Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Tall Tales – The New Left According to J Edgar Hoover

Spring ’65. The US escalates the war in Vietnam. ‘Rolling Thunder’, the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, is launched, and the first American combat units go ashore in South Vietnam. Students rise in protest on many campuses stateside. Opposition to the war emerges at Indiana University (IU), growing exponentially over the next several years.  Although relatively moderate in scale compared with Berkeley or the University of Wisconsin, IU comes to the attention of the FBI.
As the antiwar movement grew across the country, President Johnson (LBJ) became obsessed with the idea that the Russians or Cubans were behind it – a familiar Washington scenario of Communist subversion at work. He tasked J Edgar Hoover to get the goods. The ‘Bureau’, as the FBI was called by insiders, created a program to monitor all anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and directed its 59 field offices and numerous satellite branches across the country to keep an eye on colleges and universities within their jurisdictions.

The Bureau had at its disposal well-tested tools for surveilling and disrupting the antiwar movement, techniques honed in its no-holds barred postwar campaign against the American Communist Party (CPUSA) and rival Marxist groups. By the mid-‘60s, the CPUSA had been thoroughly penetrated by FBI informants and was a shadow of its prewar self, although its smaller Trotskyist and Maoist rivals were going strong.

Responding to a rattled LBJ who in ’67 loudly declared to his cabinet, “I’m not going to let the Communists take this government,”* Hoover deployed the vast resources of his secret agency against the antiwar movement. Shocked during spring ‘68 by SDS’s temporary takeover of Columbia University, the Director escalated, intensifying his campaign under a code word he’d coined in 1956 for work against the Old Left, COINTELPRO, or Counter Intelligence Program, this time directed at the New Left. The Indianapolis (Indy) Field Office took note, stepping up its surveillance of colleges and universities in the State of Indiana experiencing student unrest, most notably IU at Bloomington.
How do we know this? Under the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI recently began posting the archives of its long ago campaign against the New Left and related groups on a new web site. This included the Indy FBI’s files on IU for the years 1967-69, a skewed tale of the now well-known history of activism at IU in the ‘60s** viewed through the distorting lens of an organization long accustomed to chasing Communists. Indeed, one IU activist was known to be a ‘card-carrying’ member of the CPUSA, while several others considered themselves ‘communists’. Operating at the margins of campus protest, however, those individuals had negligible influence on events.

The Indy office stood among the vanguard against the New Left in the FBI network and was determined to confirm the President’s and J Edgar’s suspicions that the Soviets were calling the shots in the antiwar movement. However, the problem was they were using an investigative template in their IU operation that led them to pose the wrong questions about the New Left, which had broken with the Old Left modus organizational model nationally.   

Out the window went CPUSA shibboleths such as the need for a strong leader, ideological conformity, a hierarchical organization, strict rank and file discipline, ‘front’ organizations, and the creation of misleading propaganda. Yet, like generals fighting the last war, these were the markers the Indiana FBI was looking for. At the time, the Bureau only distinguished between left and rightwing targets of investigation. It was later that Hoover created an internal division of labor between continuing surveillance of Old Left organizations and the more active pursuit of New Left groups.

Predictably, the Special Agent in Charge-Indianapolis (SAC-Indy), had great difficulty finding evidence of ‘Soviet influence’ among the IU New Left, but this didn’t deter him from pulling out all the stops in pursuit of the Director’s objective. Indy’s modus operandi included aggressively interviewing student leaders to remind them the feds were watching and collecting covert ‘intelligence’ gathered by two student informants rated excellent, one of whom had access to the campus New Left leadership. Sent on to Washington, SAC-Indy’s myriad secret reports produced a caricature of a mini-Communist conspiracy on a conservative Midwestern campus in a small southern Indiana town.

Although the Indy FBI’s memoranda of 40+ years ago are redacted to conceal informants’ names and even the targets of surveillance in places, a latter day file clerk’s carelessness left the names of targets uncensored elsewhere in the reporting. Hence, the FBI dubbed Steve Cagan, a grad student, the mastermind of the IU conspiracy. As a founder of the campus chapter of the Dubois Clubs of America, successor to CPUSA’s former youth auxiliary, the Young Communist League, Cagan was a convenient leadership candidate, especially when he formed the ‘Indiana Central Office for Peace Action’ (ICOPA) in late June ’67 “to coordinate all the antiwar and anti-draft organizations in the State of Indiana.”*** However, the ‘catch’, as the same FBI report conceded, was that Cagan left IU six weeks later, leaving the ICOPA, which had accomplished little, defunct.

The FBI’s search for ideological coherence, not to mention consistency, at IU proved equally challenging since neither was a characteristic of the sprawling New Left. Neither of the two marginal campus groups that were often at sword’s point ideologically – the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), youth division of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organization that broke away from the CPUSA; and its rival, the Dubois Club – could divine what the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest campus group, stood for other than opposing the Vietnam War.

