Most Americans have never heard of Frank Wisner, but in the decade or so after World War II, during the early days of the Cold War, he was one of the most powerful men in the world. His title at the Central Intelligence Agency was purposefully bland: deputy director of plans. But his job was chief of covert operations. With a seemingly unlimited budget and virtually no congressional oversight, Wisner had a secret mandate to influence elections and, if necessary, overthrow governments around the world. He was free to allow his agents to lie, cheat, and steal, as long as political leaders could “plausibly deny” their actions. His goal was to stop Communism by beating Communists at their own underhanded game.
Wisner created something called “the Mighty Wurlitzer,” a huge, hellish jukebox of propaganda, disinformation, and black ops. It was “a vast and ever-adaptive apparatus that, over time, was to extend its reach into a bewildering array of political and social spheres around the world. An underground guerrilla force called the Ukrainian Insurgent Army would have association with Wurlitzer, but so would the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, the AFL-CIO; and an outfit called the Crusade for Family Prayer.” (The agency paid for newspapers, books, and concerts.) Often unbeknownst to them, “blues musicians, Third World colonels, avant-garde poets, and university professors” were included in the company payroll, writes Scott Anderson in his highly entertaining history of four Cold War spies. “Perhaps inevitably, the man sitting atop this fantastically eclectic structure, Frank Wisner, would earn the nickname, ‘the Wiz.’”