The subtitle of this book sets the scene for what to expect: “The CIA-Funded Secret Western Book Distribution Program Behind The Iron Curtain”. It sounds like an intriguing theme and in many ways it is, though not perhaps in the cloak-and-dagger manner that might be expected, given those words.
Between 1957 and 1991 hundreds of thousands, if not millions of books were freely distributed to individual citizens and various institutes in Eastern Europe. The idea was to help influence change behind the Iron Curtain. In other words, the project was seen as an element of Cold War cultural contestation.
Ordinary books, for ordinary people
It was a very clever scheme in several respects. It was never quite clear, for example, that the CIA was behind it all, providing the finance. Nor were well-known, propaganda-oriented Cold War organisations in the West seen as the source of the book distribution programme. The books were not sent from just one centre but from a variety of sources such as publishers, bookshops and “charitable” or “educational” organisations in different countries of Western Europe as well as in America.
The books themselves were by no means all political tracts, aimed at urging drastic measures on the part of rebellious populations to rise up and overthrow their dictatorial regimes. On the contrary, they were in the main “ordinary” books about economics, sociology, history, the arts and sciences, and cultural matters.
They were sent to individuals, libraries, research institutes and similar organisations, whose addresses were public and could be found in, for example, telephone directories. In addition, eastern travellers to the West, of whom there were more than might be imagined, were often approached either individually or in their groups and offered the prospect of receiving free books to take back with them.
Many accepted, and from then on continued to receive more. What was requested of recipients of books sent in the post was that they send back an acknowledgement of receipt slip provided with the package. Many did.
Targeted individuals even included people in high positions. The idea was not, in fact, to foment revolution but rather encourage reform from within (which, of course, might lead to a change of system). In this regard East European reformist and some Soviet dissident writers were included among the books dispatched, though you didn’t have to be a recognised dissident to be included.
A clever choice was made, for example, to send copies of Vladimir Dudinstev’s Not By Bread Alone, a novel about the Gulag published in the Soviet Union in 1956, six years before the appearance of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s more famous A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Nevertheless, most of the authors on the distribution list were Western writers whose works were generally unavailable in Eastern Europe.
Did the authorities try to stop this cultural encroachment? Of course they did, and a couple of chapters are devoted to the attempts to censor postal deliveries in the different countries. The results seem to have been mixed and differentiated, both between countries (Hungary was generally more lenient than, say, Romania) but also within the same country at different periods. The overall image, however, is of a rather inefficient or lax censorship system, otherwise the majority of books might never have got through.
Was it all worth it? It was certainly worthwhile for the publishers and booksellers who were paid lump sums plus postage for the books they dispatched. It was also obviously worthwhile for the recipients, particularly if they were able to obtain a book they wanted to read, or had even requested.
Books surplus to requirements could always be passed on or sold. In Budapest there was even a well-known second-hand bookshop in Váci utca specialising in English-language works where books sent from the West could be sold.
But was it all worthwhile from the point of view of the underlying intention? Did the project have the desired effect of influencing change? This is a key question and the author gives a resounding “yes”.
However, only five pages out of well over 500 are devoted to this important issue. The argument seems to be that the books got through successfully and therefore the programme was politically effective, which is logically weak, if not flawed. The books certainly got through, as testified by the many letters quoted, but what is missing is evidence of the political or ideological effects.
In this connection, the introduction by Mark Kramer titled “Book Distribution as Political Warfare” is very relevant, and justifiably runs to 20 pages. He takes a cautious approach, presenting and assessing the questions that should be applied and the different types of answers given about the project’s effectiveness.
Without coming down clearly on either side, he provides some thoughtful tools enabling the reader to make up his or her own mind.
Buy the Book
Hot Books in the Cold War
Alfred A. Reisch,
Hardback, 549 pages
CEU Press, 2013, USD 70