The congress, a club of scholars and artists founded in 1950 and subsidized by ''the Company'' until the late 1960's, encompassed some of the most eminent intellectuals in the West. It published journals and was the host of dozens of conferences while helping writers and thinkers behind the Iron Curtain. The C.I.A. connection is not a new tale; it was first told in 1967 and later embellished in many books and articles. Now, Frances Stonor Saunders, a young British writer and filmmaker, serves up the story again. Wisely, her American publisher has dropped the British title, ''Who Paid the Piper?,'' in favor of the more neutral ''Cultural Cold War.'' For these 500-plus pages do not bear out what the defamatory label insinuated: that some of the greatest in the world of arts and letters were varlets and curs who sold out to the C.I.A. or were manipulated into servitude by the minions of American imperialism. ''Abstract Expressionism was being deployed as a cold war weapon,'' Saunders jauntily asserts. That might be true for Socialist Realist kitsch extolling the kolkhoz. But Jackson Pollock's ''Number 6'' or Mark Rothko's ''# 18'' cannot be reduced to anti-Communist artillery pieces. [yes they can, ed.] Langley's Ivy-trained spooks did what no intelligence service has ever done, or will ever do again: they bankrolled the avant-garde. Obiter dicta like Saunders's pronouncement above highlight her irreducible problem. It is not that she has written a trashy book; her cultural history is entertaining, even witty (if you like ''Yanqui Doodle'' as a heading for the chapter on Abstract Expressionism). She has spent years wading through the files and interviewing both protagonists and critics -- though her project might have benefited from more rigorous spelling and footnotes.
[This dreadful review getand the cold war< s even worse I'm afraid - but the book is brilliant.]