Incompetent G-men failed to notice that Walt W. Rostow, National Security Adviser from 1966 to 1969, authored an anti-communist manifesto that was written as a rebuttal to Karl Marx.
Throughout his long tenure as FBI Director from 1926 to 1971, J. Edgar Hoover effectively presented himself as a dedicated “red hunter” who protected the nation from subversive threats.
However, under the counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO), Hoover’s FBI carried out mass surveillance on Americans in violation of their constitutional rights, supporting illegal methods targeting political activists and even the murder of dissidents like Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Newly released documents show Hoover to be not only brutal and oppressive, but also paranoid and inept.
One of the targets of COINTELPRO was Walt Whitman Rostow, the Director of Policy Planning for the State Department from 1961 to 1966 and National Security Adviser from 1966 to 1969.
David H. Price, an anthropologist at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, details in his book The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent (London: Pluto Press, 2022) that Hoover believed that Rostow was a communist even though Rostow authored an anti-communist manifesto that influenced the expansion of U.S. foreign aid programs, and championed the massive bombing of North Vietnam beginning in 1961.
During the 1950s, Rostow had worked as a professor at the CIA-financed MIT Center for International Studies. In 1960, he published The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, which argued that the United States could ward off the advance of communism in developing world countries and help them eventually achieve the kind of mass consumption economy prevalent in the U.S. through infusions of technical aid.
Rostow was considered the “father” of modernization theory which, according to Price, provided a “faux intellectual veneer for policy makers to rationalize neocolonial ventures.”
Price writes that “technological infusion loans claiming to improve agriculture or industrial process or bring improved roads or sanitation facilities delivered only minimal goods or services, but established crippling debts that could be used by the U.S. to manipulate domestic politics in debtor nations.”
Rostow’s vehement anti-communism was apparent in a 1955 Harper’s magazine article that he penned entitled “Marx Was a City Boy Or why communism may fail.” It argued that Marx’s greatest failure was his inability to understand peasants, who would revolt against centralized communist governments and collectivized agricultural systems imposed under police-state conditions.
Remarkably, the FBI had a copy of this latter article in Rostow’s 1,000-page file and still somehow suspected him of being a communist!
Rostow’s FBI file began in the early 1950s when the FBI carried out background investigations on him because of his work as a government economic consultant. The FBI was concerned over Rostow’s father and his aunt’s involvement in radical politics long before he was born.
According to General Robert Cutler, Rostow’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) supervisor during World War II, in 1953 or 1954, Rostow was asked to excuse himself from service on the National Security Council (NSC) after an FBI investigation uncovered that Rostow had communist family members. At the time, a houseguest in one of the Rostow family members’ homes found a Communist Party membership card while snooping around.
The FBI described Rostow’s aunt, Sarah Rostow Rosenbaum, as a “very active member of the Communist Party in New Haven,” and FBI records indicated that his cousin, Ruth Roemer, had joined the party in the early 1940s. A New Haven neighbor of Rostow’s in the 1930s reported to the FBI that it was “common gossip” in the neighborhood that Rostow’s mother was secretary of either the Communist Party or Socialist Party.
What the FBI did not seem to understand was that Rostow’s father’s family’s Marxist leanings predisposed him to “espouse forms of anti-communist beliefs with the sort of vehemence one sometimes encounters with the anti-alcohol fanaticism of the children of alcoholics,” Price writes.
According to Price, “despite the FBI’s awareness of Rostow’s publications on the failures of communism, the Bureau remained obsessed with finding communist tinctures within Rostow’s pro-capitalist philosophy.”
One 1956 FBI report characterized Rostow as a “Marxist economist” and stated that, “although he….may be at variance with the Kremlin, does foster economic goals which…follow the Communist Party line.”
A 1957 internal FBI memo detailed the bizarre allegations of General Arthur S. Trudeau, commander of U.S. troops in the famous battle of Pork Chop Hill during the Korean War, who alleged that crypto socialists—Rostow among them—had silently taken over the government.
In 1965, D.J. Brennan, Jr., senior official in the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division, wrote a secret memo to William C. Sullivan, the Director of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division, raising concerns about Rostow’s soft stance on communism after analyzing Rostow’s State Department White Paper on “Communist Parties in Western Europe Today.”
Brennan found particularly concerning Rostow’s conclusion that, since the communists were becoming increasingly accepted into political life in various countries, the U.S. should not seek to ostracize or exclude them from political life, since such a policy “is no longer likely to serve any useful purpose.”
J. Edgar Hoover added a handwritten note at the end of the file stating: “Sounds as if it came directly out of Moscow. Let me have summary on Rostow.”
When Hoover was given the CIA’s 1953 Loyalty Review Board report on Rostow, which found no reason to doubt his loyalty, Hoover jotted down the notation: “certainly a dubious conclusion.”
