Poetry and politics – The ‘Fifties and the ‘Sixties. Allen Ginsberg’s August 8 1996 interview with the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which appears on their web-site (and was cited last week in our post about Allen’s FBI files and investigation), is here re-posted, with a number of amplifications and necessary minor corrections.
For reasons of length, the interview has been broken up into two sections. The concluding section will appear in this space (on The Allen Ginsberg Project) tomorrow.
Interviewer: Could you tell how you personally experienced the restrictive Cold War atmosphere that came through the ‘Fifties?
AG: Well part of that atmosphere was the sort of anti-Communist hysteria of McCarthyism, but culminating in (19)53 or so with the execution of the Rosenbergs. It was a little harsh. Whatever they did, it wasn’t worth killing people, you know, killing them. I remember sending a wire to Eisenhower and saying: “No, that’s the wrong thing”. Drawing blood like that is the wrong thing because it’s ambiguous; and, especially, there was one commentator on the air, called Fulton Lewis, who said that they smelt bad, and therefore should die. There was an element of anti-Semitism in it. But I remember very clearly on the radio, this guy Fulton Lewis saying they smelt bad. He was a friend of J.Edgar Hoover, who was this homosexual in the closet, who was blackmailing almost everybody.
But that year, 1953, I was living with William Burroughs in New York, and he was conceiving the first routines of Naked Lunch, which were parodies of Cold War bureaucracy mentality and police-state mentality, And I remember that year very vividly, that Mosaddeq was overthrown in Iran, in Persia, because it was suspected that he might be neutral, or left, though he wasn’t, but he really wanted to nationalize the oilfields, which the Shah later did anyway. And I remember the CIA overthrew Mosaddeq, and he wept in court; and we’ve had karmic troubles and war troubles with Iran ever since. That was the seed of all the Middle Eastern catastrophe we’re facing now [Editorial note – Allen is speaking in 1996, but the terms, of course, remain all too relevant]
At the same time, in 1953, the Arbenz governmet in Guatemala was overthrown, and I was very much aware of that, despite the neutrality of the American papers and the lack of real reporting. The actual event was that Allen Dulles was running the CIA, I believe; John Foster Dulles was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State; they both had relations to the..I think it was the Sullivan and Cromwell law firm. The Sullivan and Cromwell law firm were representing United Fruit, and so, for the United Fruit’s interests we overthrew a democratically elected leader – Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. And that was followed by..well, what is it? ..thirty years or forty years of [this is – as previously noted – 1996] persecution of the Guatemalan indigenous peoples, with the death of two hundred thousand of them – at least, so the New York Times says – particularly under the later leadership of General Rios Montt, who turns out to have been a disciple of Pat Robertson the right-wing moralist, Bible-thumping Christ announcer, assuming for himself the morality and ethics of Jesus.
So many, many seeds of karmic horror, mass death, mass murder, were planted in those years, including, very consciously for me – I was quite aware of it – the refusal of John Foster Dulles to shake Zhou Enlai’s hand at the Geneva Conference which ended the French war in Indochina, or was supposed to end it. Now the Americans had been sending France forty million dollars a year to pursue that war, and then the Americans cut off the funds, so the French didn’t have any funds. But as Bernard Fall points out, and many others, General Salan and others maintained the war through the proceeds of the opium sales in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon, and the war was funded for a while by them. Then, when the Americans finally took over with a puppet president, (Ngo) Diem, who had been cultivated in the Maryknoll Academy in the East Coast by Cardinal Spellman.. another flaming faggot, who in disguise was a sort of a war dragon and one of the instigators of the Vietnam War..so Diem was a Catholic, and we had installed him as a puppet in a Buddhist country. So when I arrived in Saigon in 1963, coming after several years in India, I was astounded to find that this Buddhist country was being run by a Catholic American puppet. And, in sitting down with David Halberstam, and I think Charles Mohr and Peter Arnett and others, who were reporting for the American newspapers, I got a completely different idea in the early ‘Sixties, (19)63, May 30th (19)63 to…oh, June 10th or so…completely different idea of what was going on in the war than I’d had reading the papers abroad or in America. They all said that the war could not be won. there was no light at the end of the tunnel; and Ambassador Lodge‘s reports to the President were false, or hyper-optimistic and misleading. and that they were getting flak and criticism for reporting what they saw on the spot there. But to go back to the ‘Fifties, what was.. it felt like in the ‘Fifties – given all these karmic violent errors that the CIA was making in Iran, in Latin America, the real problem was that none of this was clearly reported in the press. It was reported with apologies or with rationalizations or with the accusation that Arbenz was a Communist, or that Mosaddeq was a Communist. Mosaddeq was mocked, especially when he wept in court, with tears that were tears, and very tragic, both for America and Iran. And he was considered.. you know, in Time magazine, which was sort of the standard party line, like the Stalinist party line, he was considerd the… you know, some kind of jerk.
