It may not be surprising that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) snooped on renowned singer-songwriter Pete Seeger for decades and even that the bureau’s file on Seeger runs to nearly 1,800 pages. After all, Seeger was a high-profile opponent of the Vietnam War, and war is the health of the state. But, Seeger was targeted by the FBI before his singing and songwriting gained widespread attention. About twenty-five years before Seeger sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers national television show in 1968, Seeger drew the attention of the FBI by writing a letter to the California chapter of the American Legion.
The year was 1942, and the 23-year-old Seeger, who had been drafted into the United States Army, wrote a short letter to the American Legion chapter expressing his opposition to the chapter’s vote supporting action, as Seeger put it, to “1) deport all Japanese after the war, citizen or not, 2) Bar all Japanese descendants from citizenship!!” Seeger characterized the vote as expressing “narrow jingoism” and noted that he “felt sick at heart to read of this matter.”
The American Legion chapter forwarded Seeger’s letter to the FBI, and the decades-long investigation and surveillance commenced. By 1943, a report sent to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, characterized Seeger as “potentially subversive” and “an idealist whose devotion to radical ideologies is such as to make his loyalty to the United States under all circumstances questionable.”
The investigation and surveillance continued with US government agents secretly reading Seeger’s mail, questioning friends and acquaintances of Seeger including fellow singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, and even sending a military intelligence agent to search for school records at a grade school Seeger had attended. The FBI also asked the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to share with the FBI any information the CIA had related to Seeger. In 1961 Seeger was convicted and sentenced to a year of incarceration — a sentence later overturned while Seeger was free on bail — for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities regarding his political associations.
Read here David Corn’s detailed report on the Seeger file that Mother Jones obtained recently in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Notably, Corn relates that the US government withheld 90 pages of the file. While the government spared no expense in snooping into the most private of Seeger’s affairs, it acts vigorously to protect its own secrets.