On March 24, 2016, readers of the New York Times were greeted with a peculiar headline: “John McCain: A Salute to A Communist.” The Communist in question was Delmer Berg, who at the time of his passing was the last known survivor of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
McCain’s salute was in spite of Berg remaining, until the end, an “unreconstructed communist.” The senator “saluted” Berg for volunteering to go abroad and fight to save the ill-fated Spanish Republic.
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War began when the military attempted to overthrow Spain’s republican government. With the Spanish military backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and Spanish Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, and Trotskyists taking part in the war, there was an outpouring of solidarity among the international left with the Spanish Republic (“Loyalists”), with some, like Berg, traveling to Spain to fight fascism, as part of the “International Brigades.”
Reading McCain’s celebratory prose for the former Communist was jarring. The Left has long celebrated the heroism of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as the US contingent of International Brigades was known, but conservatives like McCain have not. Quite the contrary: for decades,members of the brigade found themselves in the crosshairs of reaction.
The FBI’s harassment of the Communist Party is legendary, as is their surveillance of those working for racial justice or against US imperialism. What’s less remembered today is that Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War were uniquely singled out for state repression.
Before the last members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade could return home from Spain, the House Un-Americans Activity (HUAC), a Congressional inquisition set up in the late 1930s to investigate political subversives held its first (but not its last) hearing on the Brigade. The FBI would raid their offices in 1940 as part of an investigation into violations of the Neutrality Act.
In 1947, the Attorney General declared Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) a “subversive organization.”
They would later challenge an order from the Subversive Activities Control Board to register as a Communist front group in court.
Given that the Abraham Lincoln Brigade set out to battle fascism before the official start of World War II — before, in other words, the US government decided fascism needed to be fought — they were often dubbed “premature antifascists.” As historian Peter N. Carroll explained, they were “premature victims of McCarthyism,” as well.
After two years, Jacobin and Defending Rights & Dissent has finally obtained the case files on Berg from the FBI’s General Headquarters and its Sacramento field office. They stand in stark contrast to McCain’s praise. While the FBI used Berg’s Communism to justify keeping tabs on him, they cited his participation in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades as reason why he should be detained in the event of a national emergency.
Berg’s files teach us a lot about political surveillance in the United States. They show how the FBI went to great lengths to identify suspected Communists. They engaged in intrusive surveillance — tracking people’s mail and deploying confidential informants. These files also uncover how the FBI’s fear of subversives not only led them to hound radicals, but also possibly infiltrate and spy on a federal program funded as part of the War on Poverty.
None of this is ancient history. The FBI still employs confidential informants. These informants are used to keep tabs on, and even act as agent provocateurs, in left-wing movements and increasingly in Muslim communities. The FBI spied on Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. According to an FBI intelligence assessment, “Black Identity Extremists,” that is, African Americans rightfully angered by racism, pose a threat to police.
Just as in Berg’s times, many of those singled out for state scrutiny today are those working for a better world. Although some things have changed at the FBI, their status as defenders of the status quo and their hostility towards movements for social change remains the underlying motivation behind their political surveillance.
The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
Berg was born into a family of farm workers, a profession he would keep for most of his life. In 1935 he joined the US Army, but purchased his discharge in 1937 so that he could travel to Spain and fight in the International Brigades.
Berg served in Spain for eight months, before being injured by an Italian bomber in Valencia. For the rest of his life, Berg would have shrapnel in his liver. According to Berg, when he set out for Spain he was relatively politically unaware, but while in the hospital he would join the Communist Party. Later, he did serve in the US Army during World War II.
Upon his return, Berg would continue to struggle for a better world. He would serve as vice-president of his local NAACP in Stanislaus County (and the chapter’s only white member). Continuing to work as an agricultural laborer, Berg would be deeply involved in trying to organize farm workers. He also would champion nuclear disarmament, oppose the US war in Vietnam, and remain active in the Communist Party.
Long before this work, however, the FBI began to take notice of Berg. They had been watching since he left for Spain.
Around 1948, the FBI would produce a stunning memorandum on VALB. This document is illuminating not only because of what it says about VALB, but because its own history and analysis of the Spanish Civil War betrays its reactionary political ideology. It was this zealous reactionary mindset that underpinned the FBI’s political surveillance.
Per its drafters, Spain suffered from “false liberalism,” which allowed communism to take root there. The idea that the Spanish Civil War was a war between democracy and fascism was “bogus,” as “Neither side could claim any monopoly of virtues and vices in human relations. The Devil vs. Angel theory of war did not apply to the Spanish conflict.” (Perhaps, in the minds of those at the FBI, there were “some very fine people on both sides.”)
