Tom Hayden on the CIA’s Student Activism Phase
In the 1960s, the agency sought to fight Communism through the students’ rights movement. There’s little reason to think its tactics have changed.
Only once in a while does a book come along that sheds new light on the 1960s. Karen Paget’s forthcoming Patriotic Betrayal (Yale University Press) is just such a work, telling the inside story of how the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) corrupted the natural and democratic growth of students’ rights movement by infiltrating the National Student Association (NSA) and directing it to its Cold War ends.
The story begins in the 1950s, which may leave some to wonder if it’s not a stale and useless tale by now. It’s relevant today, however, because of the cancerous growth of Big Brother surveillance and the proliferation of clandestine operations branded in the name of “democracy promotion,” from Cuba to the Ukraine. The pervasive rise of secret money in campaigns, moreover, makes it impossible to know whether operatives of our intelligence agencies have any role in harassing radicals or steering social movements, or whether such roles have been passed to private foundations. Democracy is increasingly in the dark. Any light from history can serve as high-beams to illuminate the future.
My personal involvement in this story begins in the late 1950s, when I was a student editor at the The Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan’s student paper. In those fallow years, I was a developing idealist who did not know that the CIA had begun recruiting students for its secret war against the Soviet Union. In 1960, I hitch-hiked to the University of California, Berkeley to write about the new student movement there. In the Bay Area, students protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were beaten, hosed, and washed down the steps of City Hall. They were developing the first campus political party at Berkeley, known as SLATE. They were fighting for the right of student governments to take stands on “off-campus” issues like racial segregation everywhere from San Francisco’s downtown hotels to Mississippi. They were in the process of becoming the Free Speech Movement and the Vietnam Day Committee of 1964 and 1965.
I spent an exhilarating summer staying in an apartment full of Berkeley radicals. One of the many visitors I met was Donald Hoffman, who represented the National Student Association, which included members of student government and Daily editors that met every summer. He was a bit older than me, a friendly liberal fellow who wanted to make sure that Berkeley students came to that summer’s national convention. He also was a CIA agent, and remained so for many decades.
The editor of the Daily before me, Peter Eckstein, was enlisted by the CIA to direct its recruiting operations, which targeted student activists in Europe who had been attracted to Soviet-sponsored youth festivals. Peter was preceded by another Daily editor, Harry Lunn, who became a lifetime CIA operative in many postings around the world.
In 1962, curious about these youth festivals and eager to see the world, I interviewed as a possible participant in an American (anti-communist) delegation to the Soviet-sponsored Helsinki Youth Festival in Finland, one of several of the era. Their purpose was to confront the communist delegates with a counternarrative about American democracy and firmly oppose any rapprochement or coexistence between capitalism and communism. Neutralism in the Cold War was considered as being “soft” on Communism.
In the end, I didn’t attend. But I will never forget the smart, attractive woman who interviewed me. A graduate of Smith College, her name was Gloria Steinem. This was one year before she worked at the Playboy Club in New York City and six years before she wrote “A Bunny’s Tale” in Show magazine and described herself as an “active feminist” in 1969.
The CIA’s Harry Lunn, according to Patriotic Betrayal, encouraged Steinem to become “the public face of the Independent Service for Information,” an anti-communist delegation controlled and funded by the CIA, on the Vienna Youth Festival; by early 1959, it had been renamed the Independent Research Service. She was “one of the few women in the NSA-CIA club,” Paget writes, noting that “Steinem, who knowingly cooperated with the CIA, is sensitive today about her work with the Agency.”
Steinem recruited about one hundred Americans into a delegation to confront the 17,000 youth at the 1959 Vienna Youth Festival under the banners of Marxism and national liberation. Her bloc employed dirty tricks to disrupt the proceedings, including distributing anti-communist propaganda to fill a shortage of toilet paper and invading discussion groups to attack communist dogma. Pleased with her work in Vienna, the CIA sent Steinem to lead a similar delegation to Helsinki in 1962, where the CIA courted African students with American jazz and, according to Paget, left “memorable images of Steinem parting the beaded curtains to enter the nightclub as if she was Mata Hari.”
Another figure I met at the turn of the 1960s was Allard Lowenstein, who had attended every NSA conference since the group’s inception and had obscure but real connections to State Department and CIA powers behind the scenes. Lowenstein courageously helped smuggle black South Africans into the West, was an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during Mississippi Summer in 1964, led the national “Dump Johnson” campaign in 1967 and 1968, was elected to Congress in 1968, and eventually was murdered in 1980 by a disturbed protégé, Dennis Sweeney, who claimed that Lowenstein had planted a communication device in his teeth.
Personally, I never made it into a CIA front group, though I tried hard enough. I was “unwitting,” in spook-speak. “Witting” was what the agency called people in the know. They first tested and recruited them into high positions in the student world, then administered a surprise security oath before telling them they were part of the CIA.
Under the guise of the NSA, the CIA recruited me to write a pamphlet on the student civil-rights movement (“Revolution in Mississippi,” 1961) for global distribution. They rejected the pamphlet without saying why, leaving it to be published by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). They also rejected me for an International Student Research Seminar (ISRS) in Philadelphia, which I learned was a vetting ground for future agents. In response, I organized a campaign at the NSA convention that summer against the “secret elite” whom I accused of running the convention. Out of that split came my decision to work full-time for SDS as a field secretary and later president. To this day, I don’t know if the Port Huron Statement would have been written if I had been co-opted into an NSA front.
Finally, the inner contradictions became so great that an NSA insider leaked the CIA story to Ramparts magazine in 1967, causing a huge scandal and the disintegration of the NSA into a shell of its former self.
