By Ivan Greenberg (first published on Ivan Greenberg’s blog 5/16/2011)
J. Edgar Hoover’s conception of free speech did not include criticism of the FBI. Public expressions that challenged the supremacy of political policing should be monitored and, if possible, sabotaged. The “free press” was not free enough to question the validity of the government’s domestic intelligence system. A chief example of intolerance of press criticism is the FBI’s relationship to the Nation magazine. The magazine’s FBI file totals about 2,000 pages with the largest portion covering the late 1950s when the FBI believed it faced growing opposition to its spying practices. The Nation directly challenged FBI power when it devoted the Oct. 18, 1958, issue to a single article on the FBI by Fred J. Cook. The FBI viewed the article as “vicious” and “destructive” and began to track Cook interviewing his friends and family and opening his mail. Hoover wrote in a memo, “I think we should discreetly get a line on this man and his background and associations for current article just didn’t ‘bloom’ – it is planned literary garbage barrage against FBI by a dedicated [Alger] Hiss apologist.” The FBI also identified Nation editor Carey McWilliams as someone “long publicly identified with the activities of a number of subversive organizations.”
The Bureau investigated Nation contributors and leaked negative information about the magazine to members of Congress and friendly press sources to undermine its reputation. In 1959, the bureau produced a 180-page monograph, “Smear Campaign Against the FBI,” which focused exclusively on the magazine. The FBI feared the view that it should be restricted to investigations of criminal conduct and FBI critics run “the risk of being considered an enemy of the nation.” The FBI argued, “Cook’s article represents a manifesto for intensified attacks against the Bureau which can be expected in the future.” Only Communists (and their allies) wanted to limit FBI power. “The strategy of the smear campaign is now transparently revealed. With the FBI discredited and disposed of, communists and other subversive operatives would be able to flourish with relative impunity.”
Another FBI critic, historian Henry Steele Commager, often wrote for the popular press with negative views of the Red Scare. His FBI file (457 pages) covers more than 20 years. In 1947, the FBI opened an investigation after Commager’s article to Harper’s magazine (“Who is Loyal in the U.S.?”) attacked emerging McCarthyism. Commager’s defense of liberalism and criticism of the Director led top officials, such as assistant director William C. Sullivan, to view him as “a too vocal, bombastic and misinformed liberal or ‘fellow traveler.’” The FBI questioned his loyalty after an article for the Nation was distributed by the Communist Party to attract members. When Commager argued in the New York Times that the CP had a constitutional right to exist, the FBI noted that he “was making Communistic addresses and remarks which appeared to be harmful and not to the best interests of the Government of the United States.” In another article, Commager denounced loyalty tests (“Where Government May Not Trespass”) prompting the Bureau to compare him to the National Lawyers Guild. They continued to condemn him for how others used his work: Commager “has long been considered a ‘darling’ of the Communist Party.” The Bureau expressed anti-intellectual sentiments: “Commager’s article illustrates that the real danger to needed Governmental authority is from the pseudo-intellectual realm.” By the early 1960s, the FBI had placed Commager on its “Not to Contact” list because “he has been a long-time critic of the FBI.”
New York Post columnist and editor James Wechsler challenged Hoover’s leadership and defended FBI critics. Wechsler began his career working for liberal-Left publications: the Nation during the late 1930s; and the newspaper PM during the early 1940s. While at PM, the FBI placed him on its “custodial detention” list and Hoover described him (and his wife, Nancy) as “radicals and leftists of the most dangerous type.” At the Post during the 1950s and 1960s, Wechsler criticized the FBI in three key areas. He viewed the infiltration of the CP as counterproductive. He criticized the Bureau’s failure to protect black civil rights workers in the South. In this regard, he proposed stripping the FBI of its jurisdiction for civil rights. Lastly, Wechsler wrote against FBI surveillance of student activism at the University of California, Berkeley. Wechsler’s FBI file grew to about 530 pages with critical notes about his journalism. One memo indicates: “His hostility to Mr. Hoover and the FBI actually renders a negative service to the cause that Wechsler supports.”
