In 1946 Halldor Laxness’ epic novel Independent People was published in America. The publication and the success of the novel in the United States caused Laxness and Iceland to become of interest to both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. Laxness was an unknown author writing about a country and a culture that to most Americans existed in the realm of the fantastic. Laxness did little to dispel that notion, depicting an archaic nation struggling with a world that was changing, giving and taking away small crumbs of opportunity.
The book became a best seller in the United States selling 450 thousand copies. It was a main selection by the Book-of-the-Month club and mailed to thousands of households around the country. Before the advent of television, book clubs and reading were a main source of entertainment in the United States. American readers embraced the often difficult and lyrical novel. There was even speculation in an article in the New York Times Book Review as early as August 1946 that Halldor Laxess was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1955 the highest literary honour, the Nobel Prize, was awarded to Halldor Kiljan Laxness. By then, Laxness was no longer a favourite of the American reading public and out of print in the United States. In a front page article on October 28, 1955, The New York Times chronicled the award of the Nobel Prize, focusing on Laxness’ past Communist interest and steering away from his literary accomplishments. The article stated: “informed sources said the Swedish Academy, some of whose members disapprove of Mr. Laxness’ political views, decided to award him the prize this year only because of the relaxation of East-West tension.”
American academic and writer Brad Leithhauser helped to reintroduce Independent People to the American reading pubic by personally taking an interest in the novel and lobbying a publisher to reissue it, resulting in the book being reissued in January, 1997 by Vintage International. Once again the book sold well to the surprise of the publishers and began appearing on lists of the greatest novels of all time. Writers and academics were rejoicing the republication of the novel. Halldor Laxness’ reputation was becoming solidified. The reissuing of his other novels previously translated soon followed.
The Red Scare
Of course the works of Halldor Laxness were not lost. They were still published and read with great interest in Iceland and in Europe. Why was Laxness not reissued in the United States after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Certainly there would have been at least minimal interest in the Icelandic writer after winning the highest literary honour in the world.
The answer to that question is that Halldor Laxness was blacklisted in much the same way that many American writers were blacklisted for their political views. Much has been written about the blacklisting of American writers and artists during the “Red Scare” in the McCarthy era but little is written about foreign writers whose works in translation were not published or reissued because of pressure from the United States government.
Two years ago I received information under the Freedom of Information Act which proved that J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had an interest in Laxness. Top secret memos to and from Hoover regarding the income derived from the sale of Laxness’ book in the United States show that Halldor Laxness was a person of interest. There was great concern that the money gained from the sale of Independent People would fall into communist hands. In a memo from the State Department, J. Edgar Hoover was asked to provide information regarding payments to Laxness from the Book-of-the-Month-club: “Your office should endeavor to discreetly ascertain the amount of money Laxness has received from the sale of his book in this country through the Book-of-the-Month-Club. This information should be furnished to the Bureau promptly.”
Paranoia gripped the FBI players as evident in another memo to Hoover from the New York office of the FBI which states “It’s not deemed advisable to direct a letter to the Treasury Department for the above information in view of the apparent discreetness of the investigation requested by the State Department.”
American publishers were warned not to publish works from Communist sympathizers. Best selling American writer Howard Fast was jailed for three months for his political views, and pressure from the United States government forced Little Brown to cancel publication of his historical novel Spartacus. He was forced to publish it himself and it became a huge success and a movie based on the book was also successful.
The Bureaucratic Run-around
I have previously written an article, published in Mannlíf in February, 2005, based on my research regarding Halldór Kiljan Laxness and the FBI, explaining and detailing aspects of the “Red Scare” and the firm grip J. Edgar Hoover had on all branches of government in the United States at this time.
The day before the Mannlif article hit the newsstands I received a call from the State Department. The caller was civil and acted as if this was common practice.
The FBI gets thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests every year and many of these requests take years before the information is forthcoming. I have asked several individuals who have requested information under the Freedom of Information Act and they never received a phone call. A few had been waiting for over a year for an answer to their written request.
