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.