The Edward Snowden-John Steinbeck Connection

John Steinbeck, fiction writer, and Edward Snowden with truth image superimposed

Edward Snowden, former national security technocrat turned NSA whistleblower. John Steinbeck, 1962 Nobel laureate fiction writer and the subject of FBI files published in 2002. Two famous figures—separated by time, talent, and the tools they used to expose the abuse of political power in their era. Books from John Steinbeck mobilized public opinion on behalf of migrant workers. Emails from Edward Snowden exposed electronic surveillance on a global scale. Both the fiction writer and the NSA leaker risked their safety and traveled to Russia. As the Edward Snowden saga plays out, the story behind the FBI files on John Steinbeck is suddenly relevant again. Two respected books about Hoover and the FBI files show why.

Although the controversy over books from John Steinbeck took longer to reach Washington than reaction to Snowden, public response to the fiction writer in 1939 set off tensions in the White House, with Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover on opposing sides. As Richard Powers points out in The Life of J. Edgar Hoover: Secrecy and Power (Free Press, 1987), FBI files on liberals like Steinbeck had been used to discredit opponents of the administration as early as 1935. But the systematic surveillance of American citizens actually began in 1914 under Woodward Wilson—like Roosevelt, a progressive Democratic president. Notes Powers: “Hoover vigorously represented throughout his life that population of traditional Americans, largely middle-class, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon, who were frightened by the changes they felt were depriving them of their privileged position in an ever more pluralistic society.” Hoover was a perfect choice when the time to prosecute pluralists arrived.

How Books from John Steinbeck
Ended Up in Hoover’s FBI Files

John Steinbeck was a California schoolboy with German relatives when Wilson laid the groundwork for the American security state. Hoover, an ambitious young Washington insider, was working at an entry-level job cataloging books for the Library of Congress in 1914. Seven years older than the future fiction writer, he was Steinbeck’s mirror opposite. Like Snowden, he was comfortable with data. Unlike Steinbeck, he was a prim, proper puritan, intolerant of dissent and distrustful of non-whites. A born communist-hunter, he sharpened his skills on suspected German sympathizers as a draft-exempt employee of the United States government.

Days after America declared war on Germany in 1917, Wilson authorized the investigation of German aliens suspected of anti-American sentiment. According to Powers, 4.5 million Americans of German or Austro-Hungarian descent ended up on government lists by the time the war ended. Hoover, a budding bureaucrat with friends in high places, was hired to collect data on potential deportees. As America’s first Red Scare reached its peak following the war, he rose rapidly, becoming acting director of the agency in charge of domestic spying on suspected communists in 1924. When the modern FBI was created in 1935, Hoover was put in charge.

Hoover vigorously represented throughout his life that population of traditional Americans, largely middle-class, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon, who were frightened by the changes they felt were depriving them of their privileged position in an ever more pluralistic society.

By 1939, with another world war looming, books from John Steinbeck included In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, the three greatest labor novels by any American fiction writer. The Grapes of Wrath provoked animosity from interests with ties to Washington; neither Steinbeck’s growing celebrity nor Eleanor Roosevelt’s public support was enough to protect the fiction writer from Hoover’s FBI. A first-class flatterer, Hoover provided a daily flow of information to President Roosevelt about his political enemies. Political friends like John Steinbeck frequently got caught in the stream.

Lessons from Hoover’s Secret War
On America’s Famous Fiction Writer

How did Hoover win his fight for Roosevelt’s heart? A personal note to the president, penned by Hoover in 1940 at the height of the smear campaign against John Steinbeck, reads like a love letter to the head of a modern totalitarian state. It isn’t hard to imagine how a fiction writer with Steinbeck’s spirit would have reacted if he’d read Hoover’s ass-kissing words to Roosevelt: “In noting the vast contrast between the Leader of our Nation and those of less fortunate nations, I feel deeply thankful that we have at the head of our Government one who possesses such sterling, sincere, and altogether human qualities.” (It’s chilling to consider that Edward Snowden’s present safety depends on a Russian leader surrounded by flatterers like Hoover.)

John Steinbeck and Franklin Roosevelt met for the first time in the fall of 1939. Hoover vetted important visitors for the president, so the FBI files on John Steinbeck  probably began as preparation for that meeting—though Hoover denied their existence until the day he died. Yet nothing before 1942 appears in FBI files on the fiction writer. Did Hoover destroy documents to protect Roosevelt? That’s the inference of Top Secret: The FBI Files on John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch (New Century Books, 2002). What survives from the FBI files on Steinbeck is revealing nonetheless, obsessing about the author’s habits, friends, and beliefs. Books from John Steinbeck were scoured for clues to the writer’s character. Except for references to FBI training in the plot of Steinbeck’s last novel, the FBI files on John Steinbeck say nothing meaningful about the content of  his fiction. They attack his motives but ignore his message.

