The FBI’s Surveillance of Congressman Vito Marcantonio

2973 400x500

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Our Right to Know (Fall/Winter 1984-85): 16-18.

Congressman Vito Marcantonio rose in the House of Representatives on January 11, 1940 and declared that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s practice of putting people’s names “on these index cards simply because of the views they may entertain, which may be contrary to the views entertained by Mr. [J. Edgar] Hoover and other people in power… is most dangerous to the constitutional rights of the American people.” He probably could not have guessed that shortly afterward, the FBI would begin to amass an index file on him. By the time he died, in 1954, the file contained 6,000 entries, 946 pages of which have been released under the Freedom of Information Act.

I sought access to this file as a source of information about the Congressman for a study of his remarkable political successes. Apart from learning that his father’s first name was Sanario (not Samuel, as the published sources had it), and that Marcantonio was exactly five-feet, five-inches tall (all other sources simply describe him as “short of stature”), I learned nothing from the FBI files that I had not already discovered from interviews and public documents. However, I did learn some things about the FBI and the state of America in that period.

Throughout his tenure in the House (1934-36, 1938-50), as a member of the American Labor Party representing East Harlem in New York City, Marcantonio’s radical views distinguished him from the vast majority of Congressional representatives. In 1950, his last year in office, he was the only representative who voted against United States participation in the Korean War and against the mounting number of contempt citations being the House Committee on Un-American Activities was by then handing down. His electoral defeat that year after seven terms resulted from a relentlessly prosecutorial campaign against him that began in 1946 and included almost daily vilification in the popular press of a type that would be unthinkable today. In 1947, the New York legislature changed the election laws to prevent candidates from running in the primaries of parties in which they were not registered. This meant that Marcantonio could no longer vie for the endorsement of the Democratic and Republican parties, a prize he won in one or both their primaries. Henceforth, Marc could run solely as the candidate of the American Labor Party, which was steadily being red baited out of existence. In 1950, he was defeated by a coalition candidate, James Donovan (a Tammany Hall Democrat) who ran on the Democratic, Republican, and Liberal party lines.

Marcantonio’s relations with the Communist Party and alleged Party members were close, documented, and open. Nonetheless the FBI deemed it necessary to include in his file an informant’s report that he “apparently has no objection to Communist Party officials appearing at his headquarters. George Blake [the district organizer of the Party for East Harlem] appears at V.M.’s headquarters many times during election campaign and the meetings are made openly with no attempts made to keep others from knowing who Blake is.” (“Blake” was a party name; his actual name was George Charney; he later wrote A Long Journey.) What was the FBI expecting to uncover? What was it attempting to document that was not already known publicly? Certainly not the truth. Information was fed into Marcantonio’s file without any effort to ascertain its veracity. For example, a Rosa Lamattina met with Marcantonio in 1941. This “confidential informant” advised the FBI that Marcantonio “has given up his Communist belief and has awakened to the fact that he is really Italian [and] that he has, if not already, become an active Fascist.” The FBI agents dutifully filed away this inane gossip.

The FBI seemed particularly interested in Marcantonio’s well known deep concern for Puerto Rican independence. When the Nationalist Party leader, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, was released from Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1943, Marcantonio arranged for his hospitalization in nearby Columbus Hospital. (Officially opened in 1896 by an order of Italian nuns that included Mother Cabrini, Columbus Hospital’s mission was to serve the Italian immigrants.) In 1944 an FBI memorandum indicated that Albizu Campos had been “warned by one Mother Superior Mary Bartholomew that someone had installed a listening device behind his bed. Vito Marcantonio [came to the hospital and] appropriated the microphone and threatened to produce it on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.” An associate of Albizu Campos told this author that before he ripped the device out from behind the Puerto Rican nationalist’s bed Marcantonio shouted into it a string of choice obscenities.

