Wednesday, November 5, 2014

FBI – Covert Historian of the ‘60s?

The ‘60s were fast-moving for those involved in the Vietnam antiwar movement of the day. Most of the young activists on the campuses considered themselves New Left (NL). The Old Left, epitomized by the American Communist Party (ACP), was merely a shadow of itself after years of hounding by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, better known as the FBI, and by Congressional committees and federal prosecutors.

The NL had arisen from the ashes but not without significant changes in shape and style from its predecessor. Gone were the Old Left notions of ideological fidelity; a hierarchical structure capped by centralized leadership; policy discipline; and secrecy. The NL tolerated diverse ideas; eschewed rigid structure and top-down leadership; disdained preoccupation with organizational discipline; and, most differently, the NL banished closed-door meetings in favor of functioning as an open organization.

Predictably, it was only the rare activist who had presence of mind or the time – full time students comprised the vast majority of the NL – to take notes or keep a journal on those exciting times in their lives. But, unbeknownst to them, the FBI had assessed the NL as a security threat to the government and dedicated itself to covertly recording the political doings of the activists as proxies for the sprawling, amorphous NL writ large.

Working through agents of the FBI field offices in large cities near universities but more often through local informants, little that  targets of surveillance did in their daily routines was not of interest to the Bureau. Whether in a formulaic-style memo written by an agent summarizing an informant’s report or a direct account – say of a NL meeting – in an informant’s own words, a large volume of documents known as the target’s file was assiduously compiled in the FBI field office and dutifully copied to FBI HQ, Washington.

In their earlier penetration of the Old Left, the Bureau had relied on undercover agents who joined the ACP or its Trotskyist rival, the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). However, the typical NL activist was a college student and much younger than the average FBI agent; hence, the use of campus informants who, given the open nature of most NL gatherings, had no difficulty mingling freely with the activists they were observing.

Decades later when the tumult of the antiwar movement was but a memory, many individuals began invoking the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to access information the FBI had gathered on them. By then the confidential reports had been declassified. The vast trove of FOIA files constituted a de facto history of the New Left – or did it? Even in the heavily redacted format (to protect informants’ names), reading several individual FOIA files side by side offers an unusual up-close view inside the antiwar movement and the activities of many of its young supporters.

No one reading these long ago accounts is likely to suggest that the FBI and its clandestine minions had set out to contribute to the historical canon on the period. However, given the Bureau’s mission to stymie and disrupt the NL through disinformation and other patently illegal tactics, the emphasis in the numerous reports that flowed relentlessly into the ‘files’ tended to be unvarnished writing and factual accuracy to the greatest extent possible.

Accuracy was generally achieved such that many former activists, upon reading their FOIA files 20 to 40 years later, have been reminded of moments in their early political lives they had forgotten and have often been astonished to find near verbatim accounts of their remarks at meetings.

Two major Indiana University (IU) activists from the ‘60s – friends of my late brother Jeff Sharlet – shared their FOIA files and gave me permission to discuss them in this blog. One of the former activists is Dwight Worker, who recently published an autobiographical memoir, The Wild Years (2013), and with whom I spoke and corresponded extensively.  Dwight’s complete FOIA file runs 1300 pages and weighs in at around 7 pounds.

Cover sheet, Dwight Worker’s FOIA file

In effect, I have two versions of Dwight Worker’s IU years (1964-68) as a New Left activist – his own and the FBI’s. Often Dwight’s personal account and the covert government rendering concur on particular events, but sometimes the eager beaver informants (there were 6 of them) missed or were unable to observe, not to mention comprehend, the full extent of his actions. In some instances the FBI version and Dwight’s’ narrative are at variance.

By comparing the two accounts of Dwight Worker’s activist years, we will be able to better judge the reliability of FBI files as apertures into the micro-history of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. To be sure though, the extensively redacted government documents need to be used cautiously and carefully as guides to the past.

