Congressman Vito Marcantonio rose in the House of Representatives on January 11, 1940 and declared that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s practice of putting people’s names “on these index cards simply because of the views they may entertain, which may be contrary to the views entertained by Mr. [J. Edgar] Hoover and other people in power… is most dangerous to the constitutional rights of the American people.” He could not have known that shortly afterward, the FBI began to amass an index file on him. By the time he died in 1954, the file contained 6,000 entries, 946 pages of which have been released under the Freedom of Information Act.
I sought access to this file as a source of information about the Congressman for a study of his remarkable political successes.** apart from learning that his father’s first name was Sanario (not Samuel, as the published sources had it), and that Marcantonio was exactly five feet, five inches tall (all other sources simply describe him as short of stature), I learned nothing from the FBI files that I had not already discovered from interviews and public documents. I did learn some things about the FBI and the state of America in that period, however.
Throughout his tenure in the House (1934-36, 1938-50), as a member of the American Labor Party representing East Harlem in New York City, Marcantonio’s radical views isolated him from the rest of Congress. In 1950, his last year in office, he was the only representative who voted against United States participation in the Korean War and against the mounting number of contempt citations being handed down the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His electoral defeat that year after five successive terms resulted from an extraordinary campaign against him that had begun in 1946 and included almost daily vilification in the popular press of a type that would be unthinkable today: changes in the election laws specifically directed against him to prevent candidates from running in the primaries of a party in which they were not registered; the gerrymandering of his district in 1946; and finally a coalition representing the Democratic, Republican, and Liberal Parties to oppose him in his final campaigning.
Although his relations with the Communist Party and alleged Party members were close, documented, and open, an FBI informant noted in 1950 that Marcantonio “apparently has no objection to Communist Party officials appearing at his headquarters. Blake [the district organizer of the Party for East Harlem] appears at V.M.’s headquarters many times during election campaign and the meetings are made openly with no attempts made to keep others from knowing who Blake is.” (Blake, a party name, was actually George Charney, who later wrote the book, Long Journey.) What was the FBI expecting to uncover? What was it attempting to document that was not already known publicly?
Certainly not the truth. Information was fed into Marcantonio’s file without any effort to ascertain its veracity. For example, a Rosa Lamattina met with Marcantonio in 1941and this “confidential informant” advised the FBI that he “has given up his Communist belief and has awakened to the fact that he is really Italian [and] that he has, if not already become [sic], an active Fascist.”
The FBI seemed particularly interested in his acknowledged deep concern for Puerto Rican independence. When the Nationalist Party leader, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, was released from Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1943, Marcantonio arranged for his hospitalization in nearby Columbus (Georgia) Hospital. In 1944 an FBI memorandum indicated that Albizu Campos had been “warned by one Mother Superior Bartholomew that his wires were tapped… Vito Marcantonio [came to the hospital and] appropriated the microphone and threatened to produce it on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.” An associate of Albizu Campos told me that before he ripped the device out from behind the Puerto Rican nationalist’s bed, Marcantonio shouted obscenities into it.
An FBI special agent in charge, listing speakers at a fundraising dinner in 1943 for the left-wing Spanish-language newspaper Pueblos Hispaños, at which Marcantonio was a keynote speaker, took the time to note that “a Pablo Neruda (?) read a poem in Spanish that he composed… ,” but he seemed unaware of the name of Marcantonio’s opponent in 1950. Quoting an informant to the effect that Marcantonio had said, “Beating Bilbo-Donovan is important,” the entry explained, “It should be noted that in the 1950 election campaign VM’s opponents were BILBO and DONOVAN.” Actually, Marcantonio’s only opponent was the coalition candidate Donovan; Bilbo, of course, was the notorious racist Senator from Mississippi.
The FBI “data” on Marcantonio were supplied by a conglomeration of “confidential informants,” “paid informants,” “reliable informants,” and “unreliable informants” whose collections of false or unverified information became part of the public record at a great waste of the taxpayers’ money. There was, however, a much more sinister side to this operation. On the basis of the portion of the Marcantonio files that has been released, we know that in 1942, a cablegram from the United Railroad Workers Union of Puerto Rico (for whose members Marcantonio was attempting to obtain a pay increase) was intercepted by the Radio and Cable Censorship; that in 1943, a telegram from Marcantonio to the Daily Worker advising that Judge Francis E. Rivers (the first Black in the State of New York to run for City Court Judge) was to “make his first appearance… kindly have reporter and photographer present,” was also intercepted; and that he was “monitored by electronic devices on several occasions.” All of this occurred while Marcantonio was serving as a duly elected U.S. Congressman.
For what purposes were the more than 6,000 file entries used? On July 19, 1949, the New York Telegram-Sun printed a statement to the effect that Marcantonio, “the Red Congressman,” had met in a midtown Manhattan hotel with un-named persons to discuss an offer of $100,000 if he would run against Mayor O’Dwyer. Marcantonio promptly filed a libel suit and was successful; the case was upheld by the New York Supreme Court and was filed before the Supreme Court of the United States. A newspaper representative then contacted the FBI to ascertain whether “any association of Marcantonio with gangsters and racketeers could be provable by Court Record?” The FBI responded that “all 6,000 index cards were reviewed by a supervisor and over 300 files, felt to be pertinent, were pulled.” A blind memorandum was prepared for the newspaper representative setting forth appropriate public source material that might “help [the newspaper] in regard to the libel suit by Marcantonio.” Thus, the confidential files of a public agency became a source of information for the defendant in a libel suit brought by a Congressman.
