Guy Sims Fitch had a lot to say about the world economy in the 1950s and '60s. He wrote articles in newspapers around the globe as an authoritative voice on economic issues during the Cold War. Fitch was a big believer in private American investment and advocated for it as a liberating force internationally. But no matter what you thought of Guy Sims Fitch's ideas, he had one big problem. He didn't exist. Illustration by Angelica Alzona
Guy Sims Fitch was created by the United States Information Agency (USIA), America's official news distribution service for the rest of the world. Today, people find the term "propaganda" to be incredibly loaded and even negative. But employees of the USIA used the term freely and proudly in the 1950s and '60s, believing that they were fighting a noble and just cause against the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. And Guy Sims Fitch was just one tool in the diverse toolbox of the USIA propaganda machine.
"I don't mind being called a propagandist, so long as that propaganda is based on the truth," said Edward R. Murrow in 1962. Murrow took a job as head of the USIA after a long and celebrated career as a journalist, and did quite a few things during his tenure that would make modern journalists who romanticise "the good old days" blush.
But even when USIA peddled its own version of the truth, the propaganda agency wasn't always using the most, let's say, truthful of methods. Their use of Guy Sims Fitch — a fake person whose opinions would be printed in countries like Brazil, Germany and Australia, among others — served the cause of America's version of the truth against communism during the Cold War, even if Fitch's very existence was a lie.
I recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA to get more information about Guy Sims Fitch, this fictional character that journalists and editors of the USIA would use to promote American economic interests abroad. The twist? The CIA wants to make sure that the privacy rights of this fictional character aren't violated. Or, perhaps, that the privacy rights of the people who wrote under that name aren't violated. The short version? They're toying with me.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, US federal agencies are required to take into consideration the privacy rights of living individuals. Dead people don't have privacy rights under US law, which is why you'll see agencies like the FBI release their files on notable individuals after a famous person dies. (And the not so famous, if you ask for it). But Guy Sims Fitch can never die, because he was never born.
So instead of just giving me documents about the use of that name by the USIA, the CIA has instead decided to play games with me. They have asked that I submit verification of identity for the editors and journalists who wrote under the name Guy Sims Fitch in the 1950s and '60s, along with documents showing that those people consent to having their information made public. And in the case of any editors who wrote under Guy Sims Fitch who might be dead, I'm supposed to submit proof of death. Unfortunately, I don't have a list of government agents from the 1950s that wrote under the name Guy Sims Fitch. I was kind of hoping that the CIA would fill me in on that. Or, at the very least, tell me a bit more about why they were using fake people to support causes that presumably real people could have written about.
I'd be angry if I wasn't so impressed. It's actually a brilliant move by the CIA, if you believe that its goal is to release as little information about past operations as possible. (Personally, I find this kind of obtuse FOIA-response dickery damaging to the agency's reputation long term. But what do I know?)
Again, it's kind of genius. Anything a person writes under a pseudonym is still the intellectual output of that individual. So the CIA is tacitly acknowledging that while they can't really claim any good reason to deny my request for files on Guy Sims Fitch, they can claim some vague interest in protecting the privacy of untold number of writers who occasionally wrote under that name in newspapers around the world.
An article by Guy Sims Fitch, a fake person invented by the USIA, that appeared in a German newspaper in 1959
How do Americans know about Guy Sims Fitch at all? The USIA was prohibited from disseminating news inside the United States under laws that restricted the government from producing propaganda for domestic consumption. So, as best I can tell, Fitch never showed up in any American newspapers. That, however, didn't stop a lot of other USIA and CIA disinformation campaigns from leaking into American news.
In fact, the CIA had to acknowledge during 1977 congressional hearings that the disinformation they were helping to get published through a variety of media around the world would often find its way into American news outlets. It was during those same hearings that it was revealed the CIA had helped covertly finance the publication of about 1000 books. And Congress made the CIA pinkie-swear that "under no circumstances" would it publish any newspapers, magazines or books in the United States. Clandestine financing of publishing efforts outside of the US in any language that wasn't English was just fine, according to Congress. I guess for better and worse, at least most of those efforts had real writers attached to them.
The first that I heard about Guy Sims Fitch was in a fascinating book about the history of the USIA. Wilson P. Dizard Jr., a former employee of USIA, mentions Guy Sims Fitch almost as an aside in his 2004 book Inventing Public Diplomacy. And a quick search online now gives you plenty of results for "Guy Sims Fitch" as more and more historical newspapers around the world become digitised.
For example, here's a letter to the editor that quotes Guy Sims Fitch and appeared in the 16 December 1952 issue of The Examiner in Australia:
The Tasmanians do not seem very interested in these matters. I wonder why. We are not insulated from the rest of the world and its problems and dangers.