The document expends considerable ink fretting over the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans had supported Spain’s Loyalist government over General Francisco Franco, a fascist. For this, the FBI blamed the propaganda efforts of the Communist Party, who confused the American people into believing there was a right and a wrong side to the war in Spain.
The belief that the VALB would be a vehicle for spreading Communist ideals is just part of why the FBI viewed them with such fear. Having military training, the FBI worried that VALB posed unique a threat for “espionage” and “sabotage” in the United States.
Upon leaving Spain, American volunteers pledged to continue their struggle. Of course, many veterans, like Berg, continued to fight for a more just world. VALB served as a vehicle for this, and many veterans cited that pledge as motivating later political activism.
The FBI, however, in a fit of almost comical paranoia, interpreted this to mean that the International Brigades were waiting in the wings to regroup at any minute and carry out violence in their home countries. This is perhaps why when Berg was designated by the FBI as “DETCOM,” an abbreviated form of “Detention of Communists” and referring to people to be detained in the event of a national political emergency, the reason given was his participation in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.
Identifying and Tracking Communists
One of the most striking aspects of Berg’s FBI files is how it shows the degree to which the US government was willing to go to identify and then track Communists.
Berg’s FBI files contains a World War II-era report from Military Intelligence which concluded that Berg, then an enlisted soldier, was “either a member of the Communist Party or adheres to the Communist Party line.” The military opened its investigation into Berg, because his name was found in the “personal effects” of another individual believed to be a courier between the US and Australian Communist Parties. (How the bureau got a hold of these personal effects, they don’t say.) As a result, the military assigned Counter Intelligence Corp (CIC) agents to investigate Berg’s views.
CIC agents interviewed (“inadvertently,” they inexplicably say) Berg’s mother:
When questioned about the Subject’s religious preference, Mrs. Berg remarked that Subject was an Atheist and did not believe in God, that both Subject and his father are Communists and believe in the Communist doctrine that all persons were created equal and there is no Supreme Being. Subject was further described to always be in sympathy with the common people or the underdog.
A neighbor reported “without any prompting on the part of the agents” that:
[S]he did not believe the subject should be placed in any position of confidence and trust in the U.S. army because “both subject and his father are Communists;” that she had seen the Communist Newspaper in their mail box and in their home on many occasions.… Subject gave several Communist papers to another neighbor, Arnet Christianson, to read.
They also reached out to the FBI’s San Francisco field office. Per their final report, the FBI had not investigated Berg but had amassed a peculiarly large amount of information about him. They knew Berg subscribed to People’s World, that his father had been excommunicated from their local church for his communist views, that Berg had fought in Spain, and that he had reportedly once uttered “he had just as soon fight for Japan as the United States.”
That Berg subscribed to People’s World, the West Coast paper of the Communist Party, is a reoccurring theme throughout Berg’s files. Agents interviewed Berg’s ex-wives, former mother-in-law, and others who much like his neighbor reported witnessing it in his possession. The FBI even relied on confidential informants to turn over information about Berg’s reading habits, including D.L. Lambert, the inspector in charge at the San Francisco Post Office who “made available for photographing the subscription list of the Daily People’s World.”
As FBI special agents complete yearly updates of Berg’s case file, they invariably always cite his current subscription to People’s World, going so far as to document the calendar date on which his subscription was set to expire (Berg was apparently as meticulous in renewing his subscription as the FBI was in chronicling it).
A file uncovered as part of the request for Berg’s records also shows the FBI was equally interested in who wrote for Communist publications. When an article by Robert Wells appeared in Political Affairs, the Communist Party’s theoretical journal, the FBI opened a file on him.
This was in line with a little-known FBI policy to investigate the authors of “articles, letters, and/or book reviews” published in Political Affairs in order to determine if they should be placed on the Security Index. Wells’s case was closed when it was discovered that it was a pseudonym and Berg and another individual named Bob Lindsey wrote the article in question.
The FBI was obsessive about tracking the authors of every article down to book reviews, as well as tracking every subscriber to Communist publications, as part of their larger project of identifying and tracking subversives.
Berg, of course, was already listed on the Security Index at the time the FBI opened its investigation into the nonexistent Robert Wells. In 1949, the San Francisco field office had written to the general headquarters asking to open a Security Index on Berg.
Shortly after, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would write to them informing that a note card on Berg had been prepared. It would not be until 1955, however, that Berg’s Security Index card would be “tabbed for DETCOM.”
The files show that Berg’s status on the Security Index was assessed at least annually. Every change in address was noted, as agents designed to keep constant tabs on Berg’s whereabouts. Agents not only documented his employment history and kept a photograph of him, but they went through great lengths to use confidential informants to obtain a handwriting sample for Berg’s file.
