Reclaiming Einstein's Legacy
Why the FBI went after the
"Person of the Century, and how the same mistakes are being
by Albert Huebner
Toward Freedom, Winter 2003
In his book The Einstein File, Fred Jerome
explains why and how J. Edgar Hoover's FBI put together an 1800
page dossier on the greatest scientist of the time. Nominally
about the past, his account contains important lessons for everyone
living in the US today, and for many people elsewhere. First of
all, Einstein advocated antimilitarism, internationalism, and
socialism, causes that Hoover considered repugnant. But the scientist
didn't just harbor "unpopular" opinions; he actively
and openly supported the causes he believed in. For example, he
served as Honorary Chairman of the War Resisters League, was on
the National Committee of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,
and vigorously backed Henry Wallace's 194S Progressive Party presidential
Above all, Einstein passionately supported
civil rights and opposed racism. Even before moving to the US
he had joined the campaign to save the Scottsboro Boys (nine Black
youths accused of raping two white girls and convicted on flimsy
evidence by an all-White jury), and spent years after settling
in Princeton, NJ vigorously supporting efforts to end Iynching.
This included co-chairing the American Crusade to End Lynching
with Paul Robeson, and led to a close friendship with Robeson,
as well as with W.E.B. Dubois.
These associations convinced the FBI director
that the scientist was a dangerous subversive. Worse yet for Hoover,
Einstein was hugely popular at that time and his intellect was
widely respected. If the professor was allowed to express such
views, others might follow. Hoover's response was to launch an
intensive probe, sometimes bordering on the lunatic, designed
to discredit and deport Einstein.
An enormous amount of time and money was
spent on pointless investigations that, predictably, went nowhere.
Some of these antics might have been amusing in a Hollywood screwball
comedy, but not when affecting the lives of real people. The document
that begins the FBI's file provides an example: a memo from the
Woman Patriot Corporation calls for the scientist's deportation,
charging him with every variety of political subversiveness, along
with belittling his theory of relativity. For good measure, they
added that he "apparently cannot talk English."
Some of the FBI's inquiries were similarly
divorced from reality. The Bureau spent years searching for Einstein's
son, Albert Jr., since agents claimed he was being held as a hostage
in Russia. The search was made more difficult, Jerome explains,
"by the fact that no such person existed." Another goal
of the FBI probe was to establish a connection between Einstein
and the British atomic spy Klaus Fuchs, in the face of overwhelming
evidence to the contrary.
Years later this "intelligence,"
although thoroughly discredited by the Bureau s own investigators,
was still being distributed by Hoover to other agencies. Using
the Freedom of lnformation Act, Jerome has chronicled the massive
malfeasance, which included wiretapping, the interception of mail,
and information from unreliable sources, including Hoovers pals
in Nazi Germany. Taken together, it's enough to make a civil libertarian
The political climate today is no less
disturbing. Chinese-American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, more
vulnerable than Einstein, was imprisoned, shackled, locked in
solitary confinement for nine months and denied bail, all based
on FBI testimony that an agent later admitted was untrue. The
rumor that Lee had flunked a lie detector test also proved false.
When Lee was finally released, a federal judge apologized for
the government misconduct, a small consolation after the scientists
life was shattered.
In a less publicized, and therefore perhaps
more ominous case, the government tried to silence physicist Theodore
Postel for his multiple transgressions. Following the Gulf War,
Postel publicly exposed as fake many of the Pentagons widely televised
claims that its Patriot missiles shot down many Iraqi Scud missiles.
After the current Bush Administration took office, Postel criticized
its push to step up the national missile defense program, distributing
an unclassified document over the Internet. The document revealed
that Pentagon claims of successful antimissile tests were based
on doctored data. In response, on grounds that national security
was at risk, the Pentagon threatened to withdraw lucrative contracts
from MIT unless the university muzzled Postel.
This violation of civil liberties occurred
before 9/11. After that attack, of course, the war on terrorism
supplanted the "communist conspiracy" as a pretext for
repression, while measures like the US Patriot Act and Operation
TIPS replaced similar repressive actions that date back to Hoover's
long tyranny. The Palmer raids, organized by Hoover, led to the
arrest of thousands of "suspected" communists, many
severely beaten by police or paraded through the streets in chains.
Most of them, including US citizens arrested "by mistake,"
were eventually released, except for about 500 who were deported-with
little protest from the rest of the country. Similarly, the Patriot
Act has given the government vast new powers to spy on and harass
immigrants and citizens alike. More than a thousand people have
been detained, their civil rights ignored. Again, protest from
the rest of the country has been minimal.
For several years the American Legion
ran a Contact Program, designed to help the FBI monitor "persons
of foreign extraction or possible un-American sympathies."
TIPS, Attorney-General John Ashcroft's current version, aims at
domestic spying on a broader scale. It was conceived originally
to include postal workers and utility employees, as well as truckers
and transit workers. But Ashcroft knew the blow TIPS would deliver
to civil liberties. During a TV interview shortly after 9/11,
Senator John Warner instructed viewers: "You must think of
yourself as an agent, not to spy on your neighbors, but to judiciously
report anything that looks suspicious." Within two weeks,
nearly half a million people called the FBI to inform on their
neighbors, especially if they were-or perhaps only looked like-Arabs.
Although Hoover's campaign to brand Einstein
a communist and have him deported basically failed, it did succeed
in one important way. The director's concern was that Einstein's
views might become widely known, and influence others. That didn't
As he wrote in 1949, Einstein understood
that it is difficult for the individual to make intelligent use
of his political rights because power is concentrated in a few
hands that "inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the
main sources of information (press, radio, education)." Einstein
certainly attempted to make his political views public. Yet he
is renowned for theories people don't understand, while his political
beliefs remain little known to this day. The mass media, uncorrected
by fellow-scientists or historians, have successfully sterilized
his image. Chosen as "Person of the Century" by Time,
he was described as a "kindly, absentminded professor...wild
halo of hair, piercing eyes." According to a Nova special,
"Einstein Revealed," he was an "other-worldly genius."
Most mainstream media don't even acknowledge
that Einstein had a political life.
But Jerome properly describes it. Einstein,
he writes, was "a man who never stops trying, never stops
working to bring about liberty, equality, and fraternity for everyone,
not just those who can afford to pay." If exposure of Hoover's
once-secret files, perhaps abetted by a growing alternative media
movement open to progressive ideas, creates a new awareness of
Einstein's political convictions and courageous activism, that
could certainly be called poetic justice.
Albert Huebner teaches at California State