Einstein + FBI = Equation of suspicion - J. Edgar Hoover hounded Einstein
by: Dennis Overbye (The New York Times)
He was the Elvis of science.
Women pursued him; celebrities sought him out; politicians courted him and journalists followed him through the streets.
But, as Einstein was well aware, there was a darker posse on his trail. For almost 20 years, the FBI and other agencies spied on him, acting on suspicions as disturbing as a tip that he had been a Russian spy in Berlin; as vague as an unease with his support of civil rights and pacifist and socialist causes; and as goofy as claims that he was working on a death ray or that he was heading a communist conspiracy to take over Hollywood.
The broad outlines of this history have been known since 1983, when Dr. Richard Alan Schwartz, a professor of English at Florida International University in Miami, obtained a censored version of Einstein's 1,427-page FBI file and wrote about it in The Nation magazine.
But now new details are emerging in "The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist," by Fred Jerome, who sued the government with the help of the Public Citizen Litigation Group to obtain a less-censored version of the file. His book will be published this month.
The new material spells out how the bureau spied on Einstein and his associates and identifies some of the informants who said he was a spy. The agents went through trash and monitored mail and telephone calls.
The investigation turned up nothing. Nevertheless, the agency dogged Einstein until his death in 1955, even cooperating with an investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to see whether he should be deported.
Jerome founded the Media Resource Center, which puts journalists in touch with scientists. He contends that contrary to his image as a woolly headed idealist, Einstein was a savvy and politically astute champion of the underdog who made hard-headed choices about what organizations he would support.
Einstein's political problems began as a youth in Germany, which he left in 1894 at 15, partly because of a visceral dislike of German militarization. He had just moved back to the country, to a post in Berlin, in 1914 when World War I broke out, and he made no secret of his distaste for the war.
Einstein became an international celebrity in 1919, when observations of light bending during a solar eclipse validated his general theory of relativity, rewriting the laws of physics.
In the following years, Einstein lent his name and, occasionally, his presence to a variety of organizations dedicated to peace and disarmament. Such activities inspired an organization known as the Woman Patriot Corp. to write a 16-page letter to the State Department, the first item in Einstein's file, in 1932, arguing that Einstein should not be allowed into the United States. "Not even Stalin himself" was affiliated with so many anarchic-Communist groups, the letter said.
Nevertheless, Einstein moved to the United States and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., in 1933, when Hitler seized power in Germany. Subsequently, his outspoken support for the anti-fascist forces in Spain raised hackles.
Horrified by the use of the atomic bomb, Einstein spoke out after World War II in favor of world government.
In the '50s, he made headlines by appealing for clemency for the Rosenbergs, sentenced to death for espionage, and for encouraging people not to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's subcommittee.
Although Einstein espoused socialist ideals, he was not the kind of man to owe allegiances or to trust mass movements.
"He was not a party animal," said Dr. Robert Schulmann, a historian who is the former editor of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. "Einstein was the kind of guy that was uncomfortable for all authorities. He's the kind of person you don't want in your organization."
It is hardly surprising the FBI would be interested in Einstein, historians and biographers of Hoover say. The attitude was that liberalism was a first step toward Communism.
A look at Einstein's file shows more about public -- and bureau -- attitudes toward scientific genius than toward the genius himself. No feat seemed beyond such a man, according to the file.
The FBI declined to comment on the file, saying it was up to the public to evaluate the material.
The file sheds some light on Einstein's involvement, or non-involvement, with the atomic bomb. Overcoming his pacifist scruples, Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning that such a weapon was possible and that Germany might be working on it. The letter helped set the stage for the Manhattan Project, yet Einstein never worked on the bomb effort.
Still, Einstein was included on the list of possible bomb scientists that the Army gave the bureau to check out around 1940.
Hoover sent back a letter summarizing Einstein's antiwar and leftist activities and an unsigned, undated "biographical sketch" that some historians suspect was influenced by right-wing German sources. The sketch described Einstein's apartment in Berlin in the early 1930s as "a Communist center" and his country house in Caputh as "the hiding place of Moscow envoys."
"It seems unlikely," the sketch said, "that a man of his background could, in such a short time, become a loyal American citizen."
Shortly thereafter, in a letter dated July 26, 1940, which now seems to be missing from the archives, Jerome said, the Army declined to "clear" Einstein to work on the bomb.
Einstein knew that the project was going ahead without him, his biographers say, and he was disappointed at being left out. He enthusiastically accepted the Navy's invitation in 1943 to be a consultant on high explosives.
None of the surveillance of Einstein and others stopped the secret of the bomb from getting out. But the arrest in February 1950 of Dr. Klaus Fuchs, a German-born physicist and a Manhattan Project scientist, for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets breathed fire into the search for spies and scrutiny of Einstein.
On Feb. 13, Jerome reports, the morning after Einstein had appeared on the first broadcast of Eleanor Roosevelt's TV program to discuss the dangers of the arms race, Hoover ordered a full investigation of the scientist, requesting all "derogatory information."
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