04 October 2013

Was John Steinbeck a CIA Spy?

The Steinbeck Now website was kind enough to post a guest article about my latest book, Steinbeck Citizen Spy. Here's the piece in it's entirety.

My discovery of John Steinbeck’s connection to the CIA could be described as payback for a youthful The Grapes of Wrath in high school, I skipped the “turtle” and other chapters that seemed to me superfluous to the plot line of the Joads’ journey west. The punishment for my teenage sin of omission came years later, when it first occurred to me that John Steinbeck was a CIA spy. The insane-sounding proposition grew from incongruities in Steinbeck’s life that—unlike Tom Joads’ turtle—I found I couldn’t ignore.

Why was Steinbeck never called before the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities, despite his alleged ties to Communist organizations? Why did the CIA admit to the Church Committee in 1975 that Steinbeck had been a subject of the illegal CIA mail-opening program known as HTLINGUAL? Did Steinbeck’s connections to known CIA front organizations, such as the Congress of Cultural Freedom and the Ford Foundation, amount to more than mere coincidence? Did the synchronicity continue when Steinbeck did freelance writing for the Louisville Courier-Journal and New York Herald Tribune? Both newspapers were linked to MOCKINGBIRD, another CIA operation, in Carl Bernstein’s 1977 Rolling Stone article “The CIA and the Media.” Why did the CIA redact portions of Steinbeck’s FBI files before they were released under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the law that permits full or partial disclosure by government agencies of previously classified documents on request?

There was only one source—the CIA itself—that could definitively answer my questions and confirm or disprove my developing conclusions. I submitted my FOIA request to the CIA in January 2012. With characteristic bureaucratic speed, the CIA responded after eight months, in August 2012, sending me copies of two letters written in 1952. In the first, penned on personal stationery in his own handwriting, Steinbeck offers to work for the CIA. In the second, then-CIA Director Walter Bedell Smith accepts Steinbeck’s offer. The text of these letters and others can be found in my book, Steinbeck: Citizen Spy, at my website or in the FOIA Electronic Reading Room.

The CIA Director Accepts the Author’s Offer of Help

Jan 28, 1952

Dear General Smith:

Toward the end of February I am going to the Mediterranean area and afterwards to all of the countries of Europe not out of bounds. I am commissioned by Collier’s Magazine to do a series of articles—subjects and areas to be chosen by myself. I shall move slowly going only where interest draws. The trip will take six to eight months.

If during this period I can be of any service whatever to yourself or to the Agency you direct, I shall be only too glad.

I saw Herbert Bayard Swope recently and he told me that your health had improved. I hope this is so.

Also I wear the “Lou for 52” button concealed under the lapel as that shy candidate suggests.

Again—I shall be pleased to be of service. The pace and method of my junket together with my intention of talking with great numbers of people of all classes may offer peculiar advantages.

Yours sincerely,
John Steinbeck

ER 2-5603
6 February 1952
Mr. John Steinbeck
206 East 72nd Street
New York 21, New York

Dear Mr. Steinbeck:

I greatly appreciate the offer of assistance made in your note of January 28th.

You can, indeed, be of help to us by keeping your eyes and ears open on any political developments in the areas through which you travel, and, in addition, on any other matters which seem to you of significance, particularly those which might be overlooked in routine reports.

It would be helpful, too, if you could come down to Washington for a talk with us before you leave. We might then discuss any special matters on which you may feel that you can assist us.

Since I am certain that you will have some very interesting things to say, I trust, also, that you will be able to reserve some time for us on your return.

Walter B. Smith

Rewritten: LEBecker:mlk
Orig – Addressee
2 – DCI (Reading Official) [“w/Basic” has been handwritten beside this line and scratched out]
1 – DD/P [a check mark and w/Basic handwritten in]
1 – Admin [This has been scratched out] handwritten is “w/Basic”

Did Steinbeck’s CIA Connection Start in Russia?

Reread A Russian Journal with the possibility that Steinbeck was working for the CIA prior to 1952 in mind. When Steinbeck traveled to the USSR with Robert Capa in 1947—the second of three trips the author made to the Communist state during his lifetime—Walter Bedell Smith happened to be the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Steinbeck notes in his account of his and Capa’s Russian journey that they dined with Smith during their stay.

This experience helps explain the personal tone of familiarity expressed in Steinbeck’s 1952 letter to Smith offering to help the CIA. It also suggests the possibility that Steinbeck used his access while in the USSR to gather intelligence for the U.S. government from the Russian interior. While visiting a factory in Stalingrad, Steinbeck observes that the Russians are still melting down hulls from German tanks to make tractors fully two years after the end of World War II, lamenting his frustration at not being able to get current production figures for the facility. Such information would have been particularly important to the U.S. government in 1947, as the Cold War became hotter and American travel behind the Iron Curtain more difficult.
While visiting a factory in Stalingrad, Steinbeck observes that the Russians are still melting down hulls from German tanks to make tractors fully two years after the end of World War II, lamenting his frustration at not being able to get current production figures for the facility.

