In 1972, John Lennon had a problem.
He and his wife, Yoko Ono, had been living in New York for a year, and they wanted to stay. But it happened also to be the year President Nixon was running for reelection. Opposition to the Vietnam War had reached a peak, and Lennon and Ono often showed up at antiwar rallies to sing "Give Peace a Chance" — and to tell their fans that the best way to give peace a chance was to vote against Nixon.
The Nixon White House responded by ordering Lennon deported.
The administration said Lennon had been admitted to the country improperly. He had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cannabis possession in London in 1968, and immigration law at the time banned the admission of anyone convicted of any drug offense.
But unlike most migrants who have problems with their legal status, Lennon and Ono had powerful friends who petitioned the Immigration and Naturalization Service on their behalf.
In honor of what would have been Lennon's 70th birthday this month, I pulled a box from my garage containing documents I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request about Lennon's deportation case. The government's response included copies of hundreds of letters sent to the INS, and they revealed the different and fascinating ways artists, writers and others tried to make the case that Lennon, a rock musician and an antiwar activist, should not be kicked out of the country.
The letters were not a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm. Rather, they were part of an organized campaign of the country's cultural elite to stop the Nixon administration from deporting the ex-Beatle. Joan Baez wrote a letter; Beat poet Gregory Corso wrote one. So did novelists John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, painter Jasper Johns and composer John Cage, Leonard Bernstein of "West Side Story" and Joseph Heller of "Catch-22."
Bob Dylan's offering, written sometime in 1972, was in his own bold hand. "John and Yoko inspire and transcend and stimulate," he wrote, and thereby "help put an end to this mild dull taste of petty commercialism which is being passed off as artist art by the overpowering mass media." Then he added, "Let John and Yoko stay!"
Some of the letters couldn't help but preach: Baez's handwritten note informed the INS that "keeping people confined to certain areas of the world" was "one of the reasons we've had six thousand years of war instead of six thousand years of peace."
Others were more conciliatory: Oates, who had won the National Book Award in 1970 for "them," had never been part of the counterculture. She made that clear in a long letter that concluded, "I certainly don't endorse many of their publicly-expressed opinions, but I believe that they, and anyone else, have the right to those opinions."
Heller expressed "horror" at the deportation order, declaring: "The two of them are among our most valuable cultural assets."
Bernstein's telegram was brief: "John Lennon has been an important creative force in music and petry [sic]."
Dylan, Baez, Heller and Bernstein were well known as opponents of Nixon and the war, but Lennon's supporters included some surprising names. Updike in 1971 had just published a sequel to "Rabbit Run," titled "Rabbit Redux," which expressed some hostility toward "the sixties." Nevertheless, his typewritten letter declared his support for exemplary counterculture figures. Lennon and Ono "cannot do this great country any harm," he said, "and might do it some good."
Hollywood people were mostly missing from the list of supporters, with one notable exception: Tony Curtis, who had starred in more than 60 films by 1972, including "Some Like It Hot" with Marilyn Monroe and "The Defiant Ones," in which he played a racist convict chained to Sidney Poitier. His letter was brief: "The presence of John Lennon and Yoko Ono is of cultural advantage to our country."
Lennon also had some high-profile political support, including New York Mayor John Lindsay. Lennon and Ono's talent put them "among the greatest of our time," Lindsay wrote, and "a grave injustice is being perpetuated" by the deportation proceedings.
Finally there was Corso, the New York poet who was friends with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He wrote 12 words: "Artisans and universal megagalactic entities — Ergo, let my people go — stay — etc." That must have helped.
The "Let them stay in the USA" campaign also included thousands of ordinary young people. The 1972 Lennon-Ono album "Sometime in New York City" included a petition for fans to send to the INS, and lots of them did.
The campaign didn't change Nixon's mind. The Lennon deportation proceedings continued even after Nixon's reelection in 1972, and then through the Watergate crisis. In the end, of course, Nixon left the White House, and Lennon — and Ono — stayed in the U.S.
In October 1975, 35 years ago this week, a three-judge federal panel ruled in Lennon's favor, declaring that his conviction in Britain didn't meet American standards of justice.
"We have always found a place for those committed to the spirit of liberty and willing to help implement it," the court added. "Lennon's four-year battle to remain in our country is testimony to his faith in the American dream."
But the resolution of Lennon and Ono's fight did little to loosen the way immigration officials handle the requests of cultural icons to visit or stay in the country. In the post- 9/11 world, things have gotten even tighter, with artists and musicians finding it difficult to get permission even to come to the United States. Award-winning Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was denied entry in 2002, and Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki boycotted the New York Film Festival in protest. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma testified before Congress in 2006 about the difficulties foreign musicians face getting visas to perform in the U.S. Things seem to be better with President Obama in the White House, but it's not hard to imagine another moment in the not-too-distant future when leading artists will be petitioning the immigration service again.
Jon Wiener is a professor of history at UC Irvine and author of "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files." Copies of the letters he obtained protesting Lennon's deportation order are posted online at lennonfbifiles.com.