The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

“The Ends of a State”: James Angleton, Counterintelligence and the New Criticism

John Kimsey
DePaul University

Before becoming CIA counterintelligence chief during the height of the Cold War, James Angleton was an acolyte of Modernist poetry and booster of the New Critics, many of whom he cultivated pre-World War II when, as an undergraduate at Yale, he co-founded the avant-garde journal Furioso. Recruited into the OSS by Yale’s Norman Pearson, Angleton recruited individuals associated with the New Criticism into postwar counterintelligence work, which he described, adapting Eliot, as “a wilderness of mirrors.” Detailing such connections, this essay further argues that certain principles—as well as contradictions—of New Critical thought inform Angelton’s counterintelligence practice. I.A. Richards’s notion of poetry as “pseudo-statement,” i.e., a form of deception that is morally defensible because it affirms life in the face of dehumanizing mechanism (the latter being seen as a force which menaces the modern West) is key, as is John Crowe Ransom’s call for a criticism that will be formalist, objective and ontological, which is to say abstracted from that which is “merely” personal, political and/or sociohistorical. In this connection, I show that the New Critics’ persistent practice of opposing poetry to rhetoric—with the former seen as solitary spiritual quest and the latter as mass manipulation for political ends—echoes Plato’s quarrel between philosophy and rhetoric, but with the binary reframed as a contrast/contest between language arts. I contend that, for a figure such as Angleton, disinformation and deception—supposed hallmarks of rhetoric and totalitarianism—are necessary if democracy, which Ransom compares to a beautiful poem, is to survive.

Keywords: James Angleton / New Criticism / Modernist poetry / John Crowe Ransom / the Cold War 

A beautiful poem is a democratic state, so to speak, which realizes the ends of a state without sacrificing the personal character of its citizens.

—John Crowe Ransom, The New Criticism

Deception is a state of mind, and the mind of the state.

—James Jesus Angleton, CIA Chief of Counterintelligence, 1954-19741


In the late 1980s, journalist Ron Rosenbaum published a Harpers feature, “The Shadow of the Mole,” about Cold War counterespionage and the search for a high-level penetration agent within the CIA.  Historical consensus has it that this search, called the “molehunt,” nearly tore the agency apart.2  The operation was handled by an ultra-secret office within the CIA and was the pet project (many would say obsession) of CIA Counterintelligence (CI) chief James Jesus Angleton (1917–1987). Recounting an early interview with Angleton, Rosenbaum writes:

Deflected from interpretation of intelligence literature, Angleton and I drifted into a discussion of literary interpretation. We expressed our mutual preference for the practitioners of the New Criticism that prevailed at Yale when Angleton was there in the Thirties to the theories of the so-called Yale critics who had come to rule the roost when I arrived there in the late Sixties. Angleton boasted to me that he had recruited some of the best minds of the New Critics and poets into the OSS, where their facility at teasing out seven types of ambiguity from a text served them well in the interpretation of the ambiguities of intelligence data. (25–26)

Taking a cue from the above passage, this essay aims to detail connections between Angleton the master spy and the Anglo-American milieu of Modernist poetry. I am particularly concerned with the New Criticism which, along with the new poetry, rose to prominence during the first half of the twentieth century given that James Angleton, secret soldier in the Cold War, was also a fellow traveler of the New Critics. My premise is that this association between Cold Warriors and New Critics is less casual than the Rosenbaum passage would suggest.3 Yes, certain people associated with the New Criticism found a niche in counterintelligence; but beyond that, certain principles—as well as contradictions—of New Critical thought can be said to inform Angelton’s brand of counterintelligence practice.

I.A. Richards’ notion of poetry as “pseudo-statement,” i.e., a form of deception that is morally defensible because it affirms life in the face of dehumanizing mechanism (the latter being seen as a force which menaces the modern West) is key in this regard. So too is John Crowe Ransom’s call for a criticism that will be formalist, objective and ontological, which is to say abstracted from that which is “merely” personal, political and/or sociohistorical. In this connection, I show that W. B. Yeats’s persistent practice of opposing poetry to rhetoric—with the former seen as solitary spiritual quest and the latter as mass manipulation for political ends—echoes Plato’s quarrel between philosophy and rhetoric, but with the binary reframed as a contrast/contest between language arts. I argue that, for a figure such as Angleton, disinformation and deception—supposed hallmarks of totalitarianism—are necessary if democracy, which Ransom compares to a beautiful poem, is to survive.

Additionally, I ponder the gospel motto inscribed above CIA headquarters, “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” while drawing on Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion to assert a parallel between two “Manichaeisms.” One is the Cold War dualism of Angleton and the American security establishment, mid-twentieth century; the other is the antinomian heresy of the Hellenistic world. Both worldviews effectively affirm a holy sinner figure who dares the lower depths, free to break all laws in a perverse tribute to the supposedly higher good. Finally, I examine the invocation by one of Angleton’s CI protégés of Cleanth Brooks’s “The Language of Paradox,” who reframes Brooks to describe counterintelligence practice itself.