Once the FBI field office in Indianapolis – 50 miles to the north of the IU campus in Bloomington – drew a bead on Dwight during fall ’65, a memo on his personal background was among the first documents placed in the confidential file opened on him. The special agent who wrote the memo indicated that the information had been obtained from the IU Admissions office, one of several administrative branches of the university that cooperated with the government in its surveillance of students. The profile gave a bare bones description:

DWIGHT JAMES WORKER was born 5/17/46 in East Chicago, Indiana.   His parent was referenced as Fred Worker, 2518 Hart Road, Highland, Indiana.  He graduated from Highland High School, 1964, ranking 14th out of 249 students. ...He is registered with Draft Board 178, Hammond, Indiana....He has attended Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana, from 6/19/64 to the present date....He is employed 10 hours [a week] at the Big Wheel Restaurant and resides at 505 East 8th Street, Bloomington, Indiana.     

Dwight’s version of his background is understandably more extensive than the Admissions file. He was one of seven children of Fred Worker and his spouse, a housewife. His father dropped out of school in the seventh grade during the Depression, served in WWII with General Patton, was very patriotic, and ran his home like ‘a boot camp’. According to Dwight, the family was working poor, living from paycheck to paycheck.

Two significant aspects of Dwight’s early years were missed by the FBI – to wit, that one of his older brothers served in Vietnam in ’64 and that in his first year at IU he took his first political step by joining SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and working on their campaign to register Black voters.

Dwight Worker at Indiana University

During his Sophomore year in the fall of ’65, an SDS chapter, Students for a Democratic Society, took shape at IU, and Dwight became actively involved. Accordingly, the FBI designated him a target for surveillance. SDS’s open organizational meeting on October 3, 1965 became the subject of a 5-page report. The document’s cover sheet indicated that a new file had been opened on Dwight Worker.  Other than as a rank and filer, he didn’t play a particularly active role at that meeting at which officers were elected and various proposals voted on:

The Indiana University chapter of SDS held a public meeting at Indiana University to elect officers for the current academic year on October 3, 1965. Approximately 45 people were in attendance.      
The International Days of Protest, October 15 and 16, 1965, were discussed. It was decided that since SDS did not have enough members and is a minority on the Indiana University campus, a demonstration would not be effective on these dates. It was felt it would be far more effective if SDS turned out all of its member to protest against Richard Nixon when he speaks at Indiana University on October 17, 1965.

What the FBI was unaware of was that Dwight Worker didn’t simply drift into the fledgling IU New Left; he was quite purposeful in his decision to get involved. As mentioned, he had already become politically active in the Civil Rights Movement on campus during his first year, but it was a family tragedy that drove him into the ranks of the antiwar movement.

His brother Wayne, while serving with the Navy in Vietnam, suffered a very serious head injury in late ’64. In a coma for seven months, Wayne regained consciousness in a Chicago Veterans Administration (VA) hospital to find himself paralyzed, unable to speak clearly, and with severe memory loss.

Dwight spent time with his brother at the VA hospital. His father was devastated by his son’s condition, and Dwight returned

                   to school in the fall angry. Angry at the war
                   drums going on in the US, angry at what I
                   had seen at Hines VA hospital, angry at the
                   terrible waste, angry at the big lie.
[The Wild Years (WY), 52]

Not long after that SDS organizational meeting, former Vice President Nixon arrived on campus to speak in support of American involvement in the war in Vietnam, by then well underway since President Johnson’s (LBJ) major escalation during the spring of ’65.

Dwight joined the SDS protest demonstration outside the university auditorium where Nixon was speaking. An undercover informant reported seeing him at the demo. Otherwise the report had little to say about the protest. Nonetheless, three days later an FBI agent called upon Dwight’s high school guidance counselor who handed over his school records without hesitation.

