Why the FBI Stalked Pete Seeger for 30 Years
He spoke up for Japanese-Americans
By Luke Roney,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 21, 2015 12:15 PM CST
Pete Seeger plays for Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace in 1948.   (AP Photo/File)

(Newser) – Pete Seeger was a National Medal of Arts recipient, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and sang at President Obama's first inauguration. But before any of that, the folk singer and activist, who died last year at 94, was the subject of a government investigation that spanned some three decades. In a sprawling piece in Mother Jones, David Corn takes us through the nearly 1,800-page file the FBI compiled on Seeger between the 1940s and 1970s. It started with a 1942 letter in which Seeger, then a 23-year-old Army private, expressed his disgust to the California American Legion, which had endorsed deporting Japanese-Americans and barring people of Japanese descent from citizenship. "America is great and strong as she is because we have so far been a haven to all oppressed," he wrote. "I felt sick at heart to read of this matter."

The American Legion forwarded the letter to the FBI. Then, military intelligence got involved. Having completed his training as an aviation mechanic, Seeger was expecting to be sent to active duty. But, due to the investigation, the orders never came. Eventually, Seeger was sent to the Pacific Theater as part of the Army division tasked with entertaining the troops. Seeger continued his career as a singer and banjo player, later being blacklisted (he was a member of the Communist party in the '40s) and convicted of contempt (the conviction was overturned) after appearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Highlights from the FBI file:

  • Early on, investigators read Seeger's mail and were concerned that his engagement to a Japanese-American woman might lead to "divided loyalty."
  • Fellow folk singer Woody Guthrie told an agent: "What [Seeger] wants personally, is to do Hitler the most damage possible."
  • Seeger's apartment, per the AP, often was visited by "disreputable" and "noisy" men who wore jeans and carried guitars. And he stiffed his landlady on a half-month's rent.
  • Agents kept tabs on Seeger's comings and goings by pretending to want to book him for concerts. And despite being an enemy of fascism, Seeger was still "potentially subversive."
Read the whole story here. (More recently, the FBI derailed white supremacists' plans to spark a race war.)