Literary Company

Let us begin with some background, though, as literary associations surround Angleton. Biographical pieces such as those by David C. Martin, Robin Winks and Edward Jay Epstein portray him as a John LeCarré character come to life. In addition to being an acolyte of Modernist poetry, the counterspy was a world-class fly fisherman and cultivator of orchids, and such eccentric hobbies only add to the storybook effect. Indeed, Angleton’s life has been adapted to fiction more than once, in the nineties in Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, and in the seventies in Aaron Latham’s Orchids for Mother, one of Angleton’s agency codenames being “Mother” (Robarge). Even TV shows have gotten into the act, for the character of Cigarettte Smoking Man—a chain-smoking, ultra-conspiratorial operative with a secret literary life—in the cult series The X-Files is a parody of Angleton, another of whose nicknames was “Virginia Slim” (Robarge).4

It was Angleton who first used the phrase “a wilderness of mirrors” to describe the looking-glass logic of counterintelligence work. The epithet has since become a catchphrase of espionage lore, supplying the title of one of the best accounts of the Cold War CIA (the 1980 volume authored by David C. Martin), but it comes from Eliot’s “Gerontion,” and in its literariness the reference is peculiarly Angletonian.

Before he became the CIA’s chief counterspy, Angleton was a player in the world of Modernist poetry. At Yale in the thirties, he studied Benedetto Croce and I. A. Richards (Winks 331), and, with roommate Reed Whittemore (himself a future poet of acclaim) founded the literary journal Furioso, which waved high the flag of the Modernist avant-garde. Furioso flourished from 1939 until 1953 (Ducharme). Under Angleton’s auspices, it published Eliot, Pound, cummings, MacLeish, Williams and Stevens, among others (Martin 12). In correspondence, Pound described himself as “pedro eterno or whatever” of the magazine (qtd. in Ducharme). A fan of the brilliant English critic and poet William Empson, Angleton brought Empson to Yale to lecture, lobbied Dean DeVane to offer him a job, and maintained casual contacts with Empson throughout his CIA career (Winks 337).

Angleton was recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the CIA, by Norman Holmes Pearson, a favorite professor from Yale. One of the founders of the discipline of American Studies (Winks 317–18), Pearson edited the work of William Carlos Williams (Winks 320) and H. D., the latter being a close personal friend (Winks 310–11). At Yale, another of Angleton’s close friends was Richard Ellmann, who would become the noted biographer of Yeats, Joyce and Wilde (Winks 336). Through Angleton, Ellmann was recruited into the OSS and posted to London where he handled projects for Pearson. On leaves granted by Pearson, Ellmann made trips to Dublin and obtained the interviews with Yeats’s widow that launched his career (Winks 299). On leaves of his own from the London office, Angleton paid occasional visits to T. S. Eliot (Winks 347).

In addition, both before and after the war, Angleton had contacts with Pound, who had been living in Italy, espousing Fascist views, since the 1920s. Such contacts are not surprising given that Italy had been the home of Hugh Angleton and family during the 1930s. After serving with Pershing during World War I, Angleton père had gone to work for the National Cash Register company. By 1933, he had purchased the Italian NCR franchise and moved his family and base of operations to Milan (Winks 329). Hugh Angleton’s business flourished during this period and he became close with members of the Italian business establishment and the Mussolini government. In fact, Hugh Angleton functioned at times as an intelligence asset, keeping the US State department informed about developments within the Fascist regime (Winks 329). During World War II he served, like his son, as an officer in the OSS (Mangold 33). According to Max Corvo, a fellow OSS officer stationed in Italy, Hugh Angleton “was ultra-conservative” and “not unfriendly with the Fascists” (qtd. in Mangold 33).

While on vacation from Yale in the late thirties, Angleton visited Pound at Rapallo, where the two indulged a mutual enthusiasm for tennis and where Angleton, an adept photographer, took numerous photos of Pound. In years following, Angleton’s photos of Pound were widely published, though usually without a credit line so as to obscure the photographer’s identity (Winks 335). This friendship allowed Angleton to set up a 1939 American tour by Pound on behalf of Furioso, the only trip Pound made to the United States during his Fascist period. During this tour, Pound gave his first public readings in years (Carpenter 563; Gordon 69), and made a recording financed by Furioso (Winks 338). The period marked the peak of Pound’s obsession with economics as well as his anti-Semitism. Listeners at Harvard complained about the latter (Winks 335), as did e. e. cummings (Carpenter 561). Meanwhile, Angleton and Whittemore, who had been promised a poetic piece for Furioso, had to settle for some of Pound’s economic tracts (Carpenter 563), one of which included some oblique praise for Hitler (“Examine”).5

According to David C. Martin, after the war, Angleton visited Pound in Genoa where he was being held on charges of treason (17).6  In later years, Angleton’s regular golf partner was Pound protégé James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions books, a firm founded to provide an outlet for Pound and which eventually published Pound’s entire oeuvre, as well as Ransom’s The New Criticism.7

Deception Theory

In Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War 1939–1961, Yale historian Robin Winks makes clear that the OSS and early CIA were replete with Ivy League old boys and Yale alumni, and that the ranks of intelligence analysts were largely filled by academics from the language departments. Regarding Angleton, Winks emphasizes the habits of mind associated with Modernist “close reading”:  "[Intelligence work] called for men and women who were patient, methodical, curious, able almost as if by instinct to see relationships between the parts and the whole, people who understood what E. M. Forster meant by his dictum, 'only connect' (323).