Of course, in those days Walt Whitman was considered a jerk, and William Carlos Williams was considered a jerk, and any sign of natural man was considered a jerk. The ideal, as you could find it in advertising in the loose organizations, was the man of distinction: actually, a sort of British-looking guy with a brush moustache and a tweed coat, in a club library, drinking -naturally – the favorite drug, the drug of choice of the Establishment. And this was considered and broadcast as..advertised as the American Century. Well, you know, Burroughs and (Jack) Kerouac and I had already been reading Oswald Spengler on the decline of the West and the cycles of civilizations, and found this proclamation of the American Century, a sort of faint echo of Hitler‘s insistence on his empire lasting one thousand years, or the Roman Empire‘s neglect of the central cities. And we were thinking in terms of the fall of America, and a new vision, and a new religiousness really, a second religiousness, which Kerouac spoke of in the ‘Fifties, and exemplified, say, with his introduction to Eastern thought into the American scene, from the beginning of he 1950’s through his book Mexico City Blues, poems that were Buddhist-flavored, though his open portrait of Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bums, the book The Dharma Bums – a long-haired rucksack revolution, a rebellion within the cities against the prevailing war culture, and a cultivation of the countryside and the beginning of ecological considerations and ecological reconstruction
So you had McCarthyism, you had a completely false set of values being presented in terms of morality, ethics and success; The man of distinction. You had to put down the most tender parts of American conscience, Whitman and Williams. You had the aggression of the closet-queen J.Edgar Hoover and the alcoholic intemperate Senator McCarthy working together. You had stupid Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield who presented the President, Eisenhower, with Lady Chatterley’s Lover on his desk, with dirty words underlined; and it was reported, I think in Time or in Newsweek, that Eisenhower said, “Terrible, we can’t have this!”. And so there was censorship, particularly censorship of literature towards… it was not..like, unconsciously, or inadvertently, the things that were censored were the anti-war, anti-macho, anti-imperialist texts, whether the beginnings of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in the ‘Fifties, Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, which could not be printed in those days, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller. So we had D.H.Lawrence banned, Catullus banned; the Satyricon of Petronius’ Arbiter couldn’t be printed completely in English, it had to be printed in Latin in the Modern Library editions
So we had electoral censorship, literary censorship. You had a large-scale electoral censorship on a much more subtle, vast wave, with the CIA bankrolling the Congress for Cultural Freedom and a number of literary magazines, like Encounter, Preuves Cuadernos, Der Monat, and others. Stephen Spender, I remember, used to complain to me, that he’d bring in articles critical of the American imperium in Latin America, and somehow (Melvin) Lasky, or whoever was working with him, or Arnold Beichman, I don’t know – somehow, when he left their office, they would… it was rejected and nothing but anti-Communist, anti-Russian screeds were there. Very good reporting oin that aspect, very good, but on the oter hand there was no balance in reporting the horrors of American imperial invasion and overthrow and CIA subversion all over the world, actually – much less CIA invasion of the intellectual body politic, with the funding of the National Student Association, Congress for Cultural Freedom, all those magazines; even the P.E.N. Club was tainted with that for a while. So there was this invasion of subsidy for a somewhat middle-right-wing party line. And the interesting thing is most of those people that were working in the CIA, that worked that out, were ex-Commies; they had the same Stalinist mentality; they just transfered it over to the right wing, and it prevails to this very day. But it was.. ex-radicals, and even Marxists, who, disillusioned by the show trials of 1937 and the anti-Semitism of Stalin, went all the way over to the extreme right and began suppressing their understanding of the trouble with the American capitalism and imperialism, and didn’t strike a good balance, as did a few intellectuals, like Irving Howe, an American who had explored The World of Our Fathers.. immigrants.. the first generation of Slavic, Russian and Jewish geniuses that rose out of the American soil after the great immigrations of 1895, which is part of my family too, because my mother came over from Russia in 1895
