The CIA, the National Student Association, and the Cold War

Cross posted at Rational Resistance.

Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA's Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against CommunismPatriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism by Karen M Paget

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was growing up in the 1960’s my parents used to tell me stories about their activities in the National Student Association in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Liberal Democrats, they would tell us about parliamentary tactics deployed by Communist members to try to take control of the organization (late night quorum calls, for instance) and the efforts of anti-Communist liberals to prevent the organization converted to one whose activities would be dictated by the Soviet Union. I haven’t seen his letters (one of my brothers has them) I believe my father was at the organization’s constitutional convention in Madison in 1947.

What I’m sure they didn’t know at the time was that, while the NSA was devoted to spreading democratic values around the world, and especially in nonaligned countries emerging from colonialism, and despite the fact that the NSA followed democratic forms and procedures for the elections of officers, the actual activities of the organization were determined and funded by the CIA, with help from the Catholic Church to promote its own conservative agenda. Each year the elected president would be taken to a mysterious and secret meeting in which they were brought into the fold, told to sign a security oath, and, in the parlance of the organization, made “witting”. It was only then that the president and other top officers of the organization would be taught that the CIA was making the decisions, funneling money for travel and other activities through pliable charities, and truly acquainted with the shadowy older men–former students–who seemed to have hung around the NSA far beyond the time that most people would be interested in working with an organization for college students.

The secret was maintained for twenty years, until a few courageous officers and a major investigative effort by Ramparts magazine revealed the extent of CIA domination of this allegedly democratic organization. During that time the NSA was used to provide scholarships for promising foreign student leaders to study in the United States and to disrupt conventions staged by a rival, Soviet-dominated international student organization for propaganda value.

The husband of the author of Patriotic Betrayal was elected vice-president and made witting, and the author followed within months. Consequently, the author has a wealth of personal information about the inner workings of the NSA, which she supplemented by over 150 interviews of other participants in the events recounted here and research documented in the 100+ pages of end notes.

In the pages of Patriotic Betrayal we meet characters familiar and unfamiliar and, in most cases, whether they were in on the CIA factor. For instance, my parents’ friend and former liberal Congressman Allard Lowenstein (they called him Al) was considered to be an obstacle to CIA domination when he was president in 1950-51, although it is not known whether he was witting. Tom Hayden, working with the SDS, also tried to push the NSA to the left, while Gloria Steinem was working for the CIA when she directed CIA-funded activities in the late 50’s and early 60’s. We also see appearances by people who would later become important nationally or internationally, including Fidel Castro,  future Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, and notorious right-wingers Howie Phillips and Richard Viguerie.

Patriotic Betrayal goes into exhaustive detail of the inner workings of the NSA from year to year, and often from week to week. While this level of detail establishes the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge, it could be debated whether she has trimmed enough of the details from what the author has told us was earlier even much longer. The author does successfully give us the final conflict as a real-life spy thriller, with insiders trying to wrest control from the CIA and expose the CIA’s role in the NSA, the CIA and its agents trying to block the effort and to punish the organization for these efforts, and a ragtag band of journalists and activists literally risking assassination to get the story into print.

At fifty years’ remove from most of these events it’s hard to imagine so much effort and money invested in an organization of student governments to make sure the Commies’ student organization didn’t gain the upper hand. It’s almost Spy v. Spy stuff. It’s also ironic, of course, that the CIA’s idea of promoting democracy in even this voluntary group was to install its own men into positions of power, fund them, and tell them what to do. Ultimately this is the most important lesson: the dangers of secret government setting up secret activities to subvert democratic institutions. When Ramparts broke the story the secret government and its allies in Congress cooperated to squelch or neutralize the revelations. Patriotic Betrayal is an important revelation of these Cold War events.

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One thought on “The CIA, the National Student Association, and the Cold War

  1. I remember hearing rumors of this stuff back in the 60’s, but it was hard to know whom to believe.  It was easier just to dismiss it all as paranoia.

    In light of this evidence of almost gothic infiltration, its little wonder that the CIA got completely blindsided by some more recent world events, like the fall of the Soviet Union and the explosion of Islamist extremism in the Middle East.  

    When you spend too much time navel gazing, you might forget to put on your pants when you leave the house.

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