The same point is made by William R. Johnson, a career counterintelligence officer who was recruited into the CIA by Angleton and who helped edit and publish Furioso while an undergraduate at Yale (Hood x):

At first glance, catching spies and studying English poetry do not seem to be closely related, but they do have one thing in common: Both, when competently done, are based on recognizing patterns. It is no accident that some of the most effective British and American CI officers in World War II were drafted into that war from positions as critics of English literature. They had been trained to look for multiple meanings, to examine the assumptions hidden in words and phrases, and to grasp the whole structure of a poem or play, not just the superficial plot or statement. (Johnson 9–10)

The title of Winks’s long chapter on Angleton is “The Theorist,” and the implication is that Angelton applied the Modernist aesthetic to counterintelligence work. Edward Epstein also paints Angleton as a high intellectual, though the portrait that emerges in his Deception is less that of a literary critic than a sort of espionage epistemologist.

Epstein’s book concerns what Angleton called “deception theory,” the abstract calculus of Cold War double-cross. Counterintelligence, as Angleton practiced it, focused on the form of deception called “penetration”—the placement of false agents within enemy ranks and the planting of false information with enemy analysts (Winks 342–43). The Angletonian specialist strives to detect penetrations within his own ranks while “running” penetrations against his opponent. Here, in Epstein’s account, is Angleton the deception theorist, explicating a concept he called “the loop”:

It consisted of two lines of communication that hooked up rival intelligence services—one perpetrating the deception; the other the victim of it. The deceiver uses one set of lines to pass messages to its opposition...The deceiver uses the second set of lines to get a fix on the victim’s reactions to the messages. At the end of these lines there have to be moles or microphones in the enemy camp with access to the evaluators of its messages...This feedback...was essential to building up the adversary’s...commitment to the sources in the disinformation part of the loop. Without it, the deceiver...can never be sure whether he is tricking the opposition or being tricked himself. With it, he can amplify or reinforce the parts of the story the opposing intelligence service is prone to believe, and eliminate or revise those that are doubted...Through such strategies, the “deceived” becomes his own deceiver. (106–7)

While the basic strategy goes back to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Angleton’s diagrammatic approach owes something to the “bull’s eye” model of communication developed in the late forties by the American electrical engineer Claude Shannon. During World War II, Shannon worked on codes and ciphers for the Allies, a study which helped him develop a new theory of information (Campbell 197). Shannon’s work was formative in the field of information theory and, during the Cold War period, provided the dominant framework for research on human communication (Danesi 51–2). Shannon coined such terms as sender, receiver, encoding, decoding and feedback (Danesi 50) and hoped to provide a model for representing information “independently of its content or its meaning” (Danesi 52). According to Jeremy Campbell, Shannon’s great innovation was “treating information in clearly defined but wholly abstract terms” so that “it could be placed in a formal framework of ideas” (17). Similar ambitions lay behind Von Neumann’s game theory, another early twentieth-century attempt at modeling complex behaviors in formalistic terms (Morgenstern 265). Angleton’s loop resembles Von Neumann’s zero-sum game, wherein winning depends on collecting accurate information and filtering out the inaccurate, while inducing opponents to do the opposite (Chan). Angleton appears to have had a formalistic approach in mind when he contemplated a possible “science of counterintelligence” (Winks 341).8

The disinformation loop can be seen as the shadow form of Shannon’s model, a sort of bugged bull’s eye. Indeed, in Epstein’s account, Angleton seems less a poet than a painstaking, if unscrupulous, rhetorician. The deception agent uses language artfully, but the goal is manipulation, not clarity or enlightenment. In fact though, these two positions are not so far apart. Clarifying this requires comparison of Angleton’s CI approach and certain tenets of the New Criticism.

Beautiful Lies You Can Live In

The first such parallel is suggested by Winks: both intelligence analysis and poetic interpretation are concerned with “a complex form of code” (333). However, this isomorphism is not particularly modern, for cryptography and its literary counterpart allegory have been around since at least the late middle ages.9 The sharper analogy is suggested by Rosenbaum’s reference to “seven types of ambiguity,” the title of Empson’s classic of Modernist criticism. An influential critic in his own right, Empson began as the protégé of I. A. Richards, the acknowledged father of the New Criticism (Russo 620). Together Richards and Empson established the technique of “close reading” as the hallmark of modern critical practice (Russo 619). Indeed, Richards is credited with inaugurating literary theory’s “age of analysis” (Russo 619).

