Joanna Macy and the CIA

Widening Circles: A Memoir
   by Joanna Macy, New Society Publishers,
Gabriola Island, B.C.,
2000, paperback,
    ISBN: 0-86571-420-7.

  "The unexamined life is not worth living." – Socrates

            Until fairly recently, my only 'knowledge' of Joanna Macy, was of her being one of the co-authors, along with
        John Seed, Arne Naess, and Pat Fleming, of the well known publication Thinking Like A Mountain: Towards
        A Council Of All Beings
. This is a slim book, which many supporters of deep ecology, including myself, have
        made use of as a teaching tool in a group setting, in expanding consciousness from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism.
        I was also aware, from various reports within the environmental movement, that Seed and Macy had organized a
        number of Councils of All Beings in several different countries.

            A recent issue of the online edition of the Canadian deep ecology magazine The Trumpeter (see, contained a positive review of the recent book by
        Macy, Widening Circles: A Memoir.

            The reviewer, Aryne Sheppard, without critical comment, mentioned that Macy studied the tactics of the French
        Communist Party in France on a Fulbright scholarship, worked for the CIA for two and a half years, and later had
        a salaried position in the State Department. The reviewer said, she had been "inspired" by the "courage and integrity"
        of Joanna Macy, and considered her work "pivotal" for supporters of deep ecology. This reviewer also noted that
        Macy, during her CIA time, met her husband Francis (Fran) Macy and had travelled abroad with him for a number
        of years. I wondered whether hubby was involved with the CIA, although one could not tell this from the review.
        I also was curious whether Macy repudiated her past and wondered why, for the reviewer, such a past was an
        apparent non-issue. I decided to read this book and find out for myself. My comments are given below.

            Joanna Macy was born in 1929, comes from a Republican family, and has a PhD. She is the author or co-author
        of a listed seven books. These include, in addition to Thinking Like A Mountain,  Despair and Personal Power
        in the Nuclear Age
, which came out in the early 80s and Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our
        Lives, Our World
, published in 1998. She has given many workshops, in various countries, around the themes of
        despair and personal empowerment. She combines in her work, Buddhism, systems theory and deep ecology.

        An Ecopsychological Journey

            Widening Circles is a personal memoir of her journey to self-awareness and shows her role as a teacher in the
        anti-nuclear, environmental and activist self-help movements. New Society Publishers, who put out this book,
        declare that they aim "to publish books for fundamental social change through nonviolent action."

            After reading her Memoir, I see Macy's work as part of that current in deep ecology which feeds the North
        American self-help or self-empowerment movement. It has a "motivation" focus - individual and group, using
        various rituals. In deep ecology terms, it would be where the Self (spelt with a capital "S") becomes equated with
        full ecological and social awareness, so that the egotistical self is left behind. (It was Warwick Fox who first
        argued that deep ecology should be renamed and refocused as "transpersonal ecology", with Self-realization as
        its essence.) The concern is with mainly "motivating" individuals, and leaves the collective structures of industrial
        capitalist society untouched. Yet it is these structures which cause the widespread alienation and feelings of
        powerlessness. (Macy speaks of industrial growth society but not, of course, of an industrial capitalist growth
        society.) She sets herself up, and conducts herself through her many workshops, as an "authority", with an
        ecopsychology focus. Philosophically and politically, she identifies with the Tibetans who came out of Tibet to India.
        There is no discussion of any oppressive role played by Buddhism in Tibet. One concern seems to be the "horrors"
        of Chinese rule in Tibet. A general anti-communism percolates the book.

            For Macy, the activist needs compassion and insight but not, apparently, anger. So perhaps we might say, that
        there are not Earth destroyers, but merely misguided people. Compassion is an openness to the pain of the world.
        She quotes with approval in her Memoir a Buddhist teacher, on the nature of the Shambhala warrior or
        bodhisattva (enlightened being): "'The battle is not between good people and bad people, for the line between
        good and evil runs through every human heart. We realize that we are interconnected, as in a web, and
        that each act with pure motivation affects the entire web, bringing consequences we cannot measure or
        even see.'"
(p. 162) One can agree, that within each of us there is good and evil. Yet, in the real world, some
        consciously choose to join the exploiting side. We are not all equally responsible for Earth and social destruction.

            Macy mentions how some anti-nuclear activists, on hearing an exposition of the message of the Shambhala
        warrior, accused her of being a "passive mystic."
(p. 215) and essentially obscuring the lines between the
        oppressed and the oppressors. I agree with this. But I think the view here does go back to Gandhi, and Arne
        Naess as a disciple of Gandhi. Left biocentrism, the "left" theoretical tendency within deep ecology which I support,
        differs here from Naess. He stresses absolute commitment to nonviolence, embracement of legality, and the belief
        that "It is a central norm of the Gandhian approach to 'maximize contact with your opponent!'" Many deep
        ecology activists of a more radical persuasion will find this misguided and dangerously simple-minded.

