The new documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," now playing nationwide, tells the story of Lennon's transformation from loveable moptop to anti-war activist, and recounts the facts about Nixon's campaign to deport him in 1972 in an effort to silence him as a voice of the peace movement.
In the film, Walter Cronkite explains that J. Edgar Hoover "had a different conception of democracy" from the rest of us; George McGovern talks about losing the 1972 election to Nixon; Sixties veterans Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, John Sinclair and Tariq Ali recall their movement days; and G. Gordon Liddy happily explains the Nixon point of view: Lennon was "a high profile figure, so his activities were being monitored."
Those "activities" – planning a concert tour that would combine rock music with antiwar organizing and voter registration for the 1972 election – were stopped cold by Nixon's deportation order; but more than 30 years later, in the 2004 election, another group of rock stars finally did exactly what Lennon had been thinking about doing.
Although the Lennon film never explicitly connects the Vietnam war to Iraq, it's impossible not to think of the present when Nixon is shown saying, "as South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater" (and then wipes sweat off his upper lip). But there's only one explicit reference to the present in the film, and it's brief: Gore Vidal says "Lennon represented life, and Mr. Nixon, and Mr. Bush, represent death."
The real star of the film of course is Lennon, whose biting wit shines through. On his way to his deportation hearing, a newsman says, "You say you've been in trouble all your life – why is that?" "I'm just one of those faces," he replies; "people never liked me face." (I worked on the film as historical consultant, and appear in it briefly.)
Nixon got the idea of deporting Lennon from an unlikely source: Strom Thurmond, Republican Senator from South Carolina, who sent a letter to the White House in 1972 that outlined Lennon's plans for a US concert tour that would combine rock music with antiwar organizing and voter registration. Thurmond knew that 1972 was the first year 18-year-olds were given the right to vote, and that Nixon, up for reelection, worried about 11 million new voters — who were probably all Beatle fans and mostly anti-war. Thurmond's memo observed that Lennon was in the U.S. as a British citizen, and concluded "deportation would be a strategic counter-measure."