The nature of the FBI’s surveillance of Marcantonio is revealed clearly in the lead sentence of its recommendation for action of the World-Telegram’s request: “We have never conducted extensive investigations to determine conclusively the truth or falsity of the many allegations concerning Marcantonio’s tie-up with hoodlums, gangsters, and the underworld.”
Similarly, when a Special House Committee to Investigate Campaign Expenditures was convened in 1946 to consider whether alleged election-law violations should deprive Marcantonio of his seat (none was ever discovered), the assistant general counsel and chief investigator of the committee, Robert Barker, asked FBI Director Hoover: “I wish you would inform me whether or not this information [on Marcantonio’s Communist Party membership], whether negative or affirmative, may be furnished to me for presentation to the committee, since undoubtedly this question will be raised later on if a resolution is offered to bar or exclude Congressman Marcantonio from taking his seat…” Hoover replied that the “information contained in the files of the Bureau are [sic] confidential and cannot be released without the expressed authority of the Attorney General… I want you to know that I am forwarding a copy of your letter to the Attorney General for his information.” The same day that Hoover sent this letter to Barker, a seven-page memorandum was directed to the Attorney General containing info on Marcantonio’s connections to the Communist Party, a memorandum obviously intended for Barker. The House Committee was, of course, mandated to investigate alleged violations of election laws in Marcantonio’s campaign, not his political beliefs and affiliations. Barker reciprocated Hoover’s assistance by later depositing with the FBI a full transcript of the preliminary investigation he conducted for the House Committee.
As a Congressman, Marcantonio was afforded some protection from certain FBI tactics. In August 1948, a former special agent advised the Bureau that he had had lunch with Rep. H. Carl Anderson of Minnesota and that “Anderson had stated that his office was immediately adjacent to that of Congressman Marcantonio and that he would be glad at any time to have the Bureau utilize part of his office space for a mike installation…” An FBI official replied that “it would not be desirable to put any mike installation in a Congressman’s office.”
The primary purpose of the FBI files becomes evident from the following memorandum dated July 28, 1941 from Hoover to Assistant Attorney General Matthew P. McGuire: “I am transmitting herewith for your consideration a custodial dossier which had been prepared concerning Congressman Vito Marcantonio.” McGuire responded: “Being a citizen, the Congressman naturally is not subject to internment as an enemy alien in the event of war. [Therefore] you are advised that a copy of the dossier should not be furnished to the Special Defense Unit.” Marcantonio’s file reveals, however, that not every branch of the federal government shared McGuire’s opinion. A confidential report from the Office of Naval Intelligence dated February 7, 1941 furnished a list of suspected Communist Party sympathizers for the purpose of custodial detention. Marcantonio’s name appears on the list followed by the notation, “reported rabid Communist.”
In the postwar period, the question of Marcantonio’s detention arose once more. Again Hoover inquired, this time of an official of his own Bureau, D.M. Ladd, why Marcantonio’s name was not included in the Security Index, a list of Americans to be interned if the Attorney General declared a national emergency. Ladd replied that: “our files fail to disclose any evidence to establish direct proof of Marcantonio’s membership in the Communist Party… It has been the practice of the Bureau not to institute security investigations on members of the U.S. Congress. In view of this Marcantonio has not been considered for inclusion in the Security Index. It should be noted that Marcantonio is running for reelection this November. It is contemplated that should he be defeated, the Bureau would actively investigate him and consider including his name in the Security Index.” Eighteen days after Marcantonio’s defeat in the 1950 reelection bid, the special agent in charge for New York wrote Hoover that Marcantonio’s file had been changed. After the category “Communist,” an “X” now appeared, and after the category “TAB FOR DECOM” (detain—Communist), another “X.”
Why would the FBI have classified Marcantonio as a Communist when, by its own reckoning there was no evidence that he was in fact a party member? Part of the explanation lies in the FBI’s own definition of “Communism.” In a 117-page summary of Marcantonio’s activities and associations compiled in 1948, the first item under the heading “Miscellaneous Activities Reflecting [Marcantonio’s] Adherence to the Communist Party Line” reads “numerous reliable confidential informants and other sources have reported that through they years Marcantonio constantly has vilified and ridiculed the Department of Justice and the Federal bureau of Investigation in line with various smear campaigns of the Communist Party.”
In the final analysis, the conduct of the FBI, at least in the post-war period, was consonant with the law, particularly the McCarran Act, which prescribed penalties not only for Communists, but also for “sympathizers” and individuals and organizations holding views significantly parallel with those of the Communist Party.
Perhaps Marcantonio spoke with prescience when he said in a speech before the third biennial conference of the International Labor Defense in 1941: “We know that the Fascist pattern which is being followed in this country is similar to that upon which Hitler and Mussolini rode into power, namely by starting with an attack upon Communists and the Communist Party. The road to Fascism begins with the destruction of the rights of Communists and of the Communist Party to function and exist. Consequently, we realize that the first attack on everybody’s freedoms by the native brand of American Fascism is on the Communists and on the rights of Communists, and [ILD] intends… to defend the first victims of Fascism in America, the Communists in America and the Communist Party of America.”
By Gerald Meyer*
* Dr. Gerald Meyer is Coordinator of Social Sciences at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York and is at present working on a book about Representative Vito Marcantonio, who is widely considered the most electorally successful radical politician of this century.
** The study, “Vito Marcantonio: A Successful New York City Radical Politician,” a doctoral dissertation, has been accepted by the History Program of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 1984.