The campaigning singer Pete Seeger, composer of classic American folk tunes including If I Had a Hammer and Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, was spied on by FBI agents for more than two decades because he wrote a protest letter as a young man concerned about plans to deport tens of thousands of Japanese American citizens at the end of the second world war.
A vast file on Seeger was released to the independent American news website Mother Jones in response to a request under the freedom of information act. It reveals that the bureau’s spies first took an interest in the singer in 1943. Seeger, a 23-year-old army private at the time, had written denouncing a plan for mass deportation drafted by the California chapter of the American Legion, a veterans’ association.
“If you bar from citizenship descendants of Japanese, why not descendants of English? After all, we once fought with them too. America is great and strong as she is because we have so far been a haven to all oppressed. I felt sick at heart to read of this matter,” he wrote.
His angry letter prompted close scrutiny of his political views and associations by the bureau that ran on into the early 1970s. The suspicion was that Seeger, who died in early 2014, was a security risk with close connections to the Communist party.
The FBI file on him has nearly 1,800 pages – 90 of them are still withheld for security reasons – and journalist David Corn has unearthed details within it of the elaborate efforts made by government agents to document Seeger’s activities, even back to his school days.