Politics

JFK files: FBI spied on Hollywood screenwriter and labor leader, including opening his mail

The FBI routinely opened the mail of a Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted for his membership in the U.S. Communist Party before, during and after World War II, tracking John Howard Lawson as he traveled and wrote to friends in Eastern Europe.

The National Archives released 10,744 files last week as part of the collection of documents related to the investigation of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Lawson’s intercepted letters were part of a previously secret tranche of 140 files that were first made public on Nov. 17.

The files show Lawson, who had written anti-fascist movies starring Humphrey Bogart during the war, writing friends in East Germany about his projects and film criticism. Many were written after the Kennedy assassination.

“The concept of broadening the study of film, to use it (as you say) as a lens for the study of a country’s history and character, is necessary and I am sure you are well equipped for the task,” Lawson wrote on Jan. 31, 1967, to Jay Leyda, an American film historian then working in East Berlin.

Lawson was the founder of the Screen Writers Guild and a member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of film industry figures subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 to testify about the alleged influence of communists in Hollywood. In the beginning of the Cold War, Washington, particularly then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, grew obsessed with the Soviet Union and potential Russian threats on U.S. soil.

Before the war, Lawson was included in a series of FBI reports from informants in Hollywood about communist activity. Party-backed labor unions had agitated for higher pay and better working conditions that angered some Hollywood studio chiefs, including cartoon pioneer Walt Disney.

Untrammeled power

“It speaks to the untrammeled power on the part of the FBI,” Gerald Horne, a University of Houston history professor and author of The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten. “That’s where it leads to, the untrammeled waste of taxpayer dollars.”

In Lawson’s case, the FBI used that power to:

• Monitor Lawson’s foreign travels. A May 30, 1961, letter from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to Moss Lee Innes, the FBI’s liaison at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, said that Lawson and his wife, Sue, had boarded a passenger ship to Gdynia, Poland, from Montreal.

• Open a Jan. 26, 1956, letter from Lawson to A.C. Schlichting, an East German, which dealt with Lawson’s health problems and latest writing problems. “I can now write of this as something in the past,” Lawson wrote of his eye problems. “The two operations were performed successively a week apart, the last one just two weeks ago, and I am progressing excellently and will have good eyesight in wonderfully short time.”

• Read an April 22, 1965, letter to two East German members of the International Meeting of Writers, who had invited Lawson to their annual meeting. “I am unable to attend,” Lawson wrote. “I have a schedule of work, including lectures and classes as well as writing, which is not possible to change.”

These three documents were kept classified by the FBI, because they revealed the bureau’s sources and methods of gathering information, which in these cases meant the cooperative of foreign law enforcement organizations and an extensive mail-opening program.

The Hollywood Ten

In October 1947, Lawson and nine other Hollywood figures were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee led by Rep. J. Parnell Thomas, R-N.J., and which also featured a young freshman member, Rep. Richard Nixon, R-Calif.

Thomas wanted to expose alleged Communist subversion of the film industry in a series of hearings that featured witnesses such as Walt Disney, an opponent of film industry labor unions and an anti-Semite.

Lawson, Horne said, had earned the enmity of Disney and other Hollywood moguls for his created of the Screen Writers Guild, “which was one of the first talent guilds to be organized.”

In a heated hearing on Oct. 27, 1947, Lawson refused to answer if he was a Communist. He was charged with contempt of Congress, for which he spent a year in prison, as did the other nine members of the Hollywood Ten.

“You have spent one week vilifying me before the American public,” Lawson told Thomas, who was later convicted on federal fraud changes and sent to the same prison where two of the Hollywood Ten were incarcerated.

One prominent member of the group, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, was a dedicated Communist, who later renounced the party and returned to Hollywood. His 1973 screenplay for the movie Executive Action was one of the best movies about the Kennedy assassination, Horne said.

By the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, Horne said, Lawson was a spent force in Hollywood. Unlike other blacklisted screenwriters, such as the celebrated Trumbo, Lawson never renounced the Communist party. “He was radioactive to a certain degree,” Horne said, and had a hard time finding work.

Lawson died in 1977. He was 82.

No connection to JFK assassination

Lawson had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination, which the 1964 Warren Commission determined was carried out alone by Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old former Marine sharpshooter who worked in the Texas School Book Depository on the route of Kennedy’s parade through Dallas. A former defector to the Soviet Union, Oswald was married to a Russian woman and was a supporter of Fidel Castro, Cuba’s communist dictator whom Kennedy was trying to overthrow or assassinate.

However, the CIA and FBI failed to provide the commission with details of many of their secret operations during the 1960s, and the subsequent revelation of those secrets, as well as the bizarre nature of Oswald’s travels, spawned multiple conspiracy theories about who was behind Kennedy’s murder.

Kennedy’s support of attempts to kill Castro with the help of anti-Castro exiles or even members of the Mafia led to the collection of law enforcement and intelligence records about them, and they have been included in the JFK files.

The records were released under the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which required the full release of related documents by Oct. 26. Many documents had been released in part previously, while some, such as those involving Lawson, had never been released.

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