U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Watching the Detectives

TPMMuckraker, the investigative journalist wing of (Brown History PhD) Josh Marshall’s TalkingPointsMemo blog empire, has obtained most of the late John Hope Franklin’s FBI file through a FOIA request. The nearly five-hundred pages of material were apparently the result of a series of background checks conducted when Franklin received a number of presidential appointments. Executive summary: colleagues universally praised him; J. Edgar Hoover suspected him of Communist ties for having his book positively reviewed by The Daily Worker, praising a book by Herbert Aptheker, saying nice things about W.E.B. DuBois, and so forth. Excerpts from the file can be found here.

All in all this is interesting news if not a bit surprising. While it’s nice to see a (non-academic) blog like TPM putting John Hope Franklin on its frontpage and reminding its readers about the long history of our national surveillance state, TPM draws few conclusions from this story.

While there was once, in the late 1970s, an emerging consensus in Washington that this sort of thing was an affront to democracy, whatever modest progress was made by the Church Committee has been undone in recent years and a much more robust consensus has grown in favor of more internal surveillance. One wonders what our FBI (or DHS) files look like…and whether we or anybody else outside the halls of power will ever get a look at them.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Franklin is not the only prominent U.S. Historian of the period to generate a large FBI security file for “subversive” activities. Using the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained FBI files on Herbert G. Gutman (441 pages); Henry Steele Commager (457 pages); C. Vann Woodward (101 pages); and William Appleman Williams (99 pages). Two recent books also address the topic of academics and the FBI: David A. Price has written about FBI files on anthropologists and Forrest Keen has writeen on sociologists .

  2. Very interesting, Ivan! The most surprising thing about those numbers (to me at least) is how relatively small Williams’s file was. I remember having a conversation in grad school with Arno Mayer–who was on my dissertation committee–about his FBI file, which he had obtained through FOIA. My sense is that a whole lot of academics were being tracked by the Bureau. If you don’t mind my asking, are you working on historians’ FBI files?

  3. Although he was not a historian, I was surprised to learn on his death that Studs Terkel had a file. …He wrote books that many historians use and like, right? – TL

  4. Yes. A chapter in a book I am working on (“Spying: Essays on the FBI, 1920-1980”) deals with historians and the Bureau. There are other historians also — Warren Susman, for example.

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