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.
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.
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.
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.”