Did the CIA Write ‘Wind of Change’?
I just madly binged the new podcast Wind of Change, and you should, too. In the closing monologue, host and journalist Patrick Radden Keefe expresses an urgent truth about this moment in history. The show explores a remarkable and, for Keefe, unshakeable question, not unlike the conspiracy theories that have gripped the darker parts of American society, mostly embodied on the right wing, but also present on the left. Ten years ago, Keefe heard a rumor through a CIA-connected friend that the spy agency had written the song “Wind of Change,” by the West German hair metal band The Scorpions. The song is a ballad to the change that in the 1980s was sweeping a troubled U.S.S.R. Not too long after the song debuted, the Soviet Union broke up. The idea was the agency was influencing culture, insinuating the song’s unforgettably scintillating whistle as an earworm in a restive population tired of communist rule.
Keefe, at only 44 among the world’s most intrepid and accomplished journalists, was unable to nail it down. In the final episode, he interviews Klaus Meine, the band’s lead vocalist. Keefe had envisioned it as a confrontation interview. He starts with softballs, like what was it like growing up in a divided society? and slowly escalates from there. But when Keefe “surfaces,” as spies put it when they reveal to a subject they’ve been investigating them, the conversation pans out into series of curious and awkward laughs. In five decades of answering questions about the enormously influential tune, I’ve never heard that one, Meine says. Yes, he says, it was him who wrote the song, not some covert agent. And no, he himself was not a CIA operative.
But Meine is a passionate acolyte of music’s power to move society and concedes to Keefe that such a story makes logical sense. After all, the Cold War lives in many memories as a “greatest hits” of CIA operations. At the forefront of this campaign is a string of known cultural influences secretly advanced by the CIA in which the agency helped send pop culture icons like Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to convince the masses of foreign nations that American capitalism is good — and Marxism is bad. Keefe dives into this history in the blockbuster series before he meets Meine and expresses several times a desire to believe it was true — the CIA really did write “Wind of Change.” The listener wishes it to be true as well.
The most troubling thing about the podcast, what makes it such a gripping listen, is that, even after Meine’s denial, there remain many avenues down which to pursue this story. “The rabbit hole is beautiful, but it’s deep,” Keefe quotes a source. But at what cost should he pursue it? Where should the boundary be? What is the benefit of driving himself mad to find out whether the CIA penned a piece of capitalist propaganda and weaponized a metal band?
What I still find so unsettling is that the further I delved into this story, the more plausible it seemed. That half a dozen ex-spies told me as much. And Rose’s reaction that of course the CIA would use pop music in its operations. They could still be doing it today. But if the CIA used “Wind of Change” as a weapon, I haven’t been able to prove it. I haven’t disproved it either, though. So I end up trapped in this weird cul-de-sac. The journalist in me wants to just lay the idea to rest. And yet I can’t shake this feeling that something is just beyond my fingertips. When we approached the CIA to tell them about this podcast and ask them about the Scorpions and “Wind of Change,” they had no comment. Though in fairness, apart from confirming a few noncontroversial details, they wouldn’t comment on any of our questions. So that’s not a huge surprise, and it doesn’t really tell us anything …
Keefe’s source was not satisfied. He “indignantly” informed Keefe he had not done his diligence (after a decade of trying to get the story).
But that’s the nature of a conspiracy theory. They’re impossible to prove but also impossible to disprove. So if you have the temperament and the time, you could devote yourself to solving it for the rest of your life. But if you’re a person whose livelihood depends on the slow and steady accretion of facts, then there’s a madness in chasing a story like this. And there’s something about the moment we’re living in, when every day the very nature of truth is called into question, that makes me feel like the stakes of solving this slightly ridiculous story are greater, somehow, than the story itself.
In a broad landscape, the answer to the question of whether the agency wrote the song is immaterial. If the agency hadn’t done it, would it erase the history of the CIA so heavily influencing culture around the world? Does it make the CIA a good guy? I want the story to be true. It would enforce my anti-CIA worldview. But of course the world exists on its own terms. The realm of Q Anon, Plandemic, and Loose Change is a world of people willing to sell their souls to prove their skepticism correct. They’ll drink bleach to own the libs or vote for Donald Trump to throw a wrench in the system.
This is not a criticism of individual people. It’s a note on a system that has so confused us that we think the earth is flat or that Hillary Clinton sold children as sex slaves. But the nihilism of making the world out to be weirder, crazier, or worse than it already is complicates everything too much. It makes us insane.
Aren’t things already crazy enough?