Look homeward, Big Brother

Thomas Wolfe, Carl Sandburg, Terry Sanford, Charles Kuralt. Most North Carolinians probably wouldn’t find anything sinister in this list of some of the state’s favorite sons. Yet the FBI investigated and maintained secret files on all of these prominent people, whose names are written into both state and national history.

These and similar files, declassified under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal a long-running pattern of secret government investigations of a wide range of respected public figures, including many who were never accused of any crime.

The questions prompted by these files are hardly academic. In the wake of the USA PATRIOT Act, which was hastily enacted after the 9/11 attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has enjoyed expanded powers to probe into Americans’ personal lives. And recent news reports from across the country suggest that the FBI is once again targeting ordinary citizens who exercise their First Amendment right to express their disagreement with government policies.

It’s often said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In the following pages, Xpress invites readers to see what they can learn from the dossiers of notable North Carolinians who, for one reason or another — and sometimes for little discernible reason — became the targets of surreptitious government scrutiny.

The novelist

Asheville native Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), the acclaimed novelist whose ghost still draws tourists to his hometown, seems a particularly unlikely candidate for government surveillance. After all, he died a mere three years after Congress created the FBI, and he was never accused of any criminal or political wrongdoing.

Although the Wolfe file contains some clues as to what it was about the writer that caught the FBI’s attention, the essence of the question remains a mystery to this day. That’s because, when the FBI releases documents in response to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, it often censors words, paragraphs and even whole pages with swaths of black ink.

And apparently, the bureau sometimes may go even further in its efforts to keep secret files secret. In the early 1980s, biographer David Herbert Donald wrote to the FBI requesting documents on the Asheville writer. In response, Donald noted in his 1987 book, Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (Little, Brown and Company), the FBI “informed me that it never opened a file on Wolfe.”

In fact, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men had compiled 123 pages of information about Wolfe and his novels, but it took a more determined historian to uncover the secret papers. A 1988 book by New York Times cultural correspondent Herbert Mitgang, Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against American Authors (Donald I. Fine, Inc.), revealed that a shocking number of this country’s most revered writers, from William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway to John Steinbeck, have been scrutinized by federal law enforcement.

When the FBI denied Mitgang’s initial requests for documents, he filed appeals. As a result, he wound up with the Wolfe file — or at least those parts the FBI was willing to release. “I was able to obtain forty-two pages but they were almost totally blacked out by the FBI,” he wrote. “An additional eighty-one pages existed in his file, but my appeal to obtain them, even if censored, was denied.”

The available pages, which are archived among Mitgang’s papers at the New York Public Library, give some scant indications of why the FBI felt Wolfe merited a dossier. A unique aspect of the file is that much of it is posthumous, consisting of documents dated after the author’s death. “From the fragmentary words in the blacked-out documents, it can be surmised that Wolfe’s writings were suspect because they appeared on reading lists of schools said to be under Communist influence,” Mitgang concluded.

Some facts of Wolfe’s life suggest other possibilities. Parts of the novelist’s file apparently concern his activities in the 1930s, during which he visited Germany (his ancestral homeland) and found many fans there. He even attended the 1936 Olympic games in Munich, the showcase of Hitler’s new Germany. (According to Donald, Wolfe’s seat in the U.S. ambassador’s box was near Hitler’s own perch at the games. Wolfe cheered so loudly for Jesse Owens, the gold medal-winning African-American sprinter, that Hitler “looked up angrily at the American ambassador’s box to see who was making such a commotion.”) And though Wolfe took a liking to the place for a while, he eventually soured on Nazi Germany and, like most American writers, came to denounce the rising fascist state.

Then again, it could be something more innocuous that caught the FBI’s attention. In 1934, as Wolfe was finishing work on Of Time and the River, he sparred with his editor, Maxwell Perkins, about a key element of the book. According to Donald, Wolfe “began to worry that it did not have sufficient social content or demonstrate sufficient social awareness,” concerns then much in vogue among intellectuals in New York City, where Wolfe had migrated.

