Uncovering The 'Truth' Behind Lennon's FBI Files
Oct. 9, 2010 would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday. Fresh Air remembers the legendary musician with excerpts from interviews conducted with people who knew him, and people who studied his life. This discussion with Jon Wiener was originally broadcast on Jan. 25, 2000.
Anti-war songs, like "Give Peace a Chance," didn't exactly endear former Beatle John Lennon to the Nixon administration. In 1971, shortly after Lennon went to New York on a visa and met up with radical anti-war activists, the FBI put Lennon under surveillance, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to deport him a year later.
Historian Jon Wiener spent 14 years fighting to gain access to the FBI's secret files on John Lennon. At first, the FBI refused to release many of the documents, saying their release would endanger national security. Wiener's Freedom of Information case went all the way to the Supreme Court before the FBI agreed to settle.
Wiener spoke with Terry Gross about the case in 2000. His book about John Lennon's FBI files is entitled Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files. Wiener also consulted on the documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which features interviews with Gore Vidal, Angela Davis, Yoko Ono and Walter Cronkite about the case.
Jon Wiener is a history professor at the University of California-Irvine and a contributing editor to The Nation magazine. His other books include Come Together: John Lennon in his Time and Historians in Trouble.
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the birth of John Lennon. In his lifetime, during and after The Beatles, Lennon lobbied hard to question and change the status quo - sometimes in song.
(Soundbite of song, "Give Peace a Chance")
Mr. JOHN LENNON (Singer-songwriter, musician): (Singing) Two, a one, two, three four. Everybody's talking about Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, this-ism, that-ism. Isn't it the most?
All we are saying is give peace a chance. All we are saying...
BIANCULLI: Anti-war music, like "Give Peace a Chance," didn't exactly endear John Lennon to the Nixon administration. In 1971, shortly after John Lennon arrived in New York on a visa, he began associating with radical anti-war activists, and the FBI put Lennon under surveillance. The Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to deport him.
Jon Wiener is a historian who investigated what the FBI and the INS did to Lennon between 1971 and 1972. After Lennon was murdered, Wiener requested Lennon's FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act.
Terry Spoke with Jon Wiener in 2000, the year he wrote a book about the FBI files called "Gimme Some Truth." It opens with a memo from Senator Strom Thurmond to the Nixon White House, about an upcoming Beatle tour of the United States. The memo warns that John Lennon might combine rock music with politics and organize young people to vote against Nixon in the 1972 election. Thurmond's memo also suggests that terminating Lennon's visa might be an effective countermeasure.
Professor JON WIENER (Author, "Gimme Some Truth"): A little historical background here, the '72 election was going to be the first in which 18-year olds had the right to vote. Before that you had to be 21. Everybody knew that young people were the strongest anti-war constituency, so the question was, for Lennon, how could he use his power as a celebrity to get young people into the political process? And also, this is a time when kids are very alienated from, you know, mainstream politics. So to get Lennon out of the country, the strategic countermeasure is to deport Lennon so he won't be able to take this tour that would register young voters. At the same time they're worried that, you know, young voters will vote against Nixon for kicking out, you know, the clever Beatle.
TERRY GROSS: Now how accurate was the FBI's information that John Lennon did want to help organize these political concerts - that would be for peace and against Nixon?
Prof. WIENER: There's no question that Lennon was talking about this his friends - his friends being Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale -and they tried doing one of these in Ann Arbor, Michigan in December, 1971. They had John and Yoko headlined a political rock concert, the Free John Sinclair concert. Every once in a while I run into somebody who was there. Fifteen thousand people spent six hours in Chrysler Arena, they listened not only to John and Yoko, but Stevie Wonder came, Commander Cody came, the MC5 came, William Kunstler gave a speech, Jerry Rubin gave a speech, Bobby Seale gave a speech. And a lot of it was about, you know, mobilizing young people to oppose Nixon. So - and they were very excited. John and Yoko were very excited about the tremendous turnout they had for this concert and how successful it was. So they were interested in the idea. They never got to the stage of setting up the national concert tour because the deportation order came down just two months later.
GROSS: How far did the INS get in deporting Lennon?
Prof. WIENER: Well, for much of 1972 and '73, Lennon was under an order to leave the country within 60 days. He had very talented legal help and they kept getting these deadlines extended. There was a lot of people mobilized to support him, but really, it wasnt until after Watergate, after Nixon left office, that the Gerald Ford administration immigration service finally agreed to grant Lennon his green card on very narrow legal grounds. So for two years he was under a 60 day order to leave the country, almost continuously.
GROSS: Now, let's talk more about the FBI documents that you were finally able to get through the Freedom of Information Act. You say that the FBI documents make the FBI look more like the Keystone Cops than the Gestapo. Give us an example of one of the documents that you think makes them look like Keystone Cops.
