Recalling a Radical Think-Tank

Over Christmas, I noticed an obituary for Marcus Raskin, who co-founded the once high profile Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a leftist, not-so-much-noticed-anymore Washington, DC, think-tank that during the Cold War some conservative critics insinuated was in cahoots with Soviet intelligence.

As a boy, I knew IPS through the prism of Arnaud de Borchgrave’s The Spike, a 1980 international thriller about Soviet disinformation’s successful subversion of Western media, creating pro-Moscow fake news with help from a radical think-tank clearly based on IPS. De Borchgrave was a Belgian aristocrat turned journalist and American citizen who for decades reported on global affairs for Newsweek, routinely gaining exclusive interviews with top world leaders. Regular interviewee Anwar Sadat reputedly gave access to de Borchgrave because he believed him to be CIA, until Henry Kissinger disabused him, after which de Borchgrave regretted the legendary Egyptian president lost interest in him.

De Borchgrave, who died in 2015, believed the West was losing the Cold War partly thanks to KGB disinformation campaigns conducted through knowing or unknowing dupes in media, think-tanks, and government. An exhilarating spy novel would be more widely read than a somber nonfiction expose, he correctly decided, and The Spike was a bestseller, gaining favorable reviews even from some skeptics of its conspiracy thesis. There were characters clearly based on Vice President Walter Mondale, Senator Daniel Moynihan, and former CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton, among many others.

The Angleton character informs the novel’s journalist hero, a naive liberal crusading against the Vietnam War and a CIA critic, that many in his network are actually KGB agents or fellow travelers, often linked to the Institute for Progressive Reform, which like IPS was based near Washington’s Dupont Circle. As IPS-related persons filled the Carter Administration, so too did the novel’s fictional think-tank influence an administration cluelessly weak with the Soviet Union.

Legal action by IPS forced de Borchgrave to amend a later edition of The Spike so that the Soviet-front think-tank seemed a little less like IPS. But for years IPS¬†was dutifully in sync with Soviet geopolitical goals, harshly opposing American measures to counter Moscow while gushing about Third World Marxist dictatorships. Fidel Castro was a favorite, as were Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. Deposed Chilean Marxist President Salvador Allende’s foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, was a fellow at IPS when his car was blown up by Chilean intelligence at nearby Sheridan Circle. Also killed was his American IPS assistant. Columnist Robert Novak wrote that documents found in Letelier’s car linked him to Castro’s regime.

For many years, the United Methodist missions board, enthralled by Liberation Theology in the 1970s and 1980s, funded a memorial event honoring Letelier while also funding IPS. This scandal within my own denomination helped motivate my entrance into church controversies.

Interestingly, IPS’ co-founder with Raskin was the late Richard Barnet, a devoted member of the nondenominational Church of the Savior, a liberal activist congregation near Dupont Circle whose vision of international peacemaking partly inspired the IPS vision, as it also inspired liberal religious activists like Jim Wallis. Raskin himself was arrested in 1968 along with Rev. William Sloan Coffin, longtime Yale chaplain and later Riverside Church pastor, for trying to block draft registration for the Vietnam War.

The IPS leftist perspective, domestic and global, was partly fueled by Christian idealism and Utopianism, which imagined a world moving towards perfection because humanity is not so much sinful as unenlightened. This delusion required ignoring egregious crimes by the regimes it often extolled. The Spike, by conjecturing that IPS, or at least its fictional equivalent, was central to Soviet conspiracy, exaggerated IPS influence and perhaps the KGB’s capacity, while underestimating the extent to which deluded persons can discordantly and independently sow mischief absent vast collaboration.

An Augustinian, and Niebuhrian, counterpoint to both IPS and The Spike would suggest that humanity is too sinful and disorganized to achieve sustained virtue or evil in politics or any other arena. The death of IPS co-founder Raskin on Christmas Eve was a reminder that many political crusades vainly claim moral absolutes for themselves in a world where all are fallen and under judgment.

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  • Marla Hughes

    A timely reminder