So to summarize: in the ‘Fifties you had invasion of the intellectual world, subtly and secretly, by the CIA. You had invasion of political worlds in the Middle East, in Central America and Africa I presume, and in Asia, again with secret police. I believe it was Wesley Fishel, the professor at East Lansing, Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin, who trained President Diem’s secret police and brought them over intact to Saigon, under the auspicies of the CIA, back in the early ‘Fifties when Diem was installed, (19)56 or so. You had a subversion of student activity and a blanketing of student protest. That’s why you had the extreme rise of SDS, and later Prairie Fire (the statements of the Weather Underground) in the early ‘Sixties, because normal student investigation and rebellion against the status-quo had been suppressed by CIA funding of the National Student Association, (with the presidents of the Student Association quite witting).
You had a literary atmosphere where there was censorship, where there was very little vigor, where an Eliotic conservative atmosphere was dominant in the academies, which excluded then Whitman as canon or Williams as canon, or Mina Loy or Lorine Niedecker, or (Alfred) Korzybski, or Charles Olson, or the whole Imagist/Objectivist lineage which came into prominence in America in the ‘Fifties and transformed American poetry to open form. So you had a closed form in poetry, and a closed form of mind, is what it boils down to.
Interviewer: So how did it feel for you as an individual, with writing in a very different way about very different subject-matters, to be coming through that period?
AG: Well, it was fun (laughs). First of all, I was gay, and once I came out of the closet in 1948, all during the ‘Fifties I was astounded at the cowardice or silliness or fear of the rest of the gay literary contingent, although I think one or two writers had been up front like Andre Gide or Jean Genet, of course, and Gore Vidal in America, who broke some ice.
But between Burroughs and myself, we were (laughs) completely out of the closet, and thought it was all funny or, you know, absurd the repression and the persecution of gays in those days. I remember I got kicked out of Columbia for… I had hosted Kerouac overnight – he slept in my bed, and I was a virgin at the time, and this is back at the “Forties, (19)46 or so…and quite chaste; we slept together because it was too late to go home towards his mother on the subway – and somebody found about that he was staying over, and when I came downstairs there was a note: “The Dean will want to see you.” And when I went to see Dean Nicholas McKnight of Columbia College, and he looked at me and said, “Mr Ginsberg, I hope you realize the enormity of what you’ve done (laughs). And I took a look and realized I was surrended by madmen (laughs) – they were completely nuts, you know, and, you know, thinking something horrible was happening.
So that was the atmosphere late ‘Forties, early ‘Fifties, actually. And then I think probably by (19)55-(19)56 in the… I’d sort of given up on New York ’cause it was too restricted and too much in the closet, and too academic; there was no way of getting anything as wild as Kerouac’s writing or Burroughs’ routines or Burroughs’ novel Queer, which we put together in (19)53, or In Search of Yage, 1953, though we had managed to publish his book, Junkie, which is a realistic account of the stupidity of the war on drugs, and the troubles of drugs too
But the literature we were producing (was) just for ourselves, without any intention of publishing, just for the pleasure of writing and amusing ourselves and extending ourselves and extending our imaginations, and each others’ imaginations, you know. I think in the dedication of Howl in 1956, I mentioned Kerouac’s thirteen novels and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Neal Cassady‘s The First Third, and saying “all these books are published in heaven”. I didn’t think they’d be published in our lifetime; things seemed so closed. And it’s that closed mind, I think, that was responsible for the ineptness of the Cold War. Certainly a Cold War of some kind was necessary, but I think probably, rock n’ roll, blue jeans, the counter-culture, did as much, if not more, to undermine the authority of the Marxist bureaucracy, certainly in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland – probably in Russia too, and the internal corruption within Russia did as much to undermine it as all the trillions of dollars that we went into debt for military hardware which was never used, or rarely used.
