By 1972, the White House had become obsessed with John Lennon.
At the time, the battle lines of the U.S. culture war were deeply etched. On one side, you had the anti-war movement, young activists determined to end the bloodshed of the Vietnam War. On the other, you had the so-called “Silent Majority,” middle Americans quietly determined to stay the course.
In the center of it all were Lennon, who had become of champion for peaceniks, and President Richard Nixon, who feared his reelection could be derailed by youthful fans of the former Beatle, paranoia stoked by the fact ’72 would be the first year 18- to 20-year-olds could vote.
Three years earlier, you had one Minnesotan who was deeply offended by Lennon’s penis.
In perhaps the state’s weirdest pop-culture connection, that unnamed constituent of Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District would unknowingly begin an FBI paper trail that would culminate in efforts to have Lennon deported.
And it all started with a delightfully prudish letter to Congressman Ancher Nelsen. The galvanized citizen had just been mailed an album. He or she didn’t like what they saw.
“It is the latest album of John Lennon of the Beatles and his latest flame Yoko [Ono],” wrote our panicked friend, whose name was lost to history. “The cover of the album was a photograph of Lennon and Ono completely nude; and believe me they didn’t hide a thing. It is now being sold to our young people on the record stands. Mr. Nelson, it is the most discolored and vulgar display of garbage I have ever seen in my life. Isn’t there some way we can get this album off the market??”
Eventually, the letter concerning Lennon and Ono’s 1968 avant-garde LP Two Virgins worked its way all the way up to J. Edgar Hoover, the controversially powerful FBI director who served for more than 40 years.
“A representative of the Department of Justice has advised that he is familiar with the photograph contained on the cover of an album by John Lennon,” Hoover wrote to Nelson in ’69. “He stated that no violation with regard to obscenity exists.”
Historian and journalist Jon Wiener, author of the 2000 book Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, confirmed the ’69 letter spawned the FBI’s first formal awareness of Lennon.
“J. Edgar concluded there was no crime for the FBI to investigate in the Two Virgins cover. He did the right thing!” Wiener tells City Pages in an email, adding “The FBI spelled Yoko Ono ‘Yoko One’ — whatever happened to Yoko Two?”
Lennon’s FBI file would balloon in the coming years. Wiener fought for the declassification of those files, which made his book — plus all of the file excerpts in this article — possible. In the intro to Gimme Truth, he contextualizes the paranoid, puzzling, and often unintentionally hilarious fixation high-ranking government officials had with the bespectacled songwriter from Liverpool.
“The Lennon FBI files document an era when rock music seemed to have real political force,” he writes, “when youth culture seemed to have real political force, when youth culture, for perhaps the first time in American history, was mounting a serious challenge to the status quo in Washington, when President Nixon responded by mobilizing the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to silence the man from England who was singing ‘Give Peace a Chance.’”
The “Imagine” singer’s anti-war politics scared the bejesus out of Nixon, who was first alerted to Lennon via the White House’s secret correspondence with Sen. Strom Thurmond, who must have been a Stones guy. Deporting Lennon on the basis of a 1968 U.K. pot bust could “be a strategy counter-measure,” reads the memo that cites Lennon’s affiliation with “Radical New Left leaders” who advocate the “dump Nixon” position.
Minnesota’s own Bob Dylan would join dozens of rational stars — including Jasper Johns, Joan Baez, and John Updike — in writing letters of support for Lennon to the INS, which began deportation efforts in 1972.
“John and Yoko add a great voice and drive to this country’s so-called ART INSTITUTION — they inspire and transcend and stimulate,” reads Dylan’s handwritten note. “Hurray for John & Yoko. Let them stay and live here and breathe. The country’s got plenty of room and space. Let John and Yoko stay!”
The INS would not relent, not even after Nixon’s landslide victory over Democratic candidate George McGovern in the fall of ’72. Then Watergate happened. Then President Gerald Ford happened, who, in 1975, would overturn the deportation order issued by his old boss. John, as you probably know, lived out his life with Yoko in New York City until his assassination in 1980.
And then there’s our scandalized neighbor, the one who implored a congressman, “[The nudity] has to stop … and I mean NOW!!” He or she ended up on the losing side of the culture war, but managed to win a quirky, uniquely Minnesotan footnote in rock history.