Paul Engle

In the late 1940s, Washington didn’t take it for granted that the defeat of Nazism and friendly GIs handing out chocolate bars would guarantee that people in Western Europe would support democratic governments, or that European states would oppose the Soviet Union.

As the Cold War began, respected scholars, critics, and writers from across the political spectrum argued that human values remained crucial to civilization, and that such values stood in critical need of formulation and affirmation.

To help promote democracy and to oppose the Soviets, the CIA supported members of the European non-communist left, including many intellectuals. In addition, the agency subsidized European tours of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and paid for the filming of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. It clandestinely subsidized the publishing of thousands of books, including an entire line of books by Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. The CIA also bailed out, and then subsidized, the financially faltering Partisan Review and Kenyon Review, two highly regarded literary magazines. Many who benefited knew, or suspected, where the money came from.

One of the recipients of CIA grants was Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He received it from the Farfield Foundation, a CIA front that supported cultural operations through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

No writer “in all of history did as much to help other writers as Paul Engle,” Kurt Vonnegut said, who taught at Iowa in the mid-1960s. Poet Marvin Bell admired “Paul’s energy, his robust language, his demand that you listen and see, his unflagging stamina, his inescapable force, that opened a door in American colleges and universities through which hundreds of teaching writers and thousands of writing students would pass.”

For two decades after World War II, Iowa prospered on donations from conservative businessmen persuaded by Engle that the program fortified democratic values at home and abroad: it fought Communism. As the years went by, the workshop also attracted support from the Asia Foundation (another channel for CIA money) and the State Department. No other program would be so celebrated on the glossy pages of Look and Life. No other program would receive an initial burst of underwriting from Maytag and U.S. Steel and Quaker Oats and Reader’s Digest.

The influence of the Iowa Writers Workshop, and Paul Engle, continue to percolate throughout the country. More than half of creative writing programs, about 50 of which had appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Others, also started by Iowa graduates, have kept coming ever since. So the conventional wisdom that Iowa kicked off the boom in M.F.A. programs is true.

Lately, some Cold War scholars have alleged that the CIA’s money was used to weaponize writing and publishing, and corrupted, in the name of ideology, American culture, discourse, and public space. Joel Whitney argues it did in Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers; and Eric Bennett in Workshops of Empire; and Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. Paul Engle and the Iowa workshop is often used by these scholars as a case in point.

I don’t agree with them. I found no evidence while researching And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life that conservative values shaped the Iowa workshop or Vonnegut’s teaching. At the time, not only was the program a hotbed of liberal thinking, it was a safe harbor for students avoiding the draft. And the instructors knew that.

Secondly, isn’t the federal government right to facilitate cultural values favorable to the nation? According to Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War, publishers worked with the Defense Department to provide 122 million paperbacks to men in the armed services during World War II. The idea was to provide entertainment to soldiers serving overseas, while also educating them about political, historical, and military issues. In 1957, the Soviet satellite Sputnik— the first manmade object in space— astounded Americans because of the implication that our enemy’s system of education was superior to ours. Washington responded by pouring billions into public school classrooms to promote math and science. Can that response be construed as weaponizing education? “[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves,” said president Obama in 2015. “It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world…” Hence, STEM programs and teachers receive funding from dozens of federal agencies.

This is far afield of course from learning to write fiction during the Cold War, courtesy of the CIA. But the motive behind all of of this is the same: to leverage federal money for cultural outcomes in line with broadly shared national values. And for that reason, it’s unfair to portray Engle, and his program, as doing the dirty work of the intelligence community.

Your thoughts on this issue? They would be welcome.


Charles J. Shields is the author of And so It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, 2012).