By Jon Wiener 9/12/06

The documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” which opened Sept. 15, recounts President Richard Nixon’s campaign to deport the Beatle because of his antiwar activism. In this report, Jon Wiener, a Lennon historian who consulted on the film, writes that President Bush has gone much further than Nixon in using immigration law to get rid of noncitizens whom the White House doesn’t like.

The new documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” tells the story of Lennon’s transformation from loveable moptop to antiwar activist, and recounts the facts about Richard Nixon’s campaign to deport him in 1972 in an effort to silence him as a voice of the peace movement. The filmmakers got lots of people to talk about Nixon and Lennon on camera, including Walter Cronkite, Gore Vidal, Mario Cuomo, George McGovern, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale, with G. Gordon Liddy representing the other side; the film also includes archival footage of Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, and stars John Lennon and his biting wit and great music. It opens Sept. 15 in Los Angeles and New York City, and nationwide on Sept. 29. The story of Nixon’s attempt to deport Lennon is relevant today because deportation, and the larger issue of immigrants’ political rights, has become a central problem in American politics.

The Lennon deportation case had an unusual genesis, when Strom Thurmond, Republican senator from South Carolina, sent a letter to the White House in 1972. Thurmond outlined Lennon’s plans for a U.S. concert tour that would combine rock music with antiwar organizing and voter registration–1972 was the first year that 18-year-olds were given the right to vote, and Nixon was up for reelection and worried about 11 million new voters who were probably all Beatle fans and mostly antiwar. Thurmond’s memo observed that Lennon was in the United States as a British citizen, and concluded “deportation would be a strategic counter-measure.”

The rest of the story is documented in the Lennon FBI files, which I requested under the Freedom of Information Act in 1981, shortly after Lennon was killed. The FBI declared it had 281 pages of files on Lennon, but was withholding most of them, claiming they were “national security” documents. The bulk of those files were released under the FOIA in 1997, after 15 years of litigation–I was the plaintiff, represented by the ACLU of Southern California and Morrison & Foerster LLP–and published in 2000 in my book “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.”

The story of Nixon versus Lennon ended, of course, with Nixon leaving the White House, and Lennon staying in the USA. But Lennon was not only world-famous; although he was a “foreigner,” he was a white man from Britain. What if he had been a dark-skinned man from a Muslim country? The George W. Bush administration has gone far beyond Nixon in using immigration law to prevent critics of U.S. policy from entering the country, and to get rid of noncitizens whom the White House doesn’t like.

Lennon was permitted to enter the U.S. in 1970, but musicians and artists of all kinds seeking to visit the U.S. have faced immense new obstacles since Sept. 11. A new law, the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act of 2002, requires that people seeking to travel to the U.S. from one of seven countries appearing on a State Department list of “state sponsors of terrorism” undergo extra background checks. The result is not exactly censorship, because in the age of mechanical reproduction these artists’ films and music can still be seen and heard here. Nevertheless, the crackdown does represent a form of politically motivated attack on artists the government considers undesirable for political reasons.

Among the most prominent people to be targeted by the INS were the 22 members of the Cuban delegation to the 2002 Latin Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, blocked from attending. One of those denied a visa was jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, who won that year’s Latin Grammy for best pop instrumental album. (Cuba has been described by the Bush administration as a nation that has assisted Al Qaeda–an absurd argument.) Also, the internationally acclaimed Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997 for “A Taste of Cherry,” was unable to get a visa to attend the premiere of his new film at the 2002 New York Film Festival. Kiarostami had previously visited the United States seven times. These cases were more outrageous than Lennon’s, not only because Americans were denied the opportunity to see and hear these artists in person, but also because they were targeted by the INS not for any actions of theirs as individuals–they were targeted only because of their national backgrounds, because they came from countries the Bush administration defined as enemies of the U.S.

Then there are the young men from Muslim countries who have been rounded up by the INS since 9/11 and deported; unlike Lennon, they were not outspoken critics of American foreign policy. Their offense was simply being young, male and Muslim. According to Human Rights Watch, in the weeks after 9/11 the Justice Department required thousands of noncitizens from a list of Muslim countries to report to authorities for interviews and fingerprinting; at least 760 noncitizens were arrested and detained on immigration charges. Many were held for months without being charged with any crime, denied the right to counsel and the possibility of release on bond, subjected to “excessively harsh conditions of confinement that included cases of physical and verbal abuse,” and then put on trial in secret deportation hearings. Secret trials are anathema to democracy, and a year later a federal appeals court struck down the government’s blanket policy of conducting secret deportation hearings in post-9/11 cases as a violation of the First Amendment.