In his recent memoir, Dwight had much more to say about the Nixon action, his first demonstration as an antiwar activist:

                   We were a pretty harmless bunch, perhaps
                   20 of us in total … surrounded by 10 campus
                   cops and over a thousand jeering, shouting
                   counter-demonstrating students. COMMUNISTS!
                   ‘COWARDS! TRAITORS! Send them to Vietnam
                   instead’ they were shouting. …

                   I held up my sign that said ‘Negotiate, Don’t
                   Bomb’. … They were throwing things at us. …
                   I looked at a nearby policeman and told him
                   about it…. He answered, ‘I would be throwing
                   things at you too’. (WY, 54)

As he became more active in SDS, Dwight became a singular focus of the FBI’s attention. In late ’65 and early ’66, he attended an SDS National Council at the University of Illinois on behalf of the IU chapter, as well as taking part as a speaker at a campus SDS forum and an all-day SDS conference at the university.  FBI informants duly filed accounts of these occasions:

                    Informant attended the SDS forum at Indiana
                   University on November 5, 1965. He stated that
                   the first speaker was DWIGHT WORKER, an
                   active member of SDS, who spoke on a trip to
                   Europe he had made recently. WORKER con-
                   cluded that international student opinion is
                   heavily against US policy in Vietnam … [a policy]
                   he described as ‘Imperialism’. WORKER seemed
                   insistently against US foreign policy in Vietnam.

Another informant reported that Dwight Worker was among 50-60 people attending an all-day SDS conference on February 19, 1966 at which a ‘reorganization proposal’ by Jeff Sharlet and Jim Wallihan was passed, and plans were made for a major demonstration in the spring when General Lewis Hershey, Director of the Selective Service System, was scheduled to speak at IU.*

Either out of modesty or memory lapse, Dwight was silent in our communications as well as in his memoir on his participation in various SDS gatherings, so it would be reasonable to assume that the FBI got it right that he was quite active in the IU chapter.

For further confirmation, Dwight makes cameo appearances in two other FBI documents amidst the Bureau’s heavy black-ink redacting – in February ’66 at the Activities Fair for Spring semester registration, he is observed manning the SDS table, while in a brief August memo he is listed among the new leadership as SDS Treasurer.

Elsewhere in Dwight’s FOIA as a result of the frequent black cross-outs, the file is simply cryptic. One report reads, ‘On February 24, 1966 this source advised’ followed by six blacked-out paragraphs. Another document states mysteriously:

                   On July 23, 1966, DWIGHT WORKER was observed
                   in the vicinity of the Indiana University Auditorium
                   and Showalter Fountain by [redacted] in company
                   with an unknown girl. WORKER and the girl got
                   into a 1959 Ford, green, bearing 1966 Indiana
                   license plate [redacted].

Presumably the report alludes to the campus rendezvous point for people heading to Indianapolis that day to demonstrate at LBJ’s scheduled speech there. A group of IU students, among whom was Karen Grote, collaborator on this blog, did indeed make it to the capital for the protest, but at the instigation of the Secret Service 28 of them were preemptively arrested before the President spoke.**

During IU’s Spring semester ’67, Jeff Sharlet became president of the campus SDS. A student informant reported to the FBI that Dwight Worker among 46 others attended the first meeting at which Jeff presided on February 23, 1967. He described the session in some detail:

                   Jeff Sharlet was chairman of this meeting…. Sharlet
                   stated that he had attended the regional SDS
                   conference at Northern Illinois University. … He said
                   that next month there will be another regional
                   meeting. He volunteered Bloomington, Indiana as
                   the site for the next meeting.

 SDS HQ in Chicago accepted the invitation, and the next regional meeting was held at IU on March 17-19, 1967. The campus chapter announced that the conference would not be open to the public, only members, and credentials would be checked. Given the FBI file’s comprehensive account of the event, including the lengthy agenda, it’s obvious that the informant was a member of SDS.

 According to his or her oral report to an FBI agent, the conference theme was ‘Student Power’ in the universities with draft resistance a secondary topic:

                   At the Sunday afternoon session … Jeff Sharlet
                   gave a talk on the subject of student power. All
                   of the discussion was focused on the point of
                   student leadership in the university by SDS
                   members. ***

 Dwight Worker who was in attendance that Sunday as well as at other sessions saw himself as a kind of protégé to Jeff Sharlet, the SDS leader. Jeff was an older ex-Vietnam GI and as Dwight saw him quite mature. He added:

                   Jeff was absolutely unique at IU. He had this
                   charisma, an understated charisma. He was
                   always calm, the one who put things in bigger
                   perspective. Jeff was masterful in handling
                   meetings with agent provocateurs and dis-
                   ruptive individuals in general.

