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Did Richard Nixon and the FBI really spy on John Lennon?

When John Lennon sat on Dick Cavett’s couch with the entirety of America watching on from home in 1972, he made the revelation that left millions awestruck. The former Beatle claimed that the FBI were spying on him. Silence filled homes across the nation, many believing that Lennon had become deranged.

Ever the ultimate professional, Cavett skips over the issue, hoping to avoid significant controversy. Still, there is a palpable sense of disbelief within the studio audience, an emotion likely imitated in homes across the globe. After all, why would the FBI hold an interest in such benign things like pop music and John Lennon?

Of course, all these years later, we now know that Lennon was right, and the FBI made it their mission to remove him from the country. Jon Wiener is the person to thank for the documentation eventually coming to light after he waged a 25-year legal battle to win the release of the files. He later revealed that the FBI had over 300 pieces of evidence on the singer being a threat to national security. In truth, none of it carried any substance.

Lennon’s appearance on Cavett was a critical moment, one that allowed the musician to humanise himself to an audience on a mass scale. Eventually, it would play a small part in him being accepted for a Green Card and changing his perceived reputation. However, was it really Richard Nixon himself behind the ordering of the investigation? Well, it was Nixon’s advisors who alerted the President to the threat of Lennon, but it wasn’t actually because they thought he was a security threat. The investigation was for solely selfish purposes, with an election looming. While Nixon didn’t orchestrate the attack, he did provide it with his backing and give it the green light.

“A little historical background here, the ’72 election was going to be the first in which 18-year olds had the right to vote,” Wiener explained to NPR in 2000. “Before that, you had to be 21. Everybody knew that young people were the strongest anti-war constituency, so the question was, for Lennon, how could he use his power as a celebrity to get young people into the political process?”.

He continued, “And also, this is a time when kids are very alienated from, you know, mainstream politics. So to get Lennon out of the country, the strategic countermeasure is to deport Lennon so he won’t be able to take this tour that would register young voters. At the same time, they’re worried that, you know, young voters will vote against Nixon for kicking out, you know, the clever Beatle.”

Wiener then revealed just how close Lennon was to exiting the country, stating that if he weren’t financially well equipped, then he’d have been deported. He employed the best lawyers that any man could afford, and even though he was under an order to leave the country within 60 days, they miraculously managed to extend these deadlines.

An election was held in 1972, which Nixon won at a canter, but when the administration got the wheels in motion to deport Lennon, he wrongly expected a tight race. With that in mind, they were concerned that Lennon would turn the swaths of first-time voters against him, which could cause him to lose office, and decided to make him the enemy of the state.

Weiner concluded, “At that point, I don’t think it was clear to anybody that Nixon was going to win in a landslide. Nixon was concerned about this youth vote and how that might affect the elections. It wasn’t clear that McGovern was going to be the candidate.”

Later it emerged that the only person that could make Nixon lose his plushy seat in the Oval Office was himself. Additionally, the ‘Water Gate’ scandal would not only cause his exit, but inadvertently it would also lead to Lennon receiving his Green Card from his successor President Ford. 

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