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Did the CIA Poison Paul Robeson?

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Paul Robeson, the black actor, singer, andpolitical radical, may have been a victim of CIA chemist SidneyGottlieb’s MK-ULTRA program. In our last issue we noted Gottlieb’sdeath and outlined his career of infamy. In the spring of 1961,Robeson planned to visit Havana, Cuba to meet with Fidel Castroand Che Guevara. The trip never came off because Robeson fellill in Moscow, where he had gone to give several lectures andconcerts. At the time it was reported that Robeson had suffereda heart attack. But in fact Robeson had slashed his wrists ina suicide attempt after suffering hallucinations and severe depression.The symptoms came on following a suprise party thrown for himat his Moscow hotel.

Robeson’s son, Paul Robeson, Jr., has investigatedhis father’s illness for more than 30 years. He believes thathis father was slipped a synthetic hallucinogen called BZ by USintelligence operatives at the party in Moscow. The party washosted by anti-Soviet dissidents funded by the CIA.

Robeson Jr. visited his father in the hospitalthe day after the suicide attempt. Robeson told his son that hefelt extreme paranoia and thought that the walls of the room weremoving. He said he had locked himself in his bedroom and was overcomeby a powerful sense of emptiness and depression before he triedto take his own life.

Robeson left Moscow for London, where he wasadmitted to Priory Hospital. There he was turned over to psychiatristswho forced him to endure 54 electro-shock treatments. At the time,electro-shock, in combination with psycho-active drugs, was afavored technique of CIA behavior modification. It turned outthat the doctors treating Robeson in London and, later, in NewYork were CIA contractors.

The timing of Robeson’s trip to Cuba was certainlya crucial factor. Three weeks after the Moscow party, the CIAlaunched its disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It’simpossible to overstate Robeson’s stature at the time and histhreat to the America government as a black radical. Through the1950s Robson commanded worldwide attention and esteem. He wasthe Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali of his time. He spoke morethan twenty languages, including Russian, Chinese and severalAfrican languages. Robeson was also on close terms with Nehru,Jomo Kenyatta and other Third World leaders. His embrace of Castroin Havana would have seriously undermined US efforts to overthrowthe new Cuban government.

Another pressing concern for the US governmentat the time was Robeson’s announced intentions to return to theUnited States and assume a leading role in the emerging civilrights movement. Like the family of Martin Luther King, Robesonhad been under official survelleince for decades. As early as1935, British intelligence had been looking at Robeson’s activities.In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services, World War II predecessorto the CIA, opened a file on him. In 1947, Robeson was nearlykilled in a car crash. It later turned out that the left wheelof the car had been monkey-wrenched. In the 1950s, Robeson wastargeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hearings.The campaign effectively sabotaged his acting and singing careerin the states.

Robeson never recovered from the drugging andthe follow-up treatments from CIA-linked doctors and shrinks.He died in 1977. Robeson, Jr. has beem pushing the US to releaseclassified documents regarding his father. He has already unearthedsome damning stuff, including an FBI “status of health”report on Robeson created in April of 1961. “The fact thatsuch a file was opened at all is sinister in itself”, Robesonrecently told the London Sunday Times. “It indicates a degreeof prior knowledge that something was about to happen to him.”

Robeson’s case has chilling parallels to thefate of another black man who was slipped CIA-concocted hallucinogens,Sgt. James Thornwell. Thornwell was a US Army sergeant workingin a NATO office in Orleans, France, in 1961 (the same year Robesonwas drugged), when he came under suspicion of having stolen documents.Thornwell, who maintained his innocence, was interrogated, hypnotizedand harassed by US intelligence officers.

When he persisted in proclaiming his innocence,Thornwell was secretly given LSD for several days by his interrogators,during which time he was forced to undergo aggressive questioning,replete with racial slurs and threats. At one point, the CIA menthreatened “to extend the [hallucinatory] state indefinitely,even to a point of permanent insanity”. The agents apparentlyconsummated their promise. Thornwell experienced a irreversiblemental crisis. He eventually committed suicide at his Marylandhome. There was never any evidence that he had anything to dowith the missing NATO papers.

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“What About Chile?”
We’re glad to say that both of the women who protested Henry Kissinger’sreading at Barnes & Nobles in Union Square in mid-March. areassociated with CounterPunch. JoAnn Wypijewski, CounterPunch writerand also senior Nation editor, tells us that she went along withDeborah Thomas, designer of CounterPunch and also publisher ofExtra, the excellent bulletin put out by FAIR. There were protestersoutside, JoAnn recounts, but sadly no organizer had salted therespectable throng inside with demonstrators.

Finally, as Kissinger droned on about moralityin foreign policy, JoAnn could stand it no more and shouted out,”How can you talk about morality? What about Cambodia! Whatabout Chile!” A guard quickly escorted her out. Deborah,who had been leaving, heard JoAnn’s voice and dashed back, shouting”War criminal!” She too was expelled and Kissinger resumedhis discourse. We’re told, incidentally, that Kissinger is quitecapable of talking in a reasonably smooth American accent, buthas retained the gutteral German accent for dramatic value. Someoneat a seminar on foreign policy some years ago, attended by sundryEuro-bigwigs, heard Kissinger talk and noted the difference indiction. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

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