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To Kill an Intellectual 4.

A Serial in Five Parts.



The immigrant bystander.

I first revisited the dry facts. Louis Adamic — born Alojz Adamič — was a Slovenian-born American author of memoirs, novels, and essays focused on immigration and civil rights. Born in 1898 to a peasant family in Spodnje Blato, part of a historical region known as Lower Carniola, Adamic went to primary school in the capital, Ljubljana, where he became involved with a secret youth political movement that got him expelled. Rather than be sent to a Jesuit school, he hatched a plan to immigrate to the United States alone, which he did on December 31, 1913. He was fifteen.

Like H. L. Mencken, a model and mentor, he picked apart those aspects of American society that he believed were founded on lies.

In America, Adamic worked as a manual laborer, joined the US Army, saw combat on the Western Front, and become a naturalized citizen in 1918. He decided to become a writer and moved to a Slovene community in San Pedro, California, where, throughout the 1920s, he wrote a series of booklets like The Truth About Los Angeles and The Morons of Los Angeles, poking fun at what he saw as superficial values peddled by the region’s proto-gurus. He steamrolled people like Charles Nordhoff, whose guidebook California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence sold America on the idea of the region as a health mecca, turning it into a final destination for, in Adamic’s words, “a stream of ailing, neurotic, pathetic humanity.” He also skewered celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, suggesting that she built up her “faith-cure industry” on followers that came from “such cheerless circumstances, one way or another, that, in self-defense, they must seek relief from reality in illusion, which, in order to get a thrill, they—by a trick still little understood—promptly turn into reality—reality to them.” Like H. L. Mencken, a model and mentor, he picked apart those aspects of American society that he believed were founded on lies.

In 1931, Adamic published Dynamite: A Story of Class Violence in America, his first serious book, linking early conflicts between industrialist-hired private police and laborers seeking better wages and conditions to the eventual wars that erupted between government police and organized crime. The book established Adamic as a social critic able effectively to apply liberal progressive ideas to both United States history and present-day reality. That was how, twenty years after his immigration—in the throes of the Great Depression—Adamic made his debut as an American intellectual.

Adamic used his platform to reflect on the path he’d traveled in Laughing in the Jungle (1932), an autobiography that took its title from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). In it, Adamic suggested that, in the early years of an immigration, an immigrant’s main role is that of a “bystander and onlooker”—a sort of witness to the jungle that is America—which, as the title suggests, he believes must be viewed with a dose of good humor. On the basis of this book, Adamic received a grant to travel to his homeland, which had gained independence from Austria after World War I and was under the dictatorial rule of King Alexander I, a Serbian prince who had brought the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes under one national entity with a new name—Yugoslavia. Adamic reported on his travels in The Native’s Return (1934), where he described the repressions taking place in both Slovenia and Croatia, as well as different forms of resistance. He was especially and personally critical of Alexander I, and when the king was assassinated in the same year that his book was published, it turned it from an interesting personal account about a faraway land with a funny name into a national bestseller explaining the background of dramatic current events to American readers, who anyway knew very little about this newly established nation and its political turmoil.

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The concurrence of these two events—the publication of Adamic’s book and the assassination of King Alexander I—was obviously coincidental. But that didn’t leave Adamic innocent in the eyes of those who came after the king, including Prince Paul, his cousin, who became the country’s de-facto ruler. The reason was that, in addition to publicly criticizing the king in his book, Adamic also initiated a “letter of protest” organized by Roger N. Baldwin, Chairman of the International Committee for Political Prisoners, sent to the Yugoslav representative in Washington on November 24, 1933. While opening with a general remark on reports in the American and foreign press about the mistreatment of political prisoners within Yugoslavia, the letter soon begins to reference “documentary material form one of our associates, Louis Adamic, an American writer of Yugoslav birth” whose “standing as a writer of integrity and accuracy is above question.” On the basis of this material, the letter registered an official protest against “the whole system of political persecution which marks the regime in Yugoslavia today and particularly against the incredible tortures inflicted on political prisoners under that system.” The letter continues:

These reports make it evident beyond question that scores if not hundreds of these prisoners are beaten and tortured before being brought to trial. . . . But the tortures described are not confined to the period of preliminary examination. . . . Even those prisoners convicted of such trivial offenses as distributing opposition literature or belonging to opposition groups are systematically beaten and starved. . . . We learn, too, that scores of prisoners, particularly among the intellectuals, are exiled to the malaria-infested regions of Macedonia where they are required to report to the local police every few hours day and night.

