The first entry in the FBI file is dated Oct. 8, 1965: A bureau informant has picked up word that Cesar Chavez, the charismatic migrant worker who was seeking to organize California farm laborers, “possibly has a subversive background.”
The informant “was quite vague” about the information, the FBI report says, but another confidential source “has a file on Chavez allegedly showing a communist background.” Moreover, this second tipster said others in Chavez’s organization, then called the National Farm Workers Assn., “allegedly have subversive backgrounds,” although “he had no specific indication . . . on any of the individuals he named.”
Thus began the surveillance and infiltration of the farm workers movement by the FBI. Prompted by rumor and hearsay, the shadowing of Chavez under the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon would continue for more than seven years, involving hundreds of agents nationwide at extensive public cost.
This resulted in a 1,434-page FBI file--a copy of which was obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act--but little else. The reports say more about the practices of the FBI under its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover, than they do about Chavez and his union. Despite keeping tabs on marches, picketing and meetings from Delano, Calif., the site of a prolonged strike and the union’s headquarters, to New York City, no evidence of Communist or subversive influence was ever developed.
“It was a witch hunt and an exercise in guilt by association,” said Jerry Cohen, who was general counsel to the farm workers union and has reviewed the FBI documents. “I was just amazed at how dumb and what a waste it was--and to what extent the abuse went on.”
Given Hoover’s well-documented excesses in pursuing suspected Communist influences, it is hardly surprising that the FBI kept an eye on one of the country’s best-known labor leaders and most prominent Mexican Americans. But as the Clinton Administration and Congress consider strengthening domestic surveillance programs to combat terrorism in the wake of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing, the voluminous Chavez file stands as a cautionary reminder of an era when spying on outspoken Americans for dubious reasons was routine.
The FBI declined to comment on the Chavez file but noted that it was “collected during an earlier era in our history when different concerns drove the government, the news media and public sentiment.” A bureau spokesman added: “Under today’s laws and guidelines, this kind of investigation would not be initiated by the FBI.”
Ramsey Clark, who served as attorney general during the Johnson Administration, said he was unaware that the farm workers were being spied upon.
“It was something that I would have opposed,” Clark said in a recent interview. “It’s absolutely incredible that they would be subject to surreptitious surveillance and investigation that would probably be in violation of the Constitution of the United States.”
To many, Chavez was a hero, an apostle of nonviolent protest who spearheaded the first successful farm workers union and a national boycott of grapes. His accomplishments included the passage of a 1975 California law that guaranteed farm workers union elections with secret ballots. The dynamic labor leader, who died in 1993, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, when President Clinton hailed him as “a Moses figure” for his people.
But to the 1960s-era FBI, Chavez was a potential threat. The memoranda and Teletypes in the file show the bureau alerting the military, local law enforcement agencies and the Secret Service about upcoming farm worker activities. Hoover himself was kept apprised of even mundane developments. At times, the extent of the FBI preoccupation took on almost comic aspects.
In March of 1972, for example, the Nixon Administration got wind of plans by the farm workers to stage a protest at an appearance by then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew in New York City. The report indicated that about 50 people were expected to participate.
After Hoover alerted Nixon and Agnew, a force of no fewer than 72 FBI agents descended on the Americana Hotel to watch and gather information. They saw about 50 orderly demonstrators picket and chant for about an hour before dispersing. Among the items deemed noteworthy was a banner that declared: “The Republican Party Hates the United Farm Workers.”
This episode was not uncommon, according to the bureau reports. On numerous occasions, FBI agents closely watched peaceful marches, pickets and demonstrations by farm workers demanding the right to organize for better wages and working conditions. Arrests were rare. Often, Chavez or other farm worker activists were depicted associating with such figures as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then-Rep. Edward I. Koch or entertainer Steve Allen rather than Communist agitators.
Chavez allies charge that the documents also reveal a double standard: The FBI relentlessly tracked the farm workers movement but, at the same time, did not aggressively pursue complaints by the union about violence and threats against its members--including the beating of picketers and reports of a plot to assassinate Chavez.
