Penn Kimball

The File and McCarthyism: A Personal Odyssey

VTR Date: March 8, 1984

Guest: Kimball, Penn


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Penn Kimball
Title: “’The File’ and McCarthyism: A Personal Odyssey”
VTR: 3/8/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When I began this program in May 1956, ours was very much an age of suspicion. Even if there were not then really a generation on trial, after all, the real objects of political suspicion in the 50s had never dominated any generation; they just blemished perhaps one with their naïve and sometimes dangerous acceptance of political mythology. Even so, the concept of an open mind did not perhaps reflect the larger spirit of those times 28 years ago. I don’t know that it does now. Indeed, both then and now, Learned Hand’s call to faith loomed large. I believe that that community is already in process of dissolution, where each man begins to eye his neighbor as a possible enemy, where nonconformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, is a mark of disaffection, where denunciation without specification or backing takes the place of evidence, where orthodoxy chokes freedom of dissent, where faith in the eventual supremacy of reason has become so timid that we dare not enter our convictions in the open lists to win or lose. Well, that’s what our program today is about. Where denunciation takes the place of evidence. Where we have become satisfied that we dare not enter our convictions in the open lists to win or lose. And my guest today, Penn Kimball, formerly of Time and PM and Colliers and The New York Times, is now Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His new book, The File, is about his ordeal in seeking from the government of the United States the file it began decades ago making him a security risk. A file for him without names, without faces, without documentation. It still makes for a Kafkaesque situation.

Professor Kimball, thanks for joining me today. I know that when a man writes a book, he tends to go on television programs and talk about the book. I had the feeling, as I read the file, that you’d written much more than a book here, but really a commentary upon an age that maybe many of us would like to forget.

KIMBALL: Well, it’s interesting. I heard you mention your program started in 1956, which as I remember well, was really the sort of the climax of the McCarthy period. My file began in 1946, four years before Joe McCarthy even made an appearance on the floor of the United States Senate, waving, saying, “I have in my hand here the name of X communist”. So that it gives you pause, I think, to think that four years before that period of crisis the preparations were kind of going on to sew the seeds of suspicion within the country, to check out what people’s beliefs might be by asking other people what they thought people they barely knew had inside their heads. And I think that that’s one of the lessons that I hope to disseminate in a book like this. You can’t tell what kind of age of crisis you’re getting into. And what I tried to write was a worst-case scenario, if you will, to show how the national security apparatus can work long before there is any hysteria going on in the country.

HEFFNER: But you know, when you say “worst case”, it leads me to ask whether you think this stemmed only from the period that we’re both talking about, a few years before perhaps? Are we talking about a World War II and thereafter?

KIMBALL: Well, we were just coming out of the war. I got into this because I came home from the Marine Corps and thought it might be a patriotic thing to do to take the examinations for the US Foreign Service and maybe think about that kind of service in the post-war world. I had studied politics and international affairs at Princeton, I had gone to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar during the pre-war crisis when Hitler and Mussolini were terrorizing the Western nations. I had come back and been a newspaperman in Washington and then with the experimental newspaper PM in New York before I had volunteered for the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor. So that the farthest thought from my mind was that by coming back and offering myself as a candidate for the US Foreign Service I would then spend the rest of my life, without my knowledge, being labeled as a national security risk. That came as quite a shock to me you can bet.

HEFFNER: How damaged do you think you were in your lifetime?

KIMBALL: Oh, well, you see, I lucked out. I mean, I had all these things going for me. I think that I’d had a good academic record, I’d had some good jobs in journalism. My knees never got fractured. I never lost my j ob the way many people did during the McCarthy period and who I knew very well. Their lives were ruined by that particular kind of experience. I went on. I worked for two governors and a United States senator. I’ve been teaching at Columbia for 25 years. So that I’m not presenting myself as some martyr who was ruined by the system. What I’m trying to do is, because I think that my case was so absurd, it rested on such a total absence of evidence, and the procedures that were followed in gathering it gives me the advantage of telling a story which perhaps can do some good to people who are a little more vulnerable than I am.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “a little more vulnerable”? Who?

