by Rich Gibson, San Diego State Professor of Education
The Einstein File, J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War by Fred Jerome
St. Martins Press 2002 358 pages, $27.95
My students are usually surprised twice about the fact that Albert Einstein, the world's most famous scientist and the fellow who proposed the Bomb to Roosevelt, was not invited to work on the Manhattan project. They are surprised that Einstein wasn't asked, and they are surprised that they never noticed the incongruity themselves.
Now, another surprise: while the Manhattan project was riddled with Soviet spies who went undetected until the secrets were already out, Einstein, a loyal oppositionist, was under constant surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover's corrupt and incompetent Federal Bureau of Investigation. Fred Jerome, author of The Einstein File, Hoover's Secret War, has the documents to prove it. Jerome, a lifelong radical, knows what it is like. His own family was subjected to similar surveillance in New York City when he was a youth in the 1950's.
Following path-breaking research by Richard Alan Schwarz, a Florida professor and author of the Cold War Reference Guide, Jerome obtained Einstein's FBI file through a series of battles with the agency. He had the assistance of the Public Citizen Litigation Group. And he followed up with key, often revealing, interviews with the players themselves, from all sides.
What Jerome unveils is what James Loewen noted earlier in Lies My Teacher Told Me; history is often sanitized and what is erased in the case of Albert Einstein is a passion for socialist humanist politics. Readers of Monthly Review are likely to be familiar, in general, with Einstein's outlook. His article "Why Socialism?" first appeared in the journal in 1949 and has run yearly since. Even so, what Jerome offers is a multi-dimensional view of Einstein as a fighter, going beyond his theoretical contributions to his courageous everyday social practice.
Einstein's political theory isn't thin, of course. Indeed, some of it has particular import today: "The flag is a symbol of the fact that man is still a herd animal." And Einstein regretfully reconsidered his theoretical pacificism in the face of the Nazi onslaught he escaped.
But in a period when all of North American citizenry is being set up as an internal spy agency, a service limited to groups like the American Legion before 2001, Einstein's experience with the FBI is especially instructive. Hoover did all he could to ruin Albert Einstein in the name of patriotism. Hoover's actions, wrapped in language of the common good, damaged masses of people.
Einstein was denied key security clearances, bugged, followed. Hoover even thought about deporting him-hard to do to the world's most beloved playful intellectual. As Jerome demonstrates, Hoover mixed his anti-semitism with anti-communism, much like the Nazi movement where he found many of his resources like the rantings of Elizabeth Dilling, author of the notorious Red Network, a compilation of fictions that Hoover used as a guide to the left, and Hoover's contacts with his Nazi counterpart, Heinrich Himmler, a favored Hoover correspondent until 1939.
Hoover despised Einstein, wanted to show him up as a spy. Einstein, after all, stood for all Hoover loathed: internationalism, anti-racism, rationalism, openness. Jerome has the details of how Hoover's hatred played out, not only in documents but in gripping interviews with some of the agents assigned to twist facts into indictments.
Still, what Jerome offers here is not just the history of the effort, first, to demonize Einstein, and later to neuter him, but a chilling history of U.S. intelligence services, steeped in targeting those who see friendly connections between people as a way to social progress. Not merely Einstein, but an era, is portrayed here, an era that is reverberating now, loud. In passing, we encounter the battle against Lynch Law, Paul Robeson, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Dubois (America's greatest historian tired as a foreign agent), a fairly predictable cast, but illuminated in new ways.
It is significant to be reminded that Hoover's attacks on Einstein were, of course, personal, but the vilification took place in an epoch when open anti-semitism and proto-fascist pronouncements were part of the popular discourse. The most widely circulated Catholic newspaper in the U.S. editorialized, on anti-semitic grounds, for Einstein's deportation.
There are amusing moments within the Einstein File, and a few annoyances. Jerome must have been a pamphleteer at some point in his career and occasionally he has a hard time overcoming that style. There are suggestions that some players "couldn't organize their way out of a paper bag," or "..without foreigners it is unlikely the Manhattan project could have produced a firecracker." Thinking about "Tail-Gunner Joe" McCarthy's aide, Roy Cohn, as the "apple of Hoover's eye," may cause chuckles, or chills, in a variety of communities.
Teachers will find a wealth of what might be inadvertent material here. Einstein was always interested in pedagogy. It won't give away the game to show two gems:"Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty." "I am not more gifted, just more curious."
It is not surprising at all that Einstein was prescient in social matters. Early in the depression he wrote that it was clear that abundance existed, that all the necessary human connections existed, for all to lead reasonably decent lives, yet what was absent was the intelligent will to share. He made every effort to take risks to publicly join and support groups that organized for his views. What is surprising is that this well-known history was so quickly obliterated.
Jerome's well-organized and nicely referenced ambush on secrecy in the
Einstein File recreates a living Einstein, an unrelieved humble
rebel finding his own way in a new nation where he came full of hope, but
quickly found disappointment. Yet Einstein never gave in, never quit. In
restoring this part of Einstein's life, Jerome tenders reason for continued
resistance and hope.
(Rich Gibson, with Wayne Ross, recently edited a special Marxism and Education edition of the on-line journal, Cultural Logic).
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