In 1962, a Post article featured historian Howard Zinn, who had authored a report critical of the FBI’s civil rights enforcement in Albany, Georgia. A memo in Zinn’s FBI file says his views were “slanted and biased” but “expected from an individual of Zinn’s background.” The FBI identified Zinn as a former Communist. In response to the Post article, Hoover directed agents to discredit Zinn by spreading information about his CP associations and sympathy for Cuba. “Suggest our friends on Georgia papers be alerted.” An FBI official also wrote: “Zinn should not be dignified by contact by this Bureau.” After an article appeared in the Boston Globe in 1964 again quoting Zinn, FBI officials noted: “This is the second time the “Boston Globe” has published distorted articles concerning the FBI… the Crime Records Division [should] attempt to set the record straight through other friendly news sources in the Boston area.” Hoover approved this recommendation with a short note -- “yes and promptly.”
The FBI demonized media criticism even in the form of satire. The Director called Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald a “sick comic” and directed agents to monitor his writing. As an example of Buchwald’s satire, in 1964 he suggested that President Johnson was unable to fire Hoover as director because the lawman actually did not exist. “What happened was that in 1925 the Reader’s Digest was printing an article on the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation and as they do with many pieces they signed it with a nom de plume,” Buchwald wrote. “They got the word Hoover from the vacuum cleaner – to give the idea of a clean-up. Edgar was the name of one of the publisher’s nephews, and J. stood for jail.” An interview with Buchwald in Playboy magazine elicited a long FBI memo about the writer’s subversive Cold War humor. “Buchwald has previously come to the Bureau’s attention in connection with his writings,” the FBI noted.
"Spoke of FBI informers in the Communist Party and the possibility that ‘someday soon J. Edgar Hoover will be elected Chairman of the American Communist Party.’ Buchwald also commented that ‘you’re allowed to make fun of the FBI because they have such a good sense of humor.’ ‘They never get upset when you make fun of them. You may get a call from two FBI Agents the morning after the column appears, at 3 o’clock in the morning, but it always is a friendly call. It is the one organization in Washington that doesn’t mind being laughed at.’
"This particular issue contains no other references to the Bureau or the Director and the entire issue is the typical trash which has characterized Playboy since it inception."
In a separate file, the FBI monitored Playboy for carrying on “a campaign of snide innuendoes against the FBI and at times was outright critical of the Bureau and the Director."
The FBI infiltrated writer’s organizations (American Newspaper Guild, Radio Writers Guild, and American Authors League) and focused surveillance on a broad segment of allegedly “anti-American” book authors: E. B. White, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Pearl S. Buck, Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, John Kenneth Galbraith, Norman Mailer, Irving Howe, Betty Freidan, and Studs Terkel. The FBI developed informants in the publishing world. The best known case involves Henry Holt and Company. As scholar Claire Culleton notes, for several decades Hoover reviewed manuscripts and the firm sought “his explicit approval on authors and his advanced sanction on works and topics under consideration by the press.” Once the FBI approved a book for production, it obtained advanced copies of page proofs and played a central role in designing Holt’s advertising and marketing campaigns.
Three books critical of the FBI prompted efforts at suppression. In the case of Max Lowenthal’s The Federal Bureau of Investigation (1950), Hoover obtained an advance copy and tried to plant anti-Lowenthal editorials in newspapers. In an effort at censorship, agents tried to discourage booksellers from stocking the work. In order to counter the book’s impact, the FBI distributed a reprint of a Reader’s Digest article, “Why I No Longer Fear the FBI,” by ACLU leader Morris Ernst, who doubled as an FBI informer. Hoover also obtained an advance copy of Fred Cook’s The FBI Nobody Knows (1964) and helped delay publication for several years. Cook’s book built on his Nation article and the FBI believed the negative depiction of Hoover’s relationship to others in government posed a challenge to its organizational integrity. The FBI told its agents:
"Cook claims that official Washington is intimidated by Mr. Hoover, citing a situation in which the publisher of the New York Post had found that ‘some of the most distinguished figures in the Hill simply will not be quoted on the subject of Hoover.’ In addition, Cook, through quotes from unnamed liberal Congressman who express fear of Mr. Hoover, attempts to make Mr. Hoover responsible for an atmosphere of conformity. It can be said that the unnamed Congressman seem to be feeble carriers of the liberal tradition if they are afraid to express their views."