The 1952 exchange between the author of The Grapes of Wrath and the Director of the CIA provides a new set of parameters for understanding John Steinbeck’s life. In my book I carefully examine each of the letters resulting from my FOIA request to the CIA, the writer’s heavily CIA-redacted FBI files, Thomas Steinbeck’s thoughts on the matter, and likely avenues through which the elder Steinbeck could have served his government covertly both before and after 1952. Viewing the author’s life in terms of possible links to the CIA opens vistas for better comprehending certain works, such as The Short Reign of Pippin IV, that his literary agent, editor, and others discouraged him from writing. In recommending my book to a Steinbeck blogger, a noted Steinbeck scholar described the possible CIA-Steinbeck connection detailed in Steinbeck: Citizen Spy as “a potential game-changer.”

Time will tell.

09 May 2013

Middle Tennessee Boy Scouts Uphold Ban on Homosexuality

This evening I found out from the On My Honor blog the Middle Tennessee Boy Scout Council has upheld the dubious "don't ask don't tell" policy of Scouting. As an Eagle Scout, I can't go along with the Council's decision. Discrimination on any level should not be fostered by an organization whose members take the following oath:
On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.

I've heard the argument time and time again that homosexuality compromises the "morally straight" portion of this oath and therefore is incompatible with Scouting. Should we go as far to insure the moral straightness of our Scouts and Scout Masters as to poke around in their behind closed door affairs? Do we assume that if a Scout Master has been divorced, had premarital sex, or takes a drink when none of his Troop is around he is not "morally straight" and therefore not worthy of being involved with Scouts? Following that train, the BSA would turn into an adolescent boy's version of the Taliban. Maybe that's what Scouting wants. Certainly the Middle Tennessee Council isn't the most forward thinking group of individuals. Segregated Scout troops existed until 1974 within the Middle Tennessee Council because the council left that decision up to individual districts. Back then having African-Americans in Troops wasn't consistent with the values of Scouting either.

I would prefer Scouting to remember the "to help other people at all times" potion of the oath. No matter what one's race, color, creed, or sexual orientation Scouting helps boys become good men. The oath does not state "To help other people (except homosexuals or minorities) at all times". Shouldn't helping our brothers be a part of Scouting come before judging them? In the idealistic version of Boy Scouts I hold in my mind it should.

But... what happens when a homosexual Scout goes to camp with his straight counterparts? I would assume that the parents of homosexual Scouts teach what proper behavior is just like the parents of heterosexual Scouts do. Improper behavior is improper behavior no matter what one's sexual orientation. When at summer camp one year I remember a Girl Scout Troop was in a neighboring campsite. Under no uncertain terms we were told that trying to sneak over would result in a quick trip home. Why? Because trying to peek at the girl's shower stalls was inappropriate behavior that had a consequence. Just as it would be inappropriate for a homosexual Scout to make advances towards another boy. Neither behavior has a place in the context of Scouting and should be dealt with the wisdom of parents and Scout leaders. 

There's really two reasons this ban is being held onto by the BSA. First and foremost, there is the misguided belief that homosexuality and child molestation are linked. Given the black-eye the BSA took in October of 2012 about covering up cases of molestation, I have no doubt that the upper echelon of the BSA believes that keeping homosexuals out of Scouting will curb this problem. Secondly, I don't think most heterosexual Scout Masters really want to deal with homosexual Scouts because homosexuality isn't in their frame of reference. I don't understand why my Jewish friends keep Kosher, because I do love bacon, but I respect their right to do so and would make every effort to be sensitive to their dietary needs when planning camp-out meals. We consider that religion is a personal choice, even if we don't agree with someone's dogma, but differing sexual preference is somehow anathema.

If we think that by keeping homosexuals out of Scouting will somehow protect our children, you're right. It will protect them from understanding some folks are just wired that way. It will protect them from learning that you can accept someone who doesn't think the same way you do. Dealing with a diverse group of personalities and beliefs is one greatest early lessons of Scouting. Shouldn't we offer that lesson, and all the other wonderful lessons of Scouting, to any boy? Doesn't our world need a foundation for all boys to grow up into honorable men? As an Eagle Scout I think Scouting should give that chance to as many boys as possible... no matter what.

10 January 2013

Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

I went to a screening of Zero Dark Thirty last night and was surprised by the presentation. There is nothing about this film that one would expect out of a hunt for bin Laden movie. There are no montages of SEALs training over-laced with an Aerosmith song. Nor do the SEALs high-five each other after killing bin Laden. The CIA intelligence officers are largely portrayed as desk jockies sifting thought reams of documents rather than becoming involved in epic car chases. What's wrong with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal? Didn't the focus groups tell them that to be commercially successful you've got to glam up the story some?

