Nixon Administration Targets John Lennon

Amid the anti-war activists of the early 1970’s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono marked for deportation due to their support of fellow musician and activist John Sinclair.

| October 2017

  • John and Leon make their arguments public.
    Photo courtesy of the Wildes Family
  • John proudly shows his green card he fought so hard to secure.
    Photo courtesy of the Wildes family
  • Senator Thurmond's cover letter to the attorney general.
    Photo courtesy ABA Publishing
  • Senator Thurmond's letter that climbed the chain of command to revoke John's visa.
    Photo courtesy ABA Publishing
  • Yoko Ono with Leon and Michael Wildes.
    Photo courtesy of the Wildes family
  • “John Lennon vs. The Unites States,” by Leon Wildes, follows the story of the most influential deportation case in United States history which remains relevant today as immigration has become a divisive issue in American politics.
    Cover courtesy ABA Publishing

President Nixon up for re-election and faced with new voters between the ages of 18 and 21 thanks to his recent ratification of the 26th Amendment. John Lennon vs. The U.S.A. (ABA Publishing, 2016) by Leon Wildes, shares an eyewitness account from inside the American justice system detailing the abuse of authority by politicians who would stop at nothing to hold on to power.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

On July 5, 1971, President Richard Nixon certified the Twenty Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, lowering the voting age to eighteen. The president expressed all sorts of misgivings but didn't mention his main objection — this new constituency threatened his reelection prospects in 1972.

Who could imagine that the emergence of the youth vote would lead to one of the strangest and most bitter, politically motivated government prosecutions in history — aimed at a figure who couldn't even vote in American elections? But the Nixon administration feared John Lennon — feared that he could galvanize the more than ten million new American voters under the age of twenty-one, so they set the machinery in motion to deport Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono.



Nixon's concern about young voters was understandable. Supporters of the amendment had framed the argument bluntly. "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote." America was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and opposition to the conflict, especially from young people, kept growing louder. Antiwar protests rocked the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Street fighting resulted in criminal convictions for Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Lee Weiner, and Abbie Hoffman — the infamous "Chicago Seven." After that debacle, Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey never regained his footing as he campaigned against Nixon. That summer also saw the assassinations both of presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Riots in cities nationwide after King's death added to the feeling of national upheaval.

Nixon campaigned on the themes of law and order and claimed to have a "secret plan" to end the war. He carried the election, but by an extremely narrow margin. In the popular vote, he won by 500,000 votes — approximately one percent of the total votes cast. In three key electoral states, he won by only three percent of the vote — 200,000 votes in California, 140,000 in Illinois, and 90,000 in Ohio. The effect of the youth vote on such thin majorities made for difficult political calculations, especially since Nixon's "secret plan" turned out to be a mere continuation of fighting in Vietnam.

College campuses became hotbeds of antiwar activism, with protests often leading to police overreactions. At Kent State University in Ohio, demonstrators were actually fired on by National Guard troops, resulting in deaths. On May 1, 1971, a May Day march took place in Washington, DC — the largest example of civil disobedience in American history. Demonstrators pressed the Nixon administration to stop the war, which at this point had cost billions of dollars and the lives of nearly 50,000 American troops. Vietnamese casualties had swelled to almost three million deaths.

Nixon faced further embarrassment with the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, a series of CIA reports confirming that the war in Vietnam was simply not winnable. A group of secret operatives working for the president's reelection effort got the job of finding the leak — and the nickname of "plumbers."

On a more formal basis, the 1972 campaign became the responsibility of Nixon's former law partner, John Mitchell, who was also the attorney general. With an estimated cash slush fund of fifty million dollars and the services of the plumbers, not to mention the legal machinery of the US government, Mitchell and C.R.E.E.P. (the Committee to Reelect the President) could exert pressure in many directions.

John Lennon brought himself to the administration's attention in December of 1971, about a month before I met him, by participating in a rally and concert at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor to support radical writer and musician John Sinclair. Sinclair at that point had served two years of a harsh ten-year prison sentence for selling two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover policeman. The sale charge had to be dropped because of apparent entrapment. But the possession charge had stood, even though it was based on the same evidence. A jury had convicted Sinclair, and Judge Colombo had passed a maximum sentence.

Publicized as "Ten for Two," the Free John Sinclair Concert culminated a week of rallies, bringing out countercultural figures like Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, and Bobby Seale, all vocal critics of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War.

Jerry Rubin promised a series of rallies like the one for Sinclair, to culminate at the Republican convention in San Diego, all with the aim of defeating Nixon's attempt for another term. Dave Dellinger, also a "Chicago Seven" alumnus, spoke of a "people's convention at San Diego next summer.

Ann Arbor, Michigan Rally and Concert 

Besides the political rhetoric, there were bands like Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, entertainers like Stevie Wonder and Phil Ochs... and John Lennon, making his first concert appearance in five years and his first performance since the Beatles had broken up. Fifteen thousand people were on hand, a packed house, as he and Yoko Ono appeared onstage around 3:00 A.M. Lennon had written a song, "John Sinclair," for the occasion. His song decried the outrageously severe sentence imposed by Judge Columbo for so minor an offense and demanded that Sinclair be set free.