Picking up on the trend, the writer donated several short stories to Modern Monthly, which specialized in Marxist analysis of society and culture. “Part of his interest in radical movements and ideas stemmed from calculation: he had a sense that there was a cabal of left-wing critics who were likely to ‘pan his book’ for failing to show sympathy for the working classes,” Donald concluded. “At the same time, he genuinely did have a sympathy for the victims of the Great Depression, and he insisted that he was the son of a workingman. For both reasons he wanted to make his book resonate with sympathy for working people.”

But Perkins, a conservative, took a dim view of Wolfe’s leftward tilt. The editor shared his frustrations in a letter to another of his stable of famous writers, Ernest Hemingway. “Old Tom,” he wrote, “has been trying to change his book into a kind of Marxian argument (having wrote most of it some years before he ever heard of Marx).”

To drive the point home, Maxwell drafted a faux press release for the book and shared it with the author. Wolfe, it said, had “joined the Communist Party,” because “his proletarian sympathies, though never directly expressed, are implicit in his new novel, as in some degree they were in his famous Look Homeward Angel.”

According to Donald, Wolfe then relented, and “most of the passages that offended Perkins were removed.” So if the FBI went looking for radical notions in the published work, there were none to be found.

The poet

Illinois-born poet, storyteller and writer Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) settled in Flat Rock, N.C., with his family in 1945. His 240-acre farm is now a National Historic Site, a permanent tribute to his work and influence. And while Sandburg may seem an improbable threat to state security, he too has an FBI file. Though it contains no suggestion of illegal activity, it’s clear that the poet’s social activism won him few friends at the agency.

True, Sandburg was one of the 20th century’s most beloved American scribes, as evidenced by his two Pulitzer prizes and the Medal of Freedom he received from President Lyndon Johnson. On the occasion of Sandburg’s 75th birthday in 1953, Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson described him as “the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream.” And today, Sandburg is most often remembered as a warm humanitarian whose knack with words animated such works as his poems praising workers, his popular biography of Abraham Lincoln, and a series of children’s books (most notably Rootabaga Stories).

But Sandburg was also a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, and that was enough to arouse suspicion at Hoover’s FBI. “There was another Carl Sandburg unknown to the mid-century or later public and unacknowledged by his commentators,” noted Temple University professor Philip R. Yannella in his 1996 book, The Other Carl Sandburg (University Press of Mississippi). “This other Sandburg believed that America was a faithless monster of a country” — a nation sickened by racism, warmongering and the excesses of capitalism.

As a young man, Sandburg lived those beliefs, working as an organizer for the Social Democratic Party and supporting Eugene V. Debs, a socialist who ran for president and was thrown in jail during World War I. Along the way, the poet kept company with a host of radical labor leaders and writers. Between 1915 and 1918, Yannella notes, Sandburg wrote a total of 41 articles for the International Socialist Review (though some were unsigned or published under a pseudonym).

As a result, Sandburg found his way into the files of Military Intelligence, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, and later its successor, the FBI. But it was not until long after Sandburg’s death that these documents came to light — and once again it was Mitgang (the author of Dangerous Dossiers) who first obtained them and published excerpts. The 23 pages of FBI records show that Sandburg’s crime, if it could be called that, was using his much-listened-to voice to publicly buck national authorities and praise movements for social change.

In 1941, for example, top officials at the bureau circulated a memo noting that Sandburg had “manifested an unfriendly attitude” toward the FBI at a luncheon organized by Chicago filmmakers. A litany of other non-crimes filled the Sandburg file. One classified 1954 report, for example, noted that Sandburg had “praised ‘Russian courage’ in World War II.”

But just as it did with the Wolfe file, the FBI blacked out much of the Sandburg dossier before releasing it. And if there were additional reasons that this national treasure allegedly merited government surveillance, the FBI has chosen to keep them under wraps, even decades after his death.

