I first set eyes on a government investigator early in 1940. He was tall, bespectacled, humorless, and he eyed me sharply as he was directed to my desk in the office where I work as a minor government executive. I was cordial in my greeting and rather excited at the prospect of aiding in a man-hunt against some desperate criminal. I sat back in my chair expectantly as he produced notebook and pencil.
"We are investigating Bill Smith," the investigator said, "and I understand you can give us some information about him." I smiled incredulously. Bill Smith has been a friend of mine since we were boys together, and I know no one more law-abiding, honest, and virtuous. But to the FBI he had become a government employee under suspicion of "subversive connections or being linked to Communist organizations." This was not apparent to me immediately; I suspected it as I was being questioned, and the suspicion was confirmed later by the seventeen-page report on Smith which eventually reached our office, transmitted by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The investigator asked me a number of routine questions about Smith. His age? How long had I known him? His education? His marital state? Then a curiously fanatical look came into his eyes. Could I tell him why Bill Smith had grown a beard? What did he have to conceal? (He was trying to hide a receding chin about which he is inordinately self-conscious.) Why did he sometimes use an alias instead of his real name? (When we were boys and played on the sandlot baseball team we nicknamed Bill "Hicky" after some now forgotten pitching hero, and the name has stuck.) The FBI had received a report that Smith had installed powerful radio apparatus in his home. What could I say about that? (It was perfectly true that Bill’s apartment was cluttered up wlth loudspeakers and amplifiers. But his radio was specially designed to receive high-fidelity broadcasts from a New York radio station that broadcasts record concerts. I said I believed that his set was patterned after specificatlons given by B. H . Haggin in his music column in The Nation.) Did he seem to play only Russian music on his phonograph? (I have often deplored Smith’s devotion to Tschaikowsky.)
"You say Smith reads The Nation?" The investigator pounced on my earlier comment. "Why, yes," I replied, "I think he has subscribed to it for years." My questioner made a note of this in his notebook. "Does he subscribe to any other subversive publications?" I said I did not regard The Nation as subversive. What made him think it was? He changed the subject quickly. Why did Smith sometimes have Communist newspaper stories on his desk? (They came in bales from the government clipping agency, which sends us everything that appears in print on the subject with which we are concerned.) Does he make a habit of frequenting Russian or foreign eating places? (I had to confess that Smith had often praised shashlik, but thought it better to suppress his preference for Russian dressing on his salad.)
The investigator seemed stung by my increasing inability to take these questions as seriously as he meant them. I asked their purpose. He said that they were to determine Smith’s character and Americanism. Then he became slightly bellicose. Did I think it was good Americanism to be always agitating for unionism? Did I know that Smith was reported to have said that all government employees ought to belong to unions? Was I aware that Smith was said to have supported sending medical aid to the Spanish Communists? Hadn’t Smith made radical statements about our government, such as that "men like Mayor Hague are unfit to hold office"?