When the Student Movement Was a CIA Front
n its March 1967 issue, Ramparts, a glossy West Coast muckraking periodical that expired in 1975, and that strongly opposed American involvement in the war in Vietnam, published an exposé of the close relationship between the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Student Association. This other NSA—not to be confused with the National Security Agency—was then the leading American organization representing college students, with branches on about 400 campuses. Its ties with the CIA were formed in the early years of both institutions following World War II, as the Cold War was getting under way.
According to Ramparts, the CIA had been providing much of the funding for the NSA through various “conduits.” NSA officers, many of them wittingly, had served the interests of the CIA by participating actively in international youth and student movements. The NSA’s activities were financed by the Agency both to counter communist influence and also to provide information on people from other countries with whom they came in contact. The disclosures about the CIA’s ties to the NSA were the most sensational of a number of revelations in that era that exposed the Agency’s involvement in such institutions as the Congress for Cultural Freedom; the International Commission of Jurists; the AFL-CIO; Radio Free Europe; and various leading philanthropic foundations. Karen Paget’s new book, Patriotic Betrayal, is the most detailed account yet of the CIA’s use of the National Student Association as a vehicle for intelligence gathering and covert action. (See author’s endnote.)
With the passage of half a century, it may be difficult to understand why so many political and cultural organizations, led by individuals with a generally liberal or leftist outlook, covertly collaborated with the CIA in the 1950s and first half of the 1960s, before exposés in Ramparts and other publications put an end to most such arrangements. After all, many of the activities of the Agency in that era are among those that we now regard as particularly discreditable. These include the CIA’s cooperation with the British intelligence services in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953; its cooperation with the United Fruit Company in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954; and its cooperation with the Republic of the Congo’s former colonial rulers, the Belgians, in overthrowing the country’s newly elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1960.
Several factors seem to me to have played a part. Press reporting on these events in that era tended not to focus on the role of the CIA. It was only years later, after the Senate’s 1975-1976 Church Committee investigations, after long-after-the-fact investigations by journalists and scholars, and after the mid-1980s development of the National Security Archive and its extensive and effective use of the Freedom of Information Act, that many otherwise well-informed Americans grasped the role of the CIA in these events.