Price writes that, “as Hoover fantasized about Rostow holding crypto-Soviet links, Rostow worked with General Maxwell Taylor to convince the Johnson administration to launch Operation Rolling Thunder’s ferocious bombing campaign on North Vietnam.”
The FBI’s attitude toward Rostow ultimately exposes its evolution under Hoover into what Price describes “as an appendage so large, awkward and inefficient that it could not tell the difference between friend, or foe, devouring and damaging both without distinction as its paranoiac fuel and simplistic thinking drove it to distrust and destroy those who haphazardly crossed its path.”
Targeting Rostow’s Academic Nemesis
Ironically, while targeting Rostow, the FBI also monitored and tried to bar from the U.S. Rostow’s main intellectual nemesis in the economics field, Andre Gunder Frank.
A student of Milton Friedman, who promoted conservative economic views at the University of Chicago, the German-born Frank pioneered “dependency theory,” which challenged Rostow’s modernization theory by explaining how the poverty of underdeveloped nations resulted from the exploitation of their resources by imperialist nations and was an inevitable outcome of capitalist greed.
The solution to Third World poverty was not an infusion of foreign capital and technology, as Rostow suggested, but socialist revolutions that would result in national control over countries’ economies and adoption of policies that would advance industrialization efforts.
According to Price’s research, one of Frank’s colleagues at Iowa State University, where he taught in the late 1950s, was an FBI informant. A 1965 FBI report characterized Frank as “thoroughly anti-American and pro-communist” and would “represent a danger to this country were he present.” But that danger was not physical; rather, the danger was getting students to think critically about the global economy and the U.S. role in it.
Ideas Matter—The FBI’s War on Intellectuals
The FBI’s harassment of Frank was part of a war on intellectuals that embodies a deep-seated anti-intellectualism in American political culture and recognition that ideas do matter.
Among the intellectuals targeted was Alexander Cockburn, a gifted British writer and social critic, who wrote a column for The Village Voice and The Nation magazine and later founded the radical webzine, CounterPunch.
Another target was Edward Said, a Columbia University professor and Palestinian activist who gained fame with his book Orientalism (1978) that critiqued Western literary depictions of the Middle East and Orient.
Gene Weltfish was an anthropologist who conducted fieldwork with the Pawnee Indians and was targeted by the FBI around the time that she co-authored The Races of Mankind (1943) with Ruth Benedict, which provided a progressive critique of American racism that popularized anthropological views.
Weltfish’s contract with Columbia was terminated in 1953 after she had received a subpoena to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Government Operations Committee and made statements in the press suggesting that the United States may have used biological weapons in the Korean War—which evidence suggests was true.
A fellow anthropologist, Ralph Linton, who had a “marked influence on the development of cultural anthropology,” had reported to the FBI that Weltfish was “on the fringe,” “almost fanatical” and “a fellow traveler with communists and other radicals.”
The FBI monitored Weltfish’s mail and political talks, like one she gave at Henry Wallace’s October 1946 Fight for Peace rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden, where he advocated that “the American people demand of the United States government that it stop those driving the United States towards war, and advocate instead a policy of peace with Russia.”
A generation later the FBI targeted another pacifist, Columbia professor, Seymour Melman, who warned about the unbridled growth of the military-industrial complex in Our Depleted Society (1965); Pentagon Capitalism (1970) and The Permanent War Economy (1974).
The FBI went global in collaborating with the apartheid South African intelligence services along with the State Department and CIA to monitor and harass Ruth First, a South African journalist opposed to the Apartheid system who wrote insightful investigative pieces and books on African politics.
First was tragically killed on August 19, 1982, by a mail bomb in Maputo, Mozambique, while organizing a conference on Apartheid and neo-colonial Africa.
Her FBI file contains an August 20, 1982, teletype report titled “Allegations of U.S. Link in First Killing” (the headline of a Rand Daily Mail wire news story), which included news speculations that the mail bomb had been delivered to First inside a package sent from the USAID-funded South Africa Development Information/Documentation Exchange (SADEX).
Targeting Film Pioneers and Documentarians
The FBI’s mass surveillance apparatus went after not only brilliant writers, but also great film-makers like Haskell Wexler, who won Academy Awards for his camera work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (1966) and Bound for Glory (1976) and pioneered the use of hand-held cameras and other cinematographic innovations.
Wexler was first placed on the FBI’s Security Index in the 1930s after he helped organize a labor strike at his father’s radio manufacturing plant. Another faux pas was his joining the wartime branch of the Seaman’s Branch of the Communist Party in New York City, and work on union documentaries and a film supporting Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential bid.
FBI reports described Wexler’s 1968 masterpiece Medium Cool as “anti-establishment and anti-law enforcement in nature,” and the Bureau filed reports on news stories appearing about the film.
