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Marcelo Ridenti: The fight for hearts and minds during the Cold War

Sociologist releases new book about Brazilian intellectuals’ activities during the political-ideological conflict between the United States and the USSR

Ridenti in his living room in São Paulo

Léo Ramos Chaves/Pesquisa FAPESP Magazine

After more than a decade of study, including research trips to archives in France and the United States, Marcelo Ridenti, of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the University of Campinas (IFCH-UNICAMP) has just released O segredo das senhoras americanas: Intelectuais, internacionalização e financiamento na Guerra Fria cultural (The secret of the American ladies: Intellectuals, internationalization, and funding during the Cold War) (UNESP).

Initially in doubt between the alternative titles “Cultural Cold War: International Passages of (Sub) Development” or “Revolution, Counterrevolution, and Money: The Cultural Cold War,” the title chosen reflects the author’s wish for the book to reach beyond the university environment. “The title refers to the feeling of mystery surrounding the Cold War and works with my goal of arousing readers’ curiosity,” he explains. “It is, of course, an academic work, but I’d like to bring a wider audience into the discussion on the education of intellectual elites and foreign funding, and even show a little-known aspect of this type of education in Brazil, which was generally supported with government resources.”

Although normally specializing in the 1960s, in this new work Ridenti goes back to the 1950s to research the internationalization of intellectuals—understood in a broad sense in his book, which includes certain artists and students—during the dispute between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) over ideological hegemony. Greater weight is given to analyzing the western side of the equation, not only because Ridenti has already dealt with the subject of communism in other works, but primarily because, as he says, “the cultural, political, and economic influence of the United States was, and is, much more significant in Brazilian society.”

In this interview, conducted via videoconference, the sociologist talks about his research sources, explains how the book was structured, and summarizes its main findings—which include the “secret of the American ladies.”

What led you to write O segredo das senhoras americanas?
I was looking to understand how the hearts and minds of Brazilian intellectuals were conquered during the Cold War. The book is structured in three chapters. The first concerns the Soviet project that created the World Peace Council, coordinated from Moscow and Paris beginning in 1948 and headquartered in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. In this chapter, I cover the role of Jorge Amado [1912–2001], who acted as a kind of cultural ambassador for the Brazilian left. With the repudiation of the Communist Party, Amado, who had been a constituent federal representative in 1946, felt persecuted and went to Europe to denounce the situation during the Dutra government [1946–1951]. There, he became involved in the international communist cultural movement, which in the West was engineered from France, especially through the publications of the Communist Party. The principal leader of this front was the poet Louis Aragon [1897–1982]. With Aragon and others, Jorge Amado and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda [1904–1973] became leading members of the World Peace Council, began to travel the world over, and were widely received. Invited to design the logo for the congress, Pablo Picasso [1881–1973] would also become a mutual friend. At that time, after World War II, a group of intellectuals was organized around one maxim: peace.

Then comes the Western reaction, the subject of the second chapter of the book.
The world was coming out of two world wars and the Hiroshima bomb. The repercussions weren’t happening only among the communists, they were everywhere. The western side didn’t take long to realize that this movement was very powerful and tried to respond by organizing the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CCF, founded in Berlin, Germany, in 1950—but soon transferred to Paris. The CCF had offices in 35 countries and launched dozens of publications, including Cadernos Brasileiros, which was based in Rio de Janeiro and published from 1959 to 1970. In the second chapter of the book, I tell this other side of the story, of how the CCF took action in Brazil, essentially through that journal. What the research shows is that it was an anticommunist front that brought together conservative, liberal, and social-democratic sectors, and even some ex-Trotskyists and anarchists, all opposed to so-called totalitarianism, a concept that was widely disseminated internationally by these publications. The CCF positioned itself as an independent entity defending artistic and intellectual freedom, but in 1966 it was discovered that they were secretly funded by the CIA.

In the first two chapters we see a kind of cultural intermediation coming out of Paris. This changes in the third chapter.
In the third chapter, the French are no longer apparent. We see a clear link with the United States, which results in a loss of influence from France, with the Americans assuming the leading role in influencing Brazilian scientific production in general and the human sciences in particular. In this chapter, I discuss the arrangement made with Harvard University through the auspices of certain women from the highest circles of multinational business who were in Brazil, and who created the Inter-American University Association, the AUI.

