Del Berg vs. J. Edgar Hoover: What the Last Lincoln Vet’s FBI File Tells Us About Cold-War Surveillance

August 23, 2018
Delmer Berg at the Bay Area ALBA event in 2012. Photo Richard Bermack

Delmer Berg at the Bay Area ALBA event in 2012. Photo Richard Bermack

Editor’s Note: This article is based on a longer piece that appeared in Jacobin under the title “Feds Watching.”

When Delmer Berg passed away in 2016, he was the last known living veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Unsurprisingly, there was significant interest in his death. Obituaries ran in the Washington Post, New York Times, The Atlantic, and even in the British-based The Guardian. The Spanish Civil War was one of the key events of the twentieth century and the heroism of those who traveled to Spain to save the Spanish Republic continues to inspire. By all accounts Berg remained true to the ideals he risked his life for in Spain and was a committed activist for causes such as racial justice and farm workers’ rights long after he returned home.

One tribute to Berg was particularly eye-catching. The New York Times, in addition to an obituary, ran an opinion piece titled “Salute to A Communist,” by Arizona senator John McCain. Obviously, this was a purposefully provocative title. Still, given the demonization Abraham Lincoln Brigade members faced at the hands of the right, seeing a conservative senator praise Berg for fighting in Spain, even while acknowledging Berg as an “unreconstructed communist,” is notable.

I had a particular interest in McCain’s piece. As a journalist I frequently write about the FBI’s surveillance of left-wing political dissent. I also work for Defending Rights & Dissent, a grassroots advocacy organization where FBI monitoring of political activists (and increasingly the Muslim community) is a top concern. While writing an article about how McCain’s tribute to Del Berg in 2016 contrasted with the FBI’s longtime persecution of Brigade veterans during the Cold War, I decided to file a Freedom of Information Act request for Berg’s file. Two years later, National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) granted me access to the case files on Berg from the FBI’s General Headquarters and its Sacramento field office. Running over 500 pages, they prove revealing.

John McCain’s tribute to Del Berg in 2016 contrasted with the FBI’s longtime persecution of Brigade veterans during the Cold War.

One of the most striking aspects of Berg’s FBI files is the degree to which the US government was willing to go to identify and track Communists. The FBI files contain a World War II-era report from Military Intelligence which concluded that Berg, then an enlisted soldier, was “either a member of the Communist Party or adheres to the Communist Party line.” The military opened its investigation into Berg because his name was found in the “personal effects” of another individual believed to be a courier between the US and Australian Communist Parties. (How the bureau got hold of these personal effects, they don’t say.) As a result, the military assigned Counter Intelligence Corp (CIC) agents to investigate Berg’s views.

CIC agents interviewed (“inadvertently,” they inexplicably note) Berg’s mother:

When questioned about the Subject’s religious preference, Mrs. Berg remarked that Subject was an Atheist and did not believe in God, that both Subject and his father are Communists and believe in the Communist doctrine that all persons were created equal and there is no Supreme Being. Subject was further described to always be in sympathy with the common people or the underdog.

A neighbor reported “without any prompting on the part of the agents” that:

[S]he did not believe the subject should be placed in any position of confidence and trust in the US army because “both subject and his father are Communists;” that she had seen the Communist Newspaper in their mail box and in their home on many occasions.… Subject gave several Communist papers to another neighbor, Arnet Christianson, to read.

J. Edgar Hoover. US News and World Report Collection, Library of Congress. Public domain

J. Edgar Hoover. US News and World Report Collection, Library of Congress. Public domain

They also reached out to the FBI’s San Francisco field office. Per their final report, the FBI had not investigated Berg but had amassed a peculiarly large amount of information about him. They knew Berg subscribed to People’s World, that his father had been excommunicated from their local church for his communist views, that Berg had fought in Spain, and that he had reportedly once uttered “he had just as soon fight for Japan as the United States.”

That Berg subscribed to People’s World, the West Coast paper of the Communist Party, is a reoccurring theme throughout Berg’s files. Agents interviewed Berg’s ex-wives, former mother-in-law, and others who much like his neighbor reported witnessing it in his possession. The FBI even relied on confidential informants to turn over information about Berg’s reading habits, including D.L. Lambert, the inspector in charge at the San Francisco Post Office who “made available for photographing the subscription list of the Daily People’s World.”

As FBI special agents complete yearly updates of Berg’s case file, they invariably cite his current subscription to People’s World, going so far as to document the calendar date on which his subscription was set to expire. Berg was apparently as meticulous in renewing his subscription as the FBI was in chronicling it.

Berg was apparently as meticulous in renewing his subscription to People’s World as the FBI was in chronicling it.

A file uncovered as part of the request for Berg’s records also shows the FBI was interested in who wrote for Communist publications. When an article by Robert Wells appeared in Political Affairs, the Communist Party’s theoretical journal, the FBI opened a file on him.

This was in line with a little-known FBI policy to investigate the authors of “articles, letters, and/or book reviews” published in Political Affairs in order to determine if they should be placed on the Security Index. Wells’s case was closed when it was discovered that it was a pseudonym and Berg and another individual named Bob Lindsey wrote the article in question.

Berg, of course, was already listed on the Security Index at the time the FBI opened its investigation into the nonexistent Robert Wells. In 1949, the San Francisco field office had written to the general headquarters asking to open a Security Index on Berg. Shortly after, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would write to them informing that a note card on Berg had been prepared. It would not be until 1955, however, that Berg’s Security Index card would be “tabbed for DETCOM.” DETCOM was an abbreviated form of “Detain as Communist” and referred to individuals to be detained in the event of a national security emergency.

