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Popgun In The Cold War

May 2024
1min read

It was March 1961, and I was a thirty-year-old cultural affairs officer with the U.S. Information Agency assigned to our embassy in Buenos Aires. My job had a faintly sub rosa flavor. I was to induce Argentine publishers to produce Spanish translations of books that would reflect favorably on the United States. The inducement was a guaranteed purchase of perhaps a few hundred copies, which we would distribute to libraries throughout Latin America.

One day a liberal Argentine journalist came to my office with a copy of a small, dog-eared paperback in Spanish that resembled a nineteenthcentury penny dreadful. I have long since forgotten its title. He told me that the book had been written by a disaffected former member of Fidel Castro’s regime and that the amateurish publishing job had produced next to no distribution. He thought I might want to arrange a new edition. By this time Castro had declared his Marxist allegiance, had carried out drumhead executions of his enemies, was clapping political opponents into jail, and was fomenting insurrections outside Cuba. U.S. policy had hardened into the enmity that has persisted until this day.

My visitor left the little book with me, and I read it that night. It was well done. The books whose translations I had arranged thus far had painted a positive impression of the United States; this one worked the other side of the street, presenting an ideological foe in his worst light. The book did not fit my “white” propaganda program, but better distribution might promote the U.S. policy of debunking Castro. I had an idea. Here was a job for the CIA. During those peak Cold War years, the CIA had a tough, effective image rather than the battered face it presents today. I must confess that my next steps were motivated by a curiosity about spying and the clandestine rather than any professional impulse. I made a discreet inquiry at the embassy and managed a meeting with an officer attached to the CIA’s Buenos Aires station, a man described to me only as “Dutch.”

At our first encounter, attended also by a couple of Dutch’s colleagues, I noticed that I was steered deliberately to a particular chair, which I assumed was wired. I described the Cuban’s book, its limited distribution, and its potential as at least a popgun in the Cold War. Through the agency’s covert methods, I suggested, a mass-market edition might be underwritten. They were immediately interested but wanted to chew on the idea a bit, and we arranged a second meeting.

By early April we had met about three times, and another session was scheduled. Just before that day I received a cryptic call from Dutch. “Meeting’s canceled,” he said. “By next week we probably won’t be needing this project. Good-bye.”

Of course I did not realize at the time that I had just been tipped off to the CIA-engineered Bay of Pigs invasion by anti-Castro Cubans, which occurred on April 17.

I heard nothing more about the book project, but, obviously, the CIA, for better or worse, would be working its bag of tricks against Castro for the next four decades.

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