The “secret of the American ladies.” What was so secret, anyway?
There was a scheme within the academic arrangement that every year, from 1962 to 1971, sent around 80 Brazilian students to the United States, at no charge. After passing a national selection process, they spent a week in the homes of American families and two weeks attending a summer course at Harvard University, with elite professors—the best-known being Henry Kissinger, who was to become Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977 during the presidencies of Richard Nixon [1913–1994] and Gerald Ford [1913–2006]. After the course, the students would travel to Washington and New York. The American ladies’ secret lies in the fact that the funding came, primarily, from the US government. It was up to them—who, in the early 1960s were watching Brazilian students being seduced by the proposals of the Cuban Revolution—to win them over. These women wanted to show that the United States was a more interesting country; they didn’t hide from students that part of the funds came from multinational corporations, but they were very quiet about the State Department’s participation.

How do you interpret this omission?
After the 1964 coup, one of the great enemies of the student movement in Brazil was the MEC-USAID agreements—arrangements between the then Ministry of Education and Culture and the United States Agency for International Development. It’s unlikely any leftist students would have agreed to participate in an exchange program if they knew that the initiative involved USAID funds. It so happens that the intention behind the arrangement—in attracting the best university students in the country—wasn’t merely academic. The idea was to win hearts and minds and attract leaders, which is why a large percentage of those selected were from the left. Today it can be seen that many of them were prominent members of society. The students were even received at the White House by President John Kennedy [1917–1963] and, from 1962 to 1968, by his brother Robert Kennedy [1925–1968].

Throughout the 406 pages of the book, one can see your concern with avoiding any kind of moral judgment of the intellectuals involved in this cultural war.
It would be a mistake to treat those involved as working for either Moscow or Washington. There is another widespread—and equally questionable—notion that suggests that these intellectuals were “useful fools.” Well, they didn’t know everything, but they were playing the game. There’s a passage in the book where I quote from an interview with Louis Mercier-Vega [1914–1977], the anarchist who ran the CCF in Latin America. When asked about it years later, he said more or less: “There were things I wasn’t aware of; I didn’t know that the CCF was funded by the CIA. But, in that context, everything we did was going to be used in the Cold War by one side or the other. If we had been worried about whether or not we would be used, we would have done nothing. No one will play our game if we don’t play it ourselves.” This fits perfectly with the hypothesis of my research. In other words, he was playing, he had an intention, a project, and that’s what I’m trying to show. This goes for Jorge Amado, Neruda, and for the students recruited by the American ladies. There is no doubt that to some extent they were used, because both powers had their own interests. But they also knew how to take advantage of these circumstances to build their careers, take political action, and establish networks.

I have always been critical of the idea of treating those involved as working for either Moscow or Washington

Another aspect that stands out is the meticulous nature of your research. What sources and methods did you use?
In addition to the writers’ works themselves, I showed behind the scenes of their artistic production, and how the social networks among the intellectuals I was analyzing were constructed. To this end, I worked with documents found in archives in Brazil, France, and especially the United States. I researched official records, correspondence, the newspapers and magazines of the era, and biographies, books, and memoirs. I interviewed several of the individuals who were directly involved, such as former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the political scientist Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro. I also analyzed court cases and films from the period, in the chapter on the American ladies, since works of fiction can demonstrate that the idea they were promoting, of the perfection of the American way of life, was itself in question. It was the era of the Vietnam War [1955–1975], political assassinations, the rise of the black movement, the feminist movement, and the alternative lifestyles of the hippies. Working in the tradition of the sociologist and literary critic Raymond Williams [1921–1988], I’m looking to comprehend culture not as a secondary phenomenon—a mere superstructural reflection of economic influences—but as a component in the very structuring of society. Social constraints exert pressure and impose limits on the actions of individuals, who, however, do have room to respond to them in a variety of ways, such as those analyzed in the book.