The Richards/Empson critical style foregrounds the problem of meaning in literary communication. Like the theorists of the Russian Formalist school, Richards held that literary language differed radically from other forms of discourse. But whereas the Russian Formalists emphasized literature’s heightened, artificial quality, its power to defamiliarize the familiar, Richards—a British intellectual influenced by behaviorist psychology and positivist philosophy—went a step further, characterizing poetry as a special kind of lying. Distinguishing between “referential” signs that denote empirical facts and “emotive” signs that denote feelings and attitudes about facts, Richards argued that the goal of poetry is to pass off the emotive as if it were the referential. Poetry, he claimed, is a form of “pseudo-statement,” which “appears to describe the world but in fact simply organizes our feelings about it in satisfying ways” (Eagleton 45).

The poet may distort his statements; he may make statements which have logically nothing to do with the subject under treatment; he may, by metaphor and otherwise, present objects for thought which are logically quite irrelevant; he may perpetrate logical nonsense, be trivial or silly, logically, as it is possible to be; all in the interests of the other functions of his language—to express feeling or adjust tone or further his other intentions. If his success in these other aims justify him, no reader...can validly say anything against him. (Richards, Practical 180–81).

English criticism in Richards’s day was consciously moralistic; leading critics such as F. R. Leavis saw literature as the prime carrier of civilized values. At times Richards appears nervous about the moral implications of equating literature with lying. Consequently, he is quick, as in the passage above, to suggest that the end—the expression of feeling—justifies the means. For Richards, poetic “feeling” provided a much-needed balance to the dehumanizing influence of modern science. Emotive “pseudo-statements” were all to the good, given the modern crisis of meaning and the catastrophe of the First World War. In the tones of Matthew Arnold, Richards hailed poetry’s power to “Save us” from “chaos” (Science 82–83). In short, poetry was a form of deception—albeit a life-affirming one—made necessary by social crisis.

Replace the word “poetry” with “disinformation” in that sentence and you define James Angleton’s profession, at least according to Cold War ideology. Disinformation, its distribution and interpretation, is the focus of counterintelligence practice. And disinformation is a kind of pseudo-statement that blends truth with lies along a linguistic continuum that includes fact, fantasy, half truth and popular myth. When effective it blends such elements so subtly that they cannot be separated.

Consequently, disinformation practices require an appreciation of—and a high tolerance for—ambiguity, the linguistic feature that, according to Empson, is definitively literary:

[Angleton] also had the professional’s necessary interest in ambiguity: an intense commitment to the elimination of ambiguity where sources conflicted (rather than the amateur’s tendency to attempt to reconcile conflicting statements, as though both might be true, rather than both being false) combined with the ability to live with the unresolved so that one did not force a premature conclusion out of sheer discomfort. (Winks 326)

This passage evokes another concept from Richards, his distinction between poetic “exclusion” and “inclusion.” In Principles of Literary Criticism, he contrasts the poetry of exclusion—which rushes toward an “easily won wholeness and closure”—with the poetry of inclusion, which embraces oppositions and welcomes contradictions (Russo 621). As described by Winks, Angleton’s brand of intelligence analysis values “inclusion” over “exclusion,” much as Richards did himself. The literary opposition of “inclusion” versus “exclusion” has its own political analogue, a topic to which I turn below.

Doubling and Dualism

Having thus far reviewed literary associations, deception theory, and the harmony between two types of supposedly necessary prevarication—Richards’ concept of poetry on one hand and Angeltonian disinformation on the other—I move on to delineate further parallels between New Critical concepts and Cold War counterintelligence practice.

Though he is in important ways a pragmatic thinker, Richards’s notions about language at times veer toward nominalism (Russo 620), the medieval doctrine holding that universals are purely linguistic—or mental—entities. This semantic position has its own corollary in disinformation theory. Angleton’s techniques derived from the “double-cross system” perfected by British intelligence during World War II (Winks 442–43; Rosenbaum 45–7). According to Rosenbaum,

The basic method...evolved when the British secret service captured German spies in England during wartime. The spies were quickly “turned,” on pain of execution, and forced to send back...whatever disinformation the British wanted German intelligence to believe.

Frequently the German spies, while locked in London prison cells, would be given “notional” adventures to report back to their German superiors. The term notional comes from medieval philosophy, and refers to a class of entities that exist only in the mind. (45)

In the American New Criticism, such skeptical traditions had an impact on ideas of authorship and personality. A staple of New Critical theory concerns the problem of authorial intention. In their famous 1957 essay, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley denounced, on logical grounds, what they called the “intentional fallacy”—the assumption that the motives of authors are knowable and recoverable. Moreover, they argued, even if intentions were knowable, they would still be irrelevant to poetic interpretation, given the philosophical necessity of treating the poem on its own, autotelic terms. Similarly, in disinformation analysis, intention is at best opaque and this fact is key to the generation of strategic ambiguities.