Adamic had now risen to such a prominent social status that he could mobilize over forty signatories on an protest letter sent directly to Washington.

As usual, intellectuals were singled out for exile, sent to die of malaria like Dante. This was nothing new. But there was something unique in Adamic’s ability to use his contacts to interest some of the best-known intellectuals of his time in the goings on of his native land. Among the signatories were Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Mary Austin, Edmund Wilson, and even his own hero, Upton Sinclair. An immigrant who had arrived in the country as a teenager, Adamic had now risen to such a prominent social status that he could mobilize over forty signatories on an protest letter sent directly to Washington. He was, in short, not only an intellectual danger, but also a political threat.

This all took place behind the scenes. From the reading public’s perspective, Adamic had, by 1935, established himself as an intellectual who’d written about labor, immigration, and foreign policy. With his next book, he turned his sights back onto the United States, relating his life and travels across the nation between 1928 and 1938 in My America (1939). The book expanded his familiar repertoire into another major issue: race relations in American society. It also set out his vision for what he called a “New American”—an identity that retained its ethnic or racial affiliation while tolerating those of others.

Adamic had, by nature of his work, established a network of contacts across a wide spectrum of political and social affiliations, all of which he used to embark on his next project—The Common Council for American Unity—which he established with another of his models and mentors, the author and immigration lawyer Carey McWilliams. Together they began to publish a literary journal, Common Ground, which sought to create a social horizon for ethnic and racial tolerance. It was a bold vision calling for a nation of people who respected the differences among its peoples. And it might have had more influence, too, had history not turned the page on the suffering of the Great Depression, shifting straight to the violence of World War II.

As war broke out in Europe, Americans became less interested in breaking than reinforcing social, ethnic, and racial barriers. While Adamic was writing articles like “Aliens and Alien-Bashers,” American political and cultural elites began shoring up their ranks, marking clear lines between those who were unconditionally loyal to the United States, and those who had other considerations on their hearts and minds. Adamic and his colleagues, who were struggling for an America that embraced unity within difference, faced a political zeitgeist that was bent on enforcing uniformity without deviation.

And Adamic, with his fingers in so many pies, became a convenient subject of investigation. Not only mine, but also the FBI’s.

NOT ALL INVESTIGATORS are born equal. It’s true, while perusing the FBI’s files on Adamic, that I sometimes got the sense we were all doing the same thing, especially when I came across pages and pages in which the FBI was quoting and analyzing his writing. In fact, reading their reports, you’d think the men who prepared them were doing book reports for their college lit class. But their analysis is skewed, their focus on certain details biased, and ultimately, as book reports, they aren’t worth very much. As historical documents, however, Adamic’s FBI files teach you a lot about what it means to be an intellectual in America.

As historical documents…Adamic’s FBI files teach you a lot about what it means to be an intellectual in America.

The files open on December 1, 1941, with a red herring: “The files indicate,” the first report says, “that Adamic has not been and is not presently under investigation by the Bureau.” It’s a sentence that precedes a file of hundreds and hundreds of pages, showing just much time and energy the FBI can spend on someone they are not “investigating.” It also reflects an American government on the verge of entering a war that was already tearing Europe apart.

The main concern among the agents considering Adamic’s political role at this moment—when the USSR was already engaged in fighting but the US was still riding it out—was whether Adamic is a “real Communist,” a “radical fellow traveler,” or a simply “genuine liberal.” This determination, it seems, would seal his fate.

“Adamic is a genuine liberal,” says one field office report, “who is used as a front by such organizations as the American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born.” Another one states that on “October 29, 1940, Adamic was interviewed by Special Agent —— with reference to ascertaining the sources of the information on which Adamic based his 1936 article,” refering to “Aliens and Alien-Baiters.” They apparently wanted to know whether it was written using government sources. “At this time,” the report goes on, “Adamic advised that his article was based only on newspaper material, and his personal attendance at a meeting. . . Adamic further advised that he had no specific source of information.” Quoting the agent who was there to conduct the actual interview, the report then comes to the main point, to which the file as a whole returns again and again like a refrain: “Adamic also expressed himself as believing in certain phases of Communism and in the same connection stated he was not a Communist.” The writer of the report appears to accept Adamic’s self-stated position.

