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John Lennon and the Politics of Deportation, From Nixon to Bush

Posted on Sep 12, 2006
John Lennon

Courtesy Lions Gate Films

By Jon Wiener

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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By anne lennon, December 21, 2006 at 8:08 am Link to this comment
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dec. 8th will still be such a sad day for me. one person decides to take the life of a legend that the whole world can relate to. yet this one person never thought that those shots rang out and took a part of the lives of the people who loved John. politics seems to have always been based on voting for the “lesser of the two evils”. whats that saying ” evil spelled backwards is “live”. thats all John was doing, just living and making sure his songs were of love! my favorite song of his is “Imagine” maybe he will never see the world live as one but he sure left us with a powerful message for the world to live by! always, Anne Lennon

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By Doctor of Love, October 15, 2006 at 8:43 am Link to this comment
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Poor Mr. Pitre ... he doesn’t lose sleep over injustice ... what?  When your favorite football team loses?  America is America only when it lives up to its own stated principles.  Denying an artist an invitation to visit and see our great country because of his or her politics is nonsense. One dose of true Americana, and we can win over the world ... not with bombs and troops, but with genuine friendship.  When it comes to that, we really try, and we are the best! Let the world see Americans not America’s politicians.

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By Leo Pitre, October 11, 2006 at 1:32 am Link to this comment
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The only post worth a crap on here was the first one it is hilarious that guy needs to post some more for all the rest of you well..I like Lennons music but you people make him sound as if hes some sort of a god when he was just a drug useing musician, god forbid a few artist cant get into the U.S. what will the world do..maybe we should all just end our lives he… was a rich dope head the lyrics to imagine are all bull shit, he flew on private jets had a million dollar apartment, multiple homes and lived a life were he could afford to get high all the time and not have to worry about getting up for work the next morning or being fired. The people you should respect and admire are doctors and scientest etc. that cure deseases and come up with new technologies to make life better and save you dumbass hippies lives when you get cancer from smoking cigs and pot your entire lives. I for one am not going to lose any sleep becaus Picasso or some musician couldnt come into the U.S. or some freakin communist is not allowed in.
There are an estimated 3 million muslims in the U.S. and what? 6-700 were arrested after an attacked by muslims that killed 3000 civillians..hmmm.. go figure..the truth is that you and me both do not know the exact reasons behind the arrest of these mulims which I imagine almost all of them have been set free it has nothing to do with the colr of their skin you know it and I know it but you people always have to use race because there is no other way to validate your point.

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By The Squid, September 26, 2006 at 11:01 am Link to this comment
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Dubya killed John Lennon - no doubt. Let’s look at the facts:
A) Mark David Chapman was from Fort Worth Texas which - granted is about 300 miles from Midland but given the vastness of Texas that’s relatively really close
B) Dubya had a little known illegitimate uncle who was the pucilanimous product of his grandfather, Senator Prescott Bush who lived in Fort Worth. The Senator apparantly had a liason with a woman by the name of Diane Chapman.
C) According to the Down Syndrome memo, in the Spring of 1981 MDC received no less than 6,000 shares in Bush Oil Co and 450 shares of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Coincidence?
E) It is a well known fact that Dubya preferred the Rolling Stones - who did “Sympathy for the Devil” and was responsible for the killing of some hippy guy at Altamont - to the fresh-faced innocent-seeming Beatles, AND when Sgt. Papsmear and his Lonely Fartsounds Band came out, Bush preferred “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys and commented, “This is way better than that pretentious overrated shit the Beatles are farting out of their armpits these days. Shit. The Kinks already did a concept album called “Arthur” and it actually had some relevance to what’s going on in England. This is just egomaniacal third grade cacaphony.” (his vocabulary was better before the cocaine)
D) According to very reliable sources of Bush biographer Kitty Kelly, when “Double Fantasy"came out - right before Lennon’s murder - Dubya said, “I knew that Lennon was washed up - this proves it. This crap makes A Taste of Honey’s ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ sound like Handel’s Messiah. People have been killed for less than putting this shit out on the airwaves.” Then he placed a call to his “long lost uncle” who had once helped Nixon with a massive plan to deport all British born drug-addict/rock stars - you know - because rock stars are sooooooooooooo important and influential and really smart and educated people follow whatever half retarded quasi brain dead rock stars think. And the final thing? When Lennon was murdered, Dubya was overheard saying, “He was still with that Yo Ko Oh No? Then I guess that Chapman did him a favor - put him out of his misery.”

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By BMac, September 18, 2006 at 11:07 pm Link to this comment
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Did Arnold Swarzenegger just write an article for the New York Times on how terrible people keep trying to sneak into the U.S. to try and become governors?

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By michael pugliese, September 16, 2006 at 9:17 am Link to this comment
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“Poor Aragon,” Picasso chuckled as soon as Aragon had left his studio. “He doesn’t know anything about pigeons. And as for the gentle dove, what a myth that is! There’s no crueller animal… How’s that for a symbol of Peace?”’ (from Picasso: Creator & Destroyer by Arianna Huffington, 1988)

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By Mary, September 15, 2006 at 2:22 pm Link to this comment
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Looking forward to seeing this film. I first heard about it on MySpace, where they put up a page for it that looks like a mock up of the Drudge Report.

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By Margie Bernard, September 14, 2006 at 2:17 pm Link to this comment
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Just to add to the comment about Emma Goldman and her deportation. It was as a result of J. Edgar Hoover’s finding a way to do this that marked his climb to becoming head of the FBI thus enabling him have the power to do this to John Lennon.

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By Earth Ball Roger E.C., September 14, 2006 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment
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-IS -


John Played… Earth Ball - NOT WAR

A Lot… Earth Citizens - Join In Anytime…

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By know some truth, September 14, 2006 at 5:15 am Link to this comment
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By Avid Lennon Fan, September 13, 2006 at 10:02 am Link to this comment
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A wonderful and insightful post- excellent I say! Lennon was a great artist, and a man of peace with a powerful message to convey.

Power to the people indeed.

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By george harrison, September 13, 2006 at 9:14 am Link to this comment
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Take a look at this great man Lennon. One of the truest rock and roll talents ever, with the gift of both beautiful noise and balladry.
His killing was the biggest coup of all time for the Klan in office now. His killer was brainwashed at a ” kristian kamp ” run and financed by the same bush 41 ops that killed JFK, RFK and MLK.
The world really ended in December, 1980, didn’t it ?

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By Alma, September 13, 2006 at 8:06 am Link to this comment
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Most people are followers and powerless.  If we could find a way for companies to profit and have an incentive to maintain the peace, it will happen.

Our economy is only going to get worse without a FAST solution.  ELIMINATION OF INCOME TAX FOR EVERYONE AND EVERY COMPANY would give an immediate boost to the economy.  Wealthy individuals and companies would have a big incentive to relocate here.  National sales tax will likely bring in more revenue and would definitely be seen as fairer.  When we have foreign companies relocating to the US, including Middle Eastern companies, we will all have an incentive to “get along” and keep the peace.  It will hopefully lead to more understanding among various ethnic and religious groups.  Those making military supplies & weapons and rebuilding the mess we create when we sloppily bomb countries may lose but the powerful people and companies re-locating to the US will protest since it will be seen as wasteful spending of the tax dollars which could lead to the devaluation of the dollar (as we are now experiencing).

Yet another reason for the consumption tax.

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