In still another striking analogue, both disciplines call for the suppression of personality. In spycraft there is of course a literal need for secrecy. Thus, Angleton’s name and face were, during his career, virtually unknown even within the CIA, facelessness being, so to speak, part of the job description. In the New Criticism there is also a call for a kind of “anonymity.” This relates to the anti-Romantic thrust of Modernist theory, a posture summed up in Eliot’s remark that good poetry, rather than expressing personality, should provide an escape from it: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (qtd. in Ransom, New 151).

In the opening chapter of The World’s Body, Ransom refers to Milton’s “Lycidas” as “A Poem Nearly Anonymous” (1). The essay advances what might be called a “notional” view of literary composition that distinguishes the character of the Author from that of the Poet. According to Ransom, the Author of the poem is the historical personage John Milton—by most accounts brilliant, ambitious, narcissistic and insufferable; the Poet is another entity entirely, an imaginal consciousness constructed by the work of art, a sort of ideal self which transcends the limitations of art and biography. The interest of the poem, says Ransom, derives from the valiant struggle of the Poet—the ideal self—to suppress the Author, a mere personality. In this struggle, aesthetic formalism might be said to represent a strategy of containment.10

The “problem of double lives” in intelligence work is the subject of an unpublished memoir by Winston MacKinley Scott, a career CIA officer who was close to Angleton and who was himself a poet (Morley 1–2, 111; Russell 456).11 Scott found the problem to be most acute for counterespionage officers. As Scott wrote in the 221-page memoir he titled “It Came To Little” (Morley 7), “I believe that, in the case of a good and active counterespionage officer, the individual’s self-relationship becomes a pseudo personal one; and that his true self treats his false self as though his false self were another person” (qtd. in Russell 464). Scott’s concern is that the officer who engages in such “schizoidal” practices may be psychologically undone by the “demanding and dominating” false self (qtd. in Russell 464). Describing a literal self-sacrifice, the language (which evokes Jekyll and Hyde as well as depth psychology) puts a poignant spin on the standard agency practice of “compartmentalization.”

Just as the “doubling” of agents takes on metaphorical significance, so does the phenomenon of double dealing. The pathology described by Scott derives partly from the counterespionage officer’s “having met and dealt with so many dishonest people” (qtd. in Russell 464). Though such dealings are typically seen as necessary tradeoffs in pursuit of the good, they raise profound ethical questions in a democratic society where honesty, integrity and transparency are prized. It is another instance of what Epstein calls the “looking-glass” quality of the counterintelligence world (11). 

In the will he composed in 1949, Angleton alludes to such tensions while strenuously affirming his Christian beliefs:  "You who believe or half believe, I can say this now, that I do believe in the spirit of Christ and the life everlasting, and in this turbulent social system which struggles sometimes blindly to preserve the right to freedom and expression of the spirit. In the name of Jesus Christ I leave you" (qtd. in Mangold 45).12 How does one square such apparent ethical concern with a life spent playing what Kipling called the “great game” of deception? To answer such a question, Angleton’s Cold War Manichaeism may provide a clue, for in certain respects his outlook parallels that of the metaphysical dualists of  the ancient world. Within the agency, Angleton led a faction—dubbed “the fundamentalists”—which advocated the idea that behind all Cold War intrigues lay a Soviet “master plot” (sometimes called “monster plot”)—a massive, intricately orchestrated web of deception directed at the West (Mangold 58–9).13 In effect, Cold Warrior Angleton saw the world as dominated by an evil empire; a position not unlike that of the gnostics of antiquity. And, like those same dualists, Angleton held to a personal credo which affirmed a transmundane Platonic sort of good. The Gnostic response to such a situation typically took two forms: ascetic withdrawal or libertine abandon (Jonas 270–77). Pursuit of the second option meant that conventions were to be defied and laws transgressed, the logic being that such structures were worldly artifacts and hence themselves corrupt. Thus, to behave like a scoundrel in this world was to be a kind of holy sinner, affirming—by negation—the otherworldly good:

The idea that in sinning something like a program has to be completed, a due rendered as the price of ultimate freedom, is the strongest doctrinal reinforcement of the libertinistic tendency inherent in the Gnostic rebellion as such and turns it into a positive prescription of immoralism. (Jonas 274)14

Furthermore, the dualist libertine was assured that his/her soul remained unsullied by such exploits, for it had realized gnosis, or knowledge of the truth (Jonas 270).

In 1975, following the Watergate revelations, the Senate Intelligence Committee began to investigate the extent of US intelligence agencies’ spying on American citizens during the antiwar ferment of the previous decade. Giving testimony about alleged CIA abuses of power, Angleton claimed that “the CIA was free to ignore the government and to lie to them” (Winks 327).15 In the light of such notions, the biblical motto inscribed (at the behest of Angleton’s beloved colleague, Allen Dulles) above the entrance to CIA headquarters takes on added nuance: “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The freedom invoked, of course, has to do with sin; but is it, so to speak, a freedom from or a freedom to?

