Fanon and the CIA’s anti-colonialism in Africa

Thomas Meaney – a contributor to the London Review of Books among other things – writes about Frantz Fanon’s last journey and the CIA’s sympathies for independence movements in Africa and the Third World, more generally.

In 1961, Fanon was terminally ill with leukemia. In January, he traveled to Moscow for treatment. His white cell count dropped and he put on some weight but the remission was very brief. A mid-level CIA officer, C. Oliver Iselin, helped to arrange for Fanon to come over to the US. In the fall, Fanon was admitted to a NIH hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, and died there in early December.

Iselin – Fanon’s handler – was a Harvard-educated scion of a “family of Swiss-American bankers and merchants.” His first CIA posting, right after WWII, was in Tangier, Morocco. Here’s Meaney quoting Iselin:

As a desk officer I was 100 percent with the nationalists. My branch chief was very much nationalist-oriented and obviously indoctrinated me. The point was to try to show the Moroccans that although we were part of NATO, our views were different from France as far as colonial policy went…

Iselin was later promoted to head the North African desk. He developed close contacts with the Algerian insurgents, the ALN and the FLN.

I felt very strongly, being American, what we went through here in this country, I was entirely for independence as the rightful thing to do. I was morally into this completely.

This part – the feeling of being in the right and on the right side of history – sounds familiar but I had no idea liberal CIA officers were so much into the African liberation thing back in the 1950s and the 1960s. Surely they weren’t as keen on Latin American liberation movements. And then disillusionment set in when the new, post-colonial regimes failed to live up to their American well-wishers’ expectations, and often turned to Moscow instead for economic guidance and military aid.

Iselin’s “disappointment” with national liberation movements is a common refrain among American liberals—academics, diplomats, businesspeople, union leaders, intelligence operatives, aid workers—who felt they had dedicated their lives to the decolonizing world of the 1950s and 1960s… Iselin’s story contains many standard features of the mode: the tight weave of anticolonialism and anti-communism found among U.S. officials in the Kennedy years; the conviction that other peoples, too, deserve their revolutions; the sense of having “good friends” in the regions where he worked; the deep connection to foreign landscapes and fauna; and, finally, the sense that they—the decolonized—“messed it up.”

Well, they did mess it up, no matter how you look at it – but perhaps they were destined for failure. What if takes centuries of strife to get anywhere near the West’s liberal societies of the 1960s, and even then, success – if that can be called success – wouldn’t be very likely?

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