07 February 2017

Richard Nixon Vs John Lennon

My most engaged era, both politically and musically, was 1965-1970. It was a blur of getting the Labour Party back into power, women’s rights, abortion law reform, ending the Vietnam War and following The Beatles in Liverpool and in Melbourne. Alas Richard Nixon took over as President of the USA in Jan 1969 and alas the Labour Party failed to win enough seats in the Australian Federal elections in Oct 1969.

By 1971, I was becoming more involved in changing nappies, establishing a career and finding family housing. Yet 1971 was the first year in which John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to Manhattan. Yoko Ono’s goal was to locate her first child, abducted by her ex-husband Tony Cox. [A Christian fundamentalist, Cox had apparently initiated Kyoko into bizarre and secretive Doomsday cult, The Walk].

Lennon had actually been involved in anti-Vietnam war activ­it­ies since 1969. But as the Vietnam War increasingly became a tragedy of destruction, his goal was to become more visibly involved in the peace move­ment. In Dec 1971 Lennon sang at a rally for the White Panthers, the first time the FBI put the British citizen under surv­eillance. Thus by Jan 1972, the American government’s involvement in Lennon’s life was off and running: FBI informants at his concerts and Immigration and Natural­isation Service men looking for evidence of marijuana smoking.
Ono and Lennon

Although there was little mention in the Lennon story of President Richard Nixon at that point, 1972 was the year of Nixon’s re-election campaign. In March, just as the new presidential campaign was heating up, the Immigration and Naturalis­ation Service/INS (in the Department of Justice) refused to renew Lennon’s visa, and began deportation proceedings.

The surveillance turns out to have been intertwined with electoral politics, rather than for any leg­it­imate law enforcement purposes. President Nixon must have had a very real fear that Lennon would join a national concert tour aimed at encouraging young people to get involved in politics — and at defeating President Nixon.

The 1972 election was the first in which 18 was the voting age, rather than 21. Young people were the strongest anti-war constituency, so Nixon assumed Lennon could use his power as a peace advocate to get young people into the political process. Lennon's idea was a tour, mobilising the new youth vote against the administration and following Nixon’s campaign stops across the country. This love-fest would end with a three-day festival in Miami, where the Republican National Convention would be taking place.

In Feb 1972, Senator Strom Thurmond (R-Ga), who was on the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Judiciary Comm­it­tee, wrote a letter to the White House apprising them of Lennon’s plans. Thurmond proposed that the best way to stop Lennon would be to have his visa terminated.

Most people assumed Nixon was paranoid and that Thurmond was vicious; that there no plans for Lennon and his followers to end the tour with a huge rally at the Republican National Convention. In any case, because the FBI was tapping Lennon’s phones and following him around, any mooted tour never got past the dis­cussion stage.

In March 1972 the Immigration and Naturalisation Service unexpectedly demanded in writing that John Lennon leave the USA within a fortnight or face deport­ation hearings. The INS had used Lennon’s 1968 conviction for marijuana possession in Britain as the reason for the deportation. But they left Yoko alone because she already had a green card.
Nixon and Hoover

How involved was FBI Director J Edgar Hoover? He wrote to HR Halde­mann, assistant to Nixon in the White House, indicating the high priority the Lennon case had for Nixon. He wrote that Lennon had taken an interest in extreme left-wing activities in Britain and was known to be a sympathiser of Trotyskist communists there. It is telling that J Edgar Hoover died in May 1972; within 3 months a memo was sent from the FBI’s acting director L Patrick Gray, saying that the FBI was ending its surveillance of Lennon.

In any case Nixon was easily re-elected in November, and a month later, the FBI too closed its investigation. I saw this as a victory for morality and legality, but History Prof­essor John Wiener saw it as a victory for Nixon. The Immigration Service and the FBI, he said, succeeded in pressuring Lennon to can­cel his plans and to withdraw from anti-war activity. Even Lennon’s lawyers’ advice was avoid anything that would further provoke the Nixon administration.

How strange then that even after Nixon had been re-elected by a landslide, Lennon continued to receive deport­ation notices from the INS. So immigration lawyer Leon Wildes sued Attorney General John Mitchell and other high-level officials for their cons­piratorial attempts to throw Lennon out of the country. Their investigation turned up documents from Hoover to HR Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff informing him of the FBI’s progress. If there was anyone on the planet who doubted that Nixon’s political motives had been the reason for the deportation attempts, these documents ended the debate permanently.

