The US vs. John Lennon: Art and Politics Frightened the FBI

September 28th, 2006 - by admin

Jonathan Curiel / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-09-28 23:41:38

[Podcast: Jonathan Curiel with Professor Glenn Gass on the history of rock ‘n’ roll.]

(September 24, 2006) — In the spring of 1972, when the Vietnam War was still raging and claiming thousands of lives, when American protesters (including John Kerry and other Vietnam vets) were demanding US troop withdrawals and a peaceful end to the Southeast Asian conflict, the Nixon administration worried endlessly about a 31-year-old singer-songwriter from Britain.

The musician couldn’t even vote in the upcoming presidential election, but John Lennon represented everything Nixon feared: a popular anti-war voice who could rally millions of young Americans against the president’s quest for a second term.

The Nixon White House targeted Lennon, then living in New York, for deportation, while the FBI maintained a close watch on the former Beatle. The bureau paid people to attend Lennon’s concerts and speeches and report back anything they deemed suspicious. A new documentary, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” sheds important light on this dubious moment in U.S. history, but the Lennon episode — as aberrational as it might seem — is part of a long pattern of Washington monitoring popular musicians and artists (and seeking to undermine them when convenient).

The list includes Pete Seeger, Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg, all of whom the government considered serious threats to America’s well-being during their careers.

In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, for example, Seeger was labeled a Communist agitator, and his folk songs (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”) were considered radical appeals. The evidence? Seeger, a member of the Communist Party, first performed “If I Had a Hammer” at a 1949 fundraiser for 11 Communist Party members on trial for attempting to overthrow the U.S. government. Seeger left the Communist Party in 1950, but he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, where he was bold enough to challenge his inquisitors about their standards of patriotism and their right to question his.

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs,” Seeger told committee members, who consulted information in the singer’s thick FBI files to question him. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked.”

For his outspokenness, Seeger was found in contempt of Congress, for which he would have served one year in jail if his lawyer hadn’t bailed him out and fought the conviction, which was eventually overturned. Still, Seeger saw his career nose-dive when promoters became reluctant to book him. As part of the humiliation, Seeger had to notify federal authorities whenever he traveled beyond the southern district of New York. If the government sought to damage Seeger’s career and his ability to reach a mass audience, they were effective in the short-term but badly miscalculated in the long-term.

“In some ways, the HUAC ordeal was the making of Seeger, rather than his undoing,” writes David King Dunaway, author of the Seeger biography, “How Can I Keep From Singing.”

“Until challenged, his puritan habits had a Boy Scout leader’s blandness, and his music seemed too wholesome and rural for mass audiences. Under HUAC’s attack, however, he became a warrior of song.”

The government also miscalculated with Lennon. As noted in “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” which opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, the Nixon administration became obsessed with the idea that Lennon would perform at get-out-the-vote concerts preceding the 1972 presidential election.

Thanks to the 26th Amendment, people ages 18, 19 and 20 had the right to cast ballots for the first time. Lennon had become one of the Vietnam War’s most outspoken critics. After his 1969 “bed-ins” for peace with Yoko Ono, and his 1969 recording of “Give Peace a Chance,” he regularly went on American television (including “The Dick Cavett Show”) to question Washington’s war in Vietnam. Lennon suspected the FBI was tapping his phone and following him on the street — which they were.

The FBI’s files on Lennon, released to UC Irvine history Professor Jon Wiener in 1997 after a long legal battle, read like the writings of a paranoid goody-two-shoes.

On Feb. 10, 1972, CIA Director Richard Helms sent FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover a memo that warned Lennon and Ono were going to participate in a “caravan of entertainers” raising funds as it traversed the United States.

In April, Hoover wrote Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman that “a confidential source, who has furnished reliable information in the past, advised that Lennon had contributed $75,000 to a newly organized New Left group formed to disrupt the Republican National Convention” in Miami. And in July, the FBI’s New York office furnished a letter to acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray III that stated its Miami office “should note that Lennon is reportedly a ‘heavy user of narcotics’ known as ‘downers.’ This information should be emphasized to Local Law Enforcement Agencies (in Miami) with regards to subject being arrested if at all possible on possession of narcotics charge. … INS has stressed to Bureau that if Lennon were to be arrested in United States for possession of narcotics he would become more likely to be immediately deportable.”

Lennon’s FBI file (portions of which can be seen at is “more a documentation of abuse of power by the White House and the FBI” than a catalog of Lennon secrets, says Wiener, whose books include “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.” The Immigration and Naturalization Service served Lennon with a 30-day deportation order, ruling that his 1968 conviction for a minor drug offense in Britain made him ineligible for the visa he used to enter the United States. Lennon appealed, winning the right to stay in the United States as a permanent resident in 1976. (Lennon never did sing outside the Republican convention. Wiener notes the irony of an FBI memo from an informer in March 1972 that said Lennon would perform at convention protests only “if they are peaceful” — a memo that contradicted the FBI’s claim that Lennon was a fomenter of violent dissent.)

Lennon didn’t make the mistake Chaplin made during his run-in with Washington: Leave the country on a professional tour, only to be told he wouldn’t be allowed to return. In 1952, Chaplin had lived in the United States for 40 years. He was universally loved for his cinematic portrayal of the Little Tramp and other movie characters, but his empathy for the Communist cause during World War II, and what U.S. officials viewed as his lack of patriotism, sealed the government’s decision to keep him out of the United States for good. Chaplin’s reputation for love affairs with underage girls contributed to Washington’s anti-Chaplin sentiment, which filled his FBI dossier with hundreds of additional pages.

In the early 1950s, anyone thought to have sympathy for Moscow, or anyone critical of U.S. policies, was suspect. Robeson, despite his illustrious sports, singing and theatrical careers, was attacked by Washington for his pro-Communist views. In 1950, the State Department took away his passport so he couldn’t work abroad or give speeches critical of American segregation.

That same year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee denied a visa to Picasso, who wanted to visit the United States from France as part of an anti-nuclear peace delegation.

In the early 1960s, the FBI put Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg on watch lists for filthy language that, by today’s standards, is tame and commonplace. The government’s harassment of Bruce led to his isolation and contributed to his suicide at age 40.

Today, Washington may have changed its tune. There’s no indication that the FBI is amassing giant dossiers on Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Michael Stipe and other pop stars in 2004 who did what the bureau feared Lennon would do in 1972: lead a national rock tour to sway the election against the incumbent Republican president.

The pop factor didn’t work in 1972 (Nixon won in a landslide), nor did it work in 2004 for John Kerry, but the musicians left behind a legacy of great music and the message that protesting is worth it, regardless of the outcome.

Glenn Gass, a music professor at Indiana University who teaches a course on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, says it’s hard to imagine a world without Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” which Lennon first recorded in a Montreal hotel room. “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” has a clip of Lennon singing the song at his Montreal bed-in. The people in the room who joined in, including Timothy Leary and Tommy Smothers, are smiling and upbeat. They believed what they were singing.

The song gave the anti-war movement its anthem, Gass says. “It’s impossible to think of a civil rights rally and not hear ‘We Shall Overcome’ being sung by linked arms and a sense of community. That’s what ‘Give Peace a Chance’ gave the peace movement. It was just the right mix of defiance and with a good-hearted optimism. It wasn’t, ‘Throw grenades and tear down walls.’ It was perfect.”

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