The FBI's secret war against Albert Einstein

Wednesday, September 25, 2002 - 10:00

The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against

the World's Most Famous Scientist
By Fred Jerome
St. Martin's Press, 2002
358 pages, $40 (hb)

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

When "communism" was the official flavour-of-the-month threat in the US, the spectre of Russian spies was expertly wielded by the capitalist state to impose political conservatism.

In the 1950s, because of alleged associations with this "threat", millions of US citizens were spied on, thousands blacklisted out of jobs, hundreds imprisoned or deported, two executed and much of the American population bullied or persuaded into political silence.

With the FBI of the fanatically anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover doing the snooping and harassment, popular fame afforded no protection. Albert Einstein may have been the world's most famous scientist but as an anti-militarist, anti-racist, socialist and internationalist, he was just more file-fodder for the FBI. His very popularity made him a priority target for Hoover's G-men in the hope of damaging Einstein's, and socialism's, credibility.

Fred Jerome's expertly told story of Hoover vs Einstein is an excellent reminder that the business of "security" is really about the security of business. Hoover defended US capitalism and its military might against "disloyal" dissenters like Einstein who wanted a more equal, more just and more peaceful world.

Einstein's FBI file grew to 1800 pages over 22 years, from his arrival in the US from Germany in 1933 to his death in 1955. Einstein, on Hitler's hit list as a brilliant Jewish scientist and anti-Nazi, arrived in the US just 18 days before the Nazis seized power but he almost didn't make it as the State Department attempted to block his visa based on allegations from a US far-right group that Einstein was a "communist". This was the first of many pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic "sources" which fed the FBI with invented tales of Einstein's "communism".

Fearing international ridicule for barring the Nobel Prize winner, the State Department relented but, along with the FBI, War Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service, continued to keep tabs on the draft-dodger and pacifist who lectured by day on relativity and in the evening urged civil disobedience against military service.

Hoover was soon on the case of this dangerous radical. Before the Nazis' threat as rival imperialists outweighed their status as useful anti-communists, the FBI and the Gestapo had worked together in the hunt for communists. Einstein's file grew with each German he sponsored for refugee status for whom the Gestapo had a "record" of "communist sympathies".

Einstein's support for the Lincoln Brigade, the US Communist Party-led American volunteer soldiers against the fascist Franco in the Spanish Civil War, was further "evidence" of Einstein's undesirablity to Hoover who had a deep empathy with the anti-Semitic and fascist off-shoots of the far-right.

@BODY TEXT SPA = When Einstein put aside his pacifism to support the Allied war effort against the fascist juggernaut and signed a letter in 1939 successfully urging President Franklin Roosevelt to commit the US to building an atomic bomb to counter Nazi Germany's nuclear bomb project, the FBI sprung into action.

Einstein was ruled off the US bomb project after US Army Counter-Intelligence Corps, using the FBI for background checks of scientists, red-inked Einstein's name.

Einstein was later to call his letter to the president his "one great mistake in my life" after the atomic bomb was used against Japan, a criminal act which Einstein saw as militarily unnecessary and politically motivated (to rush-end the Pacific war solely to intimidate the Soviet Union).

Einstein joined the anti-nuclear movement, heading the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which the FBI saw as a threat to America's nuclear monopoly and imperialist reach and thus a "communist front" with Einstein a "big name", "innocent" sponsor.

Einstein's anti-racism further inflamed Hoover. Twelve months after the end of the "war to save democracy", some 50 African Americans, most of them war veterans, were killed by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist vigilantes. Einstein, the Jewish victim of racism in Germany, reached out to the African-American victims of racism through articles, speeches and sponsorship of campaigns against racist violence and injustice. He accepted Paul Robeson's offer to co-chair the American Crusade to End Lynching.

Robeson was a trigger for more FBI salivating. A world-famous bass baritone, former All-American footballer, actor and well-known radical leftist, Robeson was severely blacklisted in the '50s and Einstein's continuing friendship with Robeson was a public act of multi-racial and socialist solidarity.

Einstein was a prominent supporter of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party in the presidential elections of 1948. The sacked Democrat commerce secretary opposed anti-Soviet policies and nuclear war. When the US Communist Party strongly supported the Wallace campaign, and Wallace refused to give way to Red-baiting, it fed the anti-Red, and anti-Einstein, frenzy of the FBI.

Einstein did not hide his socialism. In the first issue of the independent socialist Monthly Review magazine in 1949, Einstein's article, "Why Socialism", eloquently put the case against the "economic anarchy of capitalism", and its worship of competitiveness. Critical of Stalinism (Soviet socialism had "a lot of merit" but "unfortunately in Russia, it is an experiment conducted in a poorly equipped laboratory"), Einstein argued that US imperialism was the main danger.

<%-2>He joined a public appeal for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 as spies. In a cynically political trial, the Rosenbergs had been convicted on the perjured evidence of Ethel's brother who lied under oath and incriminated Julius and Ethel to save himself.<%0>

Spy mania was soon to catch up with Einstein, who had been monitored from afar by the FBI — his file listed 70 "subversive" organisations which Einstein, a very public joiner, had supported, lending his prestige to the voiceless and victimised including (unlike most liberals) the US Communist Party.

Immediately after the war, the FBI began direct surveillance of Einstein — phone taps, opening of mail, "trash watch" (rummaging through his garbage) and clandestine searches of homes and offices.

Einstein, like other celebrity suspects such as Charlie Chaplin, was simply too popular to be hauled up before Senator Joseph McCarthy's televised show trials of "commie sympathisers" and "dupes". To undermine Einstein's influence, the FBI needed to sell Einstein to the public as a spy engaged in espionage for the Kremlin.

The flimsiest leads were pursued, against all logic and evidence. The ludicrous parade of sources with tales to tell of Einstein's links to spies, real and imagined, included unsubstantiated newspaper reports; informants suffering from schizophrenia and dementia; and anti-Semitic, deranged, crackpot letters to the FBI about Einstein developing death rays and mind-control robots.

The allegation that from 1929-32, Einstein allowed his Berlin home to relay coded telegrams from Soviet spies in Asia via German communist couriers to Moscow, came from a Nazi intelligence operative relaying one of the many hoaxes invented by the "Jewish Desk" of the Nazi security service.

Other sources included con artists and blackmailers, and "former" Nazis and ex-Stalinists retailing self-serving allegations designed to boost their stocks with their new object of political desire (US imperialism). All these "leads" unravelled upon investigation. The FBI case against Einstein was running on empty.

For five years from 1950, Hoover had built his worthless case against "Einstein the spy" on the hoaxes and fantasies of far-right nutters, anti-Semitic bigots, "ex"-Nazis and apostate Stalinists.

Where the FBI failed, however, the "Einstein industry" has had more success. Coffee mugs, T-shirts and other Einsteinia are premised on Einstein as just a head-in-the-clouds, eccentric genius. The capitalist media, too, have excised Einstein's radical politics — when Time magazine selected Einstein as its "Person of the Century" in 1999 there was no mention of his socialism.

As Jerome argues, however, Einstein's politics are needed once again after "9/11" has ramped up all of Einstein's old enemies — racism, patriotism, war, the curtailing of civil rights and silencing of dissent.

You don't have to be Einstein to figure out which is the better world — Hoover and George Bush's war of rich against poor or Einstein and the socialist way of solidarity and social justice — but Einstein's refusal to bow to the repressive, war-mongering, racist "national security" state of Nazis, or American "democrats", is an example worth emulating in response to the latest, War on Terror, cover for the sacred rights of the dollar at home and abroad.

From Green Left Weekly, September 25, 2002.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

From GLW issue 510