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FBI Tracked "Working" Man Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel, the renowned historian and broadcaster, once sought a job at the FBI – the agency that would go on to spend 45 years tracking him as a suspected Communist, newly disclosed documents reveal.

The 269-page paper trail spans 1945 to 1990 – covering everything from Terkel’s McCarthy-era blacklisting to his involvement with Paul Robeson and third-party presidential candidate Henry Wallace to a birthday party toast he once made.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer died last year at age 96, nearly two decades after the final entry in his file. The dossier was obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, which calls on the FBI to release certain documents to the public once the person has died.

Only 147 of the 269 pages were released by the agency, which said many of the documents should remain sealed because of privacy and other reasons.

From Applicant to Target

The newly disclosed documents show that Terkel asked the FBI for a job in the 1930s – to work on fingerprints – but was never employed by the agency. Instead, beginning in 1945, the feds started amassing a dossier on Terkel, who was born in New York and rose to fame in Chicago.

He promoted the civil rights movement, immigration rights and other causes that drew the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which apparently pegged Terkel as a possible Communist.

Terkel worked for ABC television, hosting a show called “Studs’ Place,” but was forced to quit in 1953 because of the McCarthy-era blacklist. He became a noted radio interviewer – a passion that led to acclaimed oral histories.

He wrote more than a dozen volumes about everyday life and momentous events as observed by ordinary people. Terkel’s books include “Working,” “Division Street” and “The Good War,” which won him the Pulitzer.

Records Search

The FBI documents show agents tried to assemble documents from his birth until he was in his 70s. The effort included several New York FBI agents scouring the five boroughs – unsuccessfully – for Terkel’s birth records. Terkel, who has said he was born in the Bronx, earned a law degree at the University of Chicago and joined the Army in 1942. He was honorably discharged a year later because of his age.

Terkel’s attraction to the life of the American common man and woman was reflected in his politics, and he was frequently invited to speak at events suspected by the FBI of being infiltrated by Communists.

The FBI files record Terkel’s support for Wallace, a former vice president under President Franklin Roosevelt who ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. Informants also told the FBI that Terkel spoke at events held in honor of Robeson, the actor and civil rights activist.  The informants alleged that Terkel subscribed to the “Daily Worker,” a New York-based communist newspaper.

Even his nights out were monitored. In April 1950, a source told the FBI that Terkel gave a toast at a birthday party for Pearl M. Hart, a Chicago attorney who worked on behalf of immigrants.

Unconfirmed Suspicions

The closest the FBI came to documenting that Terkel was a member of the Communist Party was an allegation by one unnamed source.

A Chicago weekly newspaper, The Garfeldian, published an article disparaging Terkel for alleged Communist ties, and the FBI noted that it knew another newspaper, the Austin News in Texas, was working on a similar story.

In 1955, a memo reached Hoover’s desk recommending that Terkel be removed from the security index, since there had been no evidence of recent membership in Communist Party, referred to in the files as the CP. But this was re-evaluated in 1961, when, agents noted, “an admitted CP member advised that Terkel….was a concealed CP member in 1945.” The report goes on to describe Terkel as “a person whom the CP can always call upon to write articles, entertain and to secure funds.”

Terkel was aware he was being tracked by the FBI, and several accounts of his life recall him joking that his file wasn’t as thick as the one compiled on his wife Ida Goldberg, a social worker and anti-war activist.

Speaking Out

In an October 2007 opinion column for The New York Times, Terkel described his life under scrutiny by the feds as he criticized the Bush Administration’s reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Terkel was one of the plaintiffs in a suit against AT&T, in an effort to stop the company from turning over customer telephone records to the National Security Agency without a court order.

“In the 1950s, during the sad period known as the McCarthy era, one’s political beliefs again served as a rationale for government monitoring,” Terkel wrote. “I was among those blacklisted for my political beliefs. My crime? I had signed petitions. Lots of them. I had signed on in opposition to Jim Crow laws and poll taxes and in favor of rent control and pacifism. Because the petitions were thought to be Communist-inspired, I lost my ability to work in television and radio after refusing to say that I had been ‘duped’ into signing my name to these causes.”

Paper Trail Ends

Terkel’s FBI file ends in 1990, when agents in Miami clipped and pasted a Wall Street Journal article quoting his reaction to financier Michael Milken’s junk-bond scandal.

“We live in a corrupt, amoral moment,” Terkel told the paper. “There are a million Milkens, and he doesn’t deserve even a footnote in history. He’s reflective of our society at this time. But he probably won’t be chastised in the history books.

“People have lost their sense of outrage.”

  • http://TheDailyNewYorker.com JP

    Great reporting. Thanks for sharing!