In noting the vast contrast between the Leader of our Nation and those of less fortunate nations, I feel deeply thankful that we have at the head of our Government one who possesses such sterling, sincere, and altogether human qualities.

Those who make Edward Snowden’s motivation the issue rather than the abuses he revealed are following the same playbook today—distraction. That’s why it’s important to examine the FBI files assembled on John Steinbeck under five American presidents for parallels to the present. Roosevelt was no Putin. Nor was Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Johnson. Ironically, only Richard Nixon managed to reduce Hoover’s power, perhaps because Nixon understood Hoover better than his predecessors in the White House. Remember: Deep Throat—the source of information that helped bring down Nixon’s presidency in 1974,—was a disaffected employee of Hoover’s FBI. Hoover died in 1972, and Deep Throat started talking.

Like John Steinbeck and Edward Snowden, Hoover embodied a personality type found in every era. Steinbecks and Snowdens value liberty over security and elevate the individual above the state. The Hoovers of the world are born authoritarians, gravitating instinctively to power and jealously guarding the status quo. Hoover achieved unprecedented control  by collecting secret information, using it to hurt the natural enemies of his peculiar species, including Steinbeck. This conflict for dominance continues in our time, connecting Steinbeck’s story with Snowden’s and Hoover’s FBI with the NSA.

Read more in What the FBI FIles Reveal about Hoover’s War on Steinbeck.

 

 

What FBI Files Reveal about Hoover’s War on Steinbeck

John Steinbeck, fiction writer, photo

As books from John Steinbeck became popular in the 1930s, Europe armed for war. Like Woodrow Wilson in 1914, Franklin Roosevelt was secretly preparing for America’s entry into international conflict by authorizing domestic surveillance in the name of national security. J. Edgar Hoover was only a foot soldier in Wilson’s campaign against German sympathizers in 1917. By the time Roosevelt issued his secret surveillance authorization order in 1936, Hoover was a veteran of the hunt for German sympathizers and the campaign against suspected communists following the end of the war. By 1935, when he was appointed director of the FBI, Hoover had developed a delicate nose for Americans with German or leftist associations. John Steinbeck had both.

As Roosevelt’s chief domestic spy, Hoover believed in fishing with a big net. He understood the benefits of secrecy, data, and dragnet tactics, and Roosevelt’s executive order authorizing secret domestic surveillance allowed him to exercise his talents in all three areas.  As Richard Powers explains the situation in The Life of J. Edgar Hoover: Secrecy and Power, “the domestic intelligence apparatus Hoover assembled for Roosevelt [was] part of the president’s covert preparation against the possibility of war, a secrecy made necessary because of the public’s resistance to any attempt to make it realize the true danger of the international situation.”  According to Powers, Hoover became “Roosevelt’s effective, loyal, and indispensable agent.” Steinbeck was devoted to the progressive policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hoover was loyal to the pragmatic president in a more personal and practical way.

Fiction Writer vs. Spy in Chief

The FBI files on John Steinbeck—a fiction writer who upset people without really trying—reflect the differences already noted between Hoover and Steinbeck. Hoover equated patriotism with morality and always wore a suit. Steinbeck dressed and lived casually. Hoover never married. Steinbeck had three wives during his lifetime, and according to FBI files the first registered as a communist in 1937.  Steinbeck was pro-labor and always sympathized with the underdog. Hoover was anti-union and gravitated to authority. If Hoover read The Grapes of Wrath when Steinbeck’s novel was published in 1939, he probably didn’t like it. The FBI files document his disapproval of the author’s lifestyle.

Do you suppose you could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I’m an enemy alien. It’s getting tiresome.

In 1942 Steinbeck wrote the letter that made Hoover an enemy for life. Four years earlier California elected the liberal Cuthbert Olson as governor—the state’s first Democratic chief executive since 1895—and Olson named progressive activists like Steinbeck’s ally Carey McWilliams, author of Factories in the Field, to his new administration. Steinbeck’s sense of political progress in California and America, along with his growing reputation as a fiction writer, helps explain the tone of the note Steinbeck sent to Livingston Biddle, Roosevelt’s attorney general and Hoover’s nominal boss, shortly after Pearl Harbor. Steinbeck wanted an Army commission and someone was getting in his way.

