Revolution #64, October 8, 2006


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The U.S. vs. John Lennon

From a reader

The new documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which opened in theaters nationwide on September 29, tells the story of the U.S. government’s systematic persecution of John Lennon. The film reveals how the U.S. government used the threat of deportation as a political weapon, bugged phones, tailed Lennon’s car, and attempted to deport Lennon for speaking out against the Vietnam war and the U.S. government in the 1960s.

When the Beatles toured the U.S. in 1966, John was quoted in a magazine article predicting that Christianity will vanish and stating that that the Beatles “were more popular than Jesus.” This prompted a wave of hate whipped up by Christian and conservative radio stations, which organized mass burnings of Beatles records. Footage in the movie shows a Klansman in full uniform denouncing Lennon for not believing in Jesus.

In 1968, during the midst of mass upsurge worldwide, Lennon began to think about his own role. In the movie he says that he thought about how millions sing along with him when he sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” so why shouldn’t he sing about something with content. Lennon wrote “Give Peace a Chance” as an anthem for the movement against the Vietnam war, and tens of thousands sang the song at the 1969 Moratorium. John and Yoko also staged a number of creative anti-war actions that utilized their fame to get their message out broadly.

Around this time, Lennon began to sense increasing surveillance. During this period telephone “repairmen” were constantly going into his basement, and he heard strange noises when he picked up the phone. He would be followed in obvious ways, which he thought was meant to deliver a message. The FBI tried to get police departments to set Lennon up on drug charges. Lennon questioned how anyone could find a song about peace threatening. But as Gore Vidal remarks, “Lennon singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ is a frightening voice for people who want to hear ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ over and over again.”

John Lennon moved to New York in 1971. Like many people, he had become increasingly radicalized in a few years. He is wearing a Mao button in one scene in the movie, for example. And he became friends with radical activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and he met with and came to support Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party.

During this time the government’s attacks intensified. The spearhead of the attack was the government’s attempt to deport Lennon. They claimed that John was being deported because of an old bust for pot years before. But, as the film makes clear, these deportation proceedings were politically driven, and directed and overseen by top levels of the government—there are memos about the case from Halderman, Nixon’s top aide; J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI; and the head of the CIA. The deportation proceedings lasted many years, with Lennon under constant threat of being thrown out of the country. This not only had a chilling effect on Lennon’s political activities but also hurt Lennon’s ability to tour and was a major diversion from his music overall.

FBI files on Lennon, which serve as the source material for the film, were made public several years ago after a 15-year fight by Jon Wiener, a professor of history at UC Irvine. The files show the FBI monitoring Lennon’s financial contributions to protests at the Republican Party Convention in 1972, contain transcribed lyrics to songs by Lennon, and reference various personal and political differences between movement activists. There are still ten documents that the FBI admits to having but will not release for reasons of “national security.” 

At one point in the film Yoko Ono says that they felt that if they went to the Republican Convention they would be killed. As Noam Chomsky points out in the film, the U.S. has engaged in political assassination, citing the well-documented case where Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep.

With all this as a backdrop, John Lennon was shot to death outside his apartment by Mark Chapman on December 8, 1980. Chapman was deranged and gave numerous different reasons for the killing.

At one point in the movie, Gore Vidal says that Lennon sang about love and peace and “represented life, and that is admirable.” “And,” Vidal says, “Mr. Nixon, and Mr. Bush, represent death. And that is a bad thing.” When I saw the film, the audience erupted into applause at the statement.

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