There is a remarkable banality to all of this. Year after year, the paperwork becomes gradually more standardized, complete with check boxes for whether the subject should be kept in the Security Index and whether his case still required “tabbing for DETCOM.” Serious deprivations of liberty like surveillance or detention become routine bureaucratic functions.
The index card itself also grew to include other leftist groups. The Socialist Workers Party and Independent Socialist League were added alongside the Communist Party; by the early 1970s, the card is an alphabet soup of abbreviations for different left groups.
These reports show an intense interest in Berg’s “Communist activities.” Attendance at local meetings, national conventions, dinners with fellow VALB members, a meeting of the Vietnam Day Committee, and a conversation about farm-worker organizing are all cited as evidence of why Berg needed to stay in the Security Index.
Even though the FBI’s informants within the Communist Party allege Berg resigned from the party in 1960, for over a decade after the FBI still deemed it necessary to include Berg in the Security Index. Even after the Administrative Index (ADEX) replaced the Security Index in 1971, the FBI continues to include Berg in it until at least 1972.
As part of the Protection of Strategic Air Command Bases of the US Air Force program, the FBI sent copies of Berg’s Security Index files to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, as Berg lived within the vicinity of an Air Force base. Beginning in 1968, Hoover began forwarding Berg’s files to the Secret Service, as he believed Berg to be one of the “individuals covered by an agreement between the FBI and Secret Service concerning the protection of the President.” It’s unclear what threat Berg’s organizing of farm workers posed to either the President or the Travis Air Force Base.
In addition to the Security Index, Berg’s files give a very brief glimpse into another one of the FBI’s notorious programs: COINTELPRO.
Berg’s second wife, Dolores Berg, made a complaint to the local sheriff against a leader in the local Communist Party. It is not clear what the complaint was about as NARA redacted that part of Berg’s file, citing the exemption to Freedom of Information Act that protects information that would lead to an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
Nonetheless, Dolores Berg did not sign the complaint. The FBI hypothesized that should she do so, the resulting publicity would cause “widespread disruption” among local party members and “disruption for youth groups for which the CP is currently interested.”
Hoover responded by sending an “urgent” radiogram to the San Francisco field office, authorizing agents to contact the sheriff and ask him to convince Dolores Berg to sign the complaint. With trademark Bureau honesty, Hoover makes it clear to the field office that under no circumstances are they to make the sheriff aware of COINTELPRO and that the sheriff must understand that the FBI’s involvement in the matter is to be kept secret. The bureau was willing to manipulate the legal process to bring unrelated charges against political activists with the intent of silencing them.
This is far from a thing of the past. Recently, the FBI, in line with its Black Identity Extremism threat assessment, began monitoring Rakem Balogu after learning about his activism from right-wing conspiracist website Infowars. Unable to create a terrorism charge based on Balogu’s Facebook posts, the FBI tried to pursue weapons charges against him. (This also failed.) In 2012, when activist Carlos Montes was arrested on state charges, FBI agents were present ready to ask about his involvement with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.
Much like what we see in Berg’s file, the FBI is still willing to use whatever means is available to accomplish its goal of stamping out political dissent.
Another brief glimmer is given into the FBI’s relationship with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). While both the FBI and HUAC are often understood as instruments of political repression, the symbiotic relationship between the two isn’t always realized. The FBI furnished HUAC with information and sometimes used it to propagate its own views.
Accordingly, Berg’s file shows that the FBI was in on the planning of a potential HUAC hearing to be held in San Francisco. Berg was a potential witness to be summoned and the FBI, per Berg’s file, had a policy of reopening and bringing up to date its investigations on any HUAC witness — presumably to furnish HUAC with the most relevant information. (It’s not clear from the case file what happened; Berg told a later interviewer that he was asked to contact HUAC, but the committee “could never find me to serve a summons.”)
COINTELPRO, the Security Index, HUAC — Berg’s file gives us an inside look at how some of the most notorious forms of political repression operated. They also show how the FBI’s goal in going after Berg was to silence left-wing views. While COINTELPRO, the Security Index, or HUAC may no longer be with us — at least in name — the FBI is still actively engaged in political surveillance, making these files a valuable insight into how the Bureau’s reactionary political mindset motivates its surveillance of left-wing political movements.
Community Action Commission
Berg’s Sacramento FBI case file contains a series of interesting documents on the Stanislaus County Community Action Commission (CAC), for which Berg was a community organizer. The CAC files sandwiched in Berg’s file uncover both a different side of Berg and the FBI.
For Berg, they deal with his organizing around the Mexican American Political Association, which was intertwined with CAC’s work. Just as the CAC files reveal Berg’s interest in racial justice, they uncover the FBI’s white supremacy.
CAC was part of Community Action Program, a poverty-fighting initiative created through the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The FBI, however, saw something sinister in their work. Local police and numerous confidential informants fed the FBI information stating that CAC was not interested in poverty, but instead agitation.