In any case, the rationale for the intensive law enforcement attention remains murky in the files.
Initially, before the activists gained national prominence as the United Farm Workers, an FBI source described the union organizers as “merely deadbeats and troublemakers.” Another informant disparaged Chavez’s motives, asserting that he was “solely interested in making a name for himself and to gain financially.”
A July 16, 1966, memo to Hoover from the Los Angeles field office said that while Communist Party members had been urged to support the Delano grape strike begun in 1965, bureau reports “indicate little, if any, effort to actually infiltrate” the union. Consequently, “it is not felt that continued investigation concerning [Communist infiltration of the National Farm Workers] is warranted at this time.”
Nevertheless, the surveillance continued.
Later that year, Hoover sent a message to the Washington and Los Angeles field offices notifying them that the “White House has requested investigation of Chavez, who is being considered for a staff position.” No specific post was mentioned, but speculation that Chavez was a candidate for a job in the Johnson Administration soon became public, prompting a spate of negative responses from growers and other opponents.
Subsequently, Chavez contacted an FBI agent and advised him that he “did not know of any tentative appointment and would not accept one if it took him away from his present work.”
Friends of Chavez say they believe that the mystery position was a pretext to pursue the FBI inquiry. No job was ever offered.
Associates said Chavez’s politics were more populist and pragmatic than ideological. Even former opponents say he was hardly left-wing. Nonetheless, in a 1975 biography by Jacques E. Levy, Chavez recalled being branded a Communist by foes at the height of the McCarthy congressional hearings on “un-American” activities.
“Everywhere I went to organize they would bluntly ask: “Are you a Communist?’
“I would answer: ‘No.’
“ ‘How do we know?’
“ ‘You don’t know. You know because I tell you.’ ”
Although the FBI found no evidence that Chavez, a World War II veteran, was an extremist, informants repeatedly noted the support that the farm workers’ protests were receiving from civil rights organizations and from radical groups, such as Students for a Democratic Society.
Cohen, the union’s counsel, acknowledged that the movement drew a wide range of supporters: “We were appealing to anyone not to eat grapes. We didn’t care if they were liberal Republicans or Communists. If they didn’t eat grapes, they were consumers to us.”
But he said there was no question about who was in charge. Chavez “had a very dim view of ideologues. He was very cautious about the union’s interests, and he wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize them.”
Bruce Obbink, who handled public relations for the Delano grape growers during the UFW’s five-year strike, defends the FBI’s actions. He said the law enforcement attention was warranted by the “fringe people” drawn to Chavez’s well-publicized cause. There were also periodic attacks on growers’ property during that time.
“Here you’ve got a known conflict between employers and the UFW,” said Obbink, who is now president of the California Grape Commission. “You’ve got 500 pickets or 1,000 or 2,000 running around. You’ve got every group from prayerful priests to armed revolutionaries showing up in support of this thing, and you’ve got packing houses being burned down and vineyards being sawed to the ground.
“You’re national law enforcement and you get all these complaints from citizens. I would think that somebody would look into something.”
In some of the FBI reports, the loyalty of specific Chavez colleagues was questioned. One report cited Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino, the farm workers’ theater company, for traveling to Cuba and for being “anti-Anglo.” His letter to his draft board objecting to the Vietnam War is also included in the file.
Valdez has since become a successful playwright and filmmaker. He directed the hit movie “La Bamba,” and El Teatro Campesino is now one of the country’s most renowned Latino theater troupes.
One of the most striking excerpts concerns an FBI interview with Chavez following the June 5, 1968, assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy had been Chavez’s foremost political champion; he had come to California to join the union organizer when he ended a 25-day fast and had called him “one of the heroic figures of our time.” Chavez, in turn, campaigned for Kennedy’s victory in the California Democratic presidential primary.
Yet the FBI file indicates that Chavez was questioned about whether he knew Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy’s assassin (he responded that he did not). And, presumably in response to a question, Chavez is quoted as saying that “at no time had he had an argument with Sen. Kennedy or the Kennedy organization.”
“Chavez added that he could furnish no information regarding the assassination,” the file says.