I hope you will permit a bit of paranoia on my part. I had resisted publishing this article in view of the media’s reporting that there was domestic spying taking place in the United States. At this time in my career I do not feel it is in my best interest to make myself a “person of interest”. I am a literary researcher, teacher and writer. My interest in politics is minimal. I sent $10 to Hilary Clinton last year and I always encourage my students to vote. I’m hardly a radical.
Although I had received much useful information from the FBI after many requests and waiting close to a year, I still did not have all of the information. After receiving the documents there were several pages that were sent “blank” and I had sent a request asking for the information on these blank pages.
I was told by the caller that the remaining three pages I requested were not forthcoming at this time but my request was currently being taken under advisement. Yes the call made me a bit nervous. I had published recently declassified documents in another country. I was the only Laxness researcher currently with an interest in this topic and I had some new information so of course I was going to publish.
I waited a few months and placed a call to the State Department official. I had his number and since we are on first name terms I decided that I would try to find out the status of my request. He returned my call and said that the office that handles these requests did not receive it. My request for the three missing pages was “lost”. He did say that he would make sure that it received immediate attention. I waited a month and made another call. There was some action on my lost request. I was informed that the files in question were not FBI files, but files from another agency. That particular agency would make the determination if these files were to be released. I asked when this would happen and he said that was up to the other agency. I asked which Federal agency had jurisdiction over the files, but I was not allowed that information.
Once again I waited several weeks. I was not surprised to receive nothing from the “alleged other agency” regarding the status of my request. I decided to move in several directions. I sent a letter to the FBI requesting the three pages that were missing from the documents. I also tried under the Freedom of Information Act to find out the agency that had jurisdiction of the documents I wasn’t receiving.
Initially I thought the agency that had had the documents must be The Department of Immigration. Today, that department has been renamed as The Department of Homeland Security. I would comment on the name change but I don’t want another phone call. I had spent hours going over every inch of the FBI files for any information that was not obvious on the first reading. I did find in the corner of one of the documents Laxness’ Department of Immigration file number. One of the ploys of the Freedom of Information Act is to send you a form letter saying that they “can neither confirm no deny the existence of the files”. Before you can gain access to the files first there has to be an admission that the files actually exist. That admission happens when you receive the files in a large brown envelope and not before. The Department of Immigration could not deny that the files were in existence so I saved them some postage.
Because of the encouragement of a few who had an interest in my work I sent a request to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). I reasoned that with the current political climate, the CIA was not going to send me any files even if the documents did exist. I was right but I did uncover some interesting information which makes me believe that the CIA may very well be the agency that has the missing documents.
After waiting several months for a reply to my FBI request for the three missing documents I received a denial October 9th. The post mark on the envelope was October 3rd. The denial letter was written August 17th. You have 60 days to file an appeal from the date of the denial letter. Mailing this letter almost two months after it was written was a good way to ensure that I would have little or no time to file an appeal. With each denial comes a letter explaining the appeal process. The process on how to appeal this particular denial did not accompany the letter. I had less than a week to appeal and I had no information on how to appeal this particular denial. I wrote a sarcastic letter and in a couple of weeks received instructions on how to appeal. I filed an appeal and it was of course denied.
The denial letter stated:
“I note that your appeal is limited to concerns you have related to the FBI’s referral of records to another agency. After carefully considering your appeal, I have decided to affirm the FBI’s action on your request. The FBI referred eleven pages that originated with another government agency for processing and direct response to you.”
Hold on! I was originally told there were three pages denied. On the phone the State Department had mentioned nine pages. Now in this denial I was being told there were eleven pages.
The Department of Homeland Security
My request to The Department of Homeland Security went much smoother. The fact that I had Laxness’ Department of Immigration file number cut down the number of letters where they would “neither confirm nor deny the existence of the file”. July 8th 2005 I received a big brown envelope and a letter stating that “We have completed the review of all documents responsive to your request and have identified 8 pages that are responsive to your request” All but two of the pages were totally blank. “We are withholding 6 pages in full”. One of the pages that I was allowed to access was not legible. The other page was one that I had in my FBI documents. There was a notation that was not on my FBI copy. Hand written in fairly large print was the word “Subversive Library Index”. I have subsequently tried to get a copy of this index but that request was denied and the FBI will not neither confirm nor deny if it exists.