The politician

Some of Hoover’s targets were artists and writers — influential figures to be sure, but with more pop-culture punch than political clout. The same cannot be said for Terry Sanford (1917-1998), the trailblazing North Carolina politician. One of the leading Southern progressive Democrats of his era, Sanford served as a state senator, governor, U.S. senator and as the president of Duke University for 16 years. Sanford has been memorialized as an exemplary public servant — and his legacy seems unlikely to suffer from the contents of his 497-page FBI file.

As in Wolfe’s and Sandburg’s cases, the story of the FBI file on Sanford did not become public until after its subject had died. In 2001, the Associated Press and this reporter obtained the documents through separate FOIA requests. And though there are some deletions, most of the material in this file has been declassified.

Roughly the first third of the file consists of strictly administrative materials — because, ironically, the man who would later arouse Director Hoover’s ire began his career as a special agent for the FBI. Fresh out of college, Sanford joined the bureau in 1941, and he served at the FBI’s Cincinnati field office for a year before volunteering to join the Army and fight the Germans in Europe. Consequently, these early documents mostly record routine data about Sanford’s federal employment and security screening.

The young politico was proud of his brief stint with the FBI, and at times it came in handy. During his 1960 campaign to become governor, Sanford cited his G-man credentials to counter critics who charged he was too liberal for North Carolina: “The truth of the matter is that I am the only candidate who has been cleared by the FBI, and I ought to know a left-winger when I see one,” he declared at one campaign rally.

But in the middle of Sanford’s four-year term as governor, federal agents added a new chapter to his file that contains striking evidence of Hoover’s extraordinary efforts to maintain his grip on power. The mood in the dossier shifts from praise to prickliness as a series of innuendo-laden incidents led Hoover to view Sanford as a potential rival and personal enemy.

The file suggests that two developments — one real, one simply rumored — caused Sanford’s fall from Hoover’s good graces. In 1962, FBI agents began relaying rumors to Hoover that President John Kennedy was considering a stunning change in Washington: In 1964, the story went, Kennedy would replace the man who had directed the FBI since its creation in 1935 with the comparatively young Terry Sanford.

While Sanford and his aides would later deny that he’d ever been considered for FBI director, Hoover gave the rumor considerable weight, especially when it started popping up in North Carolina newspapers in 1963. “Sanford has been an active candidate for the directorship of FBI even though I have given no indication of retirement,” Hoover complained in a note he wrote on an April 8, 1964 report.

Whatever the basis of the rumor, Hoover did have solid reasons to believe Sanford enjoyed close ties to the White House. The N.C. governor had been one of few prominent Southern Democrats to back JFK early in his presidential race, and Sanford had established a good rapport with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, one of Hoover’s biggest bureaucratic rivals.

The paper trail repeatedly highlights the depths of Hoover’s worry about the prospect of losing his position, showing how the FBI director retaliated against Sanford behind the scenes. For example, in March of 1964, in the midst of a heated debate in the state legislature about a law banning communists from speaking at public universities, Gov. Sanford told reporters that the FBI had assured him that there were, in fact, no communists to be found among the faculty and students on N.C. campuses.

When Hoover got wind of Sanford’s claim, he went ballistic. “Sanford merely wanted to drag FBI into a nasty political mess and has succeeded in doing so,” Hoover scrawled on one document. “I have never seen any particular solicitude towards FBI by Sanford,” he wrote a month later. “We were just too trusting of Sanford.”

To get his revenge, on March 20, 1964, Hoover wrote a letter to a North Carolina man who had asked about the matter. “I can … assure you that the FBI has not investigated state-sponsored schools and colleges in North Carolina,” the director wrote. “For this reason, it would obviously be impossible for this Bureau to make any authoritative blanket statement regarding the existence of communists or communist sympathizers in these educational institutions.”