It is good news that increased private investment overseas is being urged by American business groups as a means of replaceing aid with trade. They believe a greater outflow of American private investment will result in higher production, larger dollar earnings and less dependence on U.S. Government loans and grants.
"The capital needs for full-scale economic development in the nations of the free world are so huge that they cannot be nor should they be, supplied largely through loan funds. The bulk of the needed capital must ultimately come from private equity investment," writes Guy Sims Fitch.
How true! The London economic conference will be followed early next year, I predict, by a request for many millions of American dollars for the British Commonwealth. I trust that the bulk of any American money that may be forthcoming as a result will be private investments, so that the sterling economies may receive the stimulus not only of the American money but also of American productive energy and genius.
The letter to the editor, signed by "REALIST" is, at best guess, someone from the United States Information Agency. Especially since they're quoting Guy Sims Fitch, a man who doesn't exist. But the letter writer could be real! Because Fitch's opinion was spread far and wide around the globe. We just don't know. But the CIA probably does.
The USIA was ostensibly an independent organisation, not beholden to any intelligence organisation of the US government. But scholars of the Cold War have found plenty of evidence to contradict this idea in the years since USIA was folded. We now know that USIA and the CIA worked together quite explicitly on a number of different projects to influence public opinion in foreign countries.
Edward R. Murrow, that bastion of journalistic integrity, even came up with his own ideas for how to stir up insurrection in Cuba. As head of the USIA he brainstormed ways that radio could be used to incite a revolt against the Cuban government.
"The Cuban audience should be urged to act with care and cautioned against open rebellion," Murrow wrote in a 10 December 1962 memo to the Director of Central Intelligence.
"The program would be based upon work slowdowns, purposeful inefficiency, purposeful waste, and relatively safe forms of sabotage. Specific examples of the activities urged would be putting glass and nails on the highways, leaving water running in public buildings, putting sand in machinery, wasting electricity, taking sick leave from work, damaging sugar stalks during the harvest, etc."
"If real results were achieved, the Voice of America [radio network] could report these as evidence of opposition to the Castro regime through interviews with refugees and extracts from letters," Murrow's memo continued.
But we don't know if Murrow himself ever wrote under the name of Guy Sims Fitch. I've found no evidence that anyone at CIA used the name Guy Sims Fitch to write articles, nor have I found anything that would lead me to believe that they had a direct hand in creating the fictional character. But it's a safe assumption that they were at least aware of it.
And that's part of the reason I filed my FOIA request; it's part of the reason anyone files a FOIA request with an agency like the CIA. The goal is to learn more information once you have a nugget of something that seems important for advancing the public's understanding of history. And in the case of Guy Sims Fitch, figuring out why the USIA was writing editorials all around the world in at least half a dozen languages to promote US investments seems like it would be valuable to our understanding of Cold War history.
An article from 1965, written by editors at the USIA for consumption by the German public under the name Guy Sims Fitch
Sometimes Fitch would appear more transparently as a voice of the United States Information Agency. For instance here's an excerpt from an article, originally published in 1965 in Germany, that I ran through Google Translate:
The since March 1961 continued economic upswing - with previously 51 months, the longest period of economic USA in peacetime - is likely to continue in the coming months.
This is both the opinion of most economists as the new US Treasury Secretary, Henry Fowler, who is on his first press conference after taking over his duties on the present economic situation and on the development during the next few months expressed.
According to him speak at present many facts - not only rising consumer spending and increasing investment the economy - for a continuation of the cyclical period of fine weather.
At the same time, however, warned Fowler optimistic before assessment of economic developments in the coming months. After the unexpectedly strong increase in economic activity in 1st quarter 1965 (increase of GNP by 14.5 billion to an annual rate of 649 billion dollars), it would certainly not surprising when a small respite would occur in the 2nd quarter, particularly since quarterly increases on this scale the exceptions and not the rule are.
In the case of this article, at least you know that it's the product of the United States Information Service. But Guy Sims Fitch is still fake. And I'd love to know both why they created Mr Fitch and perhaps just how deep the bench of USIA's fake panel of experts really was. How many more Guy Sims Fitchs were there in the world?
The USIA was closed in 1999 and the duties of creating journalism for overseas consumption was transferred to an organisation called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG has taken issue in the past when I call them the propaganda arm of the US government, but that's fundamentally what they are. The group works to promote US interests abroad through the dissemination of news. There are plenty of news organisations in the world, so you have to wonder what role the BBG plays in this mix. Especially since some of BBG's lawyers need a Top Secret security clearance.
I'll be appealing the denial of my FOIA request regarding Mr Guy Sims Fitch. But if anyone finds a birth or death certificate for the fictional man, please let me know. The CIA would apparently be more apt to release information about this program if I can find one.