How the government secretly paid for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to promote American cultural enlightenment
There is not much to see or do in Abilene, Kansas.
Pulling into a local 24-hour gas station in a bug-splattered pickup earlier this year, I probably fit the profile of the typical visitor. For most, this town of less than 7,000 on the main highway between Denver and Kansas City is a stop on the way to someplace else. But unlike many of the other people at the pumps, I wasn’t simply passing through.
I was there for Ike.
Abilene has one major claim to fame—it’s the hometown of the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The unexceptional Dickinson County seat’s limited tourist traffic stems from this notable distinction, and my trip was no exception. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to wait two years before getting to see the dusty files that lured me to this remote place across the endless plains along lonely highways. It was a long drive, but the excitement over what might be in these old document troves kept me going.
Arriving in Abilene, I checked into one of the town’s few hotels, as the Eisenhower Presidential Library has tight security, and you have to be there at 10am sharp for your pre-arranged research visit or you’re not allowed in.
Specifically, I had come all this way seeking information pertaining to a strange and little-known historical episode—the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s covert sponsorship by the Central Intelligence Agency in the mid-20th century. Though some of the library’s documents are digitized, many others are not, and the critical ones could only be physically accessed in Abilene.
As US-Russia tensions mount under the country’s former KGB honcho President Vladimir Putin, pundits and reporters often note how modern-day disinformation operations by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) trace back to that agency’s notorious KGB predecessor. What’s less often recognized is how during the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was seen as a threat to be guarded against not only with conventional and nuclear weapons, but also with a sophisticated homegrown propaganda campaign on multiple fronts—from big business, to the arts.
It was against this backdrop that the CIA came to secretly pay for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to travel the world with the aim of promoting America as competitive with Europe in its cultural enlightenment. Such activities may have seemed justifiable at the time to the few parties privy to their existence. In a contemporary context, hindsight may be less forgiving of the actions taken by one of New England’s premier performing arts institutions.
Emissary to the CIA
The BSO’s collaboration with the CIA involved several players, but the relationship came from the initiative of one instrumental figure: Charles Douglas “C.D.” Jackson. A political operative and member of the orchestra’s board of trustees in the 1950s and ’60s, Jackson wore a lot of hats. It was his personal papers that I came to examine at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene.
Though never a household name, C.D. Jackson showed up behind the scenes at some major moments in American history. He’s a Forrest Gump-like character who was vastly influential in his day and whose cameos include an appearance in the aftermath of the JFK assassination. Just in the “B” section of Jackson’s voluminous files, for example, alongside documents about the BSO, are dispatches from meetings of two notoriously clandestine cabals of the rich and powerful.
“I am back from my Bohemian Grove jamboree, saturated with sunshine, whiskey, and tycoons,” Jackson wrote in a 1952 letter upon returning from the annual outing in Northern California, shortly after the BSO, for its part, had arrived back in the US following its first CIA-backed European tour. For more than a century, corporate executives, bankers, and prominent pols have congregated at the Bohemian Club’s exclusive retreat in the Sonoma County redwoods to eat, drink, and mingle, drawing the eye and ire of countless critics and conspiracy theorists for obvious reasons as well as for the optics, like a bizarre ritual known as the Cremation of Care that they perform in the shadow of a massive stone owl.
Other documents detail Jackson’s key role in organizing the earliest meetings of the Bilderberg Group, named for the hotel in the Netherlands where the circle first met in 1954. To this day, Bilderberg continues to draw elite attendees from across Europe and North America for its secretive annual conference, while the National Committee for a Free Europe, which Jackson chaired in the early 1950s, “boasted a membership which read like Who’s Who,” writes British historian Frances Stonor Saunders. It was also a CIA front.
A Time Inc. executive in peacetime, during World War II Jackson served as one of the military’s top psychological warfare planners. In the early 1950s, shortly after the agency was established, he’d been “an ‘outside’ director of CIA covert operations,” according to Stonor Saunders. Jackson briefly left Time publisher Henry Luce’s media empire to serve as an adviser to President Eisenhower in 1953; as journalist Carl Bernstein explained in a 1977 Rolling Stone article, he then returned to Time the following year to become “Luce’s personal emissary to the CIA.”
Time Inc. cooperated so closely with America’s intelligence apparatus that, according to former CIA officer Patrick McGarvey, the agency issued its own in-house editions of Time, classified secret and top secret for respective clearance holders, on a weekly basis. In addition to Time, Luce’s magazines also included Life and Fortune, both of which Jackson served as publisher of in his career.
An indispensable ally
Jackson has been described as “America’s single most influential Cold Warrior,” a “psy-war supremo,” and “a king-sized asshole.” He was a man of many contradictions—“a zealous advocate of free enterprise,” in the words of historian Hugh Wilford, while simultaneously a prolific promoter of state-sponsored propaganda under the false guise of private initiatives. It is impossible to say what went on in the mind of a master manipulator like Jackson, though if nothing else, his appreciation of the BSO on its own merits seems to have been genuine.
