Some 60 million people perished in World War II. Before the embers of that terrible conflagration could cool, a new conflict loomed. Joseph Stalin’s Russia was imposing a cruel dictatorship on the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe and threatening Western Europe by subversion and force of arms. By 1949, the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons in its arsenal. In the event of a clash between the superpowers, many millions more would die.
The United States and its allies began to check Soviet expansionism by following George Kennan’s prescription for containment: The “application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” One such shifting political point involved student politics. Here in the United States, student politics had seldom been important. But in some of the embattled countries of Europe, very different traditions prevailed, and student politics were at the center of events.
The Kremlin was ready and quick to exert influence in this arena. Its operatives seized effective control of various international student organizations, set up chapters in the satellite states, and tried to draw in young people from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere around the world. As in other aspects of the Cold War conflict, the United States sought to counter. Veterans of the Office of Strategic Services—our wartime intelligence body, incorporated by 1947 into the fledgling CIA—began to channel funds to (and influence) the international activities of American student groups, preeminently the National Student Association (NSA). The funding and controlling continued into the 1960s, until the operation was blown in a spectacular leak—the first of its kind—in an exposé published in Ramparts magazine.
Here, Karen M. Paget tells the story of the CIA’s relationship with the National Student Association. As she notes in her preface, she has a personal—and bitter—connection to the subject. Her ex-husband served on the National Student Association’s staff. They were both among those who knew about the CIA link and had been sworn to secrecy about it. Even after the Ramparts disclosure, she writes, “we kept quiet, cowed by the threat of prison terms if we divulged information.” Decades later, Paget ceased being quiet and has now written a detailed history, drawn from extensive excavation of declassified documents supplemented by interviews with participants.
What kind of picture emerges? The story of the CIA’s tie to the National Student Association has been told before, beginning, of course, with the Ramparts exposure. Paget’s contribution, as she sees it, is to revise our understanding of what exactly it entailed. Though the operation has long been thought of as a CIA conduit to fund anti-Communist forces around the world, the agency was engaged in much more than the mere transmission of money. The CIA, Paget writes, “did not merely subsidize the NSA with a few travel grants,” as the conventional narrative would have it. Rather, it “ran an operation, global in scope, which disguised and protected the hand of the U.S. government—the very definition of covert action.”
Through a painstaking combing of documents, Paget succeeds in demonstrating that the CIA exercised a good deal more direction over the NSA than has commonly been believed. In addition to control of the organization’s purse strings, it also was deeply involved in the selection of personnel and the formulation of its foreign policy planks. In and around the organization were three categories of people with varying degrees of engagement: the “unwitting,” who did not know that they were pawns in someone else’s game; the “witting” (like the author and her then-husband); and the CIA masters moving the pieces around the board.
The mechanism by which the machine functioned was a CIA-created body called the International Student Relations Seminar, which offered a six-week summer course to students interested in foreign policy. While in session, the CIA surreptitiously conducted background security checks, after which politically or personally undesirable candidates were weeded out and others, deemed sufficiently loyal and smart, were inducted into the “witting” category and positioned within the NSA.