Declassified FBI files about prominent personalities are generally full of crap. Rumor, hearsay, outright lies--no scrap of derogatory "intelligence" was deemed unworthy by J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau's longtime, gossipy director. Especially when it came to politically active leftists, his files swelled with unfounded allegations.
But those same files also have their deliciously honest and ironic parts. Consider this example, unveiled in Fred Jerome's new book, The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist. The year is 1948, and the Cold War is in its infancy. Trying to stem the rush toward global nuclear confrontation, Albert Einstein, the most prominent refugee from Nazi Germany to become an American citizen, is urging the superpowers to cooperate in developing atomic power and agree to cease their nuclear weapons programs. One evening in July, he attends a dinner at a Bulgarian diplomat's home in Washington to promote the proposals.
Einstein's atomic peace initiative, like most of his other political activities, put him squarely and unapologetically on the internationalist, socialist left. With a new round of anti-Communist witch hunts cranking up, Hoover's agents and informants were hounding the scientist. So an FBI source was listening when Einstein sounded off at the dinner. Speaking to the Polish ambassador to Washington, Einstein is reported to have said, "I suppose you realize by now that the U.S. is no longer a free country, that undoubtedly our conversation is being recorded. This room is wired, and my house is closely watched."
Einstein had a keen eye for such surveillance, because he was a veteran target of political repression. After all, he'd relocated to the United States in 1932 to escape the noose of Nazism, which was quickly closing in around the world's most renowned Jew. Einstein spent the remainder of his life--he died in 1955--assisting political underdogs in the United States and around the world. He lent his good name to causes ranging from disarmament to racial justice to free speech to economic equality.
It's telling that the FBI's 1,800-page file on Einstein is littered with false allegations generated by the pro-Nazi press of 1930s Germany. Deeply suspicious of Einstein, Hoover and his minions followed every lead in search of dirt on their target. FBI agents monitored Einstein's phone calls and read his mail. They shadowed him at public events. They managed to turn up titillating stories about his supposed involvement with Communist conspirators, but the stories fell apart when tracked to their sources, which mostly consisted of raving anti-Semites, con-men and mental patients. For all his efforts, Hoover turned up nothing sinister with which to publicly smear Einstein.
The scientist was an unusually difficult target, Jerome notes: "Einstein's maverick and left-leaning politics combined with his almost universal popularity made him a major threat to those trying to turn America into a nation of political sheep."
Jerome's name will be familiar to many Triangle residents. A journalist since the 1960s, 20 years ago he founded the Research Triangle Park-based Media Resource Service, a referral program that connects reporters with scientists. And he's an ideal chronicler of the tale of Hoover vs. Einstein. A born and bred "Red diaper baby," he grew up in a family under FBI surveillance because of its radical ties. He's spent the last few years teaching journalism in New York and writing The Einstein File, which is based on the disclosures he prompted by suing the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act.
Along the way, Jerome has unearthed a side of Einstein that has been lost in most biographies. As much as Einstein was a brilliant scientist, this book shows that he was a determined and tireless agitator against authoritarianism, capitalism, fascism, racism and the full range of social ills that haunted his century.