“I need not indulge in any superlatives with you regarding the excellence and renown of this orchestra,” Jackson wrote to US Information Agency Director Ted Streibert in 1955. “Although there are in this country many excellent orchestras, and many excellent conductors, the combination of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony is today incomparable. That Europeans as well as Americans appreciate this fact was amply proven when the [BSO] made a Western European tour in the summer of 1952 under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.”
Ostensibly a privately funded, anti-communist philanthropy organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was in fact a CIA front with its own codename, QKOPERA. Its propaganda activities ranged from promoting the work of abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock to publishing a variety of magazines around the world that aimed to establish themselves as highbrow journals of intellectual opinion. With funding from another CIA cutout called the Farfield Foundation, the Congress organized the Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century festival in Paris, where the BSO had its European debut before traveling on to Amsterdam, London, and Berlin, among other destinations. When Jackson wrote to Streibert, the symphony was gearing up for another CIA-funded European tour.
“‘Culture’ is no longer a sissy word,” Jackson proclaimed following the 1956 trip. “A nation like ours can be virile. A nation like ours can be fantastically successful economically. But in a strange way the glue that holds things together is the nation’s coefficient of idealism. In today’s titanic contest for the allegiance of half the world’s people, this idealism is an indispensable ally of guns and dollars—and if you won’t take my word for it, all you have to do is look around at the frantic efforts of Moscow and Peking to expand and export their cultures. The tangible, visible and audible expression of national idealism is culture. Of all the expressions of culture, music is the most universal. Of all the expressions of present-day musical culture, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is the best.”
Radio Free Europe
In addition to his involvement with Time Inc. and the BSO, Jackson’s National Committee for a Free Europe oversaw and provided cover for one of the most ambitious psychological warfare front organizations of the era: Radio Free Europe. Jackson said that RFE, which carried the CIA’s anti-communist message behind the Iron Curtain, should aim to “create conditions of chaos in the countries to which our broadcasts reached.”
A promotional pamphlet for the Boston Symphony Orchestra ahead of its debut 1952 European tour noted that at least one of the concerts was to “be broadcast by arrangement with Radio Free Europe, and through Voice of American facilities to Russia and its satellite countries.”
The CIA’s backing of Radio Free Europe would ultimately be exposed and discontinued. (Today RFE continues to broadcast without denying its government sponsorship.) But even before RFE became embroiled in controversy over its CIA ties, its reputation was badly tarnished by an incident that took place less than a month after the Boston Symphony Orchestra returned from its 1956 tour in coordination with RFE. This time, the orchestra was accompanied by Jackson’s wife, Grace, who was brought along as “social and public relations consultant,” even though a US Embassy official in Moscow wrote to Jackson that “we doubt that there would be any social or public relations work for an accompanying consultant” on the trip.
For two years starting in 1954, the CIA dropped millions of propaganda leaflets agitating against communism into Hungary via balloons in coordination with RFE broadcasts. Writing about the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Stonor Saunders notes, “Radio Free Europe had repeatedly encouraged the insurrectionists. According to some claims, it even promised armed support, though this was—and still is—vigorously denied by the CIA.”
As the balloon operation first got underway, RFE’s political analyst in Munich, William Griffith, complained to Jackson that U.S. Foreign Service officers were working to undermine the CIA’s pet project. Though he and Jackson had “always thought it both possible and desirable,” Griffith wrote, the Foreign Service officers “do not believe it is possible to create an internal mass opposition […] and admit frankly they wouldn’t know what to do with one if it were created.”
RFE’s broadcasts and leaflet balloons may not have been the primary cause of the doomed rebellion against the USSR’s puppet regime in Hungary, but when “an internal mass opposition” did eventually materialize, despite its encouraging words, the US provided no material support to the Hungarian resistance, which was brutally suppressed by the Soviets. Thousands were killed and imprisoned without trial.
In the wake of the tragic suppression of protesters in Hungary, Jackson declared, without much credibility, that “Radio Free Europe has never, in a single broadcast or leaflet, deviated from its essential policy, and did not broadcast a single program” during the Hungarian uprising “which could be described as an ‘incitement’ program.”
The real trump card
In the 1950s, before the CIA’s involvement in assassinations, coups, drug trafficking, and mind control experiments became public knowledge, there was less stigma attached to the agency than there is today. So it is not entirely surprising that as Jackson worked to covertly funnel CIA cash to the BSO, some of those involved in the orchestra’s day-to-day business appear to have had at least some idea of what was going on. Even before the symphony’s first CIA-funded trip in 1952, Jackson had already written to BSO Board Chairman Henry B. Cabot “that from the standpoint of American propaganda, both in Western Europe and behind the Iron Curtain, such a tour would have a tremendous value.”
