Remembering Larry Birns: Greg Grandin

December 30, 2018

Larry, radicalized by Chile '73, was an indescribable force. He founded COHA in 1975 and basically ran it as a DuPont Circle operation with a platoon of unpaid interns and a fleet of decrepit but surprisingly glitch-free Kaypro computers. In those pre-web days, the office received a subscription to all available newspapers, magazines, and journals. In the mornings, Larry would have the interns clip and file every single news story related to Latin America. Then in the afternoon, we’d rewrite the story, with a critical spin, which would then be sent out as press releases or op-eds.  

The stories would often be picked up by other media sources, often in translated form in Latin American countries, and then they’d be recycled back into the United States. It was perfect spin—Larry had invented the first aggregation machine, well before the web made it run-of-the-mill. And he did it with a purpose, with a real focus on shining a light on the effects of U.S. foreign policy in the hemisphere, with a passionate defense of the idea of national sovereignty. I recall that while Larry wasn’t especially focused on political economy, an understanding of the perniciousness of “structural adjustment” and what was just then, in the late 1980s, beginning to be called neoliberalism (Larry preferred the phrase “Washington Consensus”) was part of the COHA-commonsense.

COHA had occupied a number of different offices, but I knew the one on New Hampshire Avenue, which was a cross between a library and a newsroom. Once clipped, the newspapers were tossed, but every book, journal, and letter that passed over the threshold was placed on some shelf. The whole operation was ramshackle and constantly abuzz, with the sound of Xeroxes, fax machines and continuous line printers—the kind that used the perforated sheets with the holes on the side—along with the cursing that followed paper jams. The intern staff—as many women as men, people of color, and students from Latin America—would mostly work around big seminar-like tables, driven by a sense of idealism. One woman in my cohort was, I think, the daughter of the leader of the UAW’s reform caucus, Jerry Tucker. Another was from Colombia, and wrote on the country’s Unión Patriótica opening, and the violence directed at the party’s rank-and-file. Larry had cultivated an organic everyday internationalism within COHA, that just seemed natural, remarkable only in retrospect.

Larry was radicalized by 1973I think of him as part of that slightly idealist Kennedy generation of foreign servicers who became critical of foreign policy, such as those who would group around the Institute of Policy Studies (though his son, Nicholas, tells me he was already more to the left of Kennedy’s best and the brightest, and never as preppy). Larry once testified to Congress in the late 1970s on the “plague of monstrous, illegitimate regimes” that was taking over Latin America with U.S. support. COHA was meant to keep a light on them. He was a ruthless editor, and my first. Interns experienced real fear getting back his red-penned edits.  He was hardcore traditional: no passive voice, no comma splices, front the lede. He did, though, like the occasional florid phrasing. He was an intrepid birdwatcher, and he’d often phone in his edits on some kind of early cell phone, from the marshes. It was a formative experience.  Larry would often lend his greater name recognition, as a co-author, to help an intern, usually identified as a “research associate,” to get their first publication. The first thing I ever had published was via COHA, on Joya Martinez, a Salvadoran death squader, placed in the Berkshire Eagle.

Larry always reminded me of how I imagined Norman Mailer—short on stature but long on personality, he fundraised, edited, and pastored like an (Irish?) pugilist. “When you write for us please remember that COHA has a soul,” he told new interns. COHA over the years has provided a stream of media commentary, usually sending an intern out to pronounce on the day’s outrages. But none so colorful as Larry himself, a fixture on cable news until recently. According to his dear friend, Margaret Scott, Larry was “fearless. That was the most remarkable thing about him. Press gigs didn't scare him, public speaking and even death threats didn't faze him.”

For over 40 years, COHA produced a stream of analysis—in the form of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, press releases, placed op-eds, occasional policy papers, and many interviews with political actors—on the Americas, mostly on Latin America and the English and French-speaking greater Caribbean, even more, on a daily basis, than its parallel organization, NACLA. This material could be a great resource for scholars, but my sense is that most of it isn’t widely available. After so many physical moves, and the quick rise of the internet, I’m not sure of the status of COHA’s internal archives, especially all the pre-internet clippings, press releases, and full-text of interviews interns did with political activists. And my sense is that the Report’s early issues are only available in hard copies, in university libraries that subscribed. In any case, making COHA’s documentary history accessible could be invaluable to scholars—and a fitting legacy for Larry, a man who took the democratic promise of modern politics at its word.

Greg Grandin, author and Professor of History at New York University, interned at COHA under Larry Birns in 1989, during his last year at Brooklyn College.

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