If that wasn't clear enough, Lennon told the crowd, "We came here not only to help John and spotlight what is going on, but also to show and say to all of you that apathy is not it, and that we can do something. Oh, so flower power didn't work, so what, we start again!" Within fifty-five hours after John and Yoko left the stage, a board of Michigan appellate judges released John Sinclair on bond. It was a recognition of reality. The Michigan House of Representatives had already passed a bill limiting the maximum sentence for possessing marijuana to ninety days.



But John Sinclair attributed his release to John and Yoko's appearance. So did Jerry Rubin, calling the release "an incredible tribute to the power of the people. . . . We won!" He also called for two, three, four, many more Ann Arbors!"

However, the undercover FBI agents in the audience took a different message from all the speeches. As Rubin said from the concert stage, "Right now we can really unite music and revolutionary politics and really build the movement all across the country.

Perhaps the agents were correct to consider the matter serious. The 1968 demonstrations at the Chicago convention brought out about 20,000 people. The following year, 250,000 appeared for the Vietnam Moratorium in Washington, DC. And in the summer of 1969, 500,000 assembled for the rock concert in Woodstock. Richard Nixon and others in his administration might well worry about what a volatile mixture rock music and politics could become. And, unfortunately for him, John Lennon had been one of the first to present himself on a stage with people such as Jerry Rubin and others of the New Left movement.

The initial FBI response was a twenty-six-page memo on the events in Ann Arbor, the beginning of an inches-thick file on John Lennon. But the initial report became a "Letterhead Memorandum," a fairly significant document in the government's eyes, with copies forwarded to FBI field offices in New York, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Washington, DC — Iikely locations for similar rallies in the future.

The audience for these and other memoranda on the "New Left" reached the highest echelons. They were to and from the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover himself.

Although none of the documents bears the signature of Richard Nixon himself, his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was kept informed by Hoover of the progress of the FBI's campaign to "neutralize" Lennon.

At the same time, a Senate Subcommittee was getting a darker view ofJohn Sinclair than perhaps John Lennon and Yoko Ono were aware of. Although most Americans believed that the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws had ceased to exist after the Red Scare of the 1950s, these descendants of Joe McCarthy apparently survived and found a new purpose —  delving into the "New Left" and its possibly subversive efforts against the Vietnam War and the government in general.

John Sinclair's White Panthers

On March 16, 1971, a pair of officers from the Michigan State Police Intelligence Unit testified before an executive session of the subcommittee on their investigations into subversive activities as defined under Michigan state law. Detective Sergeant Clifford Murray and Detective Richard Shave described a variety of radical projects in the state, including people organizing illegal trips to communist Cuba.

One of the people they discussed in their testimony was John Sinclair. He had initially established a group called Trans-Love Energies, devoted to the creation, promotion, and distribution of creative arts, poetry, and music. The group created a commune, but grew increasingly more radical. Sinclair created a new group, the White Panther Party, emulating the Black Panthers. They distributed radical literature, ran rock concerts to recruit new members, and organized a revolutionary media conference in Ann Arbor.

Using funds generated by Sinclair's management of a popular rock group, the MC-5, the White Panthers engaged in increasingly dangerous activities, obtaining guns and dynamite, blowing up the CIA office in Ann Arbor, and laying plans for guerrilla actions in northern Michigan.

In addition, the White Panthers ran a campaign to make marijuana legal in Michigan, and Sinclair was arrested numerous times for violating state narcotics laws. When Sinclair was incarcerated, elements of the group advocated following the example of the Tupamaro rebels in South America — kidnapping elected officials to obtain the release of persons they considered to be political prisoners.

Michigan congressmen could be traded for prisoners such as SinClair, while more national figures such as Congressman Gerald Ford and Michigan Senator Robert P. Griffin might be exchanged for Black Panther leaders such as Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. With a prominent hostage such as Vice President Spiro Agnew, a radical could "write his own ticket."

Senator Griffin, who presided over the session, was not amused. As Detective Murray concluded, "Gentlemen, based on the information that we have obtained through other normal police functions, we would have to consider the White Panther Party an organization bent on total destruction of the present government of the United States and detrimental to the welfare of this country."

A Memo is Issued

Ultra-conservative Strom Thurmond, the senator from South Carolina and another member of the committee, drafted a memo on the testimony about the rally in support of John Sinclair. Thurmond underscored the friendship between Lennon and New Left figures such as Jerry Rubin, pointing out that members of the Chicago Seven had now "devised a plan to hold rock concerts in various primary election states… to recruit persons to come to San Diego during the Republican National Convention in August 1972" and that they "intend to use John Lennon as a drawing card to promote their success... If Lennon's visa is terminated it would be a strategic countermeasure.

Senator Thurmond knew exactly the line of command that his letter would climb. As attorney general, John Mitchell headed the entire Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency that decides who to deport, when, and how. Mitchell didn't miss a beat, forwarding Thurmond's letter and memo to the attention of his deputy Richard Kleindienst.

In turn, Kleindienst passed the memo on to the commissioner of immigration, Raymond Farrell, who within days had Sol Marks, district director for New York, revoke John's visa status and begin deportation proceedings.

In coming to the defense of John Sinclair, John Lennon and Yoko Ono had made some very dangerous political enemies. These were people I'd never tangled with in all the years I'd spent practicing immigration law, people I'd never even imagine as adversaries. Like it or not, though, my political naivete was about to come to an end.

Reprinted with permission from John Lennon vs. The U.S.A. written by Leon Wildes and published by ABA Publishing, 2016.




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