A man was jailed 15 years for calling Joseph Stalin a fathead. One year for sedition, 14 years for revealing a state secret
As historian Gene Zubovich helpfully pointed out this week, the CIA is apparently sitting on an impressive collection of jokes.
In recent years, the U.S. intelligence agency has declassified more than a million Cold War-era documents. The National Post sifted through the pile in a search for the funny parts, and found these highlights.
This is from a document entitled “Soviet Jokes” that was prepared for the CIA’s deputy director in the 1980s. The jokes were all told amongst Soviets themselves, and were apparently gathered by CIA operatives . This one involves Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev who, despite his aggressive campaign of government reforms, wasn’t able to fully assuage the his people’s desire to assassinate him.
New York lawyer James Donovan specialized as a U.S. diplomatic negotiator in the early 1960s, and was instrumental in the freeing of captured spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers as well as the release of 9,000 Americans captured by Cuba in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. He’s also one of a growing list of historical figures to have been portrayed by Tom Hanks, in the 2015 film Bridge of Spies. And like most New Yorkers, Donovan apparently had a penchant for shooting off his mouth. This is an excerpt of a press account detailing how, during prisoner negotiations with Fidel Castro, Donovan threatened to succeed him as Cuban leader.
Speaking of Castro, after the Bay of Pigs the Cuban dictator scoffed that he would gladly return his American prisoners in exchange for a few hundred tractors. In response, Eleanor Roosevelt immediately formed a committee to round up enough tractors to bring the boys home. This is from a 1961 press report that was placed in the Senate record, and it details Cuba’s shock at discovering that the tractor joke was taken seriously.
Another zinger from the “Soviet Jokes” document. Late in his presidency, Ronald Reagan became fond of telling crowds that he had a “new hobby” of “collecting” dissident Soviet jokes. This may be evidence that one of the CIA’s duties under Reagan was to flesh out the president’s joke collection.
This August, 1988 document is not a joke, but it does detail a workplace incident involving jokes. Apparently, CIA employees were using the agency’s rudimentary computer network to circulate a mysterious file known identified only as the “Sicko Jokes” — and this is an order demanding that they be tracked down and identified. None of the specific “sicko jokes” are cited, but this may be one of history’s first instances of off-colour humour being circulated by electronic means.
This is also from the “Soviet Jokes” document, and a version of it would become a favourite of Reagan himself. The president even told it during a summit meeting with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and reported getting a laugh in response.
This is from a 1982 speech by President Ronald Reagan at CIA headquarters. He led the address with this Irish joke, noting “it’s one of the few stories that I can tell now since ethnic jokes are a no-no.”
Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, most CIA work is staggeringly boring. Gathering intelligence means hours of combing through transcripts, press accounts and anything else that might remotely affect national security. Apparently, this included scrutinizing jokes by Mort Sahl, generally considered the founder of modern stand-up comedy. This is from an interview with Sahl by the Washington Post. The CIA clipped out the article and underlined this joke, as well as the description of Sahl as a “so-called beatnik comedian.”
And one more from the “Soviet Jokes” document. The Russian skill for cynical humour has not died with the fall of communism. Here’s a more recent one: The ghost of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin appears before Russian president Vladimir Putin and says, “I’ve got two pieces of advice for you; kill your political opponents and paint the Kremlin blue.” Putin replies, “Why blue?”
In 1954 the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala, replacing it with a U.S.-friendly military dictatorship. Amidst arming Guatemalan rebels, the CIA issued this order to collect anti-government jokes that could be broadcast into the country in order to undermine public confidence. “The emphasis is to be placed on the fact that jokes must be of a current nature so that they will be of interest when heard over the radio a few days later,” it reads.
There were no opinion polls in the Communist Bloc, so the CIA was often left to gauge the public mood by figuring out what kind of jokes were floating around. This joke was particularly popular, and a version of it has existed in dozens of Communist or authoritarian countries. This is from a press clipping that was filed and classified by the CIA simply because it contained a mention of their agency.
Remember the “Murphy the Spy” joke that Reagan used to bring down the house at the CIA in 1982? When his vice-president George H.W. Bush spoke at the agency three years later, he figured he would also need to lead with a joke. So he chose this, clearly labeling it under “humor” in his speaking notes.
Bush wasn’t the only one to struggle with joke-telling. This is a letter sent to the CIA’s then deputy director, future secretary of defense Robert Gates. In it, a subordinate gives him this “all-but-fool-proof” joke to yuk it up during a speech to an outside agency.
This is from a 1985 Associated Press story. It may not be a tremendously funny joke, but becomes much funnier when considering that it too became a classified CIA document soon after its release. Only in 2012, after carefully “sanitizing” the document, did the CIA feel secure in declassifying it.