If the focus groups did give Zero Dark Thirty's director and screenwriter that advice, I'm glad they didn't listen. The portrayal of the hunt for bin Laden is a slow and ponderous affair that imparts tone of the decade long operation. The characters in the film are not the epic heroes that legends come from. They are simply performing a duty outlined by the desires of the American people to spill Osama bin Laden's blood to avenge the horrors of September 11, 2001. Without the kick ass feel of Hollywood's standard offerings, one gets a chance to examine the implications of the "War on Terror". From the audience's reaction to the film, I would say the filmmakers hit their mark. There were no applause at the end or when bin Laden was killed. No Hillary Clinton fist pumps or cat calls of "Yea we got him" were to be seen or heard.

That is also as it should be. No matter how one feels about the role of bin Laden in the September 11th attacks, the fact remains that the American people called for his head on a pike. To that end we allowed prisoners to be tortured for information and violated the sovereignty of  Pakistan to achieve that end. Imagine what the reaction would be if the Canadians illegally flew 24 servicemen into Minnesota for the purpose of bringing a serial killer to the Pearly Gates. As much as we would like to think asymmetrical warfare is as clear cut a proposition as notions about the Second World War were, they're not. Enemies that do not "play by the rules" create problems with a nation who truly wants to pride itself on proportional and moral actions in warfare. The dourness of Zero Dark Thirty allows viewers to focus on the Rubicon we've crossed as a nation and if the price for vengeance was/is worth it.

To be honest, I'm still not sure about the answers to those questions. Am I grateful to the men and women who have shielded me from harm since September 11th? Yes. Am I deluded enough to believe that my personal safety doesn't come with unpleasant consequences for those that would do harm? No. The largest problem I have with any of the subsequent events to September 11th is that I do not have enough solid information to justify the wetwork that's been done in my name as an American citizen. While I do not believe in the grand conspiracy theories about September 11th being an "inside job", I do feel that the truth about the attacks has never been fully presented to the American people. Without that assurance, I can never fully sanction the death sentence we have passed on bin Laden. Conversely if someone had showed me evidence of Nazi Concentration Camps in 1939, I would have clamored for the same death sentence to be passed on Hitler. The lack of trust I have in what I'm being told gives me pause to question our national motives in the War on Terror.

That brings up another point about Zero Dark Thirty that marks this film as a must see. The film will cements the official narrative of the hunt and death of Osama bin Laden in our collective history. I have no real means of verifying that the account portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty is anything close to historically accurate. The narrative of the operation against bin Laden could be a Liberty Bell story that fits neatly into our history, but only faintly echoes the truth of the situation. As Americans we don't seem to correct the mistakes of our own historical accounts. If we did, we would recount the Battle of Breed's Hill and not the fallacy that lion's share of the action took place on Bunker Hill. The example might seem to be minor, but follows with the line of thought. Abigail Adams had misidentified the battle on June 17, 1775, as being on Bunker Hill in a letter to her husband John. In turn John referred to the conflict happening at Bunker Hill to the Continental Congress and the narrative was set in American history incorrectly placed.

While Abigail Adams had no malice in her mistake, do we trust that those shaping the story of bin Laden do not have their own agenda? I hope not, but I cannot being myself to making that leap of faith just yet...

01 January 2013

10 Seconds Before a Hangover Hits

My poor personal blog has been neglected over the last couple of years. Quitting a corporate job, opening Grave Distractions Publications, and writing two books will put a damper on writing for fun. However this morning I awoke with an old familiar friend that needed to be written about. Given the title of this posting one might think I had a rip roaring time last night. Nothing could be further from the truth. Laura and I spend a rather sedate evening having dinner with some friends and returning home at 8:30 for a sedate rest of the night. Midnight came and left without a drop of anything drank stronger than the Turkish coffee that capped off our meal. 
Bedtime came and the next morning I was visited by the ghosts of New Year's Day past. I affectionately like to think of my mid-20's as the "Lost Years" and days like New Year's came with the price carousing until closing time comes with. The residual imprint of those alcohol soaked days must have stayed with me, because most New Years' mornings I awaken with the beginnings of a hangover.
There is a space of roughly ten seconds that elapses between the time one wakes up and the point in which one remembers what happened the night before. The first two seconds are blissfully devoid of complex cognition. One simply recognizes that Morpheus has been dispelled for the rigors of the waking world. The three second mark is where one realizes this morning’s wake up is markedly different than most normal mornings and a self-diagnostic is called for. The fourth second is spent channeling every ounce of energy into the opening of one’s eyes. You don’t recall having your human eyes being replaced with a reptile’s, but that is the only logical explanation since your field of vision is restricted to tiny slits. Seconds five and six are reserved for feeling about your body to insure no other Kafkaesque changes have occurred while you slept. If one is truly lucky there are no contusions or lacerations to impede one’s introspection, but something is not quite right. Seven seconds in you meet the thousand tiny men wearing golf shoes and Pickelhauben are break dancing in your cranium. By the eighth second you have gained enough control over your brand new iguana eyes to take visual stock of your surroundings. Fortune favors those who are in their own bed and frowns upon those who are someplace else. Reservations have been made for the, “What did I do last night” question during second number nine and precisely at the stroke of ten one’s mind fires up an unsavory Powerpoint presentation.
Thankfully the panic was only the imprint past cocktails have left on my DNA. I wondered how many people woke up this morning with the "10 seconds before the hangover hits" if their actions last night were worth the price of admission. My misadventures rarely were and I'm glad something of my inner psyche gives me a periodic taste of how good the boring life actually can be...