If Bush has dramatically increased the number of foreigners denied entry into the U.S. for political reasons, Nixon pointed the way with Lennon. But Nixon was hardly the first to use American immigration law to deport “undesirable” radicals who weren’t citizens. Wartime has often seen efforts to silence antiwar activists, and Lennon’s case has some uncanny parallels to opponents of the U.S. entry into World War I. The anarchist leader Emma Goldman was deported in 1919 after speaking out against World War I and in favor of anarchism. She was an immigrant who became a citizen but had been stripped of her citizenship in 1908 on the grounds that she was an anarchist. That made her subject to deportation under the Sedition Act of 1918, which gave the federal government the power to declare noncitizens “undesirable aliens” and deport them. Thousands of other antiwar radicals were deported along with her. (The same law included a wholesale attack on freedom of speech–it made it a crime to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government, the flag or the military forces during war, and it banned antiwar publications from the mail.)

The Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, so Nixon did not have the power to declare Lennon an “undesirable alien” and deport him on those grounds. Instead, the Nixon administration argued that Lennon had been wrongly admitted to the U.S. in the first place–because under then-existing immigration law, anyone with a drug conviction, no matter how minor, no matter what the circumstances, was ineligible for admission to the U.S., and Lennon had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession of cannabis in London in 1968. (He claimed the hashish had been planted by the police.)

During World War II, of course, the government put those it considered undesirable aliens in detention rather than deporting them–and of course many of the 150,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans sent to Manzanar and other “relocation centers” were not antiwar activists or noncitizens; virtually all were loyal to the U.S., and a third were citizens.

Cold War government repression brought another wave of deportation. Several commentators have said the only precedent for kicking an outspoken radical like Lennon out of the country was the attack on Charlie Chaplin, who like Lennon had remained a British citizen after moving to the U.S. Chaplin was targeted by the FBI’s Hoover and other McCarthyites, and denounced for “un-American activities” and communist sympathies. He was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 but got his hearing postponed three times and never did appear. In 1952 he visited London for the premiere of his new film “Limelight.” While he was in England the Immigration Service revoked his permit to reenter the U.S., so he decided to make his home in Vevey, Switzerland. Lennon, perhaps aware of Chaplin’s story, did not leave the U.S. while his immigration hearing was pending, and he did not meet Chaplin’s fate.

In some ways the closest parallel to Lennon’s case is Picasso’s. In 1950, Pablo Picasso applied for a visa to the United States for the first time. The purpose of the artist’s visit was to lead 12 delegates from the World Congress of Peace Partisans to Washington in an effort to persuade President Truman and the U.S. Congress to ban the atomic bomb. The peace congress, which had been founded a year earlier in Paris and Prague, was a communist front and had been identified as such. And Picasso himself was a prominent member of the French Communist Party; the FBI had monitored him since 1944. After consulting the American embassies in Paris and Moscow, and conferring with senators, House members and the FBI, the State Department in March 1950 denied visas for the entire delegation, including Picasso. The grounds were that the “famous painter” and his colleagues in the delegation were “known communists and fellow travelers” and thus “subject to exclusion under the immigration laws.” It was big news: The New York Times ran a picture of Picasso on page 9 under the headline “Denied Entry to U.S.”

Picasso’s politics that year could be summed up with one word: “peace.” This was the year he painted the dove as symbol of peace, an image that became the icon of the world peace movement of the 1950s, reproduced on posters and postage stamps around the world. The dove was Picasso’s version of “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Lennon too was denied a visa when he applied to enter the U.S. in 1969 for his peace campaign–he wanted to hold a “bed-in for peace” in the U.S. along the lines of the bed-in in Amsterdam, where he and Yoko had declared their honeymoon a political protest and spent a week in bed at the Amsterdam Hilton giving interviews about their antiwar stance. After being denied entry to the U.S., Lennon went to Canada, where he hoped to reach the U.S. media across the border. At the second bed-in for peace, in Montreal, he recorded “Give Peace a Chance.” But the following year he was admitted to the United States, and so, unlike Picasso, he was able to conduct his peace campaign within the U.S.

The big issue behind the story of “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” is White House abuse of power, especially the power to deport radicals, activists and critics of the president. The question is what we can do to fight that kind of abuse of power today. Some people say “we need a new John Lennon to lead the fight.” But Lennon himself had a much better answer, which, typically, he put into a song: “Power to the people.” The only real solution to abuse of power at the top is to strengthen democracy at the bottom, to help mobilize ordinary people to fight for their rights–including the rights of noncitizens. Even though John Lennon was one of the most famous people in the world, and a person with plenty money for lawyers, he needed a lot of help to win his case. Today’s targets of the Bush administration immigration service need a lot more help–and it’s up to those of us who have the rights of citizenship to provide it.

Jon Wiener teaches history at UC Irvine. He’s the author of “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files” and a contributing editor of The Nation and was historical consultant on the film “The U.S. vs. John Lennon.”

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