Summertown, Tennessee, USA

J. Edgar Hoover and The Farm

J. Edgar Hoover

by Albert Bates

Director, The Natural Rights Center
Summertown TN 38483-0090

International Communal Studies Conference on
Culture, Thought and Living in Community
New Harmony, Indiana
October 16, 1993

© 1995 Albert Bates. All Rights Reserved.

What I will describe here is the investigation of The Farm community in Summertown, Tennessee, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation over the course of twenty years, from 1971 through 1991.

If the principal redeeming value of communal experiments to the greater society is to be found in their ability to serve as limited experimental matrices from which incremental innovations to the larger social order can be safely derived after exhaustive testing, then governments, which exist to protect the dominant cultural norms, should have little to fear and much to gain from allowing such experiments to proceed. Communes are, as Arthur Bestor has observed, "patent office models of society."

As is readily evident from history, the alternative approach of forcing a whole culture through a radical social transformation engineered by some ideology that has gained temporary political or military control can, and almost always does, have disastrous results. Surely the examples of Stalinist Soviet Socialism, the National Socialism of Hitler's Third Reich, the Cultural Revolution in Mao's China, Kampuchea's Holocaust under the Khmer Rouge, the current reign of Touton Macoute terror in Haiti, and Ethnic Cleansing in former Yugoslavia far outdistance, in sheer numbers of victims and scope of destruction of cultural treasures, if not in the degree of horrors inflicted upon the innocent, the atrocities of the Jonestown mass-suicide or the Branch Davidian incineration. At least for the past century, it is much more difficult to cite examples of dramatic self-destruction in small intentional communities than in large national experiments. It is even more difficult to separate the internal causes of the few intentional community catastrophes from the external social pressures brought on by police harassment.

Why do police agencies fear, and consequently target for subversion, experimental communities? That fear is abundantly evident in the documents which today are being made public for the first time. It is also evident in the protracted struggle, at great expense, which the government undertook to prevent their release. In this paper, I'll address both of those misguided efforts in some detail.

What may now be observed is that the obsessive and neurotic character of J. Edgar Hoover, and the legacy of institutional paranoia which he bequeathed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, drove the FBI to harass the founders of The Farm from the very beginning. That The Farm persevered in the face of this harassment and overcame the obstacles the government imposed is a testament to the courage and integrity of the core group of founders, most notably Stephen Gaskin.

What was the basis for Hoover's fear? Well, perhaps it evolved over his half century as America's top cop.

Edgar was 22 years old when he received his appointment as Special Agent to the Bureau in 1917. His first job was detaining and investigating German aliens. In 1918 he worked on a drive to register all German-born women in the United States. It was that year when he had the last heterosexual love of his life, a woman named Alice, who was the attractive daughter of a prominent Washington attorney. Hoover planned to ask Alice to marry him, but she stood him up on the fateful evening and soon became engaged to another man. Hoover never got over the humiliation of that betrayal.1

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson, in failing health, appointed Mitchell Palmer to head the Justice Department. In the fall of that year, after collapsing on a whistle-stop tour to gather support for the League of Nations, Wilson was so weak that he managed to attend only one more Cabinet meeting. At that meeting he beseeched his attorney general, "Palmer, do not let this country see red!"2

Palmer, on a mission from God, or at least the President, named Hoover as Special Assistant in charge of a new section formed to investigate "revolutionary and ultra-radical groups",a mandate Hoover would follow for the remainder of his life. Hoover, a man who kept a running record of all of his clothes sizes, was perfect for the job. He immediately created a massive card index of half a million left-wingers. He read up on Engels, Marx and Lenin. He put together a team of agents to illegally harass suspected communists. In November of 1919, Hoover was a key planner of the Palmer raids which went after the Union of Russian Workers in several cities. Hundreds were arrested, many were severely beaten, and almost all were, in due course, acquitted and exonerated of committing any crime. In December, Hoover orchestrated the deportation to Russia of Emma Goldman and 248 other leftist intellectuals.