The next report on Adamic comes just a few weeks later—but the context is now completely different. America has entered World War II and is now on the same anti-Nazi side as the Soviet Union. But the internal search for potential Communist agitators and agents, a carryover from the First Red Scare of the 1920s, remains the main preoccupation of the FBI as far as it concerns Adamic.

Referring to Common Ground, the journal that Adamic helped found and that he edited in its first year, and the Common Council for American Unity by which it was published, a February 8, 1942 report states that “the Council could not be classified as strictly conservative because of the persons within the organization. . . but as ‘right wing with liberal ideas.'” This designation would make both the Council and its journal free of concern, especially as, according to the report, “It was specifically stated that the Council could not be considered as Communist controlled.” The report goes on to describe the Council’s mission. “The purposes . . . are to help create among the American people the unity and mutual understanding resulting from a common citizenship and the acceptance, in fact as well as in law, of all citizens, whatever their national or racial origins might be, as equal partners in American society.” You could almost hear the FBI agents laughing as they typed out the words.

A report from February 26, 1942, less than three weeks later, reaches the opposite conclusion about the journal. “A confidential informant,” reads the report, “has advised that information received from a source of undetermined reliability reveals that the Common Council for American Unity is a radical Communist organization.” It seems the FBI is unable to make up its mind, their assessments depending on informants who, it seems, are not always deemed reliable. Which means they need to investigate further.

A single-page document, filed separately and not part of any other report, bears a stamp with the date January 28, 1942, and notes:

“Less than three years ago, three members of the Yugoslavian military Secret Service visited this country on orders from their sovereign and under special orders of Prince Paul to investigate and check up on Adamic…I was informed at the time by the Colonel in charge of this investigation that Adamic was in the employ of the Hungarian Secret Service.”

While Adamic was not part of an American investigation, the United States government allowed one of its allies to spy on its own citizen on American soil, and to accuse him of being a foreign agent for a third government. Had the FBI considered this accusation real, it would have pursued its own investigation. Yet it allowed the dictatorship of Prince Paul to follow him on obviously shaky claims. Regardless of anything else, it did not seem that the FBI was interested in Adamic’s wellbeing.

Adamic appears to have been in the clear for little more than a few weeks before another report, dated March 7, 1942, discussed his 1941 book, Two Way Passage: “A perusal of the abridged edition reflects the author has made certain comments concerning the activities of individuals he described as ‘Nazi Agents’. . . There is an inference he has brought these activities to the attention fo the Federal Bureau of Investigation, however, a search of the indices of this office failed to disclose any direct correspondence or communications.” A perusal of the actual book, however, shows that Adamic was not himself making such comments, but that he was reporting on others claiming to have heard of such activities. It would have made sense for the FBI to go into the field and pursue possible leads to corroborate these rumors. Instead, a letter dated April 4, 1942, signed by John Edgar Hoover, asks FBI agents to “immediately obtain a copy of this book.” It appears that the most pressing thing to do in time of war is to read book. Especially if they were written by Louis Adamic.

On December 22, 1942, after nearly a year of investigation into a person the FBI had said was not under investigation, intelligence officer F. L. Welch sends the following note to be relayed to all field offices with open inquiries: “it was felt that no further investigation was justified with reference to this subject. It was also pointed out that certain leads set forth in this report for the New York City Office if covered might result in embarrassment to the Bureau especially in view of the fact that only nonspecific allegations concerning the subject’s activities have been received.” After months of close observation, reading hundreds of pages of his writings, the FBI concluded that Louis Adamic did not present a clear and present danger.

That should have been the end of the FBI investigation into Adamic. It was only the beginning.

I SHOULD PAUSE and say that, before I got my hands on the actual documents, I had some hope that Adamic’s FBI files would provide me a clear view into how the life of an intellectual, which is supposed to embody the life of the mind, leads someone to die in their actual body. But I discovered that most of the reports were heavily redacted, with fat black lines across entire sentences and pages, and, in some cases, whole sections gone, with a form stating: “THIS IS A CIA DOCUMENT.” So my own investigation, which had a completely different intention from the FBI’s, depended on parsing and interpreting material they had gathered and censored. It was another challenge to an already grueling inquiry. But it was one I had to overcome.