Prof. WIENER: Well, there's one where they - J. Edgar Hoover sends out instructions to locate Lennon as quickly as possible. They say his last known address is St. Regis Hotel, 150 Bank Street, New York City. Now every cop and cab driver in New York knows that the St Regis Hotel, you know, is on Central Park. It's not - and that Bank Street is in the West Village, so this couldnt be right. In fact. Lennon at the time, was living on Bank Street, but he was living at 105 Bank Street, not 150 Bank Street. So here's like this all points bulletin, you know, find Lennon. They're just confused. I mean it could've happened to any of us, I guess.
The other really strange one is that there's a kind of a wanted poster for Lennon. The FBI proposed that "Lennon should be arrested, if at all possible, on possession of narcotics charges" - I'm quoting now from one of the documents "which would make him more immediately deportable." And these instructions to local police officials include a kind of a wanted poster. A picture of Lennon, you know, height, weight, eye color and so on. You'd think that they wouldnt really need this. Lennon was certainly one of the most recognizable faces in the world in 1972. They have a picture there anyway. But the strangest thing is the picture isn't of John Lennon. It's of another guy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WIENER: A guy - I mean I know who it is. It's a guy named David Peel...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WIENER: ...who was an East Village folk singer, a street singer, the busker type, who looked a little like Lennon. I mean he wore the wire-rimmed glasses and had Lennon's style of long hair, of course, lots of other people did in 1972. David Peel had recorded on Apple Records. Maybe that's how they got confused. So the FBI, you know, was lamentably out of touch with the mainstream, not just of, you know, the radical counterculture of New York City, but you would, you know, you would think John Lennon is kind of pretty much the mainstream in 1972.
GROSS: Well, the funny thing is is that the FBI documents - for instance, there's a memo from Hoover in which he describes Lennon as something like a member of the singing group, The Beatles. As if like...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You know, as if like who The Beatles are really needs to be explained.
Prof. WIENER: You know, I've always been fascinated by that sentence. This is in J. Edgar Hoover's letter to H.R. Haldeman. And the first sentence is John Winston Lennon is a member of The Beatles singing group. Now what I'm not sure is, is it that J. Edgar Hoover wants to prove that he knows what The Beatles are and the names of The Beatles? Or is it that he thinks that Nixon does not know who John Lennon is?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WIENER: Or that it's this John Lennon, the John Lennon who is The Beatle is the one that we're talking about here. I've never been able to figure out which of those is the case.
GROSS: Did you find anything in the FBI files that were released to you that indicated that the FBI went beyond surveillance - that they ever tried to set Lennon up?
Prof. WIENER: You know, there's like a couple of documents. Their concern was that Lennon would participate in some kind of concert, rally, anti-war demonstration outside the Republican National Convention. And there's a memo from J. Edgar Hoover to the head of the Miami FBI office that suggests that if Lennon could be arrested on possession of narcotics charges he would become more immediately deportable. Now this seems to me an effort to set Lennon up for a drug bust. The FBI doesnt enforce possession of narcotics charges, that's a state offense, this is not part of what the FBI is supposed to be doing. I then filed a Freedom of Information request with the Miami FBI office, asking for their files on Lennon, to see what their response to this was. They replied to me that their John Lennon file had been destroyed as a part of a routine file destruction procedure.
Prof. WIENER: Now I have to note that - know that Lennon files were collected in five other cities and none of those places destroyed their Lennon file, so we wonder what was in the Miami Lennon file that was destroyed.
BIANCULLI: Historian Jon Wiener speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000.
More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with historian Jon Wiener whose book about the FBI investigation of John Lennon is titled "Gimme Some Truth."
GROSS: Now you have the FBI document that explains why the FBI stopped its surveillance of Lennon. Would you summarize and read an excerpt of that document for us?
Prof. WIENER: This is dated August 30th 1972. This is like two months before the presidential election. This is a memo to the acting director - now that's L. Patrick Gray, J. Edgar Hoover had died in May - from the special agent in charge of the New York FBI office. It says (Reading) For the past several months there has been no information received to indicate that the subject is active in the new left.
And it indicated what the sources are. (Reading) All advised that during the month of July 1972, that the subject has fallen out of favor of activists Jerry Rubin, Stewart Albert and Rennie Davis, due to subject's lack of interest in committing himself to involvement in anti-war and new left activities. In view of this information, the New York division is placing this case in a pending inactive status.
GROSS: Now is that true of the whole FBI or just the New York division?
Prof. WIENER: Well, New York was the office of origin - the OO - as its called in the files. They are the ones who are responsible for conducting the investigation. I mean, what this really is saying here is that the Immigration Service and the FBI have succeeded in pressuring Lennon to cancel his plans for this national concert tour and to withdraw from anti-war activity. His lawyers told him that his case for fighting deportation was a pretty weak one. In fact, they'd never seen anyone win a case under these terms, and therefore, the legal advice was dont do anything more that would further provoke the Nixon administration. He really wanted to stay in the United States. Yoko was involved, at that point, in a custody dispute over her daughter from a previous marriage - her daughter Kyoko. So John, if he had been deported, Yoko would've stayed behind. He didnt want to be separated from Yoko, so he cancelled the plans for the concert tour. He dropped out of movement activity and the FBI is reporting that they have accomplished their job.