While political conservatism was common among the Anglo-American High Modernists, a “paranoid style,” similar to the outlook described above, was well-represented too, in the person of Angleton’s old friend, Ezra Pound. Pound’s ideas about history were extremely dualistic; this, and his penchant for conspiracy theories, led him to propagandize, during the war, on behalf of the Fascists.  Indeed, it is tempting to see Pound as something like a spiritual father to Angleton. Back in the Furioso days, Pound had given Angleton his blessing as “one of the most important hopes of literary magazines in the United States” (qtd. in Mangold 36), while describing himself as “pedro eterno or whatever” of the magazine. Like Angleton, Pound hailed from Idaho and, like Angleton’s biological father, Pound had spent most of his adult life in Italy during the Fascist period. Both studied the intricacies of Dante’s verse and the intrigues of Italian politics.16  Moreover, Pound saw himself as a crusader on behalf of the causes of modern poetry, right-wing politics and Western civilization. These could be said to be Angleton’s most cherished concerns.

Poetry and Disinformation

Angleton was reportedly fascinated by the fact that counterintelligence officers were “trained to lie about the extent of their knowledge, the reverse of what a poet does” (Winks 346). The larger implication is that poetry and disinformation constitute a binary opposition, one that helps structure the thinking of Cold War operators and intellectuals about deception and morality. And this Cold War binary is a variant of another that is fundamental to Western thought, namely that of appearance and reality. This is of course Plato’s great theme and, when applied by him to the realm of language and communication, it becomes a contest between rhetoric and philosophy.

In Plato’s rendition, the rhetoricians masquerade as philosophers, but they are eloquent deceivers. They scoff at knowledge claims and act as though truth is notional, a product of linguistic sleight-of-hand. They teach that verbal might makes right and delight in making the worse case appear the better. The rhetoricians, in other words, stand opposed to all that Plato most values—the principle of absolute truth; the power of reason to comprehend it; the consequent need for communicators to address the intellect and not the passions; and the struggle to resist the influence of emotions, bodies and crowds. Of course, as Derrida has famously noted, Plato’s binary distinction is itself rhetorical. Only in relation to such silver-tongued villains can the rational philosophers emerge as heroes. Though supposedly superior and self-sufficient, philosophy needs rhetoric in order to define itself.

Plato of course wanted to kick not only the rhetoricians but also the poets out of his ideal republic. But in Modernist thought, poetry occupies a position similar to that of philosophy in Plato—i.e., as the privileged counterpart of mere rhetoric. This is nicely summed in W. B. Yeats’s formulation: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” (333). Yeats’s later poetry consistently opposes political rabble-rousing to poetic interiority. Both pursuits involve the use of heightened language; but where one manipulates the crowd through bestial emotion, the other purifies the self through aesthetic contemplation. Though Yeats’s peers approach it less mystically, a similar disdain—for politics, history and the masses—runs throughout Modernist poetry and criticism. In a 1939 letter to Furioso, William Carlos Willliams contrasts poetry proper with “propaganda,” or “poetry that tries to influence people,” arguing that “exposure to the sharp edge of the mechanics of necessary to the poet,” but has “nothing to do with poetry” (Letter to Reed Whittemore). In “Ulysses, Order and Myth,” Eliot celebrates the “mythic method” as a way for literature to escape the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (177). Following Eliot, the New Critics seek to liberate criticism from (what they see as) a reductive historicism by insisting the poem be viewed “objectively,” in isolation from details of time, place or biographical contingency (Ransom, New 54).

This anti-historical tendency is enhanced by close reading techniques, which in their functionalism treat the poem as a self-contained entity (Eagleton 47). Contemplating such trends, Ransom frames the project in terms of Kantian morality, suggesting that the literary work must be treated not as a means to some worldly end but as an end in itself. At various points, he will call such criticism “formalist” (“Theory” 14–15), “objective,” and “ontological” (The World’s 111–12). In this view, poetry occupies a privileged space, above and beyond the messiness of history, far from the madding crowd. Of course, such an elitist aesthetic fits neatly with the reactionary politics of Ransom, Eliot and even Plato himself.

To a poetry that is ontological, disinformation plays the role of dark rhetorical double. Superficially similar to poetry (both are pseudo-statements), disinformation debases—“penetrates the enemy”—where poetry ennobles, inducing Kant’s disinterested interest (New 16–17). And yet, as in Plato, the transcendent order secretly needs its Other.

In his chapter on Richards from The New Criticism, Ransom argues that poetry differs from scientific discourse in its respect for particulars (42–3). Both languages use induction and deduction, but where science subordinates data to pattern and principle, poetry retains an emphasis on—or even a respect for—the minute, the accidental, the everyday. To make the point, he evokes the virtues of a liberal democracy: “A beautiful poem is a democratic state, so to speak, which realizes the ends of a state without sacrificing the personal character of its citizens” (New 54). The metaphor is striking, partly because unexpected, partly because Ransom’s own ideal state is known to be the antebellum agrarian South. But regarding James Angleton—and the entire phenomenon of liberal arts scholars making secret war—the analogy is resonant.