An FBI special agent-in-charge, listing speakers at a fundraising dinner in 1943 for the Communist Party-sponsored Spanish-language newspaper Pueblos Hispaños, at which Marcantonio was a keynote speaker, took the time to note that “a Pablo Neruda (?) read a poem in Spanish that he composed.” While this Federal bureaucrat did not know the identity of arguably the most famous Spanish-language poet, another seemed unaware of the name of Marcantonio’s opponent in 1950. Quoting an informant to the effect that Marcantonio had said, “Beating Bilbo-Donovan is important,” the entry explains, “It should be noted that in the 1950 election campaign VM’s opponents were BILBO and DONOVAN.” Actually, Marcantonio’s only opponent was the coalition candidate Donovan; Bilbo, of course, was the notorious racist Senator from Mississippi.

The FBI “data” on Marcantonio were supplied by a conglomeration of “confidential informants,” “paid informants,” “reliable informants,” and “unreliable informants” whose collections of false or unverified information became part of a record, which at great cost to American taxpayers’ money, that was leaked to right-wing journalists, and others intent on wrecking the American Left. There was, however, an even more sinister side to this operation. On the basis of the portion of the Marcantonio files that have been released, we know that in 1942, a cablegram from the United Railroad Workers Union of Puerto Rico (for whose members Marcantonio was attempting to obtain a pay increase) was intercepted by the Office of Radio and Cable Censorship; that in 1943, a telegram from Marcantonio to the Daily Worker advising that Francis E. Rivers (the first African American in New York State to run for a municipal court judgeship) was to “make his first appearance… kindly have reporter and photographer present,” was also intercepted; and that Marcantonio was “monitored by electronic devices on several occasions.” All of this occurred while Marcantonio was serving as a duly-elected U.S. Congressman.

On July 19, 1949, the New York World-Telegram published an article to the effect that Marcantonio, “the Red Congressman,” had met in a midtown Manhattan hotel with un-named persons to discuss an offer of $100,000 if he would run against New York Mayor O’Dwyer. Marcantonio promptly filed a libel suit and was successful; the case was upheld by the New York Supreme Court and was filed before the State Supreme Court of the United States. A newspaper reporter fro, the paper then contacted the FBI to ascertain whether “any association of Marcantonio with gangsters and racketeers could be provable by Court Record?” The FBI responded that “all 6,000 index cards were reviewed by a supervisor and over 300 files, felt to be pertinent, were pulled.” A blind memorandum was prepared for the newspaper representative setting forth appropriate public source material that might “help [the newspaper] in regard to the libel suit by Marcantonio.” Thus, the confidential files of a federal agency became a source of information for the defendant in a libel suit brought by a Congressman.

The nature of the FBI’s surveillance of Marcantonio is revealed clearly in the lead sentence of its recommendation for action on the World-Telegram’s request: “We have never conducted extensive investigations to determine conclusively the truth or falsity of the many allegations concerning Marcantonio’s tie-up with hoodlums, gangsters, and the underworld.”

Similarly, when the House of Representatives convened a Special House Committee to Investigate Campaign Expenditures in 1946 to consider whether alleged election-law violations should deprive Marcantonio of his seat (none were ever discovered), the assistant general counsel and chief investigator of the committee, Robert Barker, wrote to FBI Director Hoover: “I wish you would inform me whether or not this information [on Marcantonio’s Communist Party membership], whether negative or affirmative, may be furnished to me for presentation to the committee, since undoubtedly this question will be raised later on if a resolution is offered to bar or exclude Congressman Marcantonio from taking his seat.” Hoover replied that the “information contained in the files of the Bureau are [sic] confidential and cannot be released without the expressed authority of the Attorney General. I want you to know that I am forwarding a copy of your letter to the Attorney General for his information.” The same day that Hoover sent this letter to Barker, he sent a seven-page memorandum to the Attorney General containing information on Marcantonio’s connections to the Communist Party, a memorandum obviously intended for Barker. The House Committee was, of course, mandated to investigate alleged violations of election laws in Marcantonio’s campaign, not his political beliefs and affiliations. Barker reciprocated Hoover’s assistance by later depositing with the FBI a full transcript of the preliminary investigation he conducted for the House Committee.