I went back to the materials I had available. From what I could gather, the next major shakeup in Adamic’s file came with a letter dated February 24, 1944, sent to Harry L. Hopkins, an advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt, by a man whose name has been deleted. The letter had been sent straight to the White House. This is the bulk of its contents:

A confidential source who is a close acquaintance of Louis Adamic has has reported that Adamic has reliable information indicating that Yugoslavia, at the conclusion of the war, will be set up as an independent republic with an Allies controlled puppet government, until such time as a permanent form of government may be selected. This source stated that Adamic claims to have the backing of high United States Government officials to head this puppet government.

This source further reported that Adamic claims to have contacts in the Russian Government and has strongly propagandized the pro-Russian Partisan army in the United States with a view towards consolidating his Russian support. The source advised that Adamic is confident that with the Russian and United States support he will be designated to lead the Slav people should a puppet government be formed.

Before starting to analyze the significance of a bombshell like this—before even pretending to humor the possibility that Adamic genuinely believed he might lead a caretaker government in Yugoslavia—it’s important to first examine the context in which this claim was written.

First, though the investigation into him had been ordered closed, a few additional inquiries into his activities had continued to be made. An informant named T-1 included Adamic’s name on a list of “miscellaneous suspects” possibly acting as a “Communist Propagandist.” The FBI also looked into the purchase of his home, a farmhouse near Milford, New Jersey, with records showing he had chosen it out of “love of such historical features of the New Jersey countryside, plus his desire to be away from the crowded Connecticut countryside where so many of his writer friends reside.” The Postmaster in Milford disclosed that Adamic had “no phone in his home, but that he had some time ago opened a little office in the town of Milford itself.” The report adds that “bulk mailing of books is made from this office” and that he “recently made a purchase of 100,000 one-cent stamped bulk mailing envelopes.” The report further states that he “is reported to spend a substantial portion of his time in New York at the Hotel St. Regis” and that “he had recently visited Washington, D.C. ‘to have tea with President and Mrs. Roosevelt.'” This section ends by noting that his office “has a telephone.”

Reading these details, I got the sense that just about anything you did looked suspicious once it appeared typed out on an FBI report. But there’s no conspiracy. Everything is out in the open. Adamic works, in complete transparency, as a wartime writer and intellectual, to promote a global path forward in which he believes as an individual. He is trying to influence the course of events, particularly as it relates to his native homeland, from the perspective of an American believer in democracy and freedom—including freedom of speech and freedom of the press. How free is Adamic in America, ultimately, when his every move—including how and why he purchased his home—is being tracked by the FBI?

This report was made in November 1942, more than a year before the letter claimed that Adamic considered himself a candidate to head a caretaker government in Yugoslavia, and just a month before the next report in his file which discusses Adamic’s December 1942 article the Saturday Evening Post, about Yugoslavian strongman Draza Mihailovic. The report notes that the piece “is believed to be of interest both because of its throwing some light upon Louis Adamic’s Communist sympathies, which been the subject of considerable speculation, as well as because it gives a fairly complex picture of the political complexion of the guerrilla bands fighting in Yugoslavia.” The report then summarizes the actual content of his article and includes tear sheets of the article itself. Suspicions aside, it appears that Adamic serves pretty well as a political analyst.

What was so dumbfounding about the FBI’s methods in tracking Adamic—and what made me suspicious about their own role in his eventual death—was that they used his published material to both condemn him as a Communist and to glean information from him which they apparently did not have. They made use of his ideas and turned him into an enemy on the basis of the same ideas. Not because of any clandestine evidence brought to them by their many informants. Simply because of how they interpreted his writing—which was, incidentally, publicly available to readers of a magazine with a circulation in the millions. The big bad classified FBI report on Adamic’s 1942 article was, ultimately, nothing more than a digest of his writing.

And what did Adamic actually write? That Draza Mihailovic was a military vestige of the dictatorial regime that had ruled Yugoslavia before World War II. That Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans were more effective in taking on the Nazis. That if the United States and its allies don’t give the Partisans the international recognition and validation they need to lead the Balkan region after the war, Soviet Russia will try to swallow them up into its sphere of influence. It was, as the FBi report admitts, a “complex picture” of the situation in Yugoslavia. How could it also implicate Adamic in so simplistic a position as that of a Communist fellow traveler?

Adamic was wracked by anxieties over…Eastern-style socialist totalitarianism and Western-style capitalist democracy.