As this was going on, Nixon became embroiled in the Water­gate scandal. His resignation in Aug 1974 effectively ended the fight against all of Nixon’s enemies, including John Lennon. In Oct 1975, the New York State Supreme Court overturned the deportation order.

Eight months later, John Lennon’s green card arrived. On the court-house steps, Lennon held an impromptu press conference to thank all the fans who wrote to all their sen­ators, and for their petitions over the last five years. Lennon remained a resident in the USA until he was murdered in Dec 1980 in front of his New York apartment building.


I cannot tell when Lennon was under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or by the Immigration and Natural­isation Service, or both. What is certain is that because of his political activism, the FBI or INS gathered masses of information on Lennon over at least 5 years. Clearly 1972 was the era of Watergate, a paranoid time when president Richard Nixon, J Edgar Hoover, HR Halde­mann and everyone else on the extreme right lived in fear. Lennon had spok­en out against war so he was wiretapped, foll­owed, surveilled and threatened with deportation. It is hard to believe any government would spend so much energy going after one singer/activist.

Lennon’s FBI/INS files were collected in the 1999 book Gimme Some Truth by Jon Wiener, showing that the Bureau was monitoring everything! Wiener spent 14 years try­ing to get the Bureau to release its files on Lennon under the Free­dom of Information Act. His book shows that President Nixon was terrified that Lennon could affect his re-election prospects. And the surveillance campaign was the subject of a 2006 docum­ent­ary, The US Vs John Lennon.

Immigrat­ion lawyer Leon Wildes told of his legal efforts on behalf of the couple in John Lennon vs. the USA: The Inside Story of the Most Bitt­erly Contested and Influential Deportation Case in United States History. Government surv­eill­ance had easily become an in­s­­t­rument for powerful people to try to hold on to more power.


Andrew said...

This is something I should have known about, although I am a bit too young to have been a Beatles fan. Even in the early 1980s there was a Trotsky faction within my workplace union. I liked them for their passion and idealism, and simply wanting to make the world a better place for everyone. I did not understand alliances and backgrounds then.

Nixon seems to be the worst remembered US president in living memory, but hey, the US is working on bettering his efforts.

Hels said...


I wonder if nostalgia for particular music from our youth is so powerful, it lasts long after the musicians have gone. At a dinner party on Sunday night, the hosts played Leonard Cohen tapes all evening. Every woman there remembered _every single word_ from his songs!

When I wrote that "government surv­eill­ance had easily become an in­s­­t­rument for powerful people to try to hold on to more power", I was actually thinking of Nixon. But you are right. Nixon is going to appear as a liberal, sensitive and democratic leader, in comparison to Thump. Surv­eill­ance, gaol, executions etc etc

Ann ODyne said...

'Tricky Dick' Nixon had his infamous Enemies List which most of those mentioned were proud to be part of. Just recently I have thought about this because I think Trump is that type of President.
Mr Lennon must have been amused that his hero Elvis aligned with the narcotics bureau and wanted Nixon to make him a Special Agent.

bazza said...

While reading this the only thought that kept coming to mind was "However bad we saw Nixon as being, Trump seems to be so much worse", as you have suggested in your reply to Andrew. I wonder how people would have reacted if they had known that Hoover was a secret cross-dresser, no terrible sin of course, but he was famously illiberal.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, And these are the people who were/are credited for evolving and accomplishing sophisticated conspiracy theories against the government and entire population, not to mention various aliens from outer space? Especially when contrasted with what they definitely proved to have achieved!

Hels said...


That is the strangest story, but true. All the admiring letters and memories of the association are saved and on display. Was Elvis' brain a bit altered by 1970?

Hels said...


Hoover's politics were nasty but his methods of control was even nastier. If I was an American back then, I would have been far more terrified by Hoover than by his political and FBI colleagues.

Hels said...

his methods were..

Hels said...


Good point. But even the greatest conspiracy theorists would be hardpressed to envisage a hairy working class muso from Liverpool overturning the USA's foreign policy in Vietnam and the nation's elections at home.