Due Notice to the FBI
(The Easy Chair, Harper’s, October 1949)
The quietly dressed man at your door shows you credentials that identify him as Mr. Charles Craig of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. He says he would like to ask you a few questions about one of your neighbors. The Harry S. Deweys are friends of yours, aren’t they? Yes, you tell him. How long have you known them? Ever since they moved to Garden Acres eight or nine years ago — or was it seven? no, thirteen. Mr. Craig says the Deweys moved into their house June 1, 1935, which makes it fourteen years. By the way, have they got a mortgage on it? Sure, you say, we all have. Harry didn’t buy till about eight years ago. He is paying it off on a monthly basis; must be down to a couple of thousand by now.
Mr. Dewey’s son graduated from Yale this spring? Mr. Craig asks. Yes, you say. The daughter — she’s at Vassar? Yes, she’s a sophomore. And the other boy? — Exeter? Yes, first form. Mr. Dewey bought a new car last year, a Buick? Yes, he’d driven that Chevrolet for nine years. Who is his tailor? Gummidge? Pretty high-priced firm. Does Mrs. Dewey spend a lot on clothes? The trash barrels were on the curb when Mr. Craig came by and he noticed several empty Black and White bottles — do the Deweys drink a lot? Didn’t they have Zimmerman, the caterer, for that big party last April? — Zimmerman comes high. Have you noticed their garbage — pretty rich stuff? What labels have you seen? Bellows & Co., maybe, or Charles & Co., Inc? Do you happen to know what Mr. Dewey’s income is?
By this time you are, I hope, plenty mad. You say, for God’s sake, it’s none of my business. Mr. Craig explains. Investigation by the Bureau of Internal Revenue does not necessarily mean that the person being investigated is under suspicion. These checks are routine in certain kinds of cases. Orders to make them come from above; the local echelons do not initiate inquiries, they simply find out what they can. Then back in Washington the information thus gathers is evaluated. No improper use is made of anything and of course the evaluators know that most of the stuff sent in is mixed, idle, or untrue — they simply go through the vast chaff in order to find an occasional grain of wheat. The Bureau, Mr. Craig points out, is part of the United States government. It conducts its inquiries with entire legality and under rigid safeguards. The duty of a citizen is to assist his government when he is asked to.
So you say, look, Harry is district manager of the Interstate Gas Furnace Corporation and everybody knows that IGF pays district managers fifteen thousand a year. Yes, Mr. Craig says, IGF pays him fifteen thousand but one wonders whether he hasn’t got other sources of income. How can he send three children to prep school and college, buy a house and a new Buick, and patronize Gummidge and Zimmerman on fifteen thousand? And he belongs to the City Club and the Garden Acres Country Club. He took Mrs. Dewey to Bermuda last winter. He has heavy insurance premiums to pay. He had a new roof put on the house last fall and this spring Mrs. Dewey had the whole second floor repainted and repapered. How come? Does it make sense? Where’s he getting it from?
Does Harry S. Dewey belong to the Wine and Food Society? The Friends of Escoffier? Has he ever attended a meeting of either group? Does he associate with members of either? Has he even been present at a meeting of any kind, or at a party, at which a member of either was also present? Has he ever read Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste? Does he associate with people who have read it? Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party at which anyone who has read it was also present? Does he subscribe to or read the Daily Racing Form? Has he ever made a bet on a horse race? A dog race? A football game? Does he play poker or shoot craps? Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party at which anyone who makes bets or plays poker was also present? Does he play the market? do you know whether Harry puts any cash into diamonds? Does he associate with people who own diamonds? Does he know any millionaires, or people who own cabin cruisers, or people who have accounts in more than one bank? Has he ever attended meetings of such persons? Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party at which such persons were also present? Does he read the Wall Street Journal? Has he ever been present at a cocktail party at which anyone who does read it was present? Is it true that Harry gave his secretary half a dozen pairs of nylon stockings for Christmas? Could she be fronting or dummying for business deals that are really his? What kind of girl is she? Does she always leave the office at five o’clock? Whom does she associate with?