The truth is that Adamic was wracked by anxieties over what he saw as the two major forms of government that were emerging out of World War II: Eastern-style socialist totalitarianism and Western-style capitalist democracy. He knew that any place on the globe where democratic countries did not get involved would, in no time, fall to the pressure of the Soviet East, bringing the fight for freedom that much closer. Another report states that on December 21, 1942, Adamic told William Simms, a correspondent assigned to the Supreme Allied Headquarters in Europe, that “unless Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin get together soon to put a stop to the present political trend in Europe . . . we are almost certainly doomed to a third world war and a crackup of what we call civilization.” Embedded within the global anti-Nazi effort, he identified struggles between East and West that would soon erupt into a new war. Defeating the Nazis, he realized, was not sufficient as a political objective. The world had to plan, now, for the day after.

Adamic turned out to be right. A year later, from November 28 to December 1, 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in what came to be known as the Tehran Conference, the same one that inspired Orwell to split his future world into three regional spheres of influence. And months before that happened, Adamic was thinking about the implications of these spheres, so that in his next book, My Native Land (1943), he explained that allowing what he called “Sovietization” in Yugoslavia may hold back Stalin from trying to spread his influence over the entirety of Eastern Europe. He even spoke of a “Yugoslav federation” that would be headed by Tito.

Did this mean that Adamic turned Communist? Not at all. He simply knew the players. Tito, he knew, had his own plans for the region, and would never bow down to Soviet pressure. In this, too, Adamic turned out to be right. Tito’s pursuit of domination over the Balkans, and independence from the Soviet Union, eventually led to the Tito-Stalin Split of 1948. It seemed that Adamic’s support for Tito was based less on ideology than on a deep understanding of the region’s historical and political situation. He was guilty of little more than looking reality in the face.

This was the context in which the FBI decided to reopen its investigation into Adamic after a single informant claimed Adamic believed he might be tapped to lead a Yugoslavian puppet government. For anyone familiar with Adamic and his writings, the possibility is absurd, and even if he dared to fantasize about such a possibility—which is what writers do as a matter of course—there is little doubt that it was more a mental exercise than a real ambition. But the idea that someone would take this obvious flight of fancy straight to the Office of the President of the United States, and that the matter would be referred to the FBI for serious investigation—this was the true proof of how little the American government knew about what was happening on its own soil as well as in the minds of its own intellectuals. They were targeting the very people who openly discussed the possibility that the postwar world order might need to be prepared in advance rather than cobbled together after the fact. They took the individuals who forced them to think about what they were doing and turned them into enemies.

Because of this letter, the FBI went around and made further inquiries about Adamic among its pool of informants. Informant No. 1, who said he had known Adamic “intimately for about ten years and regards him almost as a son,” went on to call Adamic an “idealist, a great liberal—certainly no Communist,” and added, “The campaign to brand Adamic a Communist is . . . inspired by those supporting Mihailovic and the monarchy.” Informant No. 2 said in a letter that “he believes Adamic to be entirely loyal to the United States.” No. 3 called him “a person of excellent character, reputation, and integrity.” No. 4 called him “progressive in outlook, thoroughly anti-reactionary, but not essentially a Communist.” No. 5 called Adamic “a great, fearless liberal, but no Communist,” adding that, “The supporters of the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile and the monarchy of King Peter have now begun a campaign to discredit Adamic.” No. 6 said he “has never been a Communist, but rather an ardent democrat,” adding, “Above all else, Adamic is intellectually honest and frank.” No. 7 said that “Aadamic, above all, is honest and frank. If he was a Communist, he would have no hesitation in revealing it.” No. 8 says that “he does not believe that Adamic is a Communist.” Two other informants, both neighbors, say they regard him as “a person of good character, reputation, trustworthiness, and loyalty.” In all, it almost seems like the FBI is undertaking a background check to actually consider Adamic as the future leader of a puppet government in Yugoslavia. And, by the way their informants respond, it appears that he passes the FBI’s character test with flying colors. The only problem, of course, is that this isn’t how global powers install leaders as heads of government. It’s how they lay the groundwork for persecuting their own citizens.

