[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]
Soft power — the use of culture to influence the other side by burrowing into an adversary’s society and psyche — can be very effective. The U.S. has been extremely effective at subtlely convincing oppressed peoples to want what looks like benevolent American and Western things, thereby undermining the desire for domestic material. This, it was theorized, would cause social unrest against their government while simultaneously softening attitudes toward the U.S. and the West. If things go as planned, the West gained a geopolitical advantage without firing a shot.
In the spring of 2020, a podcast called Wind of Change explored the notion that the CIA helped bring about the demise of the Soviet Union with the help of a metal power ballad released by Germany’s The Scorpions. Lore had it that the Agency wrote the tune, had the band record it, and the entire Eastern Bloc fell for its themes of change and freedom, thereby hastening the fall of the USSR.
The legend doesn’t appear to be true, but it doesn’t mean that spooks on both sides of the Cold War didn’t try some pretty nutty things that might destabilize the enemy.
Rock’n’roll was a powerful weapon and used to great advantage by the West. Consider the effect of The Beatles. Leslie Woodhead was a former British spy who saw it firsthand.
Other acts did their part, too, as part of official cultural exchange missions known as “Friendship and Cultural Relations Societies,” all accompanied by undercover CIA personnel. Meanwhile, when the USSR sent over their classical music ensembles, ballet troupes, and dancing bears, KGB minders were embedded in the entourages. Everyone put up with the spying and the odd defection.
Over the decades, rumours began to circulate about one particular KGB plot in the U.K. Punk rock exploded across the kingdom in 1976, featuring muck-raking young bands determined to stick it to the establishment, the class system, and the status quo. There was no way the KGB, the East German Stasi, and other police organizations from the Eastern Bloc would have looked at the situation and not thought about trying to turn things to their advantage. Could this new youth movement be used to destabilize Britain and perhaps all of Western Europe?