KIMBALL: Well, I mean, I won the Bible prize when I was at Lawrenceville School, not a hotbed of radicalism by any nation. I was editor of the college paper and hired a young man who had just moved to Princeton to take a public opinion poll during the 1936 election, and Princeton went 74 percent for Alf Landon. So that was my environmental situation in my formative years as a young man. I never joined anything. I joined the Democratic Party when I was 21 years old. That turned out to be a nonconformist thing to do in New Britain, Connecticut where my parents and all their friends were hide bound Republicans. And actually it made page one in the local paper when I registered as a Democrat. I was totally captivated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. I totally supported the New Deal as a young man. When I was in the Newspaper Guild in New York before a World War II, I voted in favor of a draft. When that came before. That was always the litmus test for a lot of people, if you were against military preparedness perhaps before World War II you were perhaps somewhat suspect on ideological grounds.

HEFFNER: But certainly, maybe your position on the draft, but certainly not your educational background, nor the class, if I may, from which you came, indeed, in a certain way are you a perfect candidate in many ways for the kinds of attacks that went on? Your education was a good one. People with that kind of education were suspect. You’re not going to contrast your education with that of blue-collar people and say, “They were more…

KIMBALL: Well, no. I’m not talking about being attacked. I’m talking about being in danger of being susceptible to the kind of things that turned people into being traitors or being foreign spies and the rest of it.

HEFFNER: But let me stop you for a moment. Isn’t it true enough that there were many people with similar educations, fine institutions, fine families, who were charged? Fairly or unfairly is not quite the point.

KIMBALL: Well, that is a big point, whether fairly or unfairly.

HEFFNER: Well, now, I’m talking about the charges that were made. And you’re saying, “My gosh, I, Penn Kimball, I was not really vulnerable at all. And look what happened to me”.

KIMBALL: Well, what I’m saying is, as I say, the extent of my nonconformity is, I register as a Democrat in a Republican town. I joined the American Newspaper Guild when I worked for David Lawrence, who is not on the cutting edge of the founding of the AFL and CIO, and that was considered a relatively daring thing to do in Washington, DC in 1939, I suppose.

HEFFNER: But you wouldn’t take the job that he offered you, and that seemed to…

KIMBALL: That was after the war. All right?


KIMBALL: The job he gave me paid m3 25 bucks a week. And when he raised me to $27.50 he called me into an office to give me a special anointment. But he said, “Now, Penn, you’re doing marvelously well here, but don’t put in for overtime because I’m not going to pay”. The Wages and Hours Act had been passed in 1938 and I was there in 1939 at US News. And he says, “I’m not going to pay any overtime until the Supreme Court upholds that law”. And I suppose you could say that radicalized me to the extent that I thought really if reporters couldn’t even get overtime under the law of the land, that they probably ought to band together and maybe try to get working conditions as good as the printers. So I became a member of a union that Heywood Brune had started. And that union, all through my file, that is the one overt act that I did that did not suit the value system of the people working for the United States State Department or the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency. And I go back to your intro in terms of what kind of behavior is going to be acceptable within the value system of the government in turning, recruiting young people to work for it gets to be a very pertinent idea.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the institution of such a file, the beginning of such a file, taking it off, could happen as easily today?

KIMBALL: Oh, yes. There’s no doubt about it. Easily. More easily. In my era, I mean, demonstrations had not come in style, so that no one was ever milling around outside the Pentagon in the 30s or the early 40s. No one was ever throwing leaflets around a college campus or having a demonstration about US foreign policy in Central America or the Middle East or what have you. And there’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that every time there’s one of these occasions there are a lot of people writing names down, and I suspect even photographing people and starting files on them, because that is the nature of our particular security system. And I think it’s outrageous. I think that, I don‘t think we’ve ever caught a single Soviet spy. We have never put a cheek of defense against any foreign power by that kind of activity.

HEFFNER: If those activities have been so unproductive, how do you account for them?

KIMBALL: Ha, well. That is the question I try to ask in this particular book. The way the system works, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, the whole security apparatus. What seems to happen in this country when we get in periods of international tension, the Americans, for some reason or other, really throw themselves into fits of patriotism as if that were somehow going to see us through. And they begin to wonder about the people living down the street from them or people that they don’t know very well who had done anything any different than they did. And all things being equal, they say, “That fella acts a little funny in one way or another. Maybe he’s not as patriotic as I am”. The FBI went into my hometown. They interviewed a guy that, when I was a little boy I grew up next door to him. He said the FBI said, “You know, this fellow’s parents let him drink cocktails at a tender age”. Okay? And that was all duly written – it wasn’t, didn’t have any truth – but they all wrote it down. And that someone who drank cocktails at an early age in a period of national nervousness, you see, is perceived as someone who is really not acting in the accepted manner and in the cultural norms, and therefore, he must be politically dangerous too.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you this question then. You say, “In this country we tend to do that at times of international crisis”. Does that mean what we are talking about is a good old American tradition and not something the product of the post-World War II period? Are we talking about something we’ve always had with us?

