UNI Research: Professor studies CIA's religious history

The year was 1962. To the chagrin of the Kennedy administration and the CIA, the communist government of Fidel Castro was firmly in power in Cuba, despite their best efforts.

Well, “best” might be a stretch. The United States was fresh from the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco – a failed military invasion of Cuba by the CIA. The botched operation was an international embarrassment, but did little to curb the intelligence agency’s obsession with overthrowing the Castro regime.

So, in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, the CIA mission known as Operation Mongoose went into effect. The project entertained all manner of schemes designed to depose the Castro government.

One such scheme was to recreate the second coming of Jesus Christ using advanced military technology. His CIA-approved message? That Cubans must revolt and overthrow the Communist Castro regime. 

The nuts and bolts of the plan are laid out in University of Northern Iowa Professor Michael Graziano’s upcoming book, “Errand into the Wilderness of Mirrors: Religion, American Intelligence, and National Security”.

“The plan is insane,” Graziano, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and World Religions, said. “They were going to float submarines into Havana harbor to fire star shots and explosives. Jets would fly over and fire explosives to simulate earthquakes and have lights streak through the sky at night.”

The CIA also planned to secretly wire loudspeakers throughout Havana’s street to have the “voice” of Jesus inform the people of Cuba that he was back, and they should overthrow Castro.

The plan was never approved, but it is part of a consistent pattern of the CIA during the Cold War – and it’s illustrative of the focus of Graziano’s book.

“The main argument is a lot of CIA activity during the Cold War used religion as a tool or weapon,” Graziano said. “And it was a very American notion of religion, which is that religion is ultimately about individual belief, and belief causes action. So, if you can change what people believe, you can change how they act.”

It’s a strategy the CIA employed in many other areas. Graziano details the CIA-orchestrated coup that overthrew the Iranian government in the 1950s and religion-focused propaganda efforts to support the escalation of combat in Vietnam. Other missions were carried out in Central American and Africa.

This type of international meddling was mostly employed to blunt the spread of communism. In that particular struggle, when facing off against the atheist government of the Soviet Union, the CIA viewed American religious diversity as a national security asset. 

“If we have Americans fighting over issues of religion, that’s less unity, that’s weaker in the face of communism and that’s something the Soviet Union can exploit in their propaganda,” Graziano said.

This intervention, Graziano shows, is not without consequence. The war in Vietnam went south. The CIA-installed government in Iran was overthrown by an anti-American regime that continues to shape Middle East politics today. The CIA’s international plots were eventually exposed and subjected to Congressional investigation in the 1970s.

“Today, we think of the CIA as very secretive,” Graziano said. “But in the 1950s, it was seen as a very innovative organization and written about in the press for doing really cool things. The idea of the CIA as this dark and secretive place gets formed in the 1970s when some of these things get exposed.”

In all, Graziano has been working on the book, which stems from his dissertation, for about five years. He estimated that he’s read tens of thousands of pages of documents in the process. Currently, Graziano is working to get the book published.

And while the book is an independent project, he found that the work helped him improve as a professor.

“At UNI, there’s a great balance between what faculty researches and what we teach,” Graziano said. “One of the reasons I like to research what I do is that it helps me bring questions to the class, and it helps me answer questions in the classroom in new and interesting ways.”

Because so many of the documents Graziano researched contained redacted information, he had to get creative when sourcing his material. He brought those lessons to the classroom.

“As a method of study, one thing I do is encourage alternate methods of thinking,” Graziano said. “That has broad applications. For students, unorthodox problem solving and thinking creatively outside your usual frame of reference is something that is really helpful.”

Graziano has presented his research at national and international conferences and received positive reviews. Many of those conferences are dominated by wealthy private schools and large research universities.

“I’m really proud to go to these conferences with a name tag that says ‘UNI’,” Graziano said. 

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