Nature & Politics
By Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn, Volume 3, #33, 5-12-99

Did the CIA Poison Paul Robeson?

Paul Robeson, the black actor, singer, and political radical, may have
been a victim of CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb's MK-ULTRA program. We have
previously noted Gottlieb's death and outlined his career of infamy. In
the spring of 1961, Robeson planned to visit Havana, Cuba to meet with
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The trip never came off because Robeson fell
ill in Moscow, where he had gone to give several lectures and concerts. At
the time, it was reported that Robeson had suffered a heart attack. But in
Robeson had slashed his wrists in a suicide attempt after suffering
hallucinations and severe depression. The symptoms came on following a
surprise party thrown for him at his Moscow hotel.
Robeson's son, Paul Robeson, Jr., has investigated his father's illness
for more than 30 years. He believes that his father was slipped a
synthetic hallucinogen called BZ by U.S. intelligence operatives at the
party in Moscow. The party was hosted by anti-Soviet dissidents funded by
the CIA. Robeson Jr. visited his father in the hospital the day after the
suicide attempt. Robeson told his son that he felt extreme paranoia and
thought that the walls of the room were moving. He said he had locked
himself in his bedroom and was overcome by a powerful sense of emptiness
and depression before he tried to take his own life.
Robeson left Moscow for London, where he was admitted to Priory Hospital.
There he was turned over to psychiatrists who forced him to endure 54
electro-shock treatments. At the time, electro-shock, in combination with
psycho-active drugs, was a favored technique of CIA behavior modification.
It turned out that the doctors treating Robeson in London and, later, in
New York were CIA contractors. The timing of Robeson's trip to Cuba was
certainly a crucial factor. Three weeks after the Moscow party, the CIA
launched its disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It's
impossible to underestimate Robeson's threat, as he was perceived by the
U.S. government as the most famous black radical in the world. Through the
1950s Robeson commanded worldwide attention and esteem. He was the Nelson
Mandela and Mohammed Ali of his time. He spoke more than twenty languages,
including  Russian, Chinese, and several African languages. Robeson was
also on close terms with Nehru, Jomo Kenyatta, and other Third World
leaders. His embrace of Castro in Havana would have seriously undermined
U.S. efforts to overthrow the new Cuban government.
Another pressing concern for the U.S. government at the time was
Robeson's announced intentions to return to the United States and assume a
leading role in the emerging civil rights movement. Like the family of
Martin Luther King, Robeson had been under official surveillance for
decades. As early as 1935, British intelligence had been looking at
Robeson's activities. In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services, World War
II predecessor to the
CIA, opened a file on him. In 1947, Robeson was nearly killed in a car
crash. It later turned out that the left wheel of the car had been
monkey-wrenched. In the 1950s, Robeson was targeted by Senator Joseph
McCarthy's anti-communist hearings. The campaign effectively sabotaged his
acting and singing career in the states.
Robeson never recovered from the drugging and the follow-up treatments
from CIA-linked doctors and shrinks. He died in 1977. Robeson, Jr. has
been pushing the U.S. to release classified documents regarding his
father. He has already unearthed some damning stuff, including an FBI
"status of health" report on Robeson created in April of 1961. "The fact
that such a file was opened at all is sinister in itself," Robeson
recently told the
London Sunday Times. "It indicates a degree of prior knowledge that
something was about to happen to him."
Robeson's case has chilling parallels to the fate of another black man
who was slipped CIA-concocted hallucinogens, Sgt. James Thornwell.
Thornwell was a U.S. Army sergeant working in a NATO office in Orleans,
France, in 1961 (the same year Robeson was drugged), when he came under
suspicion of having stolen documents. Thornwell, who maintained his
innocence, was interrogated,
hypnotized and harassed by U.S. 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 men threatened "to extend the [hallucinatory] state
indefinitely, even to a point of permanent insanity." The agents
apparently consummated their promise. Thornwell experienced an
irreversible mental crisis. He
eventually committed suicide at his Maryland home. There was never any
evidence that he had anything to do with the missing NATO papers.