Ransom’s subtext is once again the Kantian ethic that would treat human beings and culture as ends in themselves and not as means to some parochial end. “Beautiful” poetry enacts this principle in art and democracy does so in politics. And if poetry is linguistic democracy, then disinformation is the discourse of totalitarianism.

Yet disinformation was Angleton’s specialty; not just its detection, but its creation and deployment. Moreover, some of this activity was directed at American citizens. Angleton was fired from the agency in 1974 when it was revealed that he had overseen a domestic surveillance project targeting antiwar dissidents (Martin 211–14). Called Operation CHAOS, the program targeted for surveillance a vast array of anti-Vietnam War activists, black nationalists, New Left radicals and protest groups; this despite the fact that the CIA’s charter expressly forbids it to operate within the United States (Mangold 309). In addition, it was revealed that Angleton had presided, since the 1950s, over a program codenamed HT/LINGUAL, which involved the opening and reading of all mail traffic between the Soviet Union and the U.S. By the time the program was ended in 1973, Angleton’s team had opened 215,820 letters and developed a computerized watch list of some two million names (Winks 426–27). The rationale was typically Angletonian: the Soviets, knowing that it was illegal for any US government agency to open the mail, must therefore be using it to circumvent CIA scrutiny. In the name of national security then, the law would have to be broken (Winks 426). Quizzed about the moral implications, Angleton told a Senate Select Committee, “It is inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of government” (qtd. in Mangold 351).

Angleton obviously believed that the ends—the Cold War goal of “saving democracy”—justified the means. Such an attitude—in which something is held to be so precious that anything is justified in its defense—is the catch-22 of all zealotry. In this Cold War calculus, the Kantian liberalism that would treat some as ends requires, for its preservation, a Machiavellian machinery that manipulates others like so many pawns. Reframing Ransom, one might say disinformation does the dirty work so that poetry can be beautiful.

In his 1987 book Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How To Be A Counterintelligence Officer, Angleton’s aforementioned colleague William R. Johnson writes that “I do not require my young CI officers to be able to discuss the complexities of a Shakespeare play, but if I catch them studying Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry, I do not instantly send them off to the firing range. I tell them to go read Cleanth Brooks on 'The Language of Paradox,' because CI is the act of paradox” (10). The sharp-eyed William J. Maxwell sees this as Johnson glibly trying to steal some New Critical glory for the CIA (138), but I think the quote is apt to these reflections on Angleton. The essay Johnson cites, the leadoff chapter in Brooks’ celebrated study The Well Wrought Urn, begins by sounding a familiar note, asserting that, in its rhetorical flamboyance, its mere cleverness, paradox is “the language of sophistry” whereas poetry is “the language of the soul” (1). Yet Brooks goes on to make a case that “there is a sense in which paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry” (1). After demonstrating that this favored trope of epigram-spouting wits is at the center of some seemingly plainspoken poems by Wordsworth, Brooks rests his case on a close reading of the metaphysical conceit in Donne’s “The Canonization,” arguing ultimately that the poem “is an instance of the doctrine which it asserts; it is both the assertion and the realization of the assertion” (12). He goes on to link this example of poem as both idea and embodiment to Coleridge’s claim that the imagination itself can only be comprehended by reference to a set of seemingly irresolvable dichotomies—by, that is, paradox.

Johnson the CI officer goes further than Brooks the critic, speaking not of the language, but rather “the act of paradox” (emphasis added; 10). I submit that, for Cold War operators of the Angleton type, such notions as the deceived becoming his own deceiver; poetry serving as life-affirming falsehood; inclusion demanding the embrace of incongruities; true selves having to contend with false selves; and Manichaean struggle entailing a “positive prescription of immoralism” (Jonas 274) shaped a mindset—one in which “acts of paradox” became not just possible, but necessary if, indeed, “the ends of a state” were to be realized.

But what of “the personal character” of the citizens of that state? Is it preserved on the way to such ends? The following lines from Eliot were read out at Angleton’s funeral:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. (30)

Perhaps the mourners appreciated “Gerontion” in the New Critical manner—as a verbal icon, its antitheses balanced in disinterested equipoise, its words aspiring to the condition of music. Or perhaps they committed the intentional fallacy and heard, in Angleton’s choice of elegy, a reference to personal character, reflexive case.


1 The quote from Ransom comes from The New Criticism (54). The quote from Angleton is presented as the epigraph to Epstein’s Deception (n.p.).

2 For more on the molehunt, see Epstein, Deception; Mangold, Cold Warrior; and Martin, Wilderness of Mirrors. Or consult Wise, Molehunt.