One informant insisted CAC’s real goal was to “get the workers to take over.” Another informant had equally elaborate claims:
[Informant], who is familiar with the activity of CAC advised on March 20, 1969, that [its executive director] has inquiry [redacted] concerning the feasibility of creating sufficient agitation among lower income groups on Modesto’s west side, where the majority of Modesto’s Negro population is located, to cause them to band together and riot, or cause physical disturbances around Modesto of a nature serious enough to gain the attention of the Federal Government. The purpose would be to convince the Federal Government that conditions are such that additional Federal funds are required by CAC.
The FBI was also concerned that CAC was making inroads in neighborhoods with heavy Latino populations. Demographics are repeatedly stressed throughout these files, with the FBI noting the racial makeup of those who attended meetings at Berg’s home.
The FBI’s informants (several of whom, the FBI conceded, it was unable to determine the reliability of) also fed them information about the political views of many of CAC’s main figures. For example, an informant claimed that Berg wanted a revolution against the establishment and claimed to hate police agencies. Another person was quoted as believing that only abolishing capitalism could cure poverty.
The FBI was particularly interested in contacting individuals in CAC with the Third World Liberation Front or the Brown Berets. Berg was not the only person associated with CAC who already had an open FBI file. One member had a file due to her alleged membership in the Socialist Workers Party-affiliated Young Socialist Alliance, and at least two other members had files because they subscribed to the People’s World.
At one point, the FBI tried to connect the community group with a random attempted arson. It is not clear — other than from the FBI’s prejudice against CAC and “unverifiable” “rumors” and “hearsay” that one member was training local youth in how to make Molotov cocktails — why they would think the organization was involved in the arson. The FBI’s informants also insisted that the “black establishment” was against CAC as they believed them to be leading African-American youth astray with their militancy and that they were manipulating an otherwise “incompetent” African-American minister, whom CAC had helped get appointed head of a local community center.
The FBI’s files on CAC include its corporate charter and personnel policy. Reports are given about what holidays were and were not given (Good Friday was not granted as a holiday, but the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr was. The FBI claimed this would cause a rift between black and white employees). One FBI document states the FBI could not find any violations of election law that CAC had committed, but they should pursue whether they had violated any civil administrative laws.
Clearly, the FBI was attempting to get CAC into legal trouble in order to stifle their attempts to organize poor people, predominantly people of color. It is also reported that one of the FBI’s informants was also turning over information to the office of Governor Ronald Reagan.
The CAC files are perhaps some of the most revealing about the FBI in Berg’s file. Even with the FBI’s informants’ hyperbolic descriptions, CAC’s work seems fairly innocuous, at least from the perspective of “internal security.” The concern was that the group was organizing not just working-class people, but also Mexican-American and African-American youth. It is for this reason the FBI saw fit to pursue CAC. The files also show how the FBI’s zealous opposition to social change meant they were not only willing to infiltrate and disrupt radical groups, but that even a federally sanctioned program designed to uplift people of poverty found itself targeted.
The FBI’s definition of “internal security” essentially meant the defense of a status quo based on economic exploitation and white supremacy. Any tampering with that status quo, no matter how reformist or minor, evoked their wrath. This was the motivating rational for their political surveillance. It remains so today.
Berg’s FBI file is testimony not only to the official disdain for those Americans who fought fascism in Spain; it documents how the FBI surveils dissent. Its obsessive pursuit of Communists and those with subversive views is not unique to Berg, as evidenced by the FBI’s interest in local community organizers. If anything, the monotonous nature of the extensive surveillance reveals how ubiquitous political surveillance was in the United States.
Berg’s files are not only a window into how the FBI operated some of its most notorious programs; they reveal the FBI at its core mission — as the nation’s political police. From its inception to the present, the FBI’s history is one of repression. Its most famed director, J. Edgar Hoover, got his start indexing and rounding up radicals during the Red Scare following World War I. While revelations about FBI abuse and Congressional investigations in the 1970s meant the Bureau was supposed to clean up its act, it never did. Just years after the Church Committee — the famed Senate investigation into the rampant misconduct and criminal actions of the security state — the FBI was back to its dirty tricks, pursuing opponents of US Central American policy. Today, the FBI is in full gear, spying on peace, racial justice, and economic justice groups. It has also increasingly set its sights on the Muslim community, unleashing informants that not only gather information, but seek to entice people to participant in concocted, phony terror plots. Its threat assessment on Black Identity Extremists and its Director’s comments about how the Bureau was investigating people motivated by “antifa ideology” show the FBI is still the bulwark of reaction.
With the Left gaining steam, it is important to recall how the organs of state power are used to blunt social progress.