Einstein’s Legacy (03/03)

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 1948 Progressive Party presidential campaign.

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 lynching. 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 Information Act, Jerome has chronicled the massive malfeasance, which included wiretapping, the interception of mail, and information from unreliable sources, including Hoover’s pals in Nazi Germany. Taken together, it’s enough to make a civil libertarian cringe.

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 scientist’s 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 Pentagon’s 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 happen.

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.