Penn Kimball: The File; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego.
On the surface, Penn Kimball at 68 might seem to have enjoyed a successful, satisfying life. Born to well-to-do parents of liberal Republican persuasion, he grew up happily in New Britain, Connecticut. After graduating from Lawrenceville, he matriculated at Princeton, where he was editor of the Daily Princetonian. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Upon his return to the United States in 1939 he was employed by the conservative David Lawrence at United States News (the ancestor of US News and World Report). During the war he served honorably as a Marine in the Pacific theater, where he knew Joe McCarthy and nearly met John Kennedy.
As the war ended, Kimball took and passed Foreign Service officer examinations but declined an offer from the State Department in favor of a career in journalism, first with Time, then with the New Republic In 1948 he tried politics since as a journalist he could not be sufficiently at the center of things: he worked in Chester Bowles’s successful campaign for the governorship of Connecticut, and then accepted appointment as executive secretary to Connecticut’s Senator William Benton. It was he who wrote Senator Benton’s speeches attacking Senator McCarthy very early in that particular game.
After these political endeavors Kimball moved through a series of prestigious journalistic organizations: the New York Times; the classic television series “Omnibus”; Collier’s magazine for a year and a half before it shut down. Thereafter he participated in the early stages of the formation of the Lou Harris polling organization, served as an assistant to Averell Harriman in a losing gubernatorial effort in New York, and finally accepted appointment to the prestigious Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, where he has remained ever since. He is the author of a book on Robert Kennedy, whose portrait dominates his office. Until the recent death of his wife, Kimball enjoyed a long and apparently happy marriage to a woman who shared his interests and aspirations. In short, Kimball has moved along the pinnacles of his chosen profession of journalism and has received his share of honors in this life.
Now, however, as his career draws to a close, Kimball is obsessed. In 1978, after substantial efforts under the provisions of recent legislation, he obtained from the State Department censored copies of his file, from which he discovered that in July 1946 that agency had declared him a “security risk” on grounds of “questionable loyalty.” More recently he obtained further documents from the CIA which also contained damaging allegations about him. He is certain that his file blocked his appointment as a Foreign Service officer when he sought such a position on one occasion after his initial refusal; he suspects strongly that it prevented him from obtaining a position as FCC commissioner under John Kennedy, and may have contributed to his failure to obtain Fulbright appointments in 1974 and 1978; and he believes that for some reason the CIA in the late 1950’s considered offering him a position until it erroneously linked him to Soviet spies Alfred and Martha Stern through a real estate transaction handled by his wife, a real estate agent. Kimball now sees his life as long shadowed by a file which characterized him as a potentially disloyal citizen, without his even having been aware of its existence.
As Kimball sees it, his only recourse was to the court of public opinion through this book, in which, by inter weaving autobiography with sometimes excessively detailed quotations from his file, he can make the record whole (he is incensed at the FBI, for example, for “obliterating the truth of … my own childhood”) and restore his reputation, in addition to raising the entire question of the compilation of such security files. He views himself as among those most likely to be victimized by security files: he is, as he puts it at one point, a “bleeding heart liberal” or, as he phrases it more seriously at another, a “down the line, New Deal liberal.” He was always, he says, on the side of the common man and the labor movement (indeed his activities with the Newspaper Guild gave rise to many of his difficulties), and so he naturally gravitated toward politicians on the left: Bowles, Benton, Harriman, Robert Kennedy. He shared a house in New York for a time with Henry Wallace after Truman dismissed Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture. He knows that communists have sought to exert covert influence upon American culture, though he was unsettled to learn that Michael Straight, with whom he was associated at the New Republic, was a concealed communist he apparently accepts the notion that an Alger Hiss could function as an espionage agent within the government. But that does not interest him what does is the “madness of the McCarthy era,” whose worst features he now finds entwined with his own life. Moreover, he thinks, this may not be merely ancient history: not only does his file still exist in Washington today, but in the “age of the Moral Majority,” in his words, can we be certain such things are no longer being compiled? Kimball directs his real bitterness toward the anticommunists of the postwar era, and that cast of mind colors the entire book However, all this does not mean that Kimball does not raise serious issues, for he does.
On one level The File is an experiment in the assessment of an individual, interweaving his own autobiography with others’ evaluations of him given under a certain set of circumstances. When Kimball obtained the copy of his file he found that a censor had left standing the names of friendly witnesses but systematically obliterated the identities of those who testified against him. He learned that his friends and close associates almost invariably stood by him: that is to say, they provided an assessment of him as favorable as his own, and occasionally more so; and they strongly recommended his employment. The anonymous negative evaluations, he believes, came usually from people who did not know him well and who viewed him politically: they tended to be anticommunists, often ex-communists. Moreover, assessments were passed through the mind of the FBI agent conducting the interviews, who frequently distorted their essence; the various interviews were reviewed by still another individual; and finally Kimball’s potential employer had to weigh negative accusations against positive recommendations. In these last two stages evaluators could differ profoundly on the material before them. A member of the State Department hierarchy in 1946 took great exception to Kimball’s classification as a security risk; the State Department’s Appeals Committee on Personnel Security initially did not consider the original classification sufficiently justified even to be appealed; and later Senator Benton dismissed the file as “drivel” upon appointing Kimball to his staff.