        The CIA Connection

            I do not believe that Joanna Macy, in this book, repudiates her past, of working for or in close association with
        the CIA - for many of us an evil force in the world. She also does not repudiate her frequently expressed anti-
        communism towards the former Soviet Union or China. She does not seem unhappy with having been an agent for
        the Cold War. Eventually she did awake politically within her country, e.g. to the nuclear arms race and to the war
        in Vietnam, but not, it seems, to the export of the U. S. political model, and to the active suppression of attempted
        revolutionary alternatives in other countries. I only found one faintly negative comment about her intelligence work,
        when she refers to "the stupid waste of my time with the CIA."
(p. 115) Yet she also speaks of "the challenge
        and congeniality of my work at the agency."
(p. 70) 

            This is how Joanna Macy describes her political awareness and work in France, before she was recruited for the
        CIA. As can be seen, she was hopelessly brainwashed and had no trouble justifying her work:

                "I traced the tactics of the French Communist Party, which, like its counterpart in Italy, was an
                integral part of the Cominform, the far-reaching International ruled from the Kremlin. I learned how
                Moscow's agents managed to maintain and extend control, how the communist ideals of local party
                members were cynically, often brutally, subverted. Many of the brave maquisards, or partisans,
                whom my heart had reached out to during the war as they resisted the Nazi occupation, had now
                become steely-eyed communist party hacks - or, if they refused, were blackmailed, disappeared,
                perhaps into some distant gulag."
(p. 60)

            By late 1951 she was recruited for the CIA, based, it seems, on her work in France:

                "Thanks to my work in Bordeaux on the French Communist Party, the Central Intelligence Agency
                had developed an interest in me. And thanks to what that research had taught me about Soviet
                tactics, I accepted their invitation when an intermediary - the gracious, silver-haired aunt of a
                friend - sounded me out. Where else, she asked, could I better use my new knowledge - which,
                incidentally, I had acquired at government expense?"
(p. 64)

            Macy says her CIA work involved "cultural activities conducted through journals, broadcasts, and
        conferences where the only secret was the source
of funding." (p. 66) She says, showing no trace of irony,
        that it was
important in her work "to take freedom seriously." (p. 66) 

            Joanna Macy seems blind to US imperialism and the CIA-assisted coups throughout Central and South
        America - Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, the murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, the role of the CIA in
        trying to subvert the Cuban revolution, etc.

            It seems very likely that her husband, Fran Macy, because of the nature of his employment in Cold War-
        directed activities, was, for many years, directly or indirectly involved with the CIA. Yet she never acknowledges
        this. Fran Macy was a product of the graduate Soviet Studies programme at Harvard. He spoke Russian, and
        was employed by the New York office of a Russian-language radio station directed at the Soviet Union. Later
        he worked with "Radio Liberty" in Munich, Germany. According to Joanna Macy,
"Radio Liberty beamed its
        round-the-clock programs of uncensored world news and culture through the Iron Curtain."

            In 1960, Fran Macy joined the Voice of America at the Russian desk. Then he ran "peace corps" programs in
        India and Africa until 1969, when the Macys returned to Washington, D.C. Nowhere in her book does Joanna
        Macy refer to her husband, whom she married in 1953, and accompanied to Germany, India, and Africa, as being
        employed by the CIA or in working for organizations directed by the Agency. I think this raises basic questions
        about intellectual honesty and morality in a Memoir.


            The deep ecology front is, as Arne Naess has pointed out, indeed long, but all of us need to come to terms
        honestly with our own pasts, to bring integrity to our endeavours. I do not believe Widening Circles: A Memoir
does this. Both communism and capitalism, as political and economic systems, are human-centered, growth-
        oriented, and basically anti-Earth. Thinking like a mountain, and the preservation of mountains, is not on either
        agenda. But social justice, which has to be a major concern of deep ecology, has more of a natural affinity with
        the Left than the Right. Joanna Macy does not see this. Also, the cultivation of self-consciousness - the focus of
        her work - can make for an apolitical deep ecology, and is no threat to the continuity of industrial capitalist society,
        which ultimately destroys whatever is in its path.  Needed ecocentric Self-Consciousness has to be intimately linked
        with fundamentally transforming industrial capitalist society.

                                                                                                                    David Orton,  June 17, 2001

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