Sanford’s conservative critics — including a Raleigh television commentator named Jesse Helms — seized on the letter, denouncing the governor as a liar who was blind to the threat of communist subversion of higher learning. Sanford and his aides, however, continued to insist that the governor had accurately passed on what N.C.-based FBI agents had told him.

But Hoover wasn’t finished with his efforts to distance the FBI from its former agent. On April 9, 1964, Hoover directed one of his deputies to “instruct our Charlotte Office to have no contact with Sanford as long as he is governor.” Remarkably, the gag rule applied even in the event of “an emergency situation,” according to another FBI document, which noted that agents were required to obtain headquarters approval before any contact with Sanford whatsoever.

The journalist

For some readers, Charles Kuralt (1934-1997) might seem the least likely of all the above-named North Carolinians to wind up the subject of an FBI investigation. Yet even this patriotic, emphatically middle-of-the-road journalist occasionally found himself in trouble with the powers that be.

In a long-forgotten chapter of his wide-ranging career, the young Kuralt unexpectedly became CBS’s one-man news bureau in Latin America at the height of the Cold War. Recently released documents show what a tough beat it was, offering reminders that when national-security concerns run high, even patriots can come under FBI scrutiny.

This reporter first obtained Kuralt’s heavily excised file in 2001. The FBI denied an appeal to release further portions of the papers, but in 2003, a Justice Department review panel unexpectedly ordered the release of key additional passages. The file shows that, although Kuralt was certainly no radical, he reported from so many foreign flash points that the probing eyes of national-security officials could scarcely fail to fall on him.

If Kuralt were alive today, he probably wouldn’t be surprised to find that the FBI had checked up on him. In a 1996 speech at UNC-Chapel Hill, Kuralt mentioned a scrape he’d had with an FBI agent while a student there, saying he had pondered whether he should seek out his file. If he had, he would have found that the FBI had collected at least 10 pages of highly classified material on his activities — most of which crossed Hoover’s desk.

The bulk of the papers deal with Kuralt’s reporting from Cuba. The journalist went there in 1960 and 1962, filing reports on Fidel Castro’s young revolution. In a May 25, 1962 CBS special, An American in Cuba, Kuralt painted a mostly bleak picture of life in the new Cuba, reporting how inefficient bureaucracies were sprawling while personal freedoms were shrinking. But he also noted a few positives, such as the Castro government’s focus on literacy and learning.

Despite its anti-Castro thrust, the report did not play well in Miami, where hard-liners in the Cuban-exile community denounced Kuralt as a pawn of the Castro regime for having gone to Cuba in the first place. Cries of treason quickly spread from south Florida to the nation’s capital. On July 19, 1962, the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security held hearings on “attempts of pro-Castro forces to pervert the American press,” and Kuralt’s report became a centerpiece of the discussion. “Kuralt endeavored to present a very rosy picture of Communist Cuba,” testified Carlos Todd, an anti-Castro Cuban journalist living in Miami.

This charge put Kuralt on the FBI’s radar — though the impetus for the bureau’s paper trail appears to have been the CIA’s curiosity about Kuralt. On Sept. 14, 1962, Hoover replied to a CIA query dated July 19, 1962 — the same day as the Senate hearing at which Kuralt was discussed.

Hoover didn’t have much to add, but he did inform the CIA that in August 1962, “Kuralt advised a confidential source abroad that he had been in Cuba and at one time had prepared a radio news script which contained the statement that there were 150 Americans working in Cuba in various capacities for the Cuban government.” Kuralt, however, had no list of the Americans’ names, Hoover reported.

Meanwhile, Senate investigators followed up on Todd’s allegations and concluded that Kuralt was no enemy sympathizer. In January 1963, the Subcommittee on Internal Security cleared Kuralt of Castro-boosting, publishing a detailed analysis of “An American in Cuba” that showed the charges were false.

