11 June 2021

Category Opinion
11 June 2021,

Cutting: Brandon Howell (left) at an event in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1948 to support Henry Wallace’s campaign for US President.

Photograph: Steve discussing his father’s FBI files with Seth Rosenfeld in 2018 at John’s Grill in San Francisco, where Dashiell Hammett – who was imprisoned for refusing to name names – wrote The Maltese Falcon.


“FBI, come this way.” Those are not words an 18-year-old wants to hear when starting their gap year.

It was September 1972. My London schoolfriend, Jonathan Sternberg, and I had arrived at Chicago O’Hare airport on a Pan Am flight from Heathrow. I had shown my US passport to an immigration official, who had taken what seemed an eternity checking it against names listed in a large file that lay open on the counter. He handed my passport back.

As I turned to walk on, a bald overweight man wearing a pristine white shirt and dark glasses blocked my path. He flashed an ID card, said the words and ushered me down a dark corridor to a room barely big enough for the two of us and a small Formica table. He told me to put my shoulder bag on the table. As he searched it, he threw questions at me without eye contact. Why had I come to the US? Where was I going? Who was I staying with?

I was stunned by the unexpected turn of events and confused by the line of questioning because, though born in Britain, I had a US passport courtesy of my father’s citizenship and had entered the country without being questioned on a family trip two years earlier. Garbling, I explained we were catching an internal flight to San Francisco and gave him the address of my father’s childhood friend, Sydney Williams, who was our fall-back for accommodation.

Having finished with the bag, the agent pushed my hands into the air and patted me down from head to feet, pressing his fingers into my scrotum as he went. This was the first time I had been searched and was much more intrusive than the public airport security checks that have since become routine. “Is this to do with drugs?” I said. He didn’t answer, and I now realise how far from the mark I was.

What I didn’t know then was that ‘Syd’ Williams had been one of the more high-profile victims of the McCarthy era and that my father, Brandon Howell, had left the US because of the intensifying witch-hunt in 1950 and remained under FBI surveillance right through my childhood.

Moreover, I only recently discovered that Professor Gordon Stephenson, the person who’d given my father an escape route by appointing him as a lecturer at Liverpool University, was in turn deemed by the FBI a threat to national security and later denied a visa to take up a post at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Like most people in Britain, I was aware of the Hollywood dimension to what we call McCarthyism. I had seen clips of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings and had read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. But I didn’t appreciate the scale of the repression, how it reached into almost every community and workplace or how it involved tens of thousands of agents and paid informers operating largely outside the law.

We cannot be sure – even now – how many lives were affected. Several hundred people went to prison. Academics estimate that more than 12,000 lost their jobs. There were suicides too, but no one seems to have counted them.

My father didn’t go back to the United States until his mother became terminally ill in 1967. His 17-year exile and Stephenson’s blacklisting would certainly not be in any of the totals. For, unlike the exposure of Stasi surveillance, the details of which were laid bare when protestors literally kicked its doors down, the FBI and the CIA have stayed largely in control of the flow of information about their spying on US citizens at home and abroad.

Even the term McCarthyism is a misnomer. Joseph McCarthy was a lowly circuit judge in Wisconsin when, in 1940, the US Congress passed the Smith Act, which made it a criminal offence – carrying a penalty of up to 20 years in prison – to organise or be a member any group that advocates or encourages the overthrow the government by force.

McCarthyism in a literal sense was short-lived. McCarthy was not elected to the Senate until 1946 and did not gain a national profile until 1950 when he made a speech claiming the US State Department was “infested with communists”. By then, the Hollywood Ten and the Communist party’s leadership were already in prison. McCarthy placed himself at the forefront of the witch-hunt but his ascendancy lasted only until he was censured by the Senate in 1954 for being too extreme in his tactics, which put the whole project at risk. After his death in 1957, the Smith Act trials and HUAC hearings continued into the 1960s.

The 1970s saw a backlash against abuses of power and a Senate investigation of the security services, but the job of handling access to information about the witch-hunt was never completely wrested from them. This means there are countless victims we may never know about: those whose files were destroyed, who went quietly or whose friends and families covered up the story because they were worried about reprisals. Fear was itself a powerful weapon, and the FBI knew it.

I have long wondered if my father was on the FBI’s radar. He was born in New York and brought up mainly in Berkeley. I knew he had been politically active while working in Puerto Rico in the 1940s, but the subject wasn’t discussed in the family as I grew up because he had lived there with his first wife, Bea, whose name was taboo as far as my mother was concerned. It was not until he became terminally ill in 1987 that – in down time while he was sleeping – I found boxes hidden away in the attic packed with political gems from his Puerto Rico days: carbon copies of articles he had written for New York-based Allied Labor News, almost-pristine bundles of a paper called Brazos, original artwork for cartoons, and piles of pamphlets, leaflets and cuttings.

The 1940s were tumultuous times in Puerto Rico. President Roosevelt had ended military rule and appointed the island’s first civilian governor, Rexford Tugwell, in 1941. But that did little to dampen opposition to US rule. In 1944, the pro-independence Popular Democratic Party (PDP) won nearly all the seats in the island’s nominal Senate and House of Representatives. The PDP’s leader, Munoz Marin, would eventually strike a controversial deal settling for ‘commonwealth’ status. But in the period when my father lived in Puerto Rico, from 1942 to 1948, the FBI saw a breakaway by the US’s ‘Gibraltar of the Caribbean’ as a very real risk and would have been alarmed that Marin had links – as he did – with someone like my father.[i]

In sifting through my father’s dusty archive, I gained an impression of all this. However, my Spanish was insufficient to appreciate it fully, and my father’s advancing brain tumour prevented him from saying much in any language. I would put items in front of him and try to conjure questions that he could answer with a nod or shake of his head. But there was nothing in the boxes to suggest that he was personally a target of the witch-hunt. It would take many years of persistent inquiry after his death for me to discover that the FBI viewed my father as such a threat that they had him under surveillance for nearly 30 years and had even questioned him on that 1970 family holiday I mentioned earlier.

In the years after his death, I built a better picture of how the witch-hunt worked during visits to California where I talked to family friends, spent days trawling through the Berkeley archives of my father’s professional colleagues and got to know the investigative journalist, Seth Rosenfeld, whose excellent book, Subversives, tracks the FBI’s covert operations on the campus from the 1940s onwards.

By 2014, I was ready to make a determined effort to find out what information the FBI held on my father.


Steve Howell

Steve is author of Game Changer, an insider’s account of Labour’s dramatic 2017 election campaign, and two novels – the latest of which is Collateral Damage, the story of a Palestinian woman’s search for the truth about the death of a fellow activist. Follow Steve on Twitter to keep in touch: @fromstevehowell 


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[i] According to Vernon DeMars in A Life In Architecture (p268), Marin said: “I know Mr. Howell, and he knows me. And there are some things we agree on, and there are some other things we don’t agree on at all.”