3 [Edited to add 2/25/18] In The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders details the CIA's attempts to control, for propaganda purposes, the Anglo-American cultural establishment during the high Cold War. She discusses Angleton's personal contacts in modernist circles, including some of those described early on in the present essay. However, where her emphasis is on literal contacts between culturati and CIA men/money, mine is on a shared mindset which appears to inform both modernist poetics and Angleton's brand of intelligence work. In his robustly researched 2008 biography, James Jesus Angleton, the CIA and the Craft of Counterintelligence, Michael Holzman frames the Yale milieu and the version of the New Criticism Angleton was immersed in during his Furioso days as indeed formative on the future CI chief. This essay differs from that treatment in its emphasis on Richards and poetic "pseudo-statement"; Yeats and the notion of rhetoric as the antithesis of poetry; Ransom and the poem as democratic state; and the parallels between dualist libertinism and Cold War manichaeism. 

4 The literary associations multiply further when one considers that Angleton was a colleague, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, of the legendary Kim Philby. Philby was the most notorious mole in espionage history, a high-level officer in the British Secret Service who turned out to have been a Soviet agent for his entire career. The Philby case has been the inspiration for numerous novels; indeed, Philby was quite close to Graham Greene, who has treated the matter in both fictional and nonfictional settings; see The Philby Files by Genrikh Borovik. Angleton claimed to have been entirely taken in by Philby’s deception; in fact, several writers suggest that the zeal and paranoia Angleton brought to later molehunts was the result of his having been traumatized by the Philby affair. (See, for example, “Kim and Jim” in Epstein’s Deception, or “Philby’s Ultimate Deception” in Mangold’s Cold Warrior.)

One aspect of the molehunt is so ironic as to seem a literary invention: namely, the suggestion that Angleton himself might be the Soviet agent. This was the conclusion of an internal agency review of the molehunt undertaken by Clare Petty, a member of the Counterintelligence staff. William Colby, Director of CIA at the time (and no fan of Angleton) regarded the conclusion as absurd, as did many other agency officers (Martin 212–13).

5 The piece, entitled “Examine,” urges “young America” to consider certain points about “war debt” before getting “all het up over ANYone’s [sic] war propaganda”. Point 6, concerning what’s been done “to and for farmers in England,” includes the following:  "Parenthesis: you needn’t take my word for it yet, but keep your minds open to the possibility that in another 20 years men may think Hitler a better friend of the plain man, and especially the men who grow or would like to grow crops in England, than any government England has had in our time" (“Examine”).

6 The visit is reported by Martin in Wilderness of Mirrors (17) and disputed by Winks in Cloak and Gown (335).

7 In James Laughlin, New Directions and the Remaking of Ezra Pound, Gregory Barnhisel shows that, in order to promote Pound’s post-World War II work, Laughlin and New Directions exploited the anti-historicist mood fostered by the New Criticism. Though neither Pound nor Laughlin saw art as radically disconnected from society, Laughlin found it strategic to promote Pound’s Pisan Cantos as best read formalistically, without reference to historical or biographical context—in particular, the context of Pound’s Fascism. The Pisan Cantos went on to win the 1949 Bollingen Prize for poetry.

8 The New Critics consistently frame “science” as the antagonist of poetry, seeing the positivist call for a language of pure denotation as oppressively technocratic (Brooks 6-7). Nonetheless, regarding poetry, they advocate a rigorous analytical technique and the abstraction of the poetic text from historical and social contexts (Ransom, “Theory” 14-15; Cuddon 422).

9 Shawn James Rosenheim’s The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet offers a magisterial treatment of the transactions between modern literature and cryptography. His chapter “Deciphering the Cold War: Toward A Literary History of Espionage” provides, among other things, a detailed account of Angleton’s tutelage in the British double-cross system during World War II.

10 Regarding such “strategies of tension”: Within the agency, Angleton argued that the CI staff should, as a matter of practice, assume an adversarial, nay-saying role in relation to any information affirmed by the Soviet divisions (Winks 426).

11 Scott published under the name “Ian Maxwell” (Morley 111; Russell 456). The unpublished memoir was collected, very soon after Scott’s death, by Angleton himself, amidst an air of apparent urgency (Morley 1-2; Russell 460).

12 In the same will, Angleton bids a fond farewell to Pound and other friends from the Furioso milieu.

13 According to sources quoted by Mangold, the theory of the master plot had its roots in Angleton’s experience with Philby (69).

14 Dying of lung cancer, Angleton refused the attentions of a priest, remarking to his wife, “I have my own religion” (qtd. in Mangold 353).

15 According to Winks, the senators (led by Frank Church and Richard Schweicker) were simply “not subtle enough” for Angleton’s “nuanced language” (327).

16 In the Pisan Cantos, Pound frames Mussolini's death in terms of the martyrdom of the dualist prophet Mani, conspired against by Zoroastrians in second century Persia:  "Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,/Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano/By the heels at Milano" (30).  Winks cites Furioso colleagues from Yale who found Angleton "uneasily defensive of Mussolini" (337).


Works Cited

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