Emma Goldman was an anarchist, critic of organized religion and campaigner for birth control. She was an active proponent of free love. Her father and former husband were naturalized citizens. She had lived in America for 34 years. Hoover intercepted and read her mail, and the night she was deported, Hoover used a Coast Guard cutter to slip aboard the mass-detainees' troopship docked at Ellis Island. At 2 am, he confronted her and her lover, Alexander Berkman, to deliver the last laugh.3

Palmer failed in his ambition to become President of the United States, but Hoover soon became Director of the FBI, a position he would hold for 48 years. Edgar immediately imposed his unique hygienic standards on all active agents. He had a special group of agents who were assigned to monitor the affairs of unmarried agents. Once, when an unmarried agent was caught having premarital sex with a clerk, the entire Knoxville branch office was reassigned. As late as the 1960s, agents could not have distilled spirits in their homes or be seen in the company of anyone who frequented bars or nightclubs. Agents' personal homes were searched and their wives and fiancés were interviewed, sometimes by Hoover personally.4

Hoover's own life was a curious contradiction. (Slide) A transdressing homosexual, he was seriously compromised and blackmailed by figures as diverse as Roy Cohn and Santo Trafficante. He had a gambling addiction. He spent federal money lavishly for his personal needs. He kept records of illegal FBI activities out of the bureau central records system by using file categories like "Do Not File," "Official and Confidential," "Personal and Confidential," "June Mail," and "Obscene," over which he had sole control. In turn, he was controlled almost completely by organized crime and others who possessed pictures of Hoover, in drag and in flagrante delicto with his long time aide, Clyde Tolson. (Slide) Tolson, like Hoover had a solitary love affair in his youth, and was engaged to be married. The girl went away to work at a summer resort and came back pregnant by another man. Tolson never got over the humiliation.5

New York powerbroker Roy Cohn (Slide) used his leverage over Hoover to make "Mary", Cohn's nickname for Edgar, his private sex slave.6 At a private party in Cohn's townhouse, Mary, dressed in a black garter belt, had one underaged male lover read to him from the Bible, while another engaged him in a sex act, as Cohn's partygoers looked on.

At about the same time, Hoover and Tolson asked the Senate Subcommittee on Supplemental Appropriations, in closed session, for $14.5 million to add 1000 new agents to monitor liberation theologists.

It is not surprising, given this background, that one of the first documents reaching Hoover's desk concerning Stephen Gaskin was an interview in Mademoiselle in which Stephen described his complex marriage with one man and two women.

Stephen Gaskin at Monday Night Class Stephen Gaskin is the second character in this story. He was a charismatic eclectic philosopher, a proto-hippie in the Gary Snyder/Albert Hoffman/Lou Gottleib vein and he styled himself as a "beatnik," rather than a digger, provo, hippie, or some other term bandied about in the popular and underground press. His skill, as he once told a gathering in San Francisco, was the ability to talk intelligently while stoned for longer than most people.

"Stephen," as he was known simply in the Haight Ashbury, emerged as a popular figure in 1967 by holding a series of Monday night classes, first at San Francisco State, where he worked as a teaching assistant under S.I. Hayakawa, then at the Glide Memorial Church and the Straight Theater. As each of these venues were filled to capacity, he would move to larger rooms, finally winding up at The Family Dog, a rock hall on the beach, where every Monday night, as many as 2000 people would converge to listen to this six-foot, blond-goatee'd poet speak of Beat Zen and Buddhist economics: revolution without confrontation, peace through fair relationships, and the redemption of American values. In October, 1970, Stephen announced he was adjourning his free class for the winter, and set out on the road with his school bus and an entourage of 60 converted buses with matching white roofs. As he traveled, other schoolbuses started following his trail. He would speak at a college and immediately there would be two or three new buses or vans added to the caravan. Soon there were 80 or more vehicles, carrying more than 400 people, wandering like a village on the interstate, stopping for a day here or there to earn gas money, buy some engine parts, or have a baby.

When the caravan returned to San Francisco, 6000 miles and 40 states later, they couldn't find a large enough parking place to stay in community. After a week scattered about town, they packed up and headed back East, in search of some place where, as Stephen put it, "We can get it on with the dirt." After looking for land in Kentucky, Arkansas, and other sections of the central South, in 1971, the group finally found a place about 75 miles south of Nashville, on a remote wooded ridgetop where land was $70 per acre. That is where they started The Farm, which the Wall Street Journal would come to dub, "the General Motors of American Communes."