In 1951, Jackson took a leave of absence from Fortune “to head up the National Committee for a Free Europe, which is engaged in psychological warfare to the satellite countries, and in order to do the job, which is fairly complicated, I resigned from practically all my extra-curricular activities,” he wrote to Cabot. Jackson offered his resignation as a BSO trustee, but Cabot asked him to remain on the board with an inactive status while he was busy conducting psy-ops. A few months later, in October 1951, Cabot learned about a $30,000 pledge from Radio Free Europe, secured by Jackson, to help pay for the symphony’s first European tour. Jackson officially resigned from the BSO board to take a position in the White House in 1953, but returned to his position the following year. There was still work to be done.
While preparing for their 1956 European tour BSO Manager Tod Perry wrote to Jackson that “the real trump card of the whole international scene” was the orchestra’s willingness to play a concert in Moscow. “I will try to get an extra word through to the Secretary of State about the Boston’s willingness to fiddle while the Kremlin burns,” Jackson wrote back to Perry. He then relayed a message to Rod O’Connor, special assistant to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, that “in case the psychological moment should arise … the Boston Symphony Orchestra … has said it would be glad to go to Moscow. It is already planning a European tour in 1956, and therefore would already have covered considerable mileage on the way.”
O’Connor, whose boss’s brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, was Jackson’s old friend, replied that he’d see to it that the right people were informed “of this extra ace up our sleeves.”
[More from Jonathan Riley: For some with personal connections to past mistakes, the consequences of unfettered ingenuity are no more easily ignored than mushroom clouds on the horizon]
Despite Jackson and Perry’s efforts to promote the propaganda value of the Boston Symphony, from the start of the relationship and among the CIA’s witting collaborators, not everyone was convinced. One of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s founders, Melvin Lasky, felt the Paris Masterpieces festival in 1952 was a “trivial” affair, saying, “It’s unimportant whether foreigners think Americans can play music or not.”
Another critic of the CIA’s use of the orchestra was Abbott Washburn, deputy director of the US Information Agency, who threw a wrench into plans for a joint American-Icelandic-Russian classical music tour in a letter to Jackson in April 1959.
“It would seem,” Washburn wrote, “that the appearance of American musicians in the same group with a Soviet performer in the concert halls of Soviet-dominated countries would create an undesirable and inaccurate impression of the closeness of Soviet-American collaboration and would even be regarded by Eastern European audiences as lacking in taste.”
A final blow to Jackson’s efforts to promote the BSO as the premier propaganda flagship of American culture came a few years later, in October 1963, when Perry had to inform his CIA benefactor that for an upcoming tour, “the Russian authorities have chosen the Cleveland Orchestra, chiefly on the grounds that it has never been there, even though their memories of the visit of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1956 are warm and enthusiastic.”
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An elaborate public charade
Jackson may have been disheartened by Perry’s letter, but as a media mogul who was simultaneously orchestrating national press coverage and covert ops, he also had bigger fish to fry. Exactly one month after Perry wrote the aforementioned letter to Jackson, President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. The event traumatized and horrified America, and once again, Jackson stepped in to influence events.
When shots rang out on Dealey Plaza, most onlookers were in a state of shock, but one bystander, Abraham Zapruder, caught the gruesome scene on camera. Upon hearing of Kennedy’s murder, Life magazine Los Angeles bureau chief Richard Stolley flew to Dallas, and after seeing Zapruder’s film the day after the assassination, realized “that its value as a piece of evidence as well as news was enormous,” wrote former fellow longtime Life employee Loudon Wainwright.
Stolley immediately bought Zapruder’s original home movie for $50,000. Within days, Jackson reportedly ordered Stolley to further secure all rights to it for $100,000 more.
“Jackson’s intention does not seem just to have been to keep the film out of the hands of competitors; he appeared to be more concerned that the terrifyingly explicit footage of the shooting of the President should not be shown on television at a time when the country was still in anguish and sorrow over the loss,” Wainwright assessed.
Though public knowledge of the footage and its content would prevent Life from fully enforcing its copyright, over the next several years, Time Inc. at times engaged in “an elaborate public charade to keep the frames away from the public and critics” of the official story of JFK’s death, David R. Wrone wrote in his 2003 book, The Zapruder Film. “Why control of information about a president’s murder belonged in the exclusive domain of Time Inc. was never sufficiently explained.”
If there was nefarious intent behind Jackson’s acquisition of the rights to Zapruder’s film, we may never know the details of his scheme. Jackson died of cancer on Sept. 18, 1964, just days before the Warren Commission delivered its final report on the JFK assassination.
The BSO, “which owed its global reputation largely to C.D.’s support,” according to Stonor Saunders, played a memorial concert for Jackson. The orchestra’s Tanglewood summer academy also later named the C.D. Jackson Master Awards and Prizes in his honor, while the C.D. Jackson Fellowship Fund remains a sponsor of Tanglewood’s 2022 class.
Yet it is unclear to what extent the orchestra still feels indebted to Jackson for his contribution to its global standing, or would instead prefer to downplay his past patronage. Though the symphony’s website includes a section on the history of the orchestra, there is no mention of Jackson or the CIA.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra did not respond to a request for comment.