The FBI tried to suppress Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983), which offers a sympathetic history of the American Indian Movement (AIM). The book focuses on the FBI’s role in the flawed prosecution of AIM leader Leonard Peltier, which Matthiessen compares to the Sacco and Vanzetti case of the 1920s. Matthiessen hoped his book “might become an organizing tool in his [Peltier] fight for justice,” while the FBI sought to limit the book’s circulation. Within a year of publication, an FBI special agent cited in the book filed a $25 million libel suit against Matthiessen and his publisher, Viking Press. Although the FBI lost the case after eight years of litigation, the lawsuit substantially delayed paperback and foreign editions. In the Peltier case, two FBI agents had been killed in the line of duty and the Bureau’s pursuit of justice included legal misconduct.
For Further Reading:
FBI monograph, “Smear Campaign Against the FBI: The Nation,”1959.
Fred J, Cook, Maverick: Fifty Years of Investigative Reporting.
Richard Lingeman, “The Files’ Tale: Redbaited by the FBI,” The Nation, Jan. 11, 2010.
W. C. Sullivan to A.H. Belmont, Feb 19, 1955. Nation FBI file
D.M. Ladd to Director, “Henry Steele Commager,” June 29, 1949. Commager FBI file
W. C. Sullivan to A.H. Belmont, Jan. 29, 1957, Commager FBI file
A. H. Belmont to L.V. Baordman, “Henry Steel Commager, Central Research Matter,” Nov. 35, 1957. Commager FBI file
M. A. Jones to Mr. Nease, “Request for Information Regarding Porfessor Henry Commager,” June 13, 1958. Commager FBI file.
M. A. Jones to Mr. Deloach, “Henry Steel Commager,” Nov. 15, 1963. Commager FBI file.
FBI Liasion [name redacted] to White House, July 10, 1967. Commager FBI file.
Department of State report, “Henry Steel Commager,” Oct. 19, 1968. Commager FBI file.
SAC Boston to Director, “Henry Steel Sommager,” Nov. 21, 1976. Commager FBI file.
Murray Polner, “James Wechsler: The Editor Who Dared Challenge J. Edgar Hoover,” Jan. 5, 2004, http://hnn.us/articles/2869.html.
FBI monograph, “The FBI in Our Open Society,” June 1969. http://www.governmentattic.org/docs/FBI_In_Our_Open_Society_1953.pdf.
M. A. Jones to Mr. DeLoach, “Howard Zinn,” Nov. 27, 1962. Zinn FBI file.
A. Rosen to Mr. Belmont, “Racial Situation Albany, Georgia,” Nov. 15, 1962. Zinn FBI file.
A. Rosen to Mr. Belmont, “Howard Zinn,” Jan. 8, 1964. Zinn FBI file.
David Carty, “Art Buchwald Couldn’t Make This Man Laugh,” CBSNews.com, June 25, 2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/06/25/national/main4207013.shtml.
M. A. Jones to Mr. DeLoach, “’Playboy’ Magazine, April,1965,” March 3, 1965. Buchwald FBI file.
Hugh Hefner- Playboy Magazine FBI files, http://www.paperlessarchives.com/playboy.html.
Herbert Mitgang, Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America’s Greatest Authors (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988).
Natalie Robbins, Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression (New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 1982).
“FBI Tracked ‘Working” Man Studs Terkel,” NY City News Service, Nov. 15, 2009.
John Rodden, “Wanted: Irving Howe FBI No. 727437B,” Dissent (Fall 2002).
Claire A. Culleton, “Extorting Henry Holt & Co.: J. Edgar Hoover and the Publishing Industry,” in Culleton, ed., Modernism on File (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Stephen J. Whitefield, “Civil Liberties and the Culture of the Cold War, 1945-1965,” in Raymond Arsenault,ed., Crucible of Liberty: 200 Years of the Bill of Rights (New York: New Press, 1991).
Peter Matthiessen, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse (New York: Viking, 1991).
Ivan Greenberg is a former adjunct instructor in the City University of New York college system and the author of The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties since 1965.