Date: Wed, 17 Mar 1999 22:30:18 -0600 (CST)
Subject: !*US 'poisoned Robeson' with mind-bending drug
By Tom Rhodes, New York, Sunday Times of London, 14 March 1999
Robeson planned to see Castro just before the Bay of Pigs invasion. US ‘poisoned Robeson’ with mind-bending drug
THE round of meetings, interviews and speeches had been strenuous but by the time he reached his Moscow hotel on a spring evening in 1961, Paul Robeson, the singer, actor and black American radical, was in unusually good spirits.
He was planning to meet Fidel Castro in Cuba before returning to America to join the growing wave of civil rights activism led by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It was an exciting prospect.
However, Robeson never made it to Cuba. After a surprise party in his hotel suite, he was hit by a sense of extreme paranoia and tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists.
Three weeks later Cuban exiles led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) landed in the island's Bay of Pigs in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Castro. This led to an international crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
On the surface, the two events appear unconnected. But now Robeson's son is blaming the CIA for the sudden deterioration in his father's health, from which the singer never fully recovered before his death in 1977.
Paul Robeson Jr claims his father may have been poisoned by the agency to prevent what would have been a high-profile visit to Havana at the time of the American-backed invasion. He believes this was part of a wider plot to ensure that the charismatic activist never assumed his place in the vanguard of the civil rights movement.
According to Robeson Jr, his father's symptoms at the time of the attempted suicide were identical to those produced by BZ, a mind-altering drug developed by intelligence agencies in Britain and America for use in a highly classified psychological warfare programme known as MK-Ultra. He says that at least two doctors who subsequently treated his father in London and New York had links to the programme.
In an initiative that coincides with the centenary of Robeson's birth, the singer's son is making a formal approach to British, American and Russian intelligence organisations, demanding the release of classified documents relating to his father's visit to Moscow and medical treatment.
Most people remember Robeson for his rich bass voice and songs such as Ol' Man River and Summertime that formed the core of his repertoire. In Britain he was also famous for his portrayal of Othello opposite the young Peggy Ashcroft's Desdemona - and the couple's controversial love affair.
Robeson, however, was more than an actor and singer. He learnt more than 20 languages, including several African dialects, Chinese and Russian. He was also the first black man to be employed by a leading New York law firm.
For intelligence agencies in America and Britain, Robeson's stature as an artist, combined with his increasingly radical politics, made him a serious threat. He was a close friend not only to American activists but also to leading lights of the colonial independence movement such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Jomo Kenyatta.
As early as 1935, MI5 officers visited Robeson on the set of Sanders of the River, an Alexander Korda epic that was the first to feature a powerful black male star. The CIA [I THINK THEY MEAN THE OSS --ST] opened a file on Robeson in 1943. At the end of the war his case was assigned to the agent directly responsible for covert operations.
According to his son, Robeson had several close brushes with death in the next decade. In 1947, a car in which he was a passenger suddenly lost its left wheel and was found to have been sabotaged. He was a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy's 1950-54 anti-communist witch-hunt and, with the onset of the cold war, his politics effectively ended his mainstream musical and theatrical careers.
Robeson Jr formed his theory about an attempt to "neutralise" his father in Moscow after more than 35 years of investigation and the gradual declassification of intelligence documents. A fluent Russian speaker, he has interviewed senior officials in Moscow, including the hosts of the surprise party - which appeared to have been filled with anti-Soviet dissidents.
When he visited his father in hospital the day after the suicide attempt, the singer said he had felt trapped in a real-life "James Bond nightmare". The walls had seemed to undulate and everyone appeared hostile to the communist regime. He shut himself in his bedroom, suffering extreme depression and feelings of utter worthlessness - symptoms that can be induced by hallucinogenic drugs.
Shortly afterwards he was admitted to the Priory hospital in London. Within 36 hours of his arrival, and against the advice of his Soviet doctors, Robeson was subjected to the first of 54 electro-convulsive shock therapy sessions.
Mike Miniccino, an MK-Ultra historian with contacts in American intelligence, said the argument that Robeson had been targeted by the CIA was "entirely plausible". The Russian doctors and his family kept his suicide attempt and depression a secret, claiming he had suffered a heart attack. But between April and June 1961 the FBI kept a "status of health" file on the artist which reveals that plans were made to prevent the world communist movement from exploiting his "imminent" death.
"The fact that such a file was opened at all is sinister in itself," said Robeson Jr, 71, at his house in Brooklyn, New York, last week. "It indicates a degree of prior knowledge that something was about to happen to him."
Additional reporting: Kevin Dowling