So that’s the personal history. Paget, the author of Patriotic Betrayal and now a recognized Bay Area political scientist and writer, went through those same activist years as a witting participant in the NSA along with her husband, Michael Enwall. Her husband lost an NSA election by one vote in 1965, sparking a growing suspicion about where power lay. She has spent years perusing documents and interviewing former NSA leaders to reveal a story that many insiders may not wish to be told.
In recent email correspondence, I asked her to clear up a long-time mystery among historians and activists: whether Allard Lowenstein was a CIA agent. “The evidence is overwhelming,” she wrote, that Lowenstein was “not the prime mover or instigator of the CIA relationship.” Nor does she believe he signed a security oath under the CIA’s recruitment program, which was known as Covert Action 5. But Paget’s research led her to conclude that Lowenstein “knew but wasn’t witting” — that is, was aware of the CIA funding but was an independent player, sometimes a thorn in the Agency’s side.
Two other conclusions about Lowenstein can be drawn from Paget’s research. Like Steinem, he was a hardline Cold Warrior who wanted to build an aggressive liberal, anti-communist movement against the Soviets. That meant supporting the Cold War instead of coexistence strategies then promoted by Sweden’s Olof Palme, a student leader who became the country’s long-time neutralist prime minister before his murder in 1986. Second, Lowenstein went out of his way to block the Ramparts story from being published, joining a 1967 meeting of CIA and NSA officials considering how to manage the story if it was leaked. Lowenstein argued that the Ramparts story would leave “blood on [their] hands” and “many people would be killed” if it was confirmed. Paget writes that “[t]oday none of the NSA officers who were present can explain Lowenstein’s involvement.” Lowenstein, she says, also went to the White House, where he was asked by Walt Rostow, Lyndon B. Johnson’s national security adviser, to draft a reply to the Ramparts story if it came out.
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One conclusion from this history is that the CIA’s illegal infiltration of domestic political groups began long before 9/11 and the present War on Terrorism. It has been a rogue agency for a very long time, masking its agenda by claiming that domestic spying is justified as part of its global duties. Just as the control of NSA was justified for “foreign policy” reasons, so has its wiretapping and spying on domestic sources been justified on the grounds of monitoring international terrorism.
Second, the CIA-NSA revelations created a permanent climate of paranoia among progressives who would never know again who might be “witting.” After the many CIA scandals of the 1970s, both political parties created partisan institutes to channel millions of tax-payer dollars to NGOs in countries struggling with democracy issues. The differences are blurred between the CIA and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which spends an annual $20 million on covert “democracy promotion” in Cuba alone. Similar programs are aimed at Russia, Venezuela, and various “color” revolutions in the former Eastern Europe. The US cannot credibly claim a clean foreign policy, and fuels a global opposition to its double standards.
The real-world consequences of these manipulations of student politics are still with us. Here are three examples from Paget’s history:
Supporting Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a CIA operative whom the American spy agency deployed in 1959 to kill the ruler of Iraq, Abdul Karim Kassem. When that assassination attempt failed, Saddam entered a CIA protection program in Egypt until his Ba’ath Party, also supported by the CIA, seized power in 1963. At least 5,000 Iraqis, most of them student activists, were executed immediately by the Ba’athist regime. And so our Iraq War began.
In those years, the NSA’s secret elite encouraged the NSA Congress to celebrate the Ba’athist coups in Iraq and Syria. The Cold War rationale for ousting Kassem was that he tolerated communists in his governing coalition. (The same rationale was given for the 1954 coups in Iran and Guatemala.) Kassem was executed by a firing squad. Many of the student victims of the new repression were members of the General Union of Iraqi Students (GUSIR). The NSA staff, according to Paget, “turned in hundreds of reports that contained assessments of foreign students” to the CIA, which were fed to the new regime’s security apparatus. It’s “a fact that today haunts many of them,” she says. In Iran, similar lists of human targets were prepared; “the witting NSA staff did not seem to understand the danger posed to Iranian students by their constant reporting on them.”
Subverting Cuba. After briefly supporting the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, the NSA the CIA secretly decided to counter Fidel Castro’s appeal to Latin American students. Months after the failed 1961 invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the NSA leadership and the conservative Young Americans for Freedom both invited Cuban exiles to woo the delegates to the anti-communist side at the 1961 Congress. Both Cuban exile speakers were on the CIA’s payroll. The “preferred” exile was Juan Manuel Salvat, a former student leader who had broken with the Revolution, was imprisoned, fled to Miami and returned in the Bay of Pigs invasion. The same Salvat went on to pioneer the “Mongoose” hit-and-run attacks on Cuba, including an attempt to blow up a Havana hotel where Fidel had a meeting. By 1962, the US policy of “no more Cubas” in the hemisphere had fostered a wave of right-wing dictatorships and a defection of Latin American student unions to the leftist International Union of Students.
Arresting Nelson Mandela. The CIA arranged for the arrest and lifetime sentence of Nelson Mandela in 1962. The same NSA helped organize the South African student opposition to Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), known as the National Union of Southern African Students (NUSAS). The US’s objection was that the ANC youth had affiliated themselves with the Soviet-sponsored student movements and South Africa’s Communist Party. The NSA funded NUSAS starting in the late 1950s with grants from a CIA-related foundation.
In today’s world of official religious fanaticism, corruption, and repression, it should be easy for the US to improve and project our democracy as an alternative. Instead, the CIA is spying on our allies, secret military operations take place in multiple nations, and “democracy” is all to often seeded by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the CIA, or the NSA. As many reports reveal, the CIA continues to cultivate “assets” in the mainstream media, and meets with top editors to dissuade or delay them from publishing controversial news. The lesson of Paget’s book is that there is a deeper housekeeping that needs to be done at every level before the US can offer democracy as a formula. It may be impossible.