The Einstein File
J Edgar Hoover’s Secret War Against the World’s Most Famous Scientist
Fred Jerome
St Martin’s Press 

On August 2nd, 1939, Albert Einstein warned US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that Hitler’s scientists were developing a weapon of mass destruction - the atomic bomb.

The mathematician advised the statesman to do likewise. Nothing much happened for several months.

The tardiness of a government is less out of character than Einstein’s military-mindedness. As a teenager, he’d fled Germany for Switzerland to avoid conscription. After the Great War, he sponsored the War Resisters’ League, and kept up links with pacifist groups for the rest of his life. Yet, throughout the 1930s, Einstein supported those who used physical force against fascism. For instance, he would champion the US citizens who volunteered for the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

Einstein was visiting Princeton when the Nazis came to power in January 1933. He stayed on, becoming a US citizen in October 1940. Two months earlier, the Army had denied Einstein a security clearance to work on the bomb that his letter to Roosevelt had initiated. Einstein declined a latter invitation to act as an advisor.

Fred Jerome suggests that the Army blackballed Einstein because it feared that he alone had the prestige to lead other scientists astray – that is, to oppose the dropping of the bomb. There’s no doubt that he had that prestige and that he opposed its use, appealing, in April 1945, to Roosevelt not to use it against people. He pointed out that he had called for the bomb only because the Nazis were making one. Once the Germans gave up their research, all justification disappeared. Had Einstein been at Los Alamos, there can be little doubt that he would have been a moral sabouteur. He came to believe that Hiroshima had been A-bombed to end the war before the Soviets could occupy parts of Japan. But Fred Jerome’s explanation of the Army ban in 1940 is to read history backwards. It’s more likely that the army excluded Einstein because he was not a US citizen, and because of his FBI file.

The existence of an FBI file on Einstein has been public knowledge since 1983.

Pressure under Freedom of Information laws has recently revealed more of its contents.

That the FBI kept a file about the world’s most famous scientist is unremarkable. That’s what police forces do. The famous need protection from assassins. Wartime security demanded checking anyone with access to sensitive material. The FBI would have been remiss had it not opened a file on Einstein. What surprised many people was the line of inquiry pursued by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The file gathered newspaper reports of Einstein’s support for social and political radicals, far beyond his anti-war stance. Here too, surprise would be misplaced. During his lifetime, Einstein was notorious for his left-wing politics. Only in death has he been packaged as the absent-minded professor. When Time magazine pictured him as its man of the century, it forgot to mention his 1949 article “Why socialism” - penned for a New York Marxist monthly.

A weak spot in Jerome’s treatment of the Einstein file is his bemusement at the way that the FBI took seriously the allegations by nutcases. Jerome expects us to join him in thinking that Hoover was as certifiably insane as the anonymous Jew-baiter who reported that Einstein was working on a death-ray. Now, it is true that if all the pages from the fruit-loops were removed from the Einstein file, there wouldn’t be much left. But Jerome fails to see that the FBI was engaging in the normal police practice of tracing patterns of association. Today, a television cop show would call it “profiling”. Jerome’s failure to grasp this objective is odd given that he knows how much of the inquisition was to get people to name names.

The real surprise in 1983 was the paper trail of Hoover’s determination to prove that Einstein had been part of a Soviet network in Berlin, a member of the German Communist Party, and an associate of atomic spies during the 1940s.

Not to be outdone, the Immigration Service sought to strip Einstein of his US citizenship on the grounds that he had concealed his membership of the Communist Party.

The allegations of espionage did not crop up until after late in 1949 when President Truman announced that the Soviets had the bomb. Spy stories then flourished. Senator Joe McCarthy at once pinned his re-election hopes to exposing Reds in the government.

That atmosphere did not spontaneously combust into reports about Einstein being a player in the Red orchestra. The most likely explanation is that the charges were recycled by the Nazi intelligence officials whom Washington had recruited for the Cold War. Jerome’s conclusion is clear cut:  the FBI’s “underlying premise”, he writes, “is a lie”. Einstein did not threaten to subvert America.

Despite this categorical declaration, Jerome has assembled more than enough evidence to demonstrate that Einstein was un-American. Hoover’s FBI, the Immigration Service and the congressional investigators shared a definition of what it meant to be “American”. For example, one loyalty board asked a civil servant if she had supported the desegregation of blood by the Red Cross, as if that were subversive. If American was segregation, anti-Semitism and big business, then Einstein was 100 per cent un-American.

And so were millions more, both immigrants and the native-born. It was the existence of this mass of dissenters that made the Red Scare necessary. Through the hunt for spies, the population had to be taught not to hate the system. This indoctrination was not easy after capitalism had delivered two world wars, fascism and a depression. The doubters had to be frightened into silence. That was the job of the public interrogators such as Joe McCarthy.

So as not to give self-incriminating evidence, liberals, progressives and Communists retreated behind the fifth amendment. By contrast, Einstein publicly urged civil disobedience. Instead of refusing to answer on constitutional grounds, he poked his tongue out at the inquisitors.

Einstein’s gravest offence against Americanism was to treat blacks as if they were human beings. Marion Anderson was not allowed to stay at the leading hotel when she performed in Princeton in 1937. The Einsteins took her in. Einstein became a close friend of the actor-singer Paul Robeson and the activist-scholar W E B du Bois. Part of the legacy of prejudice is that du Bois is not instantly recognizable although he deserved a Nobel Prize for Literature as much as did Churchill. At the age of 83, du Bois was brought into court handcuffed for his refusal to conform. Both Robeson and du Bois could say that no Red had ever called them “nigger”.

Across the 1930s, Einstein had supported the Communist-led campaigns to prevent judicial lynchings. After 1945, Southern whites tried to put the uppity niggers back in their box. Fifty-six lynchings were reported in the first year of peace. Most of the victims were returning soldiers. Again, Einstein spoke out for racial justice.

Einstein was committed to science as the common possession of humankind. Our world is still terrorized by the US refusal to place its nuclear weapons under international control. As early as 1946, Washington initiated research on the H-bomb. Einstein’s last public act was to endorse the Pugwash Conference of scientists working for disarmament.

Some fifty years later, nuclear disarmament is as remote today as it was in 1945 when the US government became the only power to use those weapons of mass destruction against human beings, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The conclusion of the Cold War in the early 1990s has not put an end to the strategy of mutually assured destruction – also known as MAD. Instead, in February last, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its doomsday clock two minutes nearer to midnight. That was before the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan. The reason for adjusting the clock closer to disaster was that the US is pulling away from disarmament treaties. A recent agreement between the US and Russian presidents will let the US keep its nuclear arsenal primed.  The misreporting of that deal as a step towards peace is another ground for pessimism.

To be optimistic these days is to hope that the death of millions of people on the Indian sub-continent would shock the rest of the world into disarmament. The experience of the past sixty years suggests that the reverse outcome is just as likely. George W. Bush would use any nuclear outbreak as a reason to construct the death-ray dreamed up by a lunatic to slander Einstein.

For ABC RN, Book Talk, recorded 15 August, for broadcast later.

See also: Aether and Einstein