Where does Harry stand on the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the income tax laws? Have you ever heard him say that the income tax laws ought to be changed or the Bureau reorganized or abolished? Have you heard him damn the income tax? Does he associate with people who damn it? Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party where people who want to abolish the Bureau or revise the tax laws were also present?
Let us assume that you remember nothing which indicates that Harry S. Dewey is a tax dodger or a crook. But Mr. Craig goes a few doors down the street and interviews Frances Perkins Green, who is a prohibitionist and has suffered from nervous indigestion for many years. She has seen truffles and artichokes and caviar in the Dewey garbage. The Deweys’ maid has told Mrs. Green that they have porterhouses much oftener than frankforts, that they always have cocktails and frequently have wine, that sometimes cherries and peaches come all the way from Oregon by mail. Mrs. Green has seen many suspicious-looking characters come to the Dewey house. She doesn’t know who they are but it’s striking that mostly they don’t come till after dark, seven o’clock or later. Some of them, she says, are staggering when they leave at midnight. So Mr. Craig tries the next house and finds Henry Cabot White at home. Cabot is doing all right now but he had tough going for a couple of years after Harry Dewey fired him. Everyone in Garden Acres is familiar with the neighborhood feud and would tend to discount Cabot’s revelation to Mr. Craig that Harry’s secretary used to work as a cashier at a race track. He confirms the nylons but says there were a dozen pairs. Sure Harry is sleeping with her — Cabot has seen them lunching together a dozen times. Matter of fact Harry only took Mrs. Dewey to Bermuda because she blew up about the girl. Yes, and do you know who was on that boat? Gooks McGonigle — you remember, he runs the numbers racket and they almost got him for wire-tapping. Cabot wouldn’t like to say anything either way, but Harry took the same boat and Harry manages to lay his hands on money when he needs it.
I have hung this fantasy on the Bureau of Internal Revenue precisely because it does NOT operate in this way. When it suspects that someone is making false tax returns its investigators go to the suspect’s books, his bank, the regular channels of his business, and similar focal points where factual evidence can be uncovered and made good. If Harry S. Dewey reads Brillat-Savarin or serves Stilton with the cocktails, the Bureau is not interested. It does not ask his friends or enemies to report on his wife’s visits to the hairdresser as a patriotic duty.
But if it did, would you be surprised? In fact, would you be surprised if any government bureau sent round its Mr. Craig to ask you if Harry Dewey reads the New Republic or has ever gone swimming in the nude at Bay View? I think you wouldn’t be surprised. What is worse, I think that for a moment Mr. Craig and his questions would seem quite natural to you. And this feeling that interrogation of private citizens about other citizens is natural and justified is something new to American life. As little as ten years ago we would have considered it about on a par with prohibition snooping, night-riding, and blackmail. A single decade has come close to making us a nation of common informers.
It began with the war. Candidates for commission in the services or for jobs in non-military agencies had to be investigated. If enormous asininities resulted, if enormous injustice was done, they were inevitable, part of the cost of the war. They are not inevitable now. But several branches of the government are acting as if they were. Several branches of the government and far too many of us private citizens are acting as if they didn’t matter.
True, we have occasional qualms. The Committee on Un-American Activities blasts several score reputations by releasing a new batch of gossip. Or a senator emits some hearsay and officially unaccused persons lose their jobs without recourse. Or another senator blackens the name of a dead man and then rejoices in his good deed, though the people he claimed to be quoting announce that they didn’t say what he said they did. Or some atrocious indignity inflicted on a government employee by a loyalty board comes to light. Or we find out that the FBI has put at the disposal of this or that body a hash of gossip, rumor, slander, backbiting, malice, and drunken invention which, when it makes the headlines, shatters the reputations of innocent and harmless people and of people who our laws say are innocent until someone proves them guilty in court. We are shocked. Sometimes we are scared. Sometimes we are sickened. We know that the thing stinks to heaven, that it is an avalanching danger to our society. But we don’t do anything about it.