  • Stephen Veenker

    Thanks for reporting and furnishing the documents. Those of us who knew and worked with Studs over the years appreciate your diligence. Those who heard him on WFMT and read his books deserve to keep his memory front and center in the decades ahead. =Stephen Veenker

  • L

    fascinating piece

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  • WestWright

    Why did not Terkel proclaim the truth, ‘I am a proud Communist’. Wish the FBI would contnue to track the domestic Communist!

  • Glenn Scott

    And so in this case we ended up with agents searching for an enemy in a noble seeker of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Studs was disappointing as a threat but splendid as an American.

    Not so his robot pursuers. There could be no life in their pursuits. No freedom allowed. No depth. I feel bad for them. What dull nothingness to write “It is to be noted.” No subject at all. No plot. No person. No howl. No objection. No struggle or solution. No love. Worse, no meaning in the ending. Studs could have written so much better of them. (Maybe he did.)

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  • Louis L

    If Studs was a CP member in 1945, after the Stalin-Hitler Pact, then he would be have to be pretty committed. If true, it was proper for the FBI to investigate. The Soviets were very interedted in penetrating US Media & Entertainment, as recent Soviet & US files confirm.

    I wonder if/what the Soviet files say. Sun Times, can you find out for us ?

  • Carol Anne

    Louis L:

    The Stalin-Hitler pact was signed in August, 1939. The Nazis and the Soviets kept the terms of the pact until Germany’s surprise attack and invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

    To be a member of the CPUSA in 1945 was anything but pro-Nazi.

  • http://667Illinoisregment.com Reece

    The FBI is very good a tracking U.S. citizens, great if they are a threat a neccessary fact.

    But explain how they can not track 19 WANTED suspected terrorist, expecially the notorious ring leader, manifesting themselves on domestic airline flights at major airports on 9/11/01.

    TRUTH IS?

  • Bob4232

    I’ve never worried about what a man read, or believed. It’s his deeds that matter. Heck, almost no one is more right-wing than I and I’ve read all kinds of communist and socialist stuff.

  • Barbara E Bj

    Anyone who stood against injustice perpetrated on other than white, anglo-saxon, protestants in this country at that time, was deemed a communist. Racists will use any excuse to stop change. It was surprising that JFK made it into the Presidency when he did, being both Irish AND Catholic, two things that were not well looked upon at the time, but we see where that went eventually.

    When one group has the power and fears having it taken away, it is a long hard fight before any other group can gain any sort of equality. We have seen that here in this country, and we continue to see it today. We need to remember it any time we are feeling like someone else shouldn’t be “allowed” to share what we have.

  • Rich

    45 years he was tracked as a communist! Never to be proven. Great work. Can I have my tax dollars back? Also I would like the FBI to tell all the families of those who died on 9-11 why Osama Bin Laden was not a “Real Threat” until he bombed the same building twice but Terkel was a huge threat. Why do we have a Government again? Someone tell me, please?

  • http://www.thepond.blogdrive.com Mike Flores

    I was fortunate to know Studs and he was intrigued by me as I was the first libertarian he ever met. He also knew I had been spied on by a half dozen Intel agencies during the Vietnam war.

    I asked Studs about the Soviet Union and he was pretty clear- they had deformed the left in America and turned it into cheerleaders for oppression around the world. He despised them. He said that communists here had much to answer for.

    Studs hosted a birthday party for me, and gave me a short story about the day American capitalism failed because it put speculation ahead of profits based on human endeavours. He dared me to do a play based on the story.

    Well, that’s one of the plays I’m working on now. A play based on a story by Studs Terkel adapted by a libertarian about our current economic crisis. Written years before it hit.

    As for the FBI- they have botched so many cases of real espionage against this country by gathering evidence illegally I believe they have done more harm than good. They had lists of spies names in our government from 1942 to 1952 and did zip to stop them. Who is worse? The Communist Party USA that recruited spies against this country? Or the FBI who dropped the ball on getting them out AND LET THEM REMAIN.

    The CIA has declassified the truth of the so called McCarthy era, which no publication dares publish. Google THE POND CIA. Everything we thought we knew about McCarthy, is wrong. Studs recognized the evil of the Soviet Union. Period.

  • Jack Margolis

    I’m looking for anyone who knew Studs in 1939 or has any good history of what he was doing in April that year. I am trying to resolve a small fact regarding something non political about Studs.

    This might require some research in NYC and is a rather small thing. However, I really would like find out if I’m correct or not.

  • http://www.lebourgethotel.com Bloomington Hotel Guest

    It is amazing to me hearing all of the back stories from Hoover. He actually was in our building back in his hey-day and once I started learning more about him, many of the stories and history were very intriguing to me. It sounds like he was largely driven by paranoia and fear.

  • http://breathalyzerreviews.org Jimmy

    My grandfather told me he knew Studs well and from what he told me the last comment is right on about him being driven by paranoia and fear.

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