The FBI and Mr. Gersh
To the Editor:
The article “The Day the FBI Came to Our House,” which appeared in the January 1952 issue of COMMENTARY, has been brought to my attention. Frankly, I was surprised to see such an obvious and intentional attempt to hold the FBI up to ridicule being printed in your magazine.
You, of course, know, as does the public in general, that the FBI has been given definite responsibilities under Congressional enactments and presidential directives to seek facts, through investigation, which pertain to violations of the law or relate to the internal security of the country. We have always attempted to discharge these responsibilities in an efficient and straightforward manner. The overwhelming cooperation which the public has given us by voluntarily furnishing information has made it possible to bring our investigations to expeditious conclusions. In many cases they have served to remove suspicion from innocent persons falsely accused.
You can appreciate, I know, that in carrying out our responsibilities as an investigative agency, we conduct thousands of interviews with private citizens throughout the country each day. Time after time citizens communicate with us or call at our offices to volunteer information which they feel relates to matters within the jurisdiction of the FBI.
In connection with the interview with Mrs. Gersh, it was believed that she might possess information pertaining to a case under investigation and our agents called on her, as they would call on any other citizen under similar circumstances, to solicit her cooperation in furnishing whatever information she might have. The interview was of a routine nature and she talked to the agents on a voluntary basis. Had she or Mr. Gersh so desired, they most certainly could have declined to be interviewed. They not only did not do so but, on the contrary, did discuss pertinent matters with the interviewing agents.
In the light of these facts, it is difficult to understand why Mr. Gersh chose to distort the circumstances of the interview in such a way that the agents were portrayed as sinister individuals, and that he, his wife, and child were pictured as being subjected to an “unhealthy,” as he calls it, experience.
I think that it is very evident from a review of the article that Mr. Gersh clearly intended to give an exaggerated and unfair account of the interview. I am surprised that, as editor of a responsible publication, you did not make inquiry in the interest of ascertaining the facts before you printed the article.
John Edgar Hoover
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington, D. C.
To the Editor:
The article Mr. Hoover objects to was not written “to hold the FBI up to ridicule.” It was, I hope, a piece of reportage—not only of events, but of the effects of those events upon a family of normal, law-abiding citizens.
Mr. Hoover cites presidential directives and Congressional enactments which give him the right and duty to send his agents to see us. Fine. I agree. But a little criticism is a healthy thing, our grandfathers taught us.
Mr. Hoover says we talked to his agents voluntarily. Of course. We are good citizens and generally in agreement with the FBI’s purposes. In general agreement, I said, and not in complete agreement—especially with its procedures.
I made several points in the article. One major point was that the agents who search out Communists have a duty to know what is Communism and what is a Communist. I consider myself a comparative expert on Communism and Communists. I got that way fighting them for many years, in the labor movement and elsewhere. It was our impression, confirmed by other experiences with FBI agents intent on similar tasks, that these men were not qualified to determine whether a man was or wasn’t a Communist. Their parting words, as reported in the article, clinched this impression. So I, as a reporter and a citizen, have a duty to say so, without being accused of defaming the entire FBI.
Nor is Mr. Hoover competent to judge whether his agents appeared “sinister.” (His word—not mine.) That’s a question of time, place, context, and cultural attitudes. He’ll nave to take our word for it that the occasion was not one of ease and good fellowship. I don’t know how the FBI men felt about it, but we were a little frightened, a little apprehensive, a little confused. (Remember we didn’t know what they wanted until quite a while after they had started their questioning.) The atmosphere was such that our son, four years old, sensed it and reacted. I tried to report that atmosphere. It was pertinent. If Mr. Hoover believes that a visit from the FBI, even to innocent people, is an occasion for jollity, he is mistaken. Maybe we’ve seen too many FBI movies. If that explains our reaction, Mr. Hoover’s quarrel is with James Cagney, not with the Gershes.
One last word—Mr. Hoover and I do not disagree on the necessity of safeguarding our security and of fighting Communism. We may disagree on the methods to be used. Congressional authority per se does not cloak his procedures with absolute correctness. Nor, to reiterate, does it make them immune from criticism.
Tuckahoe, New York