It is likely that the file’s definition of Kimball as a security risk did prevent him from obtaining a Foreign Service appointment in the late 1940’s and possibly a position with the FCC in the early 1960’s. But it did not keep him from serving in at least one important government post, and it certainly did not affect the series of positions he held in the private sector. In real life we must repeatedly assess others, usually on the basis of very incomplete information; and when any employer declines to hire an individual utilizing incomplete, incorrect, or misunderstood information, he may affect his life profoundly, even do him an injustice. If we judge by the context of this book, Kimball could not reasonably be classified as a security risk either in 1946 or now, and on that level we may agree that he has been the victim of an injustice which, he says, makes his “emotions cry for revenge.” But such injustice is hardly peculiar to government. It inheres in any society in which some individuals must judge others on the basis of limited information, and that means any society which has ever existed.
So strongly does Kimball feel about his case, however, that he set out not only to write this book, but to correct the file itself In a few instances his censor was careless and he learned the names of certain of his detractors, whom he then decided to confront directly. One of them, the fumed liberal James Wechsler, avoided him so skillfully for so long that Kimball finally ceased pursuing him. Another, Gilbert Cant, did meet with Kimball 33 years after the fact. At the meeting Cant maintained that the FBI interviewer had largely misinterpreted his remarks, and Kimball failed to discover in him that “meanness of spirit” which he had confidently expected. He experienced a feeling of sadness rather than vengeful jubilation upon meeting his accuser, who proved no less human than he was. Further, on the basis of indirect evidence Kimball was virtually certain that a third detractor was a woman researcher who had worked at Time and whose identity he himself conceals. When he confronted her, however, she denied any complicity so passionately that Kimball comes to wonder whether in her case he is not resorting to the safe methods of inferring “guilt by association” and drawing “conclusions at second hand” which vitiated the work of those who investigated him so long ago. And finally he conjectures-with much feebler evidence now-whether a fourth detractor might have been Whittaker Chambers, with whom he had “never traded a word” at Time. Given this lack of personal acquaintance, Kimball uses politically stereotyped phrases in describing Chambers as an “oddball,” an “ex-communist turned FBI informant.” I would prefer to believe that Kimball has never read Chambers’s Witness, for otherwise he could not have composed the most contemptible sentence in The File, when he comments that since Chambers was long dead he could not learn the truth from him in this life — “and I hoped I never ended up where he must be now.”
In the end Kimball concludes that he can never correct the injustice done to him. No court exists in which he can confront his accusers, most of whom are now dead in any case. He cannot ask to have the file destroyed, for then he could never discover the truth: “how could one ever,” he asks, “challenge an anonymous informant whose identity had been permanently removed?” Thus he can only repair to the court of public opinion, with this book as his brief And yet there is surely more to be said of his case than this.
Kimball has spent nearly all his adult life as a working journalist or a teacher of journalism. In a curious way his file illustrates many of the faults which plague contemporary investigative journalism, especially of the “advocacy” sort. For instance, the file investigators actively sought evidence to demonstrate that Kimball had procommunist sympathies (nobody ever accused him of party membership), and therefore they gravitated toward sources who would tell them what they wished to hear. They clearly tended to avoid those who knew Kimball well and spoke positively of him, and as Kimball himself notes, “an informant, even a skilled journalist, is always somewhat at the mercy of the inquiring visitor.” Many who have given interviews to advocacy journalists would sign that statement with a vengeance. Advocacy journalists usually know in advance the pattern they wish to bring out in a story. The pattern is determined by their political convictions, and the story is effective to the extent it juxtaposes right and wrong as black and white, and not as the various shades of gray characteristic of actual reality. Even Kimball admits that he has adopted such an approach: in recalling a strike piece he did for Time he comments: “I wrote the Allis-Chalmers story… pretty much as I saw it: an unyielding local management using every means at its disposal to avoid dealing with an ‘outside’ union.” Kimball probably knew the “truth” about the strike before he even looked at the facts; in his world it was highly unlikely that a union could be genuinely to blame for a strike. The file investigators simply followed an analogous policy in pursuing their investigations.
Again, Kimball justifiably complains that the file investigators made no attempt to review his published writings as a source of his opinions. But then anyone who has called a press conference at which he distributed a carefully worded and informative statement on some subject knows that journalists in attendance will pay scant notice to the written statement in their hands and instead ask questions about some peripheral trivia which happen to interest them. Moreover, when journalists do obtain the facts, they often misunderstand them. Kimball is rarely guilty of this, but in one instance he clearly misinterprets an important passage from his file to fit in with his general thesis. Less careful journalists than he do this more frequently.
Kimball comments that he had always hoped that he lived under a government which would protect the “common man” from “lasting damage to reputation”: and reputation is at issue here, after all. Unlike official investigations, advocacy journalism not only utilizes anonymous sources (the file does not, although many sources have been rendered anonymous to Kimball by the censor’s pencil), it also publishes its findings widely, to the “lasting dam age” of many reputations. Kimball’s file, by contrast, received very limited circulation until he himself wrote this book, and had a similarly limited effect upon his general reputation. From this point of view, then, the work of the file investigators was much less reprehensible than that of advocacy journalists.
Finally, it should be noted that as a political liberal Kimball has no doubt consistently supported programs which would extend the reach of government even further into our economy and our culture and which therefore would expand the influence of files like his in our society. In the real world government usually controls that which it supports, and demands some form of loyalty from its subjects. Although Penn Kimball the citizen is the victim of a moral and legal injustice documented in this book, Penn Kimball the journalist and political liberal has been subjected to a kind of poetic justice. May that move him and us to think more deeply about some of the issues he raises. cc
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