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John Lennon’s Fight With Nixon And The FBI To Stay In America

Icons | September 29, 2019

In 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to New York -- and the FBI and President Richard Nixon noticed. The Beatles had broken up two years earlier. John Lennon and Yoko Ono started playing solo material that was aimed at spreading peace while meeting with anti-war activists. That didn’t sit well with the Nixon administration of the FBI, and both parties began a multi-year campaign to deport John and Yoko. The government tried everything they could to get the duo out of the country and back to England, but through a lot of hard work and even more money, John and Yoko were able to stay in America. As much of a win as this was, it eventually ended horribly for Lennon when he lost his life in 1980.

Lennon Immediately Fell In With Anti-War Activists

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Some of the first people who Lennon connected with in August 1971 were Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, members of the Yippies, a group who was a significant thorn in the side of President Nixon. He also got to know political activist, John Sinclair, poet and co-founder of the White Panther Party, who was serving a decade in prison for possession of two joints.

In December 1971, Lennon and Ono played the "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" in front of 15,000 people, but this wasn’t some fly by night affair, Lennon was joined by Stevie Wonder, folk singer David Peel, and Bob Seger of all people. Shortly after the concert, Michigan reduced its marijuana laws and Sinclair was released on an appeals bond. If Lennon wasn’t already on an FBI watch list for saying The Beatles were bigger than God this did the trick.

The FBI Had A Huge File On Lennon

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Following Lennon throwing his support behind liberal political activists, the FBI started following his every move. By the time everything was said and done they’d put together 281 pages of files on Lennon that discussed everything from his time with “vocal group” The Beatles to his ties with London anti-war activists. Even after his death in 1980, the FBI withheld his files without citing a reason for holding them back. In 1983 Professor Jon Wiener filed a suit with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and began a 14-year litigation. In the end, the documents were released and they show that while the U.S. government had a lot of information on Lennon they didn’t actually know that much about him.  

Richard Nixon Was Nervous That Lennon Would Sway The '72 Election

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Nixon’s biggest concern with Lennon is that the former Beatle would find a way to sway the 1972 presidential election. This was the first year that 18-year-olds were allowed to vote, something that gave the election an entirely new variable. Nixon, not known for his ability to appeal with young people, was rightfully concerned that Lennon had the ability to turn the tide of the election. Nixon’s worries weren’t unfounded. At the time Lennon was preparing to follow Nixon’s campaign trail to play shows for young voters in order to make them feel less alienated by mainstream politics. Nixon knew that if Lennon’s plan worked out he’d be able to get young voters to follow his lead and elect someone liberal. Once the President realized what Lennon was going to do he started trying to deport Lennon in earnest, a campaign of harassment that took up quite a bit of the singer’s time. 

Lennon Knew That The FBI Wanted To Neutralize Him

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Lennon wasn’t surprised that Nixon and the FBI were after him. Even though he didn’t have complete assurance that he was being followed by the FBI he didn’t let paranoia stand in the way of talking about his government tails on national television. Jon Weiner explained:

He complained publicly on TV shows, on The Mike Douglas Show, on The Dick Cavett Show, you know, these criminal enterprises that - too many people were coming to fix his phones down on Bank Street in the West Village and that there were strange men outside in suits who followed him around. He eventually sued the FBI, claiming he had been the target of illegal wiretapping.

As paranoid as it sounds, it’s clear that Lennon was actually being followed and harassed by the FBI, but was all the talking about it just making it worse?

J. Edgar Hoover Had A Wanted Poster Of John Lennon With The Wrong Picture

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As if the FBI trying to deport John Lennon for being pro-peace wasn’t absurd enough, their efforts were poorly carried out and half-cocked at best. According to Jon Wiener, who filed suit against the FBI to get their files on Lennon, notes that J. Edgar Hoover desperately wanted to nail Lennon to the wall for a drug charge, something that would make his deportation much easier. Wiener explains:

The FBI proposed that ‘Lennon should be arrested, if at all possible, on possession of narcotics charges’ - I'm quoting now from one of the documents "which would make him more immediately deportable." And these instructions to local police officials include a kind of a wanted poster. A picture of Lennon, you know, height, weight, eye color and so on. You'd think that they wouldn’t really need this… They have a picture there anyway. But the strangest thing is the picture isn't of John Lennon. It's of another guy, David Peel.

If you’ll remember, David Peel is a folkie singer-songwriter who performed with Lennon in Ann Arbor in 1971, and while he may have been in New York City at the same time as Lennon, they definitely weren’t the same guy. 

Lennon's Famous Friends Wrote Letters To The INS To Keep Him In The Country

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When word got out that Lennon was under threat of deportation his friends and colleagues all reached out to the White House in order to vouch for his and Yoko Ono’s character. Fellow singer-songwriters, authors, painters, and even TV hosts wrote letters for Lennon. Bob Dylan wrote in part that “John and Yoko add a great voice and drive to this country’s so-called ART INSTITUTION/They inspire and transcend and stimulate and by doing so, may help others to see pure light…”

John Lindsay, who was the Mayor of New York at the time, wrote that Lennon and Ono were the “greatest of our time” and that a “grave injustice” was being perpetuated in deporting them. 

Lennon Stayed In America By Extending His Deportation Order

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Eventually, the FBI and Lennon entered into a stalemate. They gave him a 60-day order to vacate the country after claiming that he was in the country in violation of immigration law while he continued to file appeals and extend his stay throughout 1973. Professor Wiener explained the circular legal fight to NPR:

He had very talented legal help and they kept getting these deadlines extended. There was a lot of people mobilized to support him, but really, it wasn’t until after Watergate, after Nixon left office, that the Gerald Ford administration immigration service finally agreed to grant Lennon his green card on very narrow legal grounds.

Lennon and Ono stayed in New York City until he was assassinated by Mark David Chapman in 1980, there’s no way to know if Lennon would still be alive had he been deported, and it’s probably for the best if we don’t think about it. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | FBI | J. Edgar Hoover | John Lennon | Richard Nixon

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.