Stephen Gaskin and the Caravan in Washington D.C.

It was one of Stephen's credos that if you are taking care of someone other than yourself, your own needs will be met. The Farm was never intended as some hippie crash pad or beatnik retirement home. It was a platform from which to launch efforts to improve the lot of poor and indigenous peoples, whales, and old growth trees.7 It was a means, not an end in itself. Stephen was more than a pacifist; he was an activist.

From the Farm special missions were sent to provide rapid response independent dosimetry after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; to equip the Rainbow Warrior with the scanning radio equipment it needed to escape detention in a Spanish harbor; to squat a tenement in the South Bronx which, after training residents as Emergency Medical Technicians, would become a 24-hour free ambulance service; to sit in and be arrested at Diablo Canyon, Shoreham, missile silos in Wyoming and the nefarious School of the Americas in Geogia; to organize and host a gathering of 30,000 people on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to protest nuclear power; to run free clinics for non-green carded refugees in the Northeast and Southwest, battered women's shelters in the rural South, and police training programs in non-violent conflict resolution and victim-offender reconciliation.

At a time when the Farm had barely adequate buildings, mostly made from scavenged materials, it was able to raise 1,200 earthquake-resistant homes in Guatemala, along with 18 public and municipal buildings, such as schools, clinics, and tribal council halls, and put in 16 miles of water lines to 5 villages. The Farm, through its charity, "Plenty" spanned the globe, from Lesotho and Liberia in Africa, to Dominica, Haiti, St. Vincent, and Jamaica in the Caribbean, Belize, Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala in Central America, and India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in Asia.

In 1984, the Farm almost ceased to exist, brought down by a series of financial reverses and internal strife that were at first glance incomprehensible to those who examined the business ledgers. The entire collective debt of residents at that time was less than is usually carried month-to-month on the average citizen's credit card ledger. The threat came not from the size of the debt but from a liquidity crunch that suddenly appeared as major creditors (among these Vanderbilt University hospital and several national banks) called in bills and loans or raised interest to unpayable levels, even as a national recession reduced income to the main community enterprises. The Farm survived, but only after decollectivizing and giving up many of its more ambitious plans, selling its most profitable businesses, downsizing, invoking severe austerity, and being, to a much greater extent, assimilated into the surrounding culture. It was partly in search for some clues to this sudden transformation that I have pursued the FBI's secret files for more than a decade.

My first request to the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") was in 1977 (Slide). The FBI replied by asking for my and Stephen Gaskin's fingerprints (Slide). I respectfully declined (Slide), pointing out that nothing in the FOIA placed such a requirement upon requesters. The FBI refused to provide anything more (Slide), and I neglected to pursue the matter for some years. In 1987, a lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador ("CISPES") uncovered a massive program by the FBI targeting the Sanctuary movement. (Slide) Among the CISPES discoveries was a clandestine program by the Reagan Administration to round up and imprison in special detention camps a wide range of social activist groups. The plan, dubbed "Operation Nighttrain" or "REX-84," was originally conceived while Reagan was Governor of California, by emergency management officials who were subsequently brought to Washington and put in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA").8 The FEMA plan, under the direction of Attorney General Edwin Meese, was to be implemented in the event that the United States went to war with communist elements in Central America, such as the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It is possible that the timely CISPES disclosure of the existence of Operation Nighttrain kept the United States from what would surely be another Vietnam War, although it did not keep Reagan and his staff from pursuing a more clandestine Iran-Contra initiative (until Eugene Hassenfus was shot down and taken prisoner). What sparked my interest was that The Farm was listed among the subversive groups targeted by FEMA, presumably because of it's program to educate Guatemalan teenagers in appropriate village technology by bringing them to Tennessee on H-3 training visas (Slide).

