It’s safe to say the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been in the news during this final stretch of the presidential election a lot more than education policy has. But it’s reminded us of a relatively obscure episode in American history in which the FBI put teachers in its cross-hairs during the fight against communism in the U.S.
From 1951 to 1955, the FBI distributed intelligence reports about those suspected as political subversives to governors, police departments, Red Cross officials, and other prominent civic leaders. The subjects of those reports included school teachers, as well as employees of public and private colleges, and state agencies.
This activity took place through an FBI initiative codenamed the “Responsibilities” program.
As Athan G. Theoharis writes in The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover justified this activity because “public utilities, public organizations, and semi-public organizations” served large numbers of people, and that any subversive activities that could impact them should be flagged beforehand. The “Responsibilities” program stopped in 1955 when governors disclosed the program, according to Theoharis.
This FBI activity is also discussed in Enemies: A History of the FBI, written by Tim Weiner. Weiner writes that under law, such files on individuals were only supposed to be shared within the executive branch of government. (Unlike Theoharis, Weiner records that the program was terminated when a “publicity hunting” state education commissioner and not governors revealed its existence. We’ve been unable to determine which state chief Weiner is referencing here.)
Both Theoharis and Weiner also highlight a concurrent FBI initiative called the Sex Deviates program that targeted those suspected of being homosexual in higher education and other institutions.
Here’s how Jerry Carrier, in his book Hard Right Turn: The History and the Assassination of the American Left, describes the impact of the FBI’s efforts:
Thousands of people were accused as leftists or homosexuals, and this information was used against them politically or used by employers like local governments, universities and private employers to fire these people from their jobs. Most of the information was false and fabricated. The Program ran until 1955, but the files on the individuals were kept by the FBI for twenty-five years after this.
And Theoharis writes, “The FBI’s various ‘educational’ initiatives had no law enforcement purpose.”
Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover is shown in the 1936 FBI documentary “You Can’t Get Away With It.” Universal Studios via AP-File
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