Do you think the questions I have put in Mr. Craig’s mouth are absurd? They are exactly like the questions that are asked of every government employees about whom a casual derogatory remark has been unearthed, even if that remark was made twenty years ago, even if a fool or an aspirant to the employee’s job made it. They are exactly like the questions asked of anyone who is presumed to know anything about him, whether casual acquaintance, grudgeholder, or habitual enemy. They are exactly like the questions asked about anyone outside the government of whom anyone else has reported that he has radical sympathies. Have you (has he) ever studied Karl Marx? Have you (has he) ever been present at a meeting or a party where anyone sympathetic to Communism was also present? Did you (did he) belong to the Liberal Club in college? Did you (did he) escort to a dance a girl who has read Lenin or is interested in abstract painting? Have you (has he) recommended the Progressive to a friend? Those questions and scores like them or worse, have been asked of and about millions of American citizens.
The FBI — to name only one agency that asks such questions — tells us that everything is properly safeguarded. The investigators gather up what they can and send it in, but trained specialists evaluate it, and whatever is idle, untrue, false, malicious, or vicious is winnowed out. So the FBI says. But we are never told who does the evaluating and we have seen little evidence that anyone does it. Along comes the Coplon case, for instance, and we find out that a sack has simply been emptied on the table. The contents are obviously in great part idle and false, in great part gossip and rumor, in great part unverifiable — and unverified. Investigator K-7 reports that Witness S-17 (for we have to cover up for our agents and our spies) said that Harry S. Dewey is a member of the Party, or wants to make the revolution, or knows some fellow travelers, or once advised someone to read Marx, or spent a weekend at a summer resort where there were members of an organization on the Attorney General’s list. If K-7 is only two degrees better than half-witted, if S-17 is a psychopath or a pathological liar or Harry’s divorced wife, no matter. And also, no one can be held accountable. if the same sack has previously been emptied for the loyalty board of any government department nobody can be held responsible for that act, either, and Harry Dewey has no recourse. He will never know and neither will you and I. We will never learn who K-7 or S-17 is, in what circumstance the information was given, whether or not it is true or deliberate falsehood, how far it has been spread or by whom.
In the Coplon trial the government did its utmost to keep from the public view certain information which it was using and which had been gathered by the FBI. That was a sagacious effort. For when the judge ruled that it must be made public some of it turned out to be as irresponsible as the chatter of somewhat retarded children: it would have been farcical if it had not been vicious. For instance, some S-17 had given some K-7 a list of people whom he considered communists or communist sympathizers. One of them was the president of a large university. In all candor, he is not continentally celebrated for his intelligence but his economical and political ideas are a hundred miles to the right of Chester A. Arthur. He is a man of unquestionable patriotism, loyalty, integrity, and probity, incapable of any kind of behavior with which the FBI is authorized to concert itself. But it was the privilege of someone — perhaps a fool, a personal enemy, a boy who had flunked out, a maniac — to lodge in the FBI’s files a declaration that he is a red.
Well, the university president will not suffer in public esteem. But his university may be damaged in many ways, now, next week, ten years hence. And Senator Mundt or Congressman Dondero or any public official with the gleam of a headline in his eyes can denounce the university, its students, and all who have acquired their guilt by contagion — on the basis of a remark which may have been made by an imbecile and for which no one can be held to account. And that remark remains permanently indexed in the FBI files. And what about humbler names on that list? How many people have been fired? How many are having their reading, their recreation, and their personal associations secretly investigated? Against how many of them are neighbors with grudges or senile dementia testifying to some Mr. Craig, hereafter and alias K-7? What redress have they got? What redress has anyone got whom anyone at all has named to the FBI or any other corps of investigators as a communist, a communist sympathizer, a fellow traveler, a bemused dupe, or just a person who happened to be in the bar at the New Willard when a subscriber to the Nation was buying a drink?