KIMBALL: Well, it goes, if you remember after World War I the Palmer raids. We had a whole reaction in this country not unlike the McCarthy period in that period of nervousness. And we were trying to debate between isolationism and participation in international affairs. I think it’s a basic American characteristic to be rather suspicious of those continents so many thousand miles away from us and be wary a little bit about what their kind of politics might do to a country like ours.

HEFFNER: I guess that has to raise the question as to whether this is not as American as apple pie, and therefore perhaps something that we need be less concerned about.

KIMBALL: Well, you could argue that a lynch mob is as American as apple pie.


KIMBALL: It’s not the kind of apple pie that I think ought to be on the table.

HEFFNER: But do you think it is as traditional, as American as apple pie?

KIMBALL: Well, no. I‘ve always believed, I’m one of those old fashioned liberal optimists that’s not so much in style anymore. And I suppose it’s kind of a religious point of view that we’re always waging for the soul of man between his evil side and his good side. And I think the average American has a very good side, and he has a side that gets very nervous at times of international tension, and that it takes leadership and a system of due process in order to make sure that the good side of our culture comes out and not the bad side. And we are, for all practical purposes, almost in a war now with the kinds of things that are going on in Central America, the kinds of things going on in the Middle East, the national concern over nuclear warfare. And we’ve already seen people being denounced if they’re in favor of nuclear freeze, for example. It’s whether or not they’re being an agent of a foreign power if they take that moral position on nuclear weapons. That’s the same thing that went on during the McCarthy period. That’s the same thing that went on after World War I. When you get into a political dialogue in which someone disagrees with another, the easiest way to put somebody down is to say, “He’s not loyal”.

HEFFNER: And that is, then, as you suggest, something not just that happened in the Palmer raids after World War I, but that happened during the Civil War, that happened probably in every other crisis with another country.

KIMBALL: Now, what are we going to do about it? See, what I’m worried about is, we have these crises, and we’ve got, you know…There’s terrorism in the world now. I’m an old Marine. I believe in security. We have to protect ourselves against terrorism. I think we have to protect ourselves against being penetrated by foreign powers. I don’t think that we get anywhere at all by collecting dossiers on American citizens trying to examine and reexamine what they’ve got between their ears in terms of what their political thoughts may be, when the way they gather it is by going up and down the street and asking people who barely know you what they think that you think. Now, I was a journalist through my whole career, and I’ve got three files. I mean, I’m honored. I have a State Department file, an FBI file, and a CIA file. And there’s not a single word that I ever wrote in any one of those files.

HEFFNER: So much for the written words.

KIMBALL: So much for the written words.

HEFFNER: Therefore it’s really all hearsay…

KIMBALL: Totally hearsay.

HEFFNER: …and your concern is that that’s what these files are about.

KIMBALL: Well, the system…The FBI, I met a lot of FBI men. I grew up with FBI men. As a matter of fact, two FBI men in my old hometown gave me a clean bill of health. One of them said, “If Kimball’s a communist, I’m a communist”. Okay? Now, you would think that that would be pretty good testimony.

HEFFNER: They probably started a file on him.