There is a passage in your book where you talk about the idea that producing scientific knowledge to overcome social problems would be a prerequisite in the process of national development. Could you talk a little about that?
Take the case of Mercier-Vega. What was his game? To help build an intellectual network throughout Latin America by way of journals. So, he founded Aportes, and over the years this journal published—as an example—Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Florestan Fernandes [1920–1995], and Gilberto Freyre [1900–1987]. It created space for a flourishing in various currents in the social sciences, which had in common a desire to professionalize and do research objectively, using scientific methods of investigation to apprehend reality. All of them shared a belief, despite their disagreements, that building institutions for research within the university system and setting up an integrated system of science and technology would be decisive for furthering national development. Mercier did not exclude other aspects, but he believed in creating an intellectual network that could help solve social problems through objective analysis by the social sciences. This was his utopia. When it was revealed in 1966 that the CIA was behind the CCF, it didn’t have—surprisingly in the case of Cadernos Brasileiros—very strong repercussions.

And what’s the explanation for that?
First, because the journal was overshadowed by other, more critical publications, such as Civilização Brasileira. Secondly, because by that time it was no longer CIA-fronted agencies that were financing the CCF, but rather the esteemed Ford Foundation. The main reason is that Cadernos Brasileiros was a space for intellectuals and artists with more liberal or more left-wing positions, articulating a kind of consensus for science and culture. There was a passion for debating and discovering an objective view of how society was organized. The journal’s perspective revolved around defending cultural freedom and promoting the social sciences in various respects, even though its principal mentors came from the functionalist tradition of American sociology, which imagined that there would be technical solutions for political questions. There was one issue dedicated entirely to the black movement, another to students, and a third to left-wing Catholicism. There were also numerous debates promoted during parallel activities and art exhibitions in Rio de Janeiro, at the Goeldi gallery, which was linked to the CCF. What’s more, from 1966 on, the journal was on the critical vanguard regarding the continuation of the military regime, whose attacks on the artistic and intellectual world were contrary to the CCF’s principles.

Between 1964 and 1968, students were the most significant segment of the Brazilian social movement

You dedicate important space to reflecting about students, especially in the third chapter of your book. Why?
From 1964 to 1968, students were the most significant segment of the Brazilian social movement. After the military coup, there was brutal repression against the rural and urban workers’ movements, but since the coup was supported by the middle class, there was a certain tolerance towards student movements and the cultural world—which would be dealt with harshly from 1968 onwards. There’s one example that really illustrates this tolerance and also the ambiguities involved. During a demonstration in Porto Alegre some students burned an American flag, which the Brazilian police reported to the US authorities, who promptly decided that the protesters wouldn’t be allowed to travel abroad through the American ladies’ program. The leftist students in southern Brazil, who had been selected by the AUI, reacted quickly: “If they don’t go, nobody else will.” To avoid a mass withdrawal, one of the American ladies crafted an agreement such that all the students selected ended up boarding the planes.

At the end of your book, you write forcefully about the complexities involved in individual choices made within the context of the Cold War and the many implications these decisions had for intellectuals.
Indeed, there were many consequences, and in the final chapter I deal with both the heaven and the hell of the American side of this story. There’s a very emblematic example of this reality, which is recorded by Flávio Tavares in his memoir. The journalist says that a radio was adapted to act as a crank for the machine used to apply electric shocks to him during the torture sessions he was subjected to in the era of the military dictatorship. And on this radio was the symbol of the Alliance for Progress, the program the United States established to support development in Latin America. In other words, the radio donated to provide assistance and persuasion was converted into an instrument of torture. In this chapter, I analyze three instances of death and the cases of about two dozen students who participated in the exchange program who, for different reasons, ended up being prosecuted by the Military Court system. Some intellectuals knew how to play the game and make headway in their careers and towards their political interests—not only as individuals, but also collectively. This involved risks, including their lives. Crossing over the border into fiction, this is even a theme in my historical novel which is now in press at Boitempo publishing.

The cultural Cold War in the internationalization of Brazilian artists and intellectuals (nº 14/06307-3); Grant mechanism Research Internship Abroad; Program Ruth Cardoso Chair; Supervisor Marcelo Ridenti (UNICAMP); Investment R$42,781.63.