NOTHING IN ADAMIC’S FBI file after this point suggests he was a subject of concern for the American government. In fact, an intercepted letter by Adamic from June 4, 1947, written in Serbo-Croatian and translated into English for the FBI, suggests that Adamic had refocused his attentions on the his adopted home: “Believe me,” he responds to an appeal for help from Yugoslavia, “in my heart I am keeping a special place for Yugoslavia, in spite of the fact that all of my activities are now directed toward my new country, America, which is going through difficult days.” He was referring to McCarthyism and to the targeting of American intellectuals by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Adamic was, at this point, an embattled cultural figure. He had been sued by Winston Churchill for libel because of a claim he made in Dinner at the White House (1946)—based on the 1942 meeting with Roosevelt covered in his FBI files—despite attributing this claim to another journalist. He and the publisher settled the case out of court. No one knew the exact sum, but it was rumored to be $20,000, with some saying Adamic had paid it directly because he had added the claim in the proofs, without giving his editor a chance to think about its inclusion. Adamic denied this rumor. But he was undeniably ostracized as a public intellectual.

Yet Adamic, who never sat still for long, launched a circular that he called T&T, first calling it Today and Tomorrow and revamping the title to Trends and Tides, writing and publishing his own short pieces on topics of national and global interest. It didn’t take long, in the anti-Communist atmosphere of the late 1940s, for “concerned citizens” to start sending the FBI copies of his publication together with notes full of political bias and presumption. One of them, sent anonymously, read:

The enclosed copy of T&T, appearing to be a “Commie” sheet, came to my desk this morning. . . I have reason to believe that the copy was mailed to me by General Holdridge, whom I know socially, and who has probably fallen for the Commie bait….There’s no point in my talking to General Holdridge about it—he’s one of the most stubborn donkeys I’ve met, although a very attractive man socially, but you might wish to keep an eye on him and his organization lest they become misled and subservient to the “Commie” line.

I have no other information on the subject, hence don’t wish to waste your time by sending a man to interview me, and I am not signing my name to this note.

I was incensed. A cowardly note sent by a cowardly person who was so afraid of the Commie bogey monster that he had no qualms staining the reputation not only of Louis Adamic, whose character the FBI had thoroughly examined, but a leading leader of the United States Army, too, who had served as Assistant Professor at West Point, and had overseen the opening of the Officer Candidate Schools during World War II. The informant’s clear distaste for Holdridge had led him to implicate Adamic and his circular as a “Commie sheet” without any evidence. He didn’t even offer to take the time to speak to the FBI about his accusations. He was satisfied with using his personal resentment as a tool for turning two upstanding American citizens and intellectuals into political targets.

And he wasn’t the only one. Another “concerned citizen” wrote to the FBI after hearing a lecture given by Adamic in Colorado, observing that he “does not come out in the open and say that he is a communist, but just the general trend of his conversation leads me to think it quite probable that he is, and I would like to know if he is a good loyal American citizen, or one posing as one.” A third sent a copy of T&T with a short note saying, “I suppose you have seen this & know all about it, but it made me so mad, I just had to send it to you and blow off. To think that man came here & had all the advantages of this country, and through that, got to be a prominent person, and then used his ability to undermine our way of life just makes me boil.” The copy of T&T that the person had sent, the first issue of its fourth volume, had the words “RESIST!” in bold capital letters across the top, and the headline: “SPEARHEADING AN AMERICAN RESISTANCE MOVEMENT.” And, yes, the FBI had already seen the circular.

In itself, all this may not have prompted any new attention from the FBI, especially as they had already decided Adamic was more “an opportunist” than a Communist. It was Adamic who was concerned, not really about the FBI, but about the state of the world as a whole. In a lecture reprinted in T&T, he announced: “Physical and political scientists of the highest repute are suddenly mounting soapboxes to tell us with anxiety in their voices that the very existence of the planet is in question: not a million years hence, as the Sunday supplements used to predict, but within 10…15…20 years, depending on when or whether World War III breaks out.” In a way, Adamic and the FBI shared the same concerns. Except that his way of tackling them, which aimed to bring awareness to the public rather than to keep things hidden, turned him into a hysterical figure chasing its own intellectual tail.

SOMETHING ELSE WAS also happening during this time. Real Soviet spies embedded in intellectual American circles were renouncing Communism and becoming state witnesses—and coming under the protection of the FBI. These spies began naming names.

Chief among the House Un-American Activities Committee’s star witnesses was Elizabeth Bentley, who had begun spying for the USSR in 1935. She had been recruited by Juliet Stuart Poyntz, a suffragist, feminist, and, later, Communist leader, who put her in touch with Jacob Golos, one of the Soviet Union’s most important agents on American soil—the man most often associated with the plotting of Trotsky’s assassination.