Kuralt never returned to Cuba, but the FBI didn’t close its file on him. Several additional documents, still mostly blacked out, indicate that a year later, Hoover’s agents again took an interest in Kuralt. An Aug. 28, 1963 memo by the FBI’s Washington field office, for example, is titled “Charles Kuralt, Internal Security — Cuba.” The document begins, “On August 16, 1963, according to a confidential informant, who has furnished reliable information in the past … .” But after that, it abruptly fades to black, obscuring the rest of the text. A cover sheet notes that “the enclosure is classified ‘Secret’ due to the highly sensitive nature of the source.”

So whatever the informant had to say about Kuralt remains classified. However, all but a few words of a contemporaneous memo from the Washington field office have been released. The Oct. 14, 1963 document lists details of the journalist’s biography and travels, noting that FBI agents reviewed Kuralt’s passport file at the State Department. None of the information, however, appears to incriminate Kuralt in any wrongdoing — politically, journalistically or otherwise.

Meanwhile, Kuralt’s stint as a foreign correspondent was winding down. At the end of 1963, CBS brought him back to the United States, and most of his subsequent reports focused on his homeland.

In 1965, however, Kuralt helped produce a critical report on the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic that briefly caught the FBI’s attention. The last item in Kuralt’s file (dated June 30, 1965) summarizes what the bureau knew about Kuralt and other “newsmen alleged to be distorting the news” regarding the Dominican intervention. The document, which remains riddled with deletions, refers to Kuralt’s Cuba travels and the fact that he’d been accused — and absolved — of having “slanted his reports in favor of Castro.”

A short note at the end, under the heading “Observation,” states that Kuralt and another reporter “appear to be the ones who have allegedly printed stories favoring anti-U.S. elements.”

And there the file ends, prompting some indignation from those who remember Kuralt as a scrupulously balanced (and unabashedly patriotic) journalist.

“Charles told it like he saw it, and I think that’s what good reporting is supposed to be,” his brother, the late Wallace Kuralt of Carrboro, N.C., said when told about the FBI file. “Today, so much of the reporting we’re getting is clearly driven to serve a political agenda. I find that very distressing, and I don’t think Charles would have gone along with that very long.”

Asheville-based author Ralph Grizzle, whose book Remembering Charles Kuralt (Globe Pequot, 2001) was published shortly after the journalist’s death, said he was surprised to learn that Kuralt’s work had sparked Hoover’s suspicions. “Izzy Bleckman, his cameraman, said that had Charles been around in 1776, he would have been among the first to pick up a musket,” noted Grizzle. “He was truly patriotic.”

FBI eye on the straight guy

All of the notables spotlighted in these pages are now gone, but the federal government’s use of police powers to delve into the lives of law-abiding citizens continues to spark concern and debate nationwide.

A recent syndicated column by civil-liberties advocate Nat Hentoff — titled “J. Edgar Hoover Lives!” — warns of abuses by the burgeoning national-security apparatus. And just last month, a series of media reports filed from across the country revealed that the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force had dispatched agents to track down and pre-emptively question activists about their plans to protest at the Republican National Convention.

That prompted Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to again resurrect the specter of the FBI’s controversial longtime director. “The FBI’s intimidation and interrogation of peaceful protesters brings back eerie echoes of the days of J. Edgar Hoover,” Romero said in an Aug. 16 press release. “Resources and funds established to fight terrorism should not be misused to target innocent Americans who have done nothing more than engage in lawful protest and dissent.”

[Freelance writer Jon Elliston is based in Asheville.]


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Jon Elliston
Former Mountain Xpress managing editor Jon Elliston is the senior editor at WNC magazine.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

2 thoughts on “Look homeward, Big Brother


    Jon I cant tell you what a great job you did on this article just Brilliant!
    If people only knew the turth about the F.B.I., You have gone a long way in exposing them
    Hats off!! Well done!!
    I bet people will be afraid to respond to this article, which says where we are atand what country this really is. Can you nsay Gulag?
    And yes they are monitoring this blog, you can bet on that

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.