04 January 2011

Ventriloquist Choir

I see this and keep having thoughts of the old Anthony Hopkins movie Magic.  This is not for the fenint of heart or those who have a doll phobia.  

30 May 2010

Last of the Full Grown Men

It's a quarter past the 90's and the true start of summer is about to happen.  The measure of the change from spring to summer came not with Memorial Day or an equinox, but with seeking out the idol of idle youth.  One could set their seasonal watches by the first Webb Wilder show of the season at 328 Performance Hall.  There was never a set date for the beginning of summer.  It always happened in that magical time when the weather broke enough to wear shorts and before the humidity became so oppressive one had to swim from one's car to the club's entrance.

In those days, going to a Webb show was a youthful ritual pilgrimage.  Summer might not happen at all if the trials of 328 were not met.  Securing a free and non-towable parking space... Slinking through the side streets leading to 328 without getting mugged or running into someone headed to the Jungle down the street... Cutting a hole through the thick coating of clove cigarette smoke and second hand patchouli that lingered around the club's entrance... Hoping the bartender had the foresight to stock an extra case of Guinness... Trying to start a conversation with the out-of-your-league Vandy girl who would never give the time of day to a guy who drove a Rabbit convertible...   Waiting out the Gun Bunnies or some equally horrible band for Webb to take stage... The ritual had to be maintained for the sake of summer after all...

It wasn't that Webb Wilder held some Phish-like sway over the audience, but the shows were always fun.  You were never sure where the shtick ended and the truth began for the rock-n-roll private eye.  That coupled with the honky tonk inspired tunes made for one hell of an evening. And sometime around quarter till 2000, the summer ritual ended.  It must have been around the time Nashville Scene sold out to Village Voice and In Review went under.  I moved on and my idle college and mid 20's years drew to a close too.

I hadn't thought of that ritual until my wife sent me an email about Webb playing at Dragon Park today.  Perhaps Webb had a mystical revelation that Nashville hadn't been the same since a quarter past the 90's and decided to appease the ghosts of the old Nashville Scene.  No matter the reason for the reemergence of the Webb-summertime link, I had to find out for myself.  Packing up the family, I set out to see for myself.

We got to the park a little late, but in time to hear Human Cannonball as we found a spot to get our groove on.  As we walked around, I looked at the crowd and most everyone mirrored myself.  We had taken the family out to seek out the beginning of summer and introduce our idle youth to the wonders of a Webb Wilder show.  I noticed that all the kids, like my own, weren't into the show at all.  The acrid smell of clove cigarettes and patchouli was conspicuously missing.  The strongest thing to drink was my own Mapco Diet Coke.  All the while, parents were chased their idle youth around Dragon Park. As quickly as the show had started, Webb's performance was cut short due to a thunderstorm.  Somehow I thought it was for the best because I realized that Webb Wilder wasn't the last of the full grown men.  He was just the first...

09 May 2010

Tonight on the Miserable Men's Sirius Radio Show.. Me?

Tonight should be a pretty interesting night for me.  At 9:00PM CST, I'll be appearing on the the Miserable Men Show on Howard Stern's SIRIUS Channel 10. I'll be discussing Skullduggery: 45 True Tales of Disturbing the Dead. You might want to put the kids to bed before tuning in.  The program is uncensored and while I promises to behave, I can't say the same for the show's hosts....

It's been a pretty interesting ride promoting the book these last few months.  I've had 15 or so different appearances on podcasts and national/big market radio shows trying to live up to my own maxim of being able to tell the best stories in any given setting.  We'll see if my true tales of creepy things that happen to the dead hold up bounced off a satellite.

I guess I should never have doubted the great Webb Wilder, you really are never too small to hit the big time.  Thanks for everyone's support, and tune in tonight if you get the chance.