In her testimony, Bentley explained that just before he died of a heart in November 1943, Golos  put her in touch with Josef Budenz, a close contact of Adamic’s who was also editor of the Communist Daily Worker. In response to the FBI’s queries about Budenz, Bentley said, “I remember that Budenz was scouring a good deal of information from Louis Adamic, the author.” She added: “I have never met or had any contact with Louis Adamic, who so far as I know was not a Communist.”

The FBI’s report on a conversation with Budenz himself is more vague about Adamic’s role in furnishing information. “Budenz advised,” it reads, “that he and Golos occasionally discussed Louis Adamic and the latter’s attitude at that time concerning a Federated Yugoslavia. He stated that he, Budenz, would make reports on what people such as Adamic said.” It was Budenz, not Adamic, who had weaponized ideas and turned them into intelligence for the Soviet Union. Adamic was only one of many people that Budenz had surveilled. But when he turned into an FBI informant, Budenz made Adamic into a target instead—the spy falling under the protection of the FBI as the intellectual became its victim. Adamic’s name was added to a long list of individuals thought to be part a Soviet spy ring.

One report, which includes a transcribed phone conversation apparently tapped by the FBI, was especially poignant in conveying the tense atmosphere of the time. The phone call, conducted between Adamic supporter Helen Kelley and travel writer Abel Penn, focused specifically on Adamic’s political and social affiliations:

H: Say, you said something to me about Adamic once being in bad company.

A: Oh no. I was in bad company too because we were in the same company.

H: Well, what I meant, was he with Communists?

A: Oh no.

H: Was he with reactionaries?

A: Yes. Now don’t misquote me or misunderstand me for goodness sake. He wasn’t in bad company any more than I was. I just happened to meet him with people who later turned out to be bad eggs. We all happened to know these people and suddenly they turned out to do something like that. That’s not to be held against him any more than it is against me.

H: I didn’t know that you were with him.

A: It isn’t important (very angry). And the thing to do is to forget it.

H: Why?

A: Because it isn’t important (very angry). And you know these things are suddenly misunderstood. The first thing you know, somebody will say that I said that Adamic was in bad company.

I had to wonder how the FBI had managed to record this conversation—and whether Helen Kelley, whom Adamic was known to trust, wasn’t herself part of their network of informants. The way she kept fishing for some definitive answer about Adamic’s affiliation made her suspicious. But ultimately, I realized, it didn’t matter. Because somebody somewhere did finally say that Adamic was in bad company. And it wasn’t the writers and intellectuals who were his colleagues. It was the bad company itself, which had, in the meantime, switched sides to save its own skin. But only, of course, after its mastermind, Golos, was long dead and buried. To garner the trust of its new masters, the bad company had to come up with a list of enemies. And having set up shop in the American intellectual community, intellectuals were ultimately the ones to bear its mightiest wrath.

SPIES DEFEND SPIES. When referring to Budenz, Bentley did not reveal that he was not only a spy, but the head of his own spy ring, called the Buben group. When military counter-intelligence accused Soviet spy leader Nathan Silvermaster of being a national threat, Communist agents working as high-ranking officials within the Roosevelt administration defended his character. But the sign of good spy craft is not only protection, it’s also deflection, and in the dangerous world of espionage, there’s nothing easier than sacrificing the innocent. Adamic became an easy target.

Neither did Adamic help his own case. Hoping to reclaim a role in American society, he became a speechwriter for Henry Wallace during his failed 1948 presidential campaign as the Progressive Party nominee. But the Progressive Party was identified with the American Communist Party and Adamic found himself, yet again, on the wrong side of the cultural divide, branded a Communist.

The next years saw Adamic return his focus to Yugoslavia—and to Tito’s rule. He traveled to Yugoslavia in 1949, met with the country’s entire upper echelon over a period of seven months, and returned to write a book that would, in his eyes, reveal Tito as a leader of messianic proportions, one who could lead postwar societies all over the world toward a new form of progressive action that would reject both Soviet totalitarianism and American reactionaryism. The book, The Eagle and the Root, was only published posthumously.

Adamic, it seems, had been murdered by someone with a grim sense of humor.