In September of 1988, after examining the CISPES records, I sent a new FOIA request to the FBI central office in Washington and to FBI branch offices in Memphis, San Francisco, Dallas, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, San Diego, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. I subsequently expanded this search to include the Department of The Army C3 Information Systems and the Military Intelligence Division, including the 111th Military Intelligence Group at Fort McPherson, the 113th Intelligence Detachment at Fort Sheridan, the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, the Tennessee Air National Guard, and the 20th Special Forces Group in northern Alabama and Mississippi, all of which have been occasionally tasked with covert domestic surveillance roles over the past 40 years.9

The San Francisco office promptly replied, providing a small number of records that was gushingly favorable towards Stephen Gaskin. (2 slides).

Dallas, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Memphis and San Diego replied that they were forwarding their files to the Central office for a consolidated response.

San Juan invoked a national security exemption and declined to provide their files. The Army searched their indices and found no responsive references. Since only the San Juan denial was immediately ripe for appeal, we perfected our administrative appeal and filed a lawsuit in the federal district court in Nashville on March 22, 1989.

That lawsuit consumed two and a half years of litigation and ultimately resulted in the District Court reading the entire file, discounting the claim of national security exemption and, after scolding the Justice Department for its baseless claims of exemption, Chief Judge Thomas Wiseman ordered the release of 49 pages concerning the Farm's Plenty projects, with only the names of foreign police and FBI agents redacted.

This foreign-based investigation, it turned out, may in fact have had a catalytic influence on the great change of 1983 by which the Farm dropped its universal communal form in favor of an ecology of hybrid economic systems.

As revealed by the 49 pages, the San Juan file began as a local police request concerning information about Plenty's activities in Dominica. (Slide) This request initially went to the Memphis branch office, which put in a call to the FBI agent in Columbia, Tennessee, Sonny Jones, who quickly responded with a favorable report on Stephen Gaskin and The Farm without additional investigation. However, because of the CISPES cross-reference that popped a "domestic terrorism organization" red flag out of the FBI's central computer, headquarters directed Memphis to send agents to expand the investigation of The Farm, and also dispatched agents to investigate Plenty projects and project offices in San Diego, Miami, Ottawa, Washington D.C., New Rochelle, and New York City. Agents interviewed the Summertown postmaster, the Lewis County clerk, the Lewis County sheriff, and a number of other, yet unnamed, sources, including, it is now believed but as yet unconfirmed, some of the bankers who held part of the more than $800,000 in outstanding notes representing The Farm's capital debt in 1983. I had hoped that I would find a conclusive answer to my original question, namely whether the FBI had a hand in precipitating the capital crisis that forced the great change of 1983. As of this reading, that evidence remains beyond my reach. To date, the Department of Justice has successfully interposed a claim of exemption for confidential sources which puts the banker interviews out of reach.10

But consider what we may surmise. If a banker who holds paper representing a six-digit line of credit to a business is visited by two FBI agents and questioned extensively about all aspects of that banker's knowledge of the business's connection to a religious cult or charismatic leader, would the banker not suddenly become more nervous about the risk he has taken? And if several of these visited bankers suddenly decided to call in their loans, ask for more security, or otherwise reduce their exposure, might this not cause severe capital problems for even a very healthy business? As a result of precisely these kinds of pressures, The Farm was forced, in 1983 and 1984, to renegotiate loans at higher prevailing rates,typically 20 to 24 APR,which would, by October, 1984, push an $800,000 debt above $1,200,000 and precipitate a complete restructuring, far-reaching divestment, and decollectivization of the communal economy of the Farm.

While not completely revealing, the 49 pages in the San Juan file were a thin driving wedge into the Reagan-Bush FBI's façade of exemptions, most notably as regards national security. Because those 49 pages were exhaustively litigated and the result went to the plaintiffs, the FBI was poorly positioned to fight the subsequent battle, which would be for all the marbles. The main battle of the campaign was for the more than 790 pages in the files of the Memphis office and Central Records. That engagement was joined on October 10, 1991, with the filing a second lawsuit in the Nashville district court. We have now devoted more than 650 hours of litigation time to that suit, and apart from 18 documents still in dispute that are now undergoing review by a special magistrate, the plaintiffs have substantially prevailed.