Interviewer: What was your assessment of the Russians during this period?
AG: Well, very mixed, you know. My mother was a Communist and my father was a Socialist, so I grew up with knowing the fight. And I never was a Communist, I was more apolitical in a sense, until I went to Saigon in (19)63 and saw the… But that wasn’t it, because I did make mockery of some of the McCarthyite Cold War straightness. I think my poem “America” says, ” Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians./The Russia wants to eat us alive The Russia’s power-mad. She wants to take our cars from our garages”. And I said, “Okay, America, I’ll fight them” – “I’ll put my queer shoulder to the wheel.” They still  don’t let gays in the military in America, so..
I was sort of neutral in the Cold War, since it seemed to me a balance of aggression on both sides; a preponderance of heavy, heavy police state in Russia, and not so heavy in America at all, though a police state for junkies, certainly and it has grown and grown and grown, where we do have a generic police state for people who are committing the political crime of smoking grass, or the illness.. or involving the illness of addiction. We have more people in jail now than anywhere else. [Editorial note – in 1996, the prison population in the U.S. was approximately 1.2 million, today  the figure is more than 2 million] But in those days the Government was spreading all sorts of mythological nonsense about marijuana, despite the LaGuardia Report giving it a clean bill of health.
So there was a little element of police state here,and certainly in areas that I’m familiar with. There was an enormous amount of the American police state in Latin America and in Iran and so forth. So, Americans did not take that in account. It’s almost as if W.E.B. Du Bois, the great black philosopher, said, that the problem was not merely race, but that people who were prosperous were willing to enjoy their prosperity at the expense of the pain, suffering and labor of other people. Like, I understand that we withdraw from Africa, hundreds of billions of dollars of raw materials every year, and then complain when they want some foreign aid! (laughs). Or that, as of those days to these very days, we’ll lend them money to expand their coffee plantations, but not to make their own coffee factories and sell it abroad. So we’ve been sucking the blood out of our clients and underdeveloped nations like vampires, and that’s why America has this prosperity; and people are not willing to recognize that – not only America, but Western Europe. I mean I was quite aware of that and thinking in.. thinking in those terms in the late ‘Forties, early ‘Fifties.
But by (19)65, I’d had several very interesting incidents. I went down to Cuba and, complaining about (Fidel) Castro’s treatment of homosexuals, found myself after a month under arrest and expelled from the country, to Prague. In Prague, I found I had quite a bit of money from royalties, and so took a tour of Russia and saw what was going on there in terms of police state and bureaucracy; came back to Prague, was elected the King of May by the students,and immediately expelled by the Minister of Education and the Minister of Culture, as an American homosexual narcotic hippie – a poor role-model for Czechoslovakian youth. At the time..I think it was May 19(65).. And in (19)65, I ran into (Vaclav) Havel as a student; an acquaintance which we renewed when he became President, and he reminded me that we’d met. If you ask Havel or see his interviews with various jazz figures who influenced him, you’ll find the inspiration for the rebellion in Eastern Europe was very much the American counter-culture: The Beatles, (Bob) Dylan, (Jack) Kerouac, (William) Burroughs, Soft Machine, The Fugs (a very important rock group singing “Police State Blues” (sic – “CIA Man”) and “Rivers of Shit” (laughs) (“Wide, Wide River”) in the early ‘Sixties in America.