GROSS: So in that sense the FBI did succeed in neutralizing - as they like to put it - in neutralizing John Lennon.
Prof. WIENER: Yeah, neutralizing is one of the scary words which appear in the file. Some people think this refers, you know, to assassination plans or something like that. I dont think that that's the case. Neutralizing means silencing him, getting him out of the picture through this deportation threat. And there's no question that Lennon was silenced as a spokesman of the anti-war movement.
GROSS: How much do you think John Lennon knew about the FBI's surveillance of him?
Prof. WIENER: Well, he understood that this whole deportation thing was politically motivated. He complained publicly on TV shows, on "The Mike Douglas Show," on "The Dick Cavett Show," you know, these criminal enterprises that - too many people were coming to fix his phones down on Bank Street in the West Village and that there were strange men outside in suits who followed him around. He eventually sued the FBI, claiming he had been the target of illegal wiretapping.
Part of his FBI file is the FBI's own response to that charge. They replied that they could find no evidence of authorized wiretapping in their files. You know, this seems to me like a typical Nixon-era, non-denial denial. They say they could find no evidence, but maybe they didnt look very hard. They said they could find no evidence of authorized wiretapping, but it could've been unauthorized. It's also possible that the wiretapping was not done by the FBI but was done by the New York police or some other agency.
So Lennon sometimes thought he was just being paranoid. He would say, you know, he wasnt important enough to be the target of this kind of surveillance. And other times he, you know, loudly proclaimed that he was the target of government persecution. It turns out it's the second that was correct. But he never was sure in his own time that it was the FBI that was after him.
GROSS: Do you have evidence that his phone really was tapped?
Prof. WIENER: There are no wiretapping logs in the Lennon FBI file of the kind that there are, say, in the Martin Luther King files, so...
Prof. WIENER: ...this remains an open question. I mean, he lived next door to John Cage on Bank Street, and whenever he needed to take a...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WIENER: It's, you know, it's the '60s. It's the West Village in the '60s. Whenever he needed to make, you know, a secure conversation, they would go next door and use John Cage's phone in the belief that the FBI didn't know John Cage was. They were probably right about that.
GROSS: Right. The FBI wasn't interested in chance music, huh?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WIENER: Probably not.
GROSS: You know, you say in your book that one of the things you really find fascinating about these FBI files is that they document an era when rock music seemed to have real political force. Say some more about that.
Prof. WIENER: Well, you know, it's a little hard to believe today that a president would fear the power of a rock star. Rock stars often today have political causes, but they're always or - they're often - they're usually the safe ones - you know, save the rain forest or fight breast cancer or something like that, issues that nobody is going to, you know, try to deport you for advocating.
It's still hard to figure out whether the effort to deport Lennon was a complete paranoia on Nixon's part. After all, Nixon did win the 1972 election by an overwhelming landslide. His opponent, George McGovern, carried what, two or three states, something like that. So maybe the whole thing was just paranoia on the part of Nixon matched by paranoia on the part of Lennon and his friends.
On the other hand, all of this was put in motion long before that presidential election, you know, in the winter beforehand. And at that point, I don't think it was clear to anybody that Nixon was going to win in a landslide. Nixon was concerned about this youth vote and how that might affect the elections. It wasn't clear that McGovern was going to be the candidate.
You know, there's a lot of reasons not to like Richard Nixon. I don't -never liked him very much myself. But, you know, he was one of the most successful political candidates in recent history. So I'm kind of willing to accept Nixon's judgment that Lennon's political plans for 1972 were significant, were interesting, and, you know, did merit some kind of presidential response.
GROSS: And that's something that you find interesting about the times, and something that you admire Lennon for.
Prof. WIENER: Yeah. I mean, Lennon really took risks here of a kind that you hardly see anybody ever taking. How many people in the entertainment world have faced deportation because of their political actions? I mean, what - Charlie Chaplin was sort of run out of the United States. Paul Robeson left. It was sort of the opposite, where he was denied the right to travel, and then he left, you know, anyway. You know, Bertolt Brecht fled after being quizzed by HUAC. This is a very small group of people.
So I think it underscores the intensity of Lennon's commitment. I mean, I don't think he knew the risks he was taking. But, you know, that's sort of what he was like. He was a risk-taker. He wanted to stand up for what he believed in. He wasn't going to play it safe. It wasn't a safe age. So I think that's admirable.
GROSS: Well, John Wiener, I thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. WIENER: My pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Historian John Wiener, speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000. His book about the FBI investigation of John Lennon is called "Gimme Some Truth."
John Lennon, who was murdered in 1980, would have turned 70 tomorrow.
On our website, you can link to an op-ed by John Weiner in today's L.A. Times and read letters supporting Lennon's case to stay in the country written by Bob Dylan, John Cage and others. That's at freshair.npr.org.
Coming up: Film critic David Edelstein reviews two new movies. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.