MuckRock, a website dedicated to using Freedom of Information Act requests to bring greater transparency to government actions, has received the FBI files on Richard Feynman. What it shows is downright creepy, like the fact that many of his close friends were FBI informants who were spying on him and feeding information to the government, which was tracking virtually everything he did or said.
In interview after interview with the FBI, Feynman’s friends and colleagues cited him as brilliant, loyal and an excellent fit for government service. But Feynman’s past and present associations dogged him, particularly as questions swirled around the loyalty of his friend and colleague Robert Oppenheimer because of his own left-wing ties.
The concerns about communist sympathies were further inflamed by public statements Feynman made dismissing religion (the FBI files include several newspaper clippings of such talks) as well as his openly liberal politics.
Well sure, not being a good Christian and being a liberal obviously makes someone a communist. And when Feynman was invited to visit the Soviet Union for an academic conference, those suspicions were confirmed:
It was while Feynman was at Caltech, in January 1955, that the Soviet Union extended Feynman an invitation to an all-expenses paid trip to a prestigious physics conference in Moscow. The letter would precipitate the FBI’s most lengthy investigative files on Feynman.
The FBI found out about the proposed trip while sifting through the trash of Soviet Union Ambassador Georgi Zaroubin’s office. They had recovered a discarded draft of the invitation, setting off the flurry of investigations into Feynman’s possible travel across the Iron Curtain.
A deluge of information came into FBI headquarters. Close friends of Feynman acting as FBI informants provided regular – and sometimes conflicting – updates to his plans. One female associate met in secret with the FBI, indicating Feynman was likely to accept and requesting that Feynman “should be prevented from going [to Moscow] to protect him.”
However, Feynman’s desire to attend was matched with reservation — he thanked the Soviet Ambassador but wrote that he was “unable to give a definite answer,” using an expiring Visa as an excuse to delay his response.
Despite the FBI’s surreptitious surveillance, Feynman had actually alerted the State Department first thing upon receiving the invitation, hoping to receive guidance and indicating that he would be happy to help serve the United States’ propaganda interests abroad, or to simply decline the invitation outright. The letter was immediately forwarded to J. Edgar Hoover, the then-director of the FBI.
Neither the State Department or the FBI bothered to respond to Feynman, but they kept treating him as a criminal anyway.