Steinbeck’s note to Biddle named Hoover: “Do you suppose you could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I’m an enemy alien. It’s getting tiresome.” Like Steinbeck, Hoover was a celebrity, and Steinbeck had visited the White House. As a fiction writer with an eye for character and an ear for speech, he might have predicted Hoover’s response to the attorney general: “I wish to advise that Steinbeck is not being and has never been investigated by this Bureau. His letter is returned to you herewith.” Like James Clapper’s public denial of massive electronic surveillance by the NSA, Hoover’s private answer to Biddle was a lie.

The FBI Files Exposed

Hoover interacted at the highest level with military intelligence and never forgot an insult. His hand in keeping Steinbeck out of the Army is revealed in the FBI files on the author. Although the field agent who investigated Steinbeck concluded that the fiction writer was qualified for a commission, this judgment was overridden by the head of military intelligence. Coincidentally, that secretive group had the James Bondian title G-2—one digit away from the name of the intergovernmental economic group meeting soon in Russia. The Obama White House says that Vladimir Putin’s refusal to extradite Edward Snowden won’t prevent the president from attending G-20. John Steinbeck’s reputation as a fiction writer failed to prevent Hoover’s involvement in the verdict of G-2.

Hoover’s retaliation didn’t stop end in 1942. As the FBI files show, books from John Steinbeck and reviews by unfriendly critics were scoured for signs of disloyalty, beginning with The Grapes of Wrath and ending with the author’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent..  Agency-inspired citizen-complaint letters contained in FBI files cited Steinbeck’s visits to Russia—both before and after World War II—in impugning the author’s patriotism. Anything remotely connected to Steinbeck’s past went into the FBI files, including fictitious findings by the American Legion Radical Research Bureau, a right wing organization founded during the Red Scare following World War I. Steinbeck was one fiction writer who avoided the reach of McCarthy’s paranoid committee on un-American activities, but he never dropped off the radar screen of Hoover’s FBI.

I wish to advise that Steinbeck is not being and has never been investigated by this Bureau. His letter is returned to you herewith.

J. Edgar Hoover’s private war on America’s foremost fiction writer—a paper war fought with letters, memos, and clippings—was eventually exposed in Top Secret: The FBI Files on John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch and published in 2002. Hoover died without achieving anything more damaging to Steinbeck than keeping the author out of the Army. In its 75th year, The Grapes of Wrath remains an international icon. Forty years after his death, Hoover has congealed as a symbol of government secrecy and non-judicial overreach detestable to generations of dissenting Americans, beginning with John Steinbeck and continuing in Edward Snowden.

To paraphrase Disraeli on Darwin, Steinbeck was on the side of the whistle-blowers, both as a fiction writer and as a citizen. How Steinbeck would envision the ending of Snowden’s saga is of course unknowable. Given the author’s distrust of Russian dictators, however, it’s safe to assume he wouldn’t like the middle part of the story as it’s unfolding. How we participate in Snowden’s narrative—to paraphrase the fiction writer—is entirely up to us.

Read more in Steinbeck, Snowden, and the Future of America.

Steinbeck, Snowden, and the Future of America

Adbusters magazine coverSinclair Lewis, a Nobel Prize-winning fiction writer admired by John Steinbeck for his dissection of contemporary American life, envisioned a future fascistic America in a novel published the same year J. Edgar Hoover became director of the FBI. Released in 1935, It Can’t Happen Here is a more realistic if less convincing depiction of dictatorial government than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. Books from John Steinbeck about totalitarianism during this turbulent period consist of a slender play-novelette, The Moon Is Down—and it involves enemy invasion, not domestic dictatorship. But based on FBI files and recent events, I believe government surveillance on an Orwellian scale would attract Steinbeck as a subject if he were writing today. His story might start with Hoover.

Fiction Writer Question: What Would Steinbeck Say?

Also created in 1935, Hoover’s FBI left a blueprint for the kind of American police state imagined by Lewis in It Can’t Happen Here. By blending secrecy, efficiency, and independence from oversight, Hoover built a hidden system of government surveillance years before digital data mining and other tools of the NSA. Hoover’s first speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, delivered in 1925, reads like the mission statement for a future NSA security state: “The mighty, irresistible current of world-wide, cosmic forces, have created the necessity and impetus for the inception and growth of an organization which will serve to centralize and crystallize the efforts of those who would meet the exigencies of our changing times by a pooling of all of the wisdom and power of the guardians of civilization, the protectors of Society.”