As a Congressman, Marcantonio was afforded some protection from certain FBI tactics. In August 1948, a former special agent advised the Bureau that he had had lunch with Rep. H. Carl Anderson of Minnesota and that “Anderson had stated that his office was immediately adjacent to that of Congressman Marcantonio and that he would be glad at any time to have the Bureau utilize part of his office space for a mic installation?” An FBI official replied that “it would not be desirable to put any mic installation in a Congressman’s office.”

The primary purpose of the FBI files becomes evident from the following memorandum dated July 28, 1941 from Hoover to Assistant Attorney General Matthew P. McGuire: “I am transmitting herewith for your consideration a custodial dossier which had been prepared concerning Congressman Vito Marcantonio.” McGuire responded: “Being a citizen, the Congressman naturally is not subject to internment as an enemy alien in the event of war. [Therefore] you are advised that a copy of the dossier should not be furnished to the Special Defense Unit.” Marcantonio’s file reveals, however, that not every branch of the Federal government shared McGuire’s opinion. A confidential report from the Office of Naval Intelligence dated February 7, 1941 furnished a list of suspected Communist Party sympathizers for purposes of possible custodial detention. Marcantonio’s name appears on the list followed by the notation, “reported rabid Communist.”

In the postwar period, the question of Marcantonio’s consideration for detention arose once more. Again Hoover inquired, this time of an official of his own Bureau, D. M. Ladd, why Marcantonio’s name was not included in the Security Index, a list of Americans to be interned if the Attorney General declared a national emergency. Ladd replied, “our files fail to disclose any evidence to establish direct proof of Marcantonio’s membership in the Communist Party. It has been the practice of the Bureau not to institute security investigations on members of the U.S. Congress. In view of this, Marcantonio has not been considered for inclusion in the Security Index. It should be noted that Marcantonio is running for reelection this November. It is contemplated that should he be defeated, the Bureau would actively investigate him and consider including his name in the Security Index.” Eighteen days after Marcantonio’s defeat in his 1950 re-election bid, the special agent in charge for New York wrote Hoover that Marcantonio’s file had been changed. After the category “Communist,” an “X” now appeared, and after the category “TAB FOR DECOM” (detain—Communist), another “X.”

Why would the FBI have classified Marcantonio as a Communist when, by its own reckoning, there was no evidence that he was in fact a Party member? Part of the explanation lies in the FBI’s own definition of “Communism.” In a 117-page summary of Marcantonio’s activities and associations compiled in 1948, the first item under the heading “Miscellaneous Activities Reflecting [Marcantonio’s] Adherence to the Communist Party Line” reads “numerous reliable confidential informants and other sources have reported that through the years Marcantonio constantly has vilified and ridiculed the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in line with various smear campaigns of the Communist Party.”

In the final analysis, the conduct of the FBI, at least in the post-war period, was consonant with the law, particularly the McCarran Act, which prescribed penalties not only for Communists, but also for “sympathizers” and individuals and organizations holding views significantly parallel with those of the Communist Party.

Marcantonio spoke with prescience when he said in a speech before the third biennial conference of the International Labor Defense in 1941: “We know that the Fascist pattern which is being followed in this country is similar to that upon which Hitler and Mussolini rode into power, namely by starting with an attack upon Communists and the Communist Party. The road to Fascism begins with the destruction of the rights of Communists and of the Communist Party to function and exist. Consequently, we realize that the first attack on everybody’s freedoms by the native brand of American Fascism is on the Communists and on the rights of Communists, and [ILD] intends to defend the first victims of Fascism in America, the Communists in America and the Communist Party of America.”

Photo: Congressman Vito Marcantonio

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments