Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Notes & Comments

Remembering Henry Pleasants

The career of a critic who found the meaning of jazz.

Martha Bayles

THR illustration.

“You have done well. But don’t expect anything to change for the better. You are attacking vested interests.” So wrote Henry Pleasants in a letter to me about my first book, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, published in 1994. I have saved that letter and others from Pleasants not because I expect to sell them on eBay but because I treasure my brief acquaintance with the eminent music critic who, in addition to writing perceptively about opera, judged post–World War II musical modernism a failed experiment and lauded the “Afro-American idiom” as the central musical achievement of the twentieth century.

When Pleasants died in January 2000 at the age of ninety, the New York Times ran three successive obituaries. In the first, Allan Kozinn noted that Pleasants served in US military intelligence during World War II and was “involved in the de-Nazification proceedings against several musicians who were prominently involved with the Third Reich.” In the second, David Stevens of the International Herald Tribune added that Pleasants was “an intelligence officer in Munich, Bern, and Bonn.” In the third, Douglas Martin of the Times described Pleasants as “a top American spy in postwar Germany,” whose duties included working closely with General Reinhard Gehlen, the former head of the Wehrmacht’s Eastern Front intelligence operation.

In possession of a major cache of documents about Soviet military capabilities, Gehlen struck a deal with US Army intelligence in 1944, then helped the CIA build an intelligence organization that in 1956 became the West German Federal Intelligence Service (BND). As head of the BND, Gehlen sheltered other high-ranking Nazis and allowed the recruitment of former SS officers (including some war criminals), while failing to weed out other Germans working as Soviet agents. In the mid-1960s these lapses ignited a firestorm of protest, and, as noted by historian Mary Ellen Reese, fostered a left-wing consensus that “the whole undertaking had been bankrupt.”

Why did it take three obituaries to reveal Pleasants’s association with Gehlen? Not, I think, because Pleasants had something to hide. He was one of several hundred Americans taking part in the morally murky drama of the early Cold War, none of whom could see the future. What they could see, in the spring of 1946, was that the US military was pulling out of Western Europe just as the Soviets were expanding their forces in the East. They could also see that Gehlen was a brilliant, egotistical opportunist. But because of his habit of reporting the bad news along with the good, which as Reese points out, made him “Hitler’s least favorite Intelligence officer,” he was offering his former enemies “good operational intelligence when they had few other sources and needed it the most.”

Pleasants never fancied himself a spy. When a journalist-blogger named William Kelly asked him about his work with the CIA, he said, “I wasn’t involved in covert operations. I was strictly liaison; that was my specialty and I was good at it.” When pressed for his opinion of the CIA’s role in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, he said, “Thank God I wasn’t involved with that. That was a real mess. I only worked in Germany and Europe.” Then he added, “Let’s talk about music. I left the foreign service to get back into music.”

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