The files show that Berg’s status on the Security Index was assessed at least annually. Every change in address was noted, as agents designed to keep constant tabs on Berg’s whereabouts. Agents not only documented his employment history and kept a photograph of him, but they went to great lengths to use confidential informants to obtain a handwriting sample for Berg’s file.

These reports show an intense interest in Berg’s “Communist activities.” Attendance at local meetings, national conventions, dinners with fellow veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a meeting of the Vietnam Day Committee, and a conversation about farm-worker organizing are cited as evidence of why Berg needed to stay in the Security Index.

Del Berg with Marina Garde. Photo Jeannette Ferrary

Del Berg with Marina Garde. Photo Jeannette Ferrary

Even though the FBI’s informants within the Communist Party allege Berg resigned from the party in 1960, for over a decade after the FBI deemed it necessary to include Berg in the Security Index. Even after the Administrative Index (ADEX) replaced the Security Index in 1971, the FBI continued to include Berg in it until at least 1972.

As part of the Protection of Strategic Air Command Bases of the US Air Force program, the FBI sent copies of Berg’s Security Index files to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, as Berg lived within the vicinity of an Air Force base. Beginning in 1968, Hoover began forwarding Berg’s files to the Secret Service, as he believed Berg to be one of the “individuals covered by an agreement between the FBI and Secret Service concerning the protection of the President.” It’s unclear what threat Berg’s organizing of farm workers posed to either the President or the Travis Air Force Base.

In addition to the Security Index, Berg’s files give a brief glimpse into another one of the FBI’s notorious programs: COINTELPRO.

Berg’s second wife, Dolores Berg, made a complaint to the local sheriff against a leader in the local Communist Party. It is not clear what the complaint was about as NARA redacted that part of Berg’s file, citing the exemption to Freedom of Information Act that protects information that would lead to an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Nonetheless, Dolores Berg did not sign the complaint. The FBI hypothesized that should she do so, the resulting publicity would cause “widespread disruption” among local party members and “disruption for youth groups for which the CP is currently interested.”

Hoover responded by sending an “urgent” radiogram to the San Francisco field office, authorizing agents to contact the sheriff and ask him to convince Dolores Berg to sign the complaint. With trademark Bureau honesty, Hoover makes it clear to the field office that under no circumstances are they to make the sheriff aware of COINTELPRO and that the sheriff must understand that the FBI’s involvement in the matter is to be kept secret. The bureau was willing to manipulate the legal process to bring unrelated charges against political activists with the intent of silencing them.

Another brief glimmer is given into the FBI’s relationship with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). While both the FBI and HUAC are often understood as instruments of political repression, the symbiotic relationship between the two isn’t always realized. The FBI furnished HUAC with information and sometimes used it to propagate its own views.

Accordingly, Berg’s file shows that the FBI was in on the planning of a HUAC hearing to be held in San Francisco. Berg was a potential witness to be summoned and the FBI, per Berg’s file, had a policy of reopening and bringing up to date its investigations on any HUAC witness—presumably to furnish HUAC with the most relevant information. (It’s not clear from the case file what happened; Berg later told an interviewer that he was asked to contact HUAC, but the committee “could never find me to serve a summons.”)

The driving motivator behind the FBI’s surveillance was Berg’s involvement in the Communist Party, but they were also deeply interested in his status as a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The FBI tracked Berg’s attendance at Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade events. It also cited his status as a Lincoln veteran as justification for giving him the distinction of “DETCOM.”

A publicly available 1948 FBI memorandum on the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade gives us a look at how the FBI felt about veterans and the Spanish Civil War in general.

Per its drafters, Spain suffered from “false liberalism,” which allowed communism to take root there. The idea that the Spanish Civil War was a war between democracy and fascism was “bogus,” as “[n]either side could claim any monopoly of virtues and vices in human relations. The Devil vs. Angel theory of war did not apply to the Spanish conflict.” (Perhaps, in the minds of those at the FBI, there were “some very fine people on both sides.”)

The document expends considerable ink fretting over the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans had supported Spain’s Loyalist government over General Francisco Franco, a fascist. For this, the FBI blamed the propaganda efforts of the Communist Party, who confused the American people into believing there was a right and a wrong side to the war in Spain.

Upon leaving Spain, American volunteers pledged to continue their struggle. Of course, many veterans, like Berg, continued to fight for a more just world. The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade served as a vehicle for their activism.

The FBI, however, in a fit of almost comical paranoia, interpreted this to mean that the International Brigades were waiting in the wings to regroup at any minute and carry out violence in their home countries. This is perhaps why, when Berg was designated by the FBI as “DETCOM,” the reason given was his participation in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Berg’s FBI files show an intense hostility to dissent. They also demonstrate that while John McCain found Berg’s defense of Spanish democracy admirable he was willing to overlook his leftist views, Hoover’s FBI only viewed that as yet another justification for depriving Berg of his civil liberties.

Chip Gibbons is a journalist who has contributed to The Nation, Jacobin, and the book The Henry Kissinger Files (Forthcoming, Verso). He is Policy & Legislative Counsel for Defending Rights & Dissent, a civil liberties organization that traces its founding to the National Committee to Abolish HUAC.