It is difficult to imagine a more unlikely pairing. Allen Ginsberg, beat poet and icon of the counterculture, and Richard Helms, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) 1966-1973, during the most controversial years of the Vietnam War. But in March 1971, in a drawing room of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, the two came face to face in a fittingly bizarre encounter.
Ginsberg, due to give a reading at the gallery that evening, approached Helms with a wager. He told Helms that he suspected the CIA of being involved in the illegal opium trade in South-East Asia. If he was right about this controversial allegation, Ginsberg proposed that Helms should agree to meditate for one hour every day for the rest of his life. “It is terribly important to get him into an improved mind-consciousness,” Ginsberg later told reporters.
But if Ginsberg was wrong, and Helms could demonstrate the innocence of his agency, then Ginsberg agreed to gift Helms his Vajra, a brass Buddhist-Hindu ritual instrument that symbolised “the lightning doctrine of sudden illumination”. Confident that, on this score at least, the CIA had nothing to hide, Helms agreed to the bargain.
A year later, Ginsberg sent Helms a clipping from the Far Eastern Review that reported a number of sightings by journalists of piles of raw opium being readied for sale in full view of CIA agents. A January 1972 exposé in Ramparts Magazine, which five years earlier had first exposed details of the CIA’s infiltration of the National Students’ Association, lent further credence to Ginsberg’s charges.
Accompanying the clippings, a smug Ginsberg sent Helms some notes and advice on meditation techniques, including guidance on appropriate posture and breathing:
Perhaps more troubling for Helms though, particularly at a time of mounting public suspicion of the CIA, was the publicity that Ginsberg gave to these allegations.
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A few months after their encounter Ginsberg wrote an open letter to Senator Clifford P Hansen asking him to investigate the matter. Hansen refused, and instead issued a firm rebuttal in an open letter that was drafted for him by the CIA’s public affairs staff.
But Ginsberg wasn’t one to give up. The following winter, he raised the issue again, this time on television, as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show. And then in March 1972 Ginsberg published the first draft of his ever-evolving poem “CIA Dope Calypso” in an issue of Earth Magazine that contained a series of damning articles about the CIA by other authors. The poem ends:
The poem drew heavily from the analysis of Alfred W McCoy, a graduate student at Yale who was commissioned by Harper and Row to write a study of the purported heroin epidemic in Vietnam. Ginsberg had met McCoy at a rally in New Haven to free Black Panther leader Huey P Newton. “His vision was expansive and poetic, while mine was historical and documentarian,” recalled McCoy:
McCoy’s book, based on more than 250 interviews with heroin dealers, police officials, and former French and American intelligence agents was published later that year as The Politics of Heroin in South-East Asia. Needless to say, it supported Ginsberg’s accusation that the CIA were complicit in the opium trade.
When the CIA found out about McCoy’s book after he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they took strong objection to it. Cord Meyer, the CIA’s deputy director of plans, was sent to pay a visit to Harper and Row’s offices in New York and petitioned the publisher to share the galley proofs with them prior to publication. Reluctantly, Harper and Row consented.
But the CIA’s intervention backfired. Against their objections, Harper and Row chose to publish the work in full, and sped up the production of the book by a month to cash in on the controversy. “I had hoped that my work would be interesting enough to spark a public debate,” McCoy later wrote, “now the CIA, by attempting to suppress it, has itself sparked the debate”. After it was published, Ginsberg was often seen marching at protests with a copy on his head, exclaiming “he had something on his mind”.
It was not the first time the CIA had been subjected to Ginsberg’s particular brand of activist irreverence. During the trial of the “Ann Arbor Three”, a group of White Panther activists accused of blowing up a CIA recruitment station in Michigan, Ginsberg appeared as a defence witness, proclaiming himself as the spokesperson for all young people under the age of 28 in his vociferous opposition to the CIA (a claim that was vigorously rejected by the prosecution).
But perhaps there was a grain of truth in Ginsberg’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek exaggeration. Though he certainly couldn’t claim to speak for the silent majority that swept Richard Nixon into a second term of office just a few weeks after the publication of McCoy’s book, he was undoubtedly one of the most high-profile representatives of the American counterculture and anti-war movement.
As a result, he played a small but significant role in raising the American public’s suspicions about their most secretive foreign intelligence agency at a time of immense discord and social upheaval. And, in the process, he helped to cement the CIA’s place in American culture as a lightning rod for wider public anxieties regarding secrecy and the excesses of US foreign policy.