Jon Wiener ’66
For 23 years, historian Jon Wiener ’66, a professor at the University of California—Irvine, has been fighting the federal government for the release of its file on the late Beatle John Lennon. This fall, a judge ordered the release of the final 10 pages of that file. The government, however, has vowed to appeal. Wiener, who wrote about the struggle in his book, Gimme Some Truth, spoke to PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83.
Do you have any idea what is in those last 10 pages?
We’re pretty sure it contains pages about Lennon from MI5, the British intelligence agency. David Shayler, a former British intelligence officer, blew the whistle several years ago on what he saw as abuses of power by MI5 and mentioned that these documents on Lennon existed. Yet there was nothing secret about the information Shayler describes seeing. It was that Lennon went to an antiwar march in Grosvenor Square, but hundreds of thousands of people were there, too. Lennon was photographed there, he made statements there. Those are public documents. So I don’t think these last 10 pages are going to contain any information about Lennon that we don’t already know.
Why has the American government refused to release them, then?
The government says they are resisting my request because they made a promise to the British government not to reveal the information and it is the promise they are defending, rather than something specific about the information. In their court papers they said that breaking a pledge to an ally would risk retaliation, including military retaliation. It’s hard to imagine that Tony Blair’s Britain would attack the United States over 10 pages of MI5 files about John Lennon.
How did you get involved in all this?
In December 1980, when Lennon was killed, I wanted to write about him, specifically about his engagement with the peace movement in the United States during the Vietnam War and the fact that Richard Nixon tried to have him deported. In an effort to find out more about the deportation case, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request. I didn’t even know if there would be anything. My goal was to write an article, which grew into a book, and then go on and do something else with the rest of my life. But because the ACLU of Southern California agreed to represent me, and because they kept fighting, this did not end in 1984 with the publication of my book; it’s still going on today.
What were you told when you first requested this information?
The government initially said they had 273 pages on Lennon but were going to release only a couple dozen of them. Much later we got more documents, but they included lots of blacked-out pages, partially blacked-out pages, and a lot of pages were withheld in their entirety. Then in 1997, the Clinton administration Justice Department released the rest of the pages except for the 10 we are still fighting over, so we got to see what had been blacked-out for the previous 17 years. In almost every case, the material seems either trivial or interesting but not in the least bit criminal, and certainly not related to national security.
Is this sort of obsession with secrecy intrinsic to government?
I think it’s a general rule of bureaucracy. The great German sociologist Max Weber wrote almost a century ago that bureaucracies prefer secrecy, but there’s an inherent conflict between bureaucracy and democracy, because democracy requires an informed public.
Are you a John Lennon fan?
I’m part of that generation that grew up with the Beatles. They meant a lot to me, as did the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. When Lennon was killed I felt horrible. In many ways he was an exemplary figure for the 60s generation of which I was a part.
What was the Princeton music scene like when you were an undergraduate?
It was fantastic because the eating clubs for party weekends brought the greatest bands. You had Martha and the Vandellas, Bo Diddley, a lot of the Motown acts. It was phenomenal. It’s now part of the music history of the era that a lot of these black groups made a living by playing at fraternity and club parties.
Did you see the Beatles when they played at Shea Stadium in 1964?
No, but I did see Bob Dylan at McCarter Theatre that year. I can still remember him singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” all alone out there on stage with his stool and a harmonica and his big head of curly hair. Of course, he later got an honorary degree from Princeton. I saw Dylan again just a few weeks ago here in California, and I have to say, he was a lot better at McCarter Theatre in 1964. π