                   He liked my energy and enthusiasm for antiwar
                   stuff – Up against the wall mother-fucker – but
                   thought I had just too much unrestrained
                   energy at times. Jeff would tell me to calm down,
                   relax, it’s going to be OK. ****

 In Dwight’s case, there was little about him that the Bureau did not regard as worthy of the file. They even kept track of what might be considered his ‘extracurricular’ or at least non-antiwar activities. Apparently FBI Indianapolis had a mail subscription to the IU campus paper, Indiana Daily Student (IDS).  Several clippings turned up in Dwight’s FOIA. One was unrelated to opposition to the war, while the other was a purely human interest story.

In the former article, IDS wrote that Dwight Worker had conducted the initial organizational session of the Sexual Freedom League at which a slate of officers was elected. In the latter clipping, which included a head shot of Dwight, he is credited with saving a toddler from drowning at a local lake.

By the fall of ’67, the FBI had fashioned an imposing political profile for Dwight Worker that they shared per request with a US Army Military Intelligence (MI) unit at a base just north of Indianapolis. Dwight was characterized as a major political activist at IU. No doubt he came to MI’s attention because of his involvement in draft resistance at the university. 

FBI profile on Dwight Worker, 1967

Reporting on a meeting of the IU anti-draft organization on October 5, 1967, a confidential source wrote that:

                   At this meeting DWIGHT WORKER proposed
                   minor harassments of the draft boards. He
                   stated that he thinks the Selective Service
                   System is very discriminatory, and he will
                    refuse to go to Vietnam under any

Just several weeks later, the New Left at Indiana University staged its most dramatic action, and the FBI gave the event and Dwight Worker’s considerable role in it maximum coverage in his file.

Dow Chemical corporate recruiters were scheduled to meet with interested IU students at the Business School. Campus activists heard that the manufacturer of napalm was in town, and the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV), an umbrella group for the university New Left, hastily organized several dozen students to sit-in at the B-school, effectively blocking the recruitment effort.

Dow had recently visited the University of Wisconsin where a pitched battle hospitalizing a number of people had ensued between protestors and the Madison police. The IU Administration took note and prepared for all eventualities. The sit-in got underway with Dwight Worker conspicuously in the forefront of the group, and police in riot gear quickly moved in. The room was cleared of protestors but for four students who chose to resist, among them Dwight.

Dwight Worker (see arrow) at the Dow sit-in, 1967

The FBI’s extensive account relied on newspaper coverage of the clash as well as on their well-placed informant. Given the violence which occurred between the police and the four resisters, the latter’s report was relatively bland:

                   About 3:15 PM on October 30, 1967, a group of
                   students in the Business School attempted to
                   enter the interview rooms occupied by Dow
                   representatives. [IU] Safety Division police
                   were unable to close the door. The students
                   made a concerted rush, and several of them
                   assaulted police officers. Police reinforcements
                   rushed to the scene and arrested 35 students….

Actually, another memo in the FBI FOIA file provided a clear hint of the forthcoming battle with the Dow. At a meeting earlier in October, the discussion turned to police harassment of protestors generally. Dwight was present and offered the group karate lessons, promising ‘he could teach them some simple karate techniques and … how to combat the police’.      

Apropos, a clipping in the file from the Bloomington press gave a more vivid account of the Dow story, focusing its coverage on Dwight Worker. Their angle was the irony that Dwight, whom they had lauded earlier in the year for saving the toddler, was back in the news as the title of the piece indicated:

Heroism Forgotten in Aftermath
Worker Faces Charges After Riots

   Dwight Worker made the news
again for conspicuous conduct.
Pictured in Bloomington and
statewide papers as a young
man being dragged semi-
conscious by a policeman
… he was identified as one of
36 demonstrators arrested in
the IU Business School after a
wild clubbing, slugging fight
between policemen and sit-ins
protesting Dow Chemical’s
on-campus job interviews.