I say it has gone too far. We are dividing into the hunted and the hunters. There is loose in the United States the same evil that once split Salem Village between the bewitched and the accused and stole men’s reason quite away. We are informers to the secret police. Honest men are spying on their neighbors for patriotism’s sake. We may be sure that for every honest man two dishonest ones are spying for personal advancement today and ten will be spying for pay next year.
None of us can know how much of this inquiry into the private lives of American citizens and government employees is necessary. Some of it is necessary — but we have no way of knowing which, when, or where. We have seen enough to know for sure that a great deal of it is altogether irresponsible. Well, there is a way of making all responsible, of fixing responsibility. As one citizen of the United States, I intend to take that way, myself, from now on.
Representatives of the FBI and of other official investigating bodies have questioned me, in the past, about a number of people and I have answered their questions. That’s over. From now on any representative of the government, properly identified, can count on a drink and perhaps informed talk about the Red (but non-communist) Sox at my house. But if he wants information from me about anyone whomsoever, no soap. If it is my duty as a citizen to tell what I know about someone, I will perform that duty under subpoena, in open court, before that person and his attorney. This notice is posted in the courthouse square: I will not discuss anyone in private with any government investigator.
I like a country where it’s nobody’s damn business what magazines anyone reads, what he thinks, whom he has cocktails with. I like a country where we do not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears and where what we say does not go into the FBI files along with a note from S-17 that I may have another wife in California. I like a country where no college-trained flatfeet collect memoranda about us and ask judicial protection for them a country where when someone makes statements about us to officials he can be held to account. We had that kind of country only a little while ago and I’m for getting it back. It was a lot less scared than the one we’ve got now. It slept sound no matter how many people joined communist reading circles and it put common scolds to the ducking stool. Let’s rip off the gingerbread and restore the original paneling.
Author’s note to 1955 reprinting: Obviously the FBI is an effective organization and obviously Mr. J. Edgar Hoover directs it effectively. He also has a genius for publicity; the government’s gain was a memorable loss for the advertising agencies. Two kinds of occasion show his genius at its best, the annual return of appropriations hearings on Capitol Hill, and the publication of any article that criticizes the FBI. He has more pipes and louder swells than any pipe organ ever built, more fan clubs than Hollywood, and unlimited newspaper space, gratis. All anyone need do to set them off is to suggest that any employee of the FBI falls an inch short of Superman, that one of them may have momentarily forgotten the Golden Rule which is sewed into the hatbands of them all, or that the archepiscopal robes which Mr. Hoover keeps in his coat closet are showing signs of wear. Criticism of the FBI may not be treason at first glance but it is best to take no chances; the intellectuals whom he accuses of having betrayed us have no loudspeaker in a class with his.
When this article appeared, Mr. Hoover wrote to Harper’s, saying that he would not “dignify Mr. DeVoto’s half-truths, inaccuracies, distortions, and misstatements with a denial or an explanation.” That is his habit; he maintains silence by the stickful on every front page. When he wrote to the magazine, he had already not dignified my “half-truths, inaccuracies, distortions, and misstatements” by denouncing me formally in an archepiscopal curse that was carried by every wire service and printed in every daily newspaper in the country. (Cost to me, nine cents a clipping.) He had not dignified them, as he always does, by neglecting to stipulate what, if anything, was erroneous in them. Not dignifying makes a neater game than answering criticism. It is also a form of loud-mouthed personal abuse, which has other names as well, by a man of great power and high public office.
Mr. Hoover’s letter in no way answered my article and said nothing relevant about any part of it. It did, however, contain a laboratory specimen of what, not caring to dignify it as a misconception, I must call pure gall. He suggested that a person who is questioned by the FBI about his acquaintances is on the same basis as a witness who is testifying before a grand jury, He knows better. So do we.
Continuing to not dignify me by denials, Mr. Hoover said in another letter to Harper’s, “Certainly questions of the nature alleged by Mr. DeVoto are not asked.” I was writing about the Coplon case; the testimony shows that they were asked there. Does anyone care to score this as a fielder’s choice?