Adamic died in his farm­­house bed­room-studio, alone, from a gun­shot wound to the head on September 4, 1951. The New York Times obituary noted that a “.22 caliber Mossberg rifle lay across his knees.” A typewriter, it said, laying “on a small table beside the living room fireplace had a single sheet sticking from its roller. It bore only the beginning of the traditional typewriter test line: ‘Now is the time . . .’ uncompleted.” I found this to be an unusually eerie detail for a newspaper report. Because the full sentence reads: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.” And there was little doubt, at least to my mind, that the party in question was the Communist Party. Adamic, it seems, had been murdered by someone with a grim sense of humor.

The coroner ruled Adamic’s death a suicide. But I had my doubts—and I wasn’t the only one to question this conclusion. Lieutenant J J. Harris of the New Jersey State Police had his doubts as well. As he told the Times, “we don’t overlook the fact that any outsider anxious to destroy evidence of wrong-doing might also have set the fire.” Yet a report in the Times, appearing a day later, noted that “an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who visited the house briefly, indicated the death presented no angles for his agency to follow up.” A statement from the FBI’s Newark field office made it clearer: “We are not conducting any investigation of the circumstances surrounding Adamic’s death.” This same FBI, which showed no interest in Adamic’s death, had spent a decade investigating whether or not he was a Communist.

Still, there were people willing to go on record with the New York Times to question the ruling of suicide. Ethel Sharp, Adamic’s typist, mentioned a visit Adamic told her about, which had taken place a year earlier, made by “four strangers who, somewhat threateningly, inquired into the direction the book was following.” Louis Budenz also went on record saying that he saw “‘a very strong possibility’ that Mr. Adamic might have been killed by Communist agents.” And Anton Smole of the Yugoslav News Agency noted that “threats had been made on the writer’s life at various times from 1949 until this year,” including one in which “two strangers told him he would be killed if he continued working on his book about Yugoslavia.” Adamic was found dead with a working draft of the book scattered across the floor of his studio.

Adamic had probably been on the KGB’s kill list for some time. In the late 1930s, had had—ever the do-gooder—joined the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, an intellectual commission set up to give moral support to those targeted by Stalin’s Moscow Trials, and in particular Trotsky. It didn’t get him killed yet. But it probably put him on the radar. And Stalin’s methods didn’t change over time. He had removed Trotsky as a threat, and now he moved to Tito. Anyone supporting Tito’s cause was put on the same list where Adamic’s name had probably already appeared a decade earlier. Adamic, who was writing a book meant to sway American public opinion away from Stalin in favor of Tito, was quickly moved to the top of the list.

Budenz was explicit on this possibility in his remarks to the New York Harold Tribune. “I hope the local police will not be deceived. If it’s a Soviet secret police job, it will have been very skillfully done. They’re very skillful at making these things look like accidents.” As a Soviet agent, he knew it well enough. The local police were actually never deceived. The problem was the FBI. They had ruled out any investigation.

The reasons were obvious. The FBI had a case of international murder on its hands. Soviet agents had killed a US citizen on American soil. It showed they could act in America with impunity. And, as one of the early FBI reports on Adamic had made clear, they avoided situations that “might result in embarrassment to the Bureau.” In fact, they already had a track record of ignoring deaths and disappearances that didn’t serve their own agenda. Juliet Stuart Poyntz, the woman who had brought Elizabeth Bentley into the espionage racket, disappeared in June 1937 in what is believed to have been an assassination based on her Trotskyist sympathies, which made sense, considering her handler had planned Trotsky’s murder. And in 1941, Walter Krivitsky, a Soviet spy who had defected to the United States due to his own support for Trotsky, had been found dead in his hotel room in Washington, D.C. How had he died? With a single bullet to the head—just like Adamic.

As for the FBI, well, Stalin actually had done them a favor. They could finally stop wasting precious resources on trying to figure out whether or not Louis Adamic was a Communist.

DAVID STROMBERG is a writer, translator, and essayist whose work has appeared in The American Scholar, The Smart SetPublic Seminar, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is editor of Old Truths and New Clichés (Princeton University Press), a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays, and a reissue of the canonical story, Simple Gimpl: The Definitive Bilingual Edition (Restless Books). His recent work includes A Short Inquiry into the End of the World (The Massachusetts Review), the first speculative essay in his Mister Investigator series, and his follow-up, “The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew,” which appeared in The Hedgehog Review. This is the third in that series. His website? It’s here.

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