KIMBALL: No, when you read the file that’s eliminated from my…The summary of the FBI investigation of me completely eliminates the fact that an FBI man who has known me since childhood said, “If he’s a communist, I’m a communist”. Because what happens is, first then send the FBI out. I mean, I’m a professor of journalism, and I’m really appalled at the fact-gathering ineptitude of the people who are supposed to be defending the United States against foreign invaders. But they never have a chance. They don’t say, “Go out and look at Kimball and find out everything good about him, and find out everything bad about him, and try to weigh it, and then try to cross-check the facts and give us a good report of the best and the worst, and we’ll make up our minds whether he’s a fellow that can be trusted”. Oh, no. They said, “Go to his hometown” – these were the instructions – where my family had lived, I had been born and raised and so forth. They didn’t say, “Get a good cut on everybody who knew Kimball”. They said, “Please find out people who are known anti-communists in this town and find out anything that you can that they might say that would indicate that he is in any way subversive”. In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy. They were not allowed to write anything down and send it back unless it was bad. But that wasn’t the end of it. When they get in the agency, here’s nice guy who’s working his lifetime working as a part of the government agency, and he’s supposed to issue, he gets all this evidence. Now, if the fellow he’s looking out should ever turn out wrong in any way, and he lets that fellow’s name go by, it’s curtains for him. I mean, he has no incentive whatsoever except to look for all that bad evidence and then make a conclusion that, “I’m never going to take the blame if that fellow turns out to be a ‘sour apple’, to coin a phrase. And I therefore am going to say, ‘No good’, and pass it on”. So you start out with a totally unobjective, prejudiced, biased reporting system, you put it before a bureaucracy which is trying to defend its rear at all times so that it won’t ever get blamed if anything goes wrong, and the file consists exclusively, as I say, of conversations that people are making about other people, and at the very top the kind of thing that happened to me is, they sit there and they say, “Top secret. Penn Kimball is disloyal to American institutions, a dangerous national security risk, too clever to be a member of the Communist Party”. You see, you can’t win either way. I was more effective, they said, by not being a communist, and therefore more dangerous.

HEFFNER: But look, you were mentioning terrorism before, saying that this nation is in danger from certain sources. Terrorism you mentioned. Obviously we have to protect ourselves. Obviously that isn’t done by walking around and saying, “Tell me, is there anything about you that I have to worry about?”

KIMBALL: “Tell me about that terrorist that lives down the street”, right?

HEFFNER: Okay. It does go in terms of investigations that quite frequently you have to be confidential. I gathered from reading The File that your major concern was with the inability, your inability to be confronted by those who accused you on some level, or at least by the accusations so that you could respond to them.

KIMBALL: Well, that’s to say, I’m not a lawyer, and I had this old fashioned idea that if you rob a bank or murder somebody or rape somebody, you go into court, you can confront the witnesses against you, you can muster evidence in your own behalf. You’re informed of the charges against you and get a chance to answer them. Not so in a security investigation. The people who investigated me were instructed, and if I ever asked about this, not to tell me the truth that I was being investigated. And after I was declared a national security risk, the orders were not to tell me that that had happened to me.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s the Kafkaesque quality about it, and I suppose it’s what leads most people who read your book to wonder immediately, “Is there a file for me?” Whether three-star file as for you, three of them in a row, or not. So I have a peculiar question. How does one go about to find out whether there are such files?

KIMBALL: Well, there is this danger. It is said – although I can’t prove it – that if you write away asking for your file, that starts a file. All right?

HEFFNER: That makes sense. That makes sense.

KIMBALL: But FBI files are kind of the most interesting to try to get, because you can really figure out if you’re ever involved in anything that happens somewhere, you know, if you’re in a demonstration in your tender years of if you did something that you wonder someone might have picked up to put in a file, it’ll be the nearest local office of the FBI that would have that. And the FBI files everything under your birthday. I don’t know why they do that. It’s very important. If you write a letter to the FBI and say, ”Give me my file”, and don’t give them the birthday, that’s another six months of an exchange of conversation.

HEFFNER: What happens if you’re a presidential candidate and you change your birthday?

KIMBALL: (Laughter) That’s a very good question. And the second thing is you have to have your signature notarized, because then otherwise you’re in correspondence…I’ve been corresponding with the government for eight years and I still don’t have all my files, so I know some of the things that delay things. So that you notarize your signature so they know it’s you. You’ll get a polite letter back these days saying, “Thank you very much. We’ll look into it”. There’s been real slow…

HEFFNER: Excuse me. Is this all under the Freedom of Information Act?

KIMBALL: Under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act it’s, the two apply in different kinds of ways. It’s always best to apply under both, and to write to the special agent in charge or the local FBI office. Start one the nearest where you live. And ask, it is your legal right to ask for anything indexed under your name. Now, I’m getting a funny answer now. I know, because I got from the Washington FBI the fact that while I worked for The New York Times (that very dangerous publication) that the FBI was conducting surveillance of The New York Times and that they listed my name in there as a very dangerous fellow because I worked for a guy named Lester Markell who had been Sunday editor for 32 years when I worked for him. And he said, somebody, they had an FBI informant that said, “He’s the number one pro-communist on The New York Times. Kimball worked for him, q.e.d. he must be the number two communist”. So I know that I’m in that file. And so I wrote to the New York FBI, because you have to write first to Washington; Washington said, “Yeah, here are a couple of pages that show that you were mentioned on The New York Times”. The FBI says, “Your name is not indexed in our files, therefore we cannot retrieve anything from your file”. So that they…I’m appealing that at the moment and the US Justice Department is being so absurd to tell me that they can’t return to me a file because they haven’t made the right index when I already know my name is in it.