Central Intelligence Agency
I was of the opinion that asking for documents from the CIA would be a complete waste of time. Still there are those who had followed my research and suggested that I follow up with a request for any documents that the CIA should have in its possession. In a matter of several months I was both denied the documents and the appeals. The letter states:
“The Agency Release Panel has considered your appeal and has determined that the Agency can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act exemptions (b)(1) and (b)(3).
“Exemptions (1) (b) applies to matters that are in fact properly classified pursuant to such Executive Order.” “Exemption (b) (3) applies to matters that are specifically exempted from disclosure by statute provided that such statute establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular type of matters to be withheld”.
The files are classified and the type of classification stated means they do not come under the umbrella of the Freedom of Information Act. I firmly believe that the CIA has classified files not only on Halldor Laxness but on the CIA’s presence in Iceland during the late 40s. The withholding of information may be more about cold war espionage than surveillance of Halldor Laxness.
I had always found it odd that J. Edgar’s Hoover’s interest in Laxness seemed to end in September/October 1947. There are a few insignificant pages regarding Laxness’ visit to the United States in 1957. Except for a telegram in 1948 sent to the Secretary of State by the American Legation (Embassy) in Iceland the FBI seems to have forgotten that Halldor Laxness was a person of interest. If this particular individual was a threat to national security why was there not a follow up on his alleged subversive activities?
The answer as to why the FBI seemed to lose interest according to the FBI documents in my possession may lie in the fact that under the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947 the Central Intelligence Agency was established on September 18, 1947. It was the Central Intelligence Agency’s task to coordinate all international intelligence activities. We know from the 1948 telegram that the American Legation (Embassy) in Iceland was reporting on Laxness’ movement. What is of note about the telegram sent in 1948 is that it was a top secret aerogram notifying the Secretary of State of the United States that Halldor Laxness had left Iceland for the winter, was visiting France and was believed to be in Italy at this time.
Was the CIA in Iceland watching the movements of Halldor Laxness? I cannot say for certain that was the case. But I can say for certain that the CIA had an interest in the Icelandic people and had much to say about Iceland, Icelanders and their political situation. In a 9 page classified CIA document called “Current Situation in Iceland” published 18 October 1949 and declassified 23 January 1978, the CIA makes political observations regarding security, the communist threat and the economic status of the country:
“The Communist Party is no longer a very important factor in Icelandic politics; it can neither make nor unmake a government. Despite their lack of direct political influence, the Communist can still arouse and solidify a fairly strong segment of public opinion, and create doubts as to the wisdom of government policy on certain issues.
“Icelanders are opposed to the establishment of foreign military bases on their island in time of peace, but would probably be willing to receive NATO forces if war or the threat of war made Iceland’s involvement seem imminent.
“Solely because of its strategic location, Iceland has been drawn into the current of world affairs, albeit unwillingly and hesitantly. Icelanders desire only to be left alone, but it is as clear to them as to others that their island will not be left alone in war; perhaps not even in peace.
“A Communist decision to seize control of the island could be implemented with as few as 500 organized armed men. Although the Communist Party has been capable over a considerable period of seizing power by force of arms it’s unlikely that the Communist would attempt a coup without prior assurance of Soviet support, without which they could not consolidate or maintain their position except for a relatively short period.”
There are nine pages of observations that certainly could not have been made without a CIA presence in Iceland. If there was a CIA presence in Iceland and the FBI was very concerned just a year before about Iceland’s most famous citizen it would not take a leap of imagination to infer that the CIA was observing Halldor Laxness. The CIA has sent me a form letter saying they can “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of CIA files on Halldor Laxness. I will not speculate on what is in those files but I will speculate that they do exist.
Chay Lemoine is a Laxness scholar in the United States. firstname.lastname@example.org