   Worker, a 21-year old
Psychology Senior faces charges
of disorderly conduct, assault and
battery and resisting arrest. …

             A police night stick had
          clipped Worker on the back of
          the head and he spent two days
          in the IU Health Center with a

Dwight Worker being dragged to police bus following Dow protest, 1967

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Dwight as he was pursuing his activism at IU, the Indianapolis FBI had been anonymously mailing newspaper clippings on his activities to his parents. Often handwritten marginalia was added, ‘Do you know this is what your son is doing’.

After the Dow melee, Dwight drove home to visit his family after a long interval. As soon as he entered the house, his father confronted him in a rage, calling him “a GODDAMN COMMUNIST” and took a swing at his son.

                   ‘We know, we know what you been doing
                   in Bloomington. Get out of here and don’t
                   ever come back!’ …

                   I hugged my crying mother and left. That
                   was the last time I saw or spoke with them
                   for years. (WY, 78-79)

Following Dwight’s involvement in the mayhem at the B-school, the local FBI had amassed a thick file on him and decided to recommend him to the Secret Service as a serious national security threat. The recommendation was to include him in the ‘Security Index’, individuals who, in the event of a national emergency – and depending on the priority assigned – were to be either immediately detained or put under close surveillance.

FBI HQ, Washington, was sufficiently persuaded so that J Edgar Hoover sent the Director of the Secret Service a summary of Dwight Worker’s file under a cover sheet with a box checked off stating:

                   Because of background is potentially dangerous;
                   or has been identified as member or participant
                   in a communist movement; or has been under
                   active investigation as member of other group
                   or organization inimical to the US.

By early January ’68 the Secret Service had accepted the FBI’s recommendation, and Dwight Worker was described in a document as “a Priority I subject of the Security Index.”  However, a semi-annual update on the ‘subject’, which the Indianapolis field office owed to the Indianapolis branch of the Secret Service, was overdue because Dwight had left Bloomington abruptly for parts unknown.

What the FBI for all their professional diligence did not know was the full extent of Dwight’s rather dramatic running conflict with his draft board over his refusal to go to Vietnam. The conflict had come to a head in the first weeks of 1968; to avoid arrest, Dwight had gone on the lam.

In a last letter to the Selective Service System, Dwight:

                   told them I had changed my name from
                   Dwight to Adam, my address from 446 ½
                   East 2nd Street, Bloomington, Indiana, to
                   Mountains, Streams, and Forests, and my
                   race from white to Indian.

                   I signed it, ‘Fuck You Paleface’. (WY, 91)

Dwight ended up in New Mexico where to avoid detection he “lived entirely off the grid. No phones, electricity, water, gas, rent, or traceable bills of any sort.” (WY, 77). Despite these elaborate precautions, he was astonished to learn from his FOIA file a quarter of a century later that the FBI had known his whereabouts within six weeks.

In conclusion we’ve traced Dwight Worker’s journey from a typical Indiana University Freshman in 1964 to a major campus New Left activist and ultimately a fugitive national security risk by 1968. But what about the FBI as a covert historian in recording Dwight’s story?

In Dwight’s case, the Bureau with all its resources missed the drama of their subject’s culminating confrontation with the draft, which was the catalyst for his abrupt disappearance when for a time he went off the FBI’s radar. In addition, even with half a dozen conscientious informants feeding them a steady stream of information, the FBI was clueless on Dwight’s motivations, his crucial relationships with fellow activists, and the influence of certain individuals on him.

 At best we can conclude that the tens of thousands of pages now revealed in FOIA files mainly provide occasional glimpses of the New Left pursuing its goals in myriad campus venues as well as the skeletal framework of a decade of tumultuous dissent.


Dwight Worker at his farm outside Bloomington, Indiana

As for Dwight Worker, he eventually worked for years for IBM as a software engineer and was recruited by Indiana University to teach in the Business School where he won a number of teaching awards. These days in retirement, he describes himself as an international bicyclist, an organic farmer, and a writer – the memoir of late being his second book.

*** For a brief account of the election of an SDS activist as Student Body President of IU, Spring ’67, and Jeff Sharlet’s part in the campaign, see

**** Author’s interview with Dwight Worker, February 11, 2009

***** The Bloomington Tribune,  November 13, 1967