Wexler remained an FBI target throughout the 1960s and early 1970s by presenting the anti-war Berrigan brothers in a sympathetic light, making a film about the Weather Underground, and traveling to North Vietnam on a peace mission with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) founder Tom Hayden and actress Jane Fonda.
In 1969, Wexler began collaborating with Saul Landau on a documentary film called Fidel and went on to make numerous more about global injustices including: Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971); Target Nicaragua: Inside a Covert War (1983), The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising in Chiapas (1996) and Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1979).
Landau was editor of Studies on the Left while a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a close friend of C. Wright Mills, a Columbia University sociologist whose 1956 book, The Power Elite, inspired the growth of SDS, an activist group that tried to challenge the military-industrial complex and opposed the war in Vietnam.
Landau’s FBI file began in 1956 and continued through his years as a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which opposed U.S. attempts to overthrow the Castro government. After he returned from one of his trips to Cuba, J. Edgar Hoover called for Landau’s arrest. The FBI particularly hated a KPFA broadcast in which Landau stated that “U.S. congressmen foam at the mouth ‘like rabid dogs’ in their obsession to invade Cuba.”
The FBI’s surveillance of Landau continued until as late as 2009 (Landau at the time was 73 years old), when it printed out the program for exhibits and lectures, that Landau was participating in, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.
Violation of Attorney-Client Privilege
A 1977 lawsuit by the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) led to the release of more than 300,000 pages of documents which detailed the FBI’s engaging in “2,573 separate acts of trespass, burglary, obtaining documents by false premise and other offenses” against the NLG.
The NLG was targeted because of a history of representing members of the radical left.
Activist attorney William Kunstler faced years of surveillance and harassment under the FBI’s “Key Activist Program,” which investigated individuals in leftist political movements that advocated for non-violent civil disobedience in challenging societal injustices.
Kunstler’s widow, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, recalled that, during the 1970s, “we knew [the FBI] was around us, because we’d walk around the corner, and they’d confront us, but we didn’t know they’d taken an apartment across the street. That was something we found out many years later.”
Kunstler’s colleague, William Schaap, co-founder of CovertAction Information Bulletin (now CovertAction Magazine) with Philip Agee, Louis Wolf and Ellen Ray, was similarly targeted under the “Key Activist Program,” which violated the right of activists to attorney-client privilege and undermined the FBI’s claims to uphold due process of law.
Schaap had defended members of SDS, the Black Panther Party and Weather Underground, a radical offshoot of SDS. The FBI described him as a “revolutionary attorney and sympathizer who, during a time of national emergency, would likely seize the opportunity to commit acts inimical to the national defense.”
War on Native Americans
In the 1940s, the FBI compiled a file on Archie Phinney, who used his position as Superintendent at the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try and adopt a Nez Perce tribal constitution which increased the collective role and power of the tribe while weakening individual property rights.
The FBI viewed this as suspiciously anti-American, expressing fear that Phinney—who lectured for a period at the Leningrad Academy of Sciences—was seeking to impart Soviet ideals onto Native American reservations.
A confidential informant reported to the FBI that Phinney told him, after returning from the Soviet Union, that he “admired the Russians for their treatment of minorities and poor people and that he believed that Russia was doing a better job than the United States.”
Price writes that the FBI’s belief that Phinney was beholden to a foreign ideology “displayed a lack of any historical or anthropological perspective concerning traditional native political-economic redistributional systems among American Indians,” and was part of a long history in which the government attempted to “suppress native autonomy and rights.”
Protector of the Capitalist Elite
According to Price, the baseless accusations directed against social justice activists and intellectuals during the Cold War was logical given the FBI’s function as an “arm of a state secret police apparatus designed to sniff out and mark deviants those who threatened to undermine the political and economic interests of what used to be called the power elite.”
Price writes that, while it “might be tempting to blame the development of much of the FBI’s long history of violations of civil liberties, anti-communist hysteria, racist practices, and suppression of democratic people’s movements simply on the many personal shortcomings of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover,” Hoover in fact “fulfilled a significant predetermined need of American capitalism.”
Even without Hoover, Price says the FBI would have evolved as an oppressive force because of its ultimate function as a protector of the “inherent inequalities of capital and the political economic system on which it rested.”
Put differently, the ruling capitalist elite will stop at nothing to sustain its privilege and power—targeting even the Walt Rostow’s of this world based on the most paranoid of suspicions.
In Vietnam, Rostow championed the “Strategic Hamlet” program, which was designed to move Vietnamese villagers into special economic zones away from the communist guerrillas where infusions of foreign aid would in theory result in prosperity and cause them to support the U.S. client government in South Vietnam and renounce support for the guerrillas. ↑
- Between 1925 and 1927, Linton made a one-man expedition to Madagascar and East Africa that resulted in his major ethnological work, The Tanala, a Hill Tribe of Madagascar (1933).
KPFA is a listener-sponsored radio station in Berkeley, California. ↑
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
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