HEFFNER: Of course, when I read that section in your book about Lester Markell, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, thinking of Lester Markell as a communist…

KIMBALL: Oh, he’d love it.

HEFFNER: …or a sympathizer. What nonsense. But, question: You ask for and get back some material, but I understand, it has been deleted.

KIMBALL: A lot of the material, a lot of it’s blacked out. I’ve got one page which is going to be 25 years old in May. It’s a letter from J. Edgar Hoover. I thought, well, you know, a lot of people send away for their files and they’re disappointed because what they get back doesn’t look very good. But here was I, the subject of a letter from J. Edgar Hoover himself to a fellow named Colonel Sheffield Edwards, who was chief of spooks for the CIA. Now, that’s really a high-class letter. Everything is blacked out except one line that says, “Enclosed are two memoranda on Penn Townsend Kimball”. I got this back in my FBI packet. Everything is blacked out, but everything was declass…The FBI had classified it and had declassified it. All declassified it…But they say, “We can’t give it to you even though we declassified it, because it’s CIA material and they’ll have to clear it”. So they send it over to the CIA, and the CIA says, “No, no, no. He can’t have that because this is too sensitive to national defense”, whatever it was. So here’s a letter about me between the FBI and the CIA, having something to do with me. They won’t tell me what it had to do with me. What were they doing? What was the CIA doing investigating me in the year 1959? The CIA didn’t have the legal right to conduct surveillance over, domestically over citizens. It coincided exactly with my being made full professor at Columbia University. I mean, that was the overt, dangerous act that I had just omitted coincidentally at that time. Now, I think it’s outrageous that they won’t let me see that document. As a matter of fact, I’ve gone to Senator Weichert who is the Senator from Connecticut where I lived when this was going on, and asked him to go to the CIA and say, you know, what are they doing administratively to tell me 25 years later they’ve got a document, they can’t even tell me what they’re doing in my life?

HEFFNER: Let me ask – we have just a couple of minutes left – I wondered as I read The File whether the sympathy that would be expressed for you by those who had read it would be based mostly upon the procedures that you had to encounter or mostly upon the political fact that someone who is limited in his connections, as you were, with liberal causes, should have been the subject of a file, of a dossier.

KIMBALL: Well, my, I think most people are really horrified when they…And I had to take a risk in writing the book because I really show all the documents that are there, and they do go on and on from time to time. But I thought no one will really believe what a government file really looks like unless you reprint all the documents on it. So I’ve got chapter and verse on all the garbage and junk that they collected on me from 1946 through 1960, is the last entry that I’ve been able to get that’s covered during this particular period. And when you look at it, I could say, “Gee whiz, if we live in a country where a guy like Kimball can occupy so much of the taxpayers’ money and so much of the time and effort of our three-star security experts, maybe somebody ought to take a look at that operation and get them busy finding Patty Hearst or finding Jimmy Hoff’s killer or all these other things that they haven’t managed to do while they’re busy checking up on people like me”.

HEFFNER: What do you think would be legitimate in terms of such dossiers?

KIMBALL: Well, what I say is, if I’m seen coming out of the Russian Embassy at 11:30 at night – Okay? – I think that somebody ought to put a tail on me and find out what the hell I’m doing there. Right? I think that if I’d written an article that says, “I think that the Soviet form of government ought to be applied in the United States of America now and forever, and I’m willing to do anything in my power to discredit the present government, even into using force and revolution”, that I think I’m accountable to that charge and I should be put in a position where I have to defend myself. If I’m said to be a dangerous radical because an FBI gumshoe goes into an office where I work and found out somebody who’s mad at me for some reason and says, “What kind of a guy is he?” and they say, “Oh, Kimball. I’ll get him this time”…and to build a file based on that kind of hearsay – I don’t think we should do that. I don’t think it’s such an unreasonable position to say we should not have that kind of a gumshoe operation going on where you put citizen against citizen. And it seems very simple to me that, I think it’s a perfect program for solving the national deficit and for defending the national security.

HEFFNER: Mr. Kimball, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

KIMBALL: I’ve enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.