The Frank Olson Legacy Project
The Nation
December 20, 1999

The Paul Robeson Files



In the morning of March 27, 196 1, Paul Robeson was found in the bathroom of his Moscow hotel suite after having slashed his wrists with a razor blade following a wild party that had raged there the preceding night. His blood loss was not yet severe, and he recovered rapidly. However, both the raucous party and his “suicide attempt” remain unexplained, and for the past twenty years the US government has withheld documents that I believe hold the answer to the question: Was this a drug induced suicide attempt?

Heavily censored documents I have already received under the Freedom of Information Act confirm that my father was under intense surveillance by the FBI and the CIA in 1960 and 1961, because he was planning to visit China and Cuba, in violation of US passport restrictions. The FBI files also reveal a suspicious concern over my father’s health, beginning in 1955.

A meeting I had in 1998 adds further grounds for suspicion. In June of that year I met Dr. Eric Olson in New York, and we were both struck by the similarities between the cases of our respective fathers. On November 28, 1953, Olson’s father, Dr. Frank Olson, a scientist working with the CIA’s top-secret MK-ULTRA “mind control” program, allegedly “jumped” through the glass of a thirteenth-floor hotel window and fell to his death. CIA documents have confirmed that a week earlier Olson had been surreptitiously drugged with LSD at a high-level CIA meeting. It is expected that a New York grand jury will soon reveal whether it believes Olson was murdered by the CIA because of his qualms about the work he was doing. MK-ULTRA poisoned foreign and domestic “enemies” with LSD to induce mental breakdown and/ or suicide. Olson’s drugging suggested a CIA motive similar to the possible one in my father’s case—concern about the target’s planned course of action.

In this context, the fact that Richard Helms was CIA chief of operations at the time of my father’s 1961 “suicide attempt” has sinister implications. Helms was also responsible for the MK-ULTRA program. In 1967 a former CIA agent to whom I promised anonymity told me in a private conversation that my father was the subject of high-level concern and that Helms and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles discussed him in a meeting in 1955.

The events leading to my father’s “suicide attempt” began when, alarmed by intense surveillance in London, he departed abruptly for Moscow alone. His intention was to visit Havana at Fidel Castro’s personal invitation and return home to join the civil rights movement. Since the date set by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion fell only four weeks after his arrival in Moscow, the CIA had a strong motive for preventing his travel to Havana.

My father manifested no depressive symptoms at the time, and when my mother and I spoke to him in the hospital soon after his “suicide” attempt, he was lucid and able to recount his experience clearly. The party in his suite had been imposed on him under false pretenses, by people he knew but without the knowledge of his official hosts. By the time he realized this, his suite had been invaded by a variety of anti-Soviet people whose behavior had become so raucous that he locked himself in his bedroom. His description of that setting, I later came to learn, matched the conditions prescribed by the CIA for drugging an unsuspecting victim, and the physical psychological symptoms he experienced matched those of an LSD trip.

My Russian being fluent, I confirmed my father’s story by interviewing his official hosts, his doctors, the organizers of the party, several attendees and a top Soviet official. However, I could not determine whether my father’s blood tests had shown any trace of drugs, whether an official investigation was in progress or why his hosts were unaware of the party. The Soviet official confirmed that known “anti-Soviet people” had attended the party.

By the time I returned to New York in early June, my father appeared to me to be fully recovered. However, when my parents returned to London several weeks later, my father became anxious, and he and my mother returned to Moscow. There his wellbeing was again restored, and in September they once more went back to London, where my father almost immediately suffered a relapse. My mother, acting on the ill-considered advice of a close family friend, allowed a hastily recommended English physician to sign my father into the Priory psychiatric hospital near London.

My father’s records from the Priory, which I obtained only recently, raise the suspicion that he may have been subjected to the CIA’s MK-ULTRA “mind depatterning” technique, which combined massive electroconvulsive therapy with drug therapy. On the day of his admission, my mother was pressured into consenting to ECT, and the treatment began just thirty-six hours later. In May 1963 1 learned that my father had received fifty four ECT treatments, and I arranged his transfer to a clinic in East Berlin.

Certain key CIA documents that have been withheld, in whole or in part, would probably shed additional light on these events. Among the questions to be answered are:

§ Why was Robeson’s health such a concern to the government, and why is the FBI’s information on it still being withheld?

§ Was the CIA implicated in my father’s 1961 “suicide attempt”?

§ Did the CIA, in collusion with the British intelligence service, orchestrate his subjection to “mind depatterning”?

The idea that thirty-eight years after the original events occurred, the release of these documents could endanger national security should be rejected. On the contrary, the release of the information will improve national security by helping to protect the American people from criminal abuse by the intelligence agencies that are supposed to defend them.



The PBS American Masters documentary on Paul Robeson titled “Here I Stand” surveys the life and work of this great American artist, scholar, and activist. The documentary also examines the question of Robeson’ 1961 suicide attempt. Click the icon above to order the video of this excellent film.

Paul Robeson Centennial Website.

Click the title below to listen to the Pacifica Radio interview with Paul Robeson Jr. on the question:
“Did the CIA Drug Paul Robeson?