“I am for the Cuban revolution. I do not worry about it, I worry for it and with it.”
from Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba
C. Wright Mills suffered a heart attack at the age of 45 while at home in New York on March 20, 1962. Fifteen months earlier, his doctors had warned him that the next one would be his last. And it was. An intense, creative and noble life ended in one swift blow. His life, however, would continue beating within a new generation that had found in Mills a shining example.
In the midst of McCarthyism and the cold war, he published a half-dozen books vital to understanding contemporary US society. Among them were The New Men of Power: American Labor Leaders (1948), White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951), The Power Elite (1956), The Causes of World War Three (1958) and The Sociological Imagination (1959), as well as other essays and articles. They unmasked the true nature of capitalism from a critical, independent, original and lucid perspective that contributed to the birth of the “New Left.”
Although Mills was by then an accomplished author and widely recognized by his peers, the publication of Listen, Yankee in 1960 brought him a surprising notoriety that served as the driving force behind the debate that swirled around him until that fateful day in March. It was a book about Cuba. Mills had come to the island in the summer of 1960. He wanted to study the Cuban Revolution, and he had prepared for the trip by reading as much as he could about the island, writing down his questions and doubts. Eager to understand the reality of this country and its young revolution, he prepared intensely. Here he spent long hours speaking with Fidel and Che Guevara on several occasions, as well as with many other Cubans from all walks of life.
Upon returning to New York he worked feverishly night and day for six weeks. Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba was published in November. It suddenly became an extraordinary and valuable example of engaged literature. Written without great academic pretensions, told in straightforward language through the voice of an imaginary and anonymous Cuban revolutionary, the book aimed to reach ordinary Americans. It quickly became a bestseller.
Among the first to read the book were FBI analysts, since the bureau obtained the manuscript prior to its publication. Anticipating its impact, the FBI also tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the publisher, Ian Ballantine, to publish a negative perspective of the revolution by another author.
Mills received numerous messages of support and appreciation of his book. He was also criticized, insulted and threatened. According to the FBI, a few days following the appearance of Listen, Yankee, someone sent Mills an anonymous letter warning him that “an American agent disguised as a South American would assassinate him on his next visit to Cuba.” In a memo dated November 29, 1960, the FBI noted that “Mills indicated he would not be surprised if this were true since he does not doubt that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other similar United States organizations do not approve of his activities. Mills has made several inquiries in regard to purchasing a gun for self-protection.” It is significant that the paragraph immediately following this quote is blacked out by the FBI and remains classified.