The Existentialism Files: How the FBI Targeted Camus, and Then Sartre After the JFK Assassination

Sartre y Camus

Today, as you must sure­ly know, marks the 50th anniver­sary of John F. Kennedy’s assas­si­na­tion and also sure­ly marks a revival of inter­est in the myr­i­ad con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries that abound in the absence of a sat­is­fac­to­ry expla­na­tion for the events at Dealey Plaza on Novem­ber 22nd, 1963. One the­o­ry I’ve nev­er heard float­ed before comes to us via Andy Mar­tin, lec­tur­er in French at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty and author of The Box­er and the Goal­keep­er: Sartre vs Camus. In an arti­cle for Prospect mag­a­zine, Mar­tin writes:

To the massed ranks of the CIA, the Mafia, the KGB, Cas­tro, Hoover, and LBJ, we can now add: Jean-Paul Sartre. FBI and State Depart­ment reports of the 1960s had drawn atten­tion to Sartre’s mem­ber­ship of the Fair Play for Cuba Com­mit­tee, of which Lee Har­vey Oswald was also a mem­ber. And—prophetically?—Sartre had “dis­missed the US as a head­less nation.” […] Could he, after all, have been the Sec­ond Shoot­er?

It’s prob­a­bly fair to say that Martin’s tongue is wedged firm­ly in his cheek through­out this open­ing of his fas­ci­nat­ing chron­i­cle of the FBI’s sur­veil­lance of Sartre and his one­time friend and edi­tor Albert Camus. But Martin’s inter­est in the mis­al­liance of Sartre and the Feds is very seri­ous. What he finds dur­ing his inves­ti­ga­tion of the FBI files on exis­ten­tial­ism is that “the G‑men, ini­tial­ly so anti-philo­soph­i­cal, find them­selves reluc­tant­ly phi­los­o­phiz­ing. They become (in GK Chesterton’s phrase) philo­soph­i­cal police­men.”

While we have become accus­tomed, since the days of Joe McCarthy, to ide­o­log­i­cal witch hunts, it seems that Sartre and Camus served as test cas­es for the sort of thing that fre­quent­ly plays out in over­heat­ed Con­gres­sion­al hear­ings and media denunciations—agents with fur­rowed brows and lit­tle philo­soph­i­cal train­ing des­per­ate­ly try­ing to work out whether such and such abstruse aca­d­e­m­ic is part of a grand con­spir­a­cy to under­mine truth, jus­tice, the Amer­i­can Way, etc.. Sartre appeared ear­ly on the anti-Com­mu­nist radar, though, iron­i­cal­ly, he did so as a plant of sorts, brought over in 1945 by the Office of War Infor­ma­tion as part of a group of jour­nal­ists the Unit­ed States’ gov­ern­ment hoped would put out good pro­pa­gan­da.

“Hoover won­dered,” how­ev­er, writes Mar­tin, “what kind of good pro­pa­gan­da you can hope to get out of the author of Nau­sea and Being and Noth­ing­ness.” It turned out, not much, but a year lat­er Hoover latched on to Sartre’s friend and edi­tor Albert Camus, whose name he and his agents spelled, var­i­ous­ly, as “Canus” or “Corus.” Where Sartre had breezed into the country—smitten by its lit­er­a­ture and music—Camus was held at immi­gra­tion on Hoover’s orders. He would spend a brief, depress­ing time and nev­er return.

How we get from post-war sur­veil­lance of French exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­phers to Sartre and the grassy knoll is a long and com­pli­cat­ed tale, befit­ting the para­noid imag­in­ings of J. Edgar Hoover. He was, after all, the con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist par excel­lence and “he need­ed to know,” writes Mar­tin, “if Exis­ten­tial­ism and Absur­dism were some kind of front for Com­mu­nism. To him, every­thing was poten­tial­ly a cod­ed re-write of the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo.” What Hoover feared from Sartre, how­ev­er, was that the lat­ter was him­self an influ­en­tial believ­er in a con­spir­a­cy, one that cast doubt on the FBI’s strong­ly-held belief that Oswald was the lone gun­man.

Despite gath­er­ing years of NSA-wor­thy sur­veil­lance on the philoso­phers, Hoover’s agents were nev­er able to dis­cern the ide­o­log­i­cal pro­gram of the French. “I can’t work out,” wrote one in a note in Sartre’s file, “if he’s pro-Com­mu­nist or anti-Com­mu­nist.” The black-and-white, spy-vs-spy world of the FBI left lit­tle room for philo­soph­i­cal nuance and lit­er­ary ambi­gu­i­ty, after all. But they nev­er stopped watch­ing Sartre, con­vinced that “there must be some kind of con­spir­a­cy between com­mu­nists, blacks, poets and French philoso­phers.” As it turns out, there were several—political and aes­thet­ic con­spir­a­cies involv­ing such ter­ri­fy­ing fig­ures as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire. These poets and close rela­tions of Sartre did, indeed, help foment rev­o­lu­tion in the Caribbean and elsewhere—but theirs are sto­ries for anoth­er day.

Read Martin’s Prospect arti­cle here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

FBI’s “Vault” Web Site Reveals Declas­si­fied Files on Hem­ing­way, Ein­stein, Mar­i­lyn & Oth­er Icons

Albert Camus Writes a Friend­ly Let­ter to Jean-Paul Sartre Before Their Per­son­al and Philo­soph­i­cal Rift

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.