Missing Peace: John Lennon's Legal Battles With the U.S.

Lennon and Ono in a scene from the film, which revisits the musician's legal fight to avoid deportation from the United States in the 1970s.
Lennon and Ono in a scene from the film, which revisits the musician's legal fight to avoid deportation from the United States in the 1970s. (Courtesy Of Barrie Wentzell)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Was John Lennon the naive sloganeer of the '70s antiwar anthem "Give Peace a Chance," or the troublemaker who had turned the Black Panther Party slogan into the song "Power to the People"? Was the ex-Beatle a pro-peace dreamer who could "Imagine" a world with no countries or religions, or the radical that the Nixon administration saw as a threat to national security and, more importantly, to Richard Nixon's reelection in 1972?

That was the first presidential election following the passage of the 26th amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18, creating a huge new block of voters in the key demographic of both rock music and the movement to stop the war in Vietnam. Perhaps that's why the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service were drafted to "neutralize" Lennon by deporting him as an "undesirable alien" over a misdemeanor drug conviction in England?

David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" revisits a conflict that is now mostly forgotten, not least because it produced a long legal battle that Lennon ended up winning in 1975 -- a year after Nixon had been forced to resign over the dirty tricks of Watergate. Talk about "Instant Karma." Or as Lennon himself put it at the time, "I believe time wounds all heels."

According to co-director Leaf, "While some know this story, to the vast audience of people under 30, maybe under 40, John Lennon is some guy who was in the Beatles, he wrote 'Imagine' and he was murdered -- they don't know much more about him."

The ex-Beatle vs. Big Brother was, of course, covered widely at the time, and Jon Wiener's 2000 book, "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files," chronicled the UC-Irvine history professor's 15-year battle to secure those files under the Freedom of Information Act -- a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Wiener is one of many voices in the new documentary, though the dominant ones are rightfully Lennon and Yoko Ono, the love of Lennon's life and his co-conspirator in politically provocative, socially conscious art.

"They're co-protagonists," Leaf notes. "And they're going to get to tell their story as to how this campaign for peace turned into a battle royal with the Nixon administration."

That battle royal was fought on two fronts, the first in the early '70s when Nixon miscalculated the power of an ex-Beatle (who couldn't vote) to sway the American electorate. Perhaps Nixon was still grating about "Give Peace a Chance." A top 15 hit, it was first commandeered in 1969 during Vietnam Moratorium Day on the Mall, with Pete Seeger leading half a million demonstrators in song while Nixon sat in the White House, watching a football game. Newsweek noted, "The peace movement has found an anthem." Nixon must not have liked that.

What really set the White House off was Lennon's appearance at a December 1971 rally for imprisoned "White Panther" John Sinclair. Speakers included Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale as well as several other members of the Chicago 7, charged with disrupting the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. When the Michigan Supreme Court released Sinclair three days after the concert, a paranoid White House began to view Lennon as a potential threat, particularly after reports he was planning an anti-Nixon, get-out-the-vote tour that would culminate at the 1972 Republican convention. That never happened and, in fact, Lennon never toured again.

The FBI, which began its surveillance right after the Sinclair concert, closed the Lennon file after Nixon's landslide victory over George McGovern. By then, the far more dogged INS was on Lennon's case at the behest of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who suggested revoking Lennon's visa as a "strategic countermeasure." Deportation proceedings began in February 1972, dragged out by appeals and countersuits until Oct. 7, 1975, when a federal judge overruled the INS. Nine months later, Lennon got his green card.

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon" uses Lennon's music, 37 of 40 tracks from his solo career, most predating the controversy. "We're using the music as a dramatic device," says Leaf, "to advance the story, as counterpoint or to comment on what's going on." As in the use of "Gimme Some Truth" and its denunciation of pro-war politicians as "short-haired yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dick" over scenes of the Watergate hearings, which Lennon and Ono attended during one of their frequent Washington visits.

The utopian anthems -- "Give Peace a Chance," "Power to the People," "Imagine," "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" -- have proved lasting, as well as popular. But when Lennon wrote political material ("John Sinclair," "Attica State," 1972's "Sometime in New York City" album), the results were often awful, as well as uncommercial.

All the White House had to do was "look at the charts and see that people weren't buying overt political messages from John," says Leaf. "They were buying 'Imagine,' but not the more strident material."

In fact, Lennon never seemed particularly comfortable in the role, admitting that "being political interfered with my music." "I'm an artist first and a politician second," he told Dick Cavett, amending that in Rolling Stone to "I'm a musician first, not a politician."

By the time Lennon got his green card, he'd withdrawn from the public eye. "I think it's fair to say that this experience exhausted him," says Scheinfeld, "and by 1975 he was feeling the need to get some balance in his life."

Lennon would return with "Double Fantasy" in 1980, the year he was killed, and the album's paeans to fatherhood and married life. In a handful of interviews done not long before his death, the ex-Beatle distanced himself from his '70s political activities, staying on point with just one issue: "Our duty or our position was to keep on about peace until something happened, you know, and it was in the tradition of Gandhi, only with a sense of humor."

He'd said much the same thing at the 1971 Sinclair rally that started his troubles: "Apathy isn't it. . . . Okay, so flower power didn't work; so what? We start again."

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