The quest for a hierarchical structure at the heart of the IU conspiracy was especially elusive given the diversity of student organizations and the amorphous nature of SDS. Almost lamentably, SAC-Indy had to inform J Edgar that at IU “SDS … has no organizational structure. All of their activities depend on individual activists and are spontaneous.”*** In spite of its Soviet lineage, the Dubois Club seemed not much more promising in terms of observable structure, appearing primarily as a handful of individuals. The only hope the FBI found that met the criterion of at least “a degree” of organizational structure was YSA.

Even more troublesome for the traditional FBI template of a Soviet-influenced Communist conspiracy was the expectation of a disciplined rank and file. However, absent a ‘party line’(in Bureau nomenclature) and given the rather nebulous group structures, both the necessary command and enforcement mechanisms were missing from the equation. To add to the Indy FBI’s woes, nailing down the strength of these groups was a guessing game. As Mary Ann Wynkoop, the historian of IU dissent, noted, membership among the various IU activist outfits tended to overlap, making head counts less than reliable and an individual’s primary allegiance somewhat of a mystery.** Long accustomed to referring to CPUSA rank and filers as ‘card-carrying members’, SAC-Indy’s report to the director had to acknowledge that membership in SDS was largely “a state of mind,”*** while qualifiers such as ‘approximately’, ‘about’, or ‘estimated at’ had to be used to report the strength of other New Left groups.

Determined to get at least a piece of the conspiracy puzzle right, the FBI rapporteurs classified  the IU chapter of the ‘Committee to End the War in Vietnam’ (CEWV), a large and inclusive umbrella antiwar group founded at University of Wisconsin-Madison in ‘65, as a ‘front organization’, meaning a group manipulated from behind the scenes by a controlling organization. Since the alleged mastermind, Cagan, had been involved with CEWV before leaving IU, the FBI concluded it was a ‘front’ for the very small Dubois Club, presumably Cagan’s political home, a group on the US Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations, a designation which created problems for the Club with IU’s Administration, but that’s another story.

Later the FBI surmised that control of the front had shifted to the rival YSA chapter, the distinction between a pro-Moscow group and an anti-Moscow Trotskyist group apparently having little meaning for the single-minded Bureau back in Washington.  The CEWV functioned much less conspiratorially at IU and elsewhere as a big tent for mobilizing antiwar demonstrations since not all New Left groups wished to march under the SDS flag – most notably YSA members who spoke contemptuously of SDS’s lack of right thinking as well as its loosey-goosey structure, discipline, and countercultural habits – the very qualities of openness which attracted thousands of students to SDS at campuses throughout the country.

Finally, as any rookie FBI man would know, a Communist conspiracy worth its salt puts out propaganda or slanted, misleading public information to tarnish its opponents. Other than the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the SDS bible, most campus organizations were generally not given to issuing manifestos, especially at a conservative institution like IU where such rhetoric would likely fall on deaf ears, even possibly engendering hostility and hindering recruitment of potential new members to the cause. Conveniently for the Indy FBI, in the wake of protest actions in ‘67, IU SDS and CEWV issued public statements charging excessive force or ‘police brutality’. Indy labeled these charges unfounded, made “for publicity value only” [Read: propaganda].****

In fact, at the first of these protests in Bloomington in June ‘67 led by Brother Jeff Sharlet, Jim Wallihan, and Joe Fuhrmann, a passer-by witnessed excessive force by a plainclothes detective who repeatedly beat a handcuffed student with his flashlight. In another protest jointly led by SDS and CEVW several months later, the FBI report again defended the police, emphasizing their injuries, and minimizing student injuries as just a cut on the mouth and an injured ear. On that occasion campus security along with the local police, county sheriffs, and the Indiana State Police, decked out in protective gear with riot sticks, used disproportionate force to subdue a handful of students who refused orders to cease their sit-in. Two of the students suffered head injuries, one serious, and had to be sent to the hospital.


A student casualty of the October ’67 protest

Although extensive feedback to Washington did not confirm the projected image of a Soviet-inspired antiwar movement at IU, SAC-Indy assured Hoover that the student “ringleaders” (names blacked out, but well known on campus)  – Russell Block, Steve Cagan, Joe Fuhrmann,  Bob Grove, Robin Hunter, Bob Johnson, Dan Kaplan, Jeff Sharlet, and Jim Wallihan, among others – were either on or recommended for the “Security Index,” a list of citizens considered a sufficient threat to national security that in event of a national emergency they could be subjected to actions ranging from heightened surveillance and tracking, to immediate detention.***** J Edgar responded with a well done.

*T Weiner, Enemies: A History of the FBI (2012)
** M A Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (2002)
*** SAC-Indianapolis to Director, FBI (6/25/68)
****SAC-Indianapolis to Director, FBI (7/15/68)
***** SAC-Indianapolis to Director, FBI (6/3/68)


-Surveillance at IU:   http://jeffsharletandvietnamgi.blogspot.com/2011/03/surveillance-at-indiana-university.html
-Police brutality:  http://jeffsharletandvietnamgi.blogspot.com/2011/12/unsung-hero-of-gi-resistance.html
-Dow protest: http://www.dlib.indiana.edu/omeka/archives/studentlife/exhibits/show/studentdemonstrationsatiu/1967dowchemicalsitin

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