The differences between Steinbeck and Hoover—in personality, politics, and lifestyle—have already been covered. Richard Powers’ biography, The Life of J. Edgar Hoover: Secrecy and Power, documents Hoover’s deep attachment to moralistic beliefs and dictatorial behavior. Top Secret: The FBI Files on John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch, demonstrates how easily personal conflicts became public crusades in Hoover’s FBI. If Hoover were still in charge today, Edward Snowden would be caught between deadly opposing forces with identifiably authoritarian faces. Putin or Hoover? Which would be worse for a fugitive like Snowden? Only Richard Nixon rivaled Hoover at creating fear in diissenters, and by 1974 both men had left the stage. Of their odious personality type, only Putin and North Korea’s little caesar remain as players on the international stage.

The mighty, irresistible current of world-wide, cosmic forces, have created the necessity and impetus for the inception and growth of an organization which will serve to centralize and crystallize the efforts of those who would meet the exigencies of our changing times by a pooling of all of the wisdom and power of the guardians of civilization, the protectors of Society.

As noted in Top Secret: The FBI Files on John Steinbeck, America’s foremost fiction writer blew the whistle on Hoover in a private letter to Roosevelt’s attorney general. The immediate consequences to Steinbeck were personal, but they passed. Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s Orwellian overreach in public, on a global scale, and his consequences are ongoing. Congress is making noise, President Obama says he’ll investigate, and mainstream journalists in America persist in challenging Snowden’s character. To readers of the FBI files on John Steinbeck this all sounds too familiar. It wouldn’t surprise the fiction writer. His experience was similar.

Steinbeck would certainly fear for Snowden’s safety going forward. While he liked Russians, America’s foremost fiction writer hated Stalinism and disliked authoritarians, at home or abroad. He was passionate about democracy but thought the cold war was a political power game threatening human survival. He supported his government in periods of real war but opposed its excesses in times of uneasy peace. Like William Faulkner—another American fiction writer who exalted individual freedom—he gave a Nobel acceptance speech that’s as relevant today as it was it was it was delivered .

For the Answer, Check the FBI Files on the Author

Steinbeck’s speech in 1962 presents an individualist’s answer to authoritarians like Hoover. Steinbeck’s words in his acceptance speech constitute a plausible opening for the anti-totalitarian novel he never wrote: “Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.”

In the half-century since Steinbeck delivered his speech, technology and terrorism have intervened in ways that would have horrified the fiction writer. Today the consequences of poking Big Brother in the eye are more serious—and the dimensions of surveillance greater—than he could ever imagine. It required a fiction writer with George Orwell’s direct experience in colonial law enforcement to envision a system of state surveillance anything like today’s NSA. Orwell was supervising an extensive system of domestic surveillance in the British colony of Burma in 1924, the year Hoover became acting director of investigation for the U.S. Department of Justice.

An article in a recent issue of Adbusters magazine speculates that the Orwellian NSA data mining program disclosed by Edward Snowden is only the tip of an iceberg—one that threatens to sink democracy as definitively as the ghastly surveillance system imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Employing the same pastoral image used by Orwell and Steinbeck to portray evil despoiling innocence in fiction, the magazine warns Americans to wake up before escapist slumber becomes actual, existential hell: “America has truly become a nation of sheep . . . . Trust the shepherd. He’ll lead us to pasture.” Overstatement? Only if you think nightmares never come true. If that’s a challenge, try this for size:

Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator denounced by John Steinbeck, was an ex-church seminarian who murdered millions of his people. Vladimir Putin, Snowden’s ominous host, formerly ran the KGB, the bloody successor to Stalin’s secret police. Steinbeck’s political hero Roosevelt cooperated with Stalin during World War II. Barack Obama, Snowden’s chief critic and a progressive like Roosevelt, visibly dislikes Putin—but plans to attend Russia’s G-20 conference anyway. Where all this is going is anybody’s guess. John Steinbeck became a hero for exposing economic inequality and injustice in his day. Edward Snowden may become a martyr for revealing massive surveillance in ours. However uncertain the outcome, the connections are clear. Steinbeck’s story suggests history will take Snowden’s side.

William Ray, the editor of five books and former editorial director at New Wedding Planetis the author of articles on John Steinbeck and the founder of SteinbeckNow.com.

The Snowden – Steinbeck Connection

An eye-opening feature article discussing the Edward Snowden / John Steinbeck connection is coming soon. Stay tuned!

Planet earth globe with Edward Snowden and John Steinbeck

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