths of secrecy, knew from where the organization’s funds derived. Those people were, for practical purposes, paid secret agents. Some were also unusually talented young people, some of whose careers, after the whole thing blew up in 1967, are tainted (if slightly) even now.

Today, we are struggling to deal with hostile forces that have an unknown number of operatives living among us, disguised as something other than who they actually are. Hence we ought to have some sympathy with the dilemmas Americans faced forty or fifty years ago. In many ways, their problem was more difficult than ours. Jihad­ists, or whatever one wishes to call today’s would-be terrorists, do not easily blend into and vanish in our society. They often look different from the Americans they seek to hide among. Muslim communities are small and, by all accounts, usually very hostile to people who hope to plant bombs on school buses.

The underground Communists did not use terror or physical sabotage. Political sabo­tage was another matter. Their game was to affect politics in the United States and around the world. The Reds of that time were linguistically, culturally, and physically indistinguishable from everybody else. Most were native-born Americans. Not a few were highly placed in government and critical areas of the society, such as law, education, and entertainment. Not only that, but they had long experience, going way back to the ’30s, creating and manipulating front groups, as well as surreptitiously infiltrating non-Communist organizations.

Under those circumstances, many believed the Soviets’ Cominform had to be dealt with by using its own tactics against it. Hence, Wilford writes, “The defense of these operations given after 1967 by the CIA officers who dispensed the patronage and the youth leaders who wittingly accepted it consists of two main claims. The first is that U.S. government funding for a liberal organization such as the NSA had to be kept secret because of McCarthyism. . . . McCarthyism threatened other front operations involving ex-leftists and even damaged the careers of liberals within the CIA.” As for the second justification offered for the secret subventions, which included journalists, women’s groups, minority groups, and labor organizations, “the other main plank in the defense case—that the relationship between the CIA and the NSA was an entirely consensual one based on shared values and common objectives—likewise has some substance to it, but just as many holes.”

Wilford chooses not to go into how successful the CIA was in these efforts or whether the same gains might have been made without the secrecy. He does write, however, “Was the cost worth it? The United States eventually won the Cold War struggle for hearts and minds, but how much of this victory had to do with government-funded psychological warfare measures, as opposed to the spontaneous appeal of consumer capitalism or factors internal to the communist bloc, is very much open to question.”

In his concluding chapter, Wilford draws back his tightly focused lens for a wide-angle shot: “The front group . . . has in recent years undergone a revival of sorts. Neoconservative intellectuals—the ideological and, in several cases, biological descendants of the New York intellectuals of an earlier generation—have employed tactics and techniques first used on American soil by the Old Left during the 1930s. . . . Ventures such as the Project for a New American Century (the invention of William Kristol, son of . . . neocon intellectual ‘godfather,’ Irving Kristol) prosecute the neoconservatives’ notion of a ‘global democratic revolution’ in the Middle East.” This is explosive stuff and needs the same kind of finely researched treatment Wilford gives the body of his book. The reader asks for more when the author writes of “the miasma of suspicion that attached itself to all U.S. citizens—students, journalists, clergy, and aid workers—who were working abroad for genuine nongovernment organizations or official agencies that had resisted covert penetration, such as the Peace Corps.”

Even when basically agreeing with him, the reader wants Wilford to back it up when he writes of “damaged popular trust in government.” This is a worthwhile book, but the author leaves us looking for more.

Nicholas von Hoffman is author of more than a dozen books, including Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies (Nation Books, 2004).