Long followup letter about the Soviet university
In early 1960, Peter (age 20, and back in Seattle attending UW after having flunked out of Caltech) wrote to his parents about his interest in Friendship University, a then-new Soviet university. His father (George) apparently replied to that letter, but I don’t have any record of that response. But Peter then replied to the reply with a ten-page letter laying out a lot of things about his beliefs and worldview. The first five pages appear to be detailed arguments against points that George had made; the rest of the letter includes sections titled “Partial List of Lies I have Been Told” and “List of very Enlightening Books.” And in this post, I’m finally posting the full text of that second letter.
The reason that I have copies of these letters is that George turned them over to the FBI, who then spent the next decade-plus watching Peter. And when I requested Peter’s FBI file in 2012, it included a copy of each of those letters.
Kathleen transcribed the first one for me, and I posted it in 2016. At the time, I promised to transcribe and post the longer second letter, but didn’t get around to it until now.
(Thanks to Kathleen for having scanned this second letter, which made it a lot easier to get into publishable shape when I finally sat down to work on it.)
This letter was handwritten, but the FBI also created a typewritten copy, which is what made the scanning feasible. So I started with the scanned text of the typewritten copy, and then corrected it based on the handwritten version. Which among other things had the salutary effect of letting me restore a couple of redactions, because the FBI redacted a couple of items in the handwritten copy that they neglected to redact in the typewritten version.
Btw, this letter also includes my all-time favorite redaction: Someone at the FBI felt that it was necessary to redact the phrase Pascal’s Wager. Twice.
As usual: in the below, the word [REDACTED] is a standin for the blank white redaction boxes the FBI used.
…Oh, one more bit of interesting context: there’s no mention of it here, but two years earlier, in 1958, Peter had met William Hamilton Martin, who later in 1960 would defect to the USSR along with Bernon F. Mitchell. But that defection was still several months in the future when Peter wrote this letter.
Content warnings: references to Japanese American internment (without acknowledgment that the imprisoned people were Americans); use of an outdated and uncomfortable term for Japanese people; strong praise of the early US without acknowledgment of what it did to Native Americans or enslaved people; mention of violently racist US events and organizations; mention of parents incarcerating their offspring; references to nuclear war and bombs and Hiroshima; praise in passing for Ezra Pound and Nietszche; criticism of various aspects of Christianity and religion; etc.
I’ve added occasional links by way of annotation.
I debated long whether or no to write this letter, wondering whether it was worth the effort — finally decided you might be shade more understanding than hurt, so am writing it. Preliminaries — good typing job, pa — glad mom quit Record — hope school-work is going all right for all five of you.
Now. 1st. I sincerely and deeply appreciate your allowing me free rein in everything, since it is your legal right to even incarcerate me in your home until I am 21, & you could make things so rough, and you are refraining. Thank you.
Then: all of the following pages are exactly (or at least no more than) my own feelings on the several topics, that is, the following material is not any kind of “Party line” that I have swallowed. So:
1. You advocate taking the test but refusing to consider actually going. What possible reason for taking test then? I have better uses for time.
2. So some turncoats who have been brainwashed in all ways break down, believe the glorious promises of an utopian society that they are fed, find that the reality of proletariat existence in C.C.C.P. does not measure up to the conception they had built up. So I am not a turncoat, the two countries are not at war, bludgeon-dungeon type brainwashing of American citizens isn’t fashionable, I am not a proletarian, and I have no grandiose illusions of Russia as a prototype Erewhon.
3. Glamor of travel is not overpowering me. I have hitch-hiked 10,000 miles, travel is no novelty; it is sheer drudgery and for the most part, to be endured as requisite for getting one’s body to the destination one has set.
4. You say, “why not England, France, Spain, Norway, or you-name-it instead of Russia.” I say, “WHY England?”, “WHY France?”, “WHY Spain?”, “WHY Norway?” To be sure, I intend to spend perhaps several years of my life in Europe, particularly France; but I do not hear offers of five years’ free excellent training in mathematics coming from France, or... or you-name-it.
5. You are, I believe, sincerely, honestly, understandably, but utterly wrong in your opinion that C.C.C.P. & U.S.A. will war. You see, nobody wins the next war. Not only are there no spoils, no vanquished peoples, no history books to be re-written; there are no victors: no survivors. None. Even were a “good old-fashioned” type war conducted, one side would maybe use a “tactical A-weapon” here, to which enemy responds with primitive-type Hiroshima bomb, causing retaliation in form of H-bomb, calling for re-imbursement by cobalt-sheathed H-bomb. During the, say, 36 hours left before the atmosphere knocks everybody off, we might toy with bacteriological warfare, they with a nerve gas, we again with a “death-ray” (prototypes of latter two gimmicks actually now extant) but I won’t urge the point, everybody’s dead by now anyway. Or maybe they would instead give the whole scene up for a bad job and spend those last few hours getting acquainted over a glass of kvass. It’s too late by then anyway. IT’S NOT TOO LATE NOW.
6. I stand resolved against conscription. I will not submit to this absurd scheme, and will not be asked to, since usually research mathematicians are classified as necessary to the defense effort.
7. You intimate that the Russian Army would, in case of war, put a gun (figurative or literal) in my hands and ask me to please help fight the dirty capitalist pig warmonger imperialists residing in USA. This suggestion is so absurd I won’t comment on it other than to refer reader back to 5, and to the example cited of the Japanese D.P.’s in America during W.W. II.
8. If I don’t have the official baptism blessing of State department, I can’t even leave country, much less enter Russia, much less be trailed as subversive by thud-and-blunder type FBI McCarran-act-wielding special agent in trench coat. As for responsible job — I DON’T WANT ONE. ALL’S I WANT IS ENOUGH CALORIES EVERY DAY TO FIND A RACK AT NIGHT, AND PLENTY BOOKS TO READ AND PAPER TO WRITE ON DURING DAY.
If U.S. is stupid enough (I wouldn’t really doubt it: you might be right) to refuse to employ a skilled worker who learned his trade in the country most advanced in that trade in the world, well, there are other, more rational countries.
9. The thousands of D. P. Nipponese you mention are better example than I could have thought up offhand of why I do not prize my U.S. citizenship.* I have a theory that if one island in a small lake gives big prizes to rock-n-roll singers, and the other islands give big prizes to scientists, then all the rock-n-roll singers on the islands will gravitate to the one island, and all its scientists will sort of disperse over the other islands. Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and a great many other people have thought along the same lines. I DO NOT PRIZE MY U.S. CITIZENSHIP.
10. I find no recognisable merit whatsoever in your self-defence--avenues-of-escape analogy. I don’t think that it is an analogy. Furthermore, if it were, I refuse to accept the major premise — leaving open these avenues. First, I am not engaged in any kind of boxing-match (taken in any figurative sense you want) with anyone. Secondly, I think that the conservative principle of always leaving loopholes to back out is one of the (myriad) things which has put the world in the mess it is in now. The sticking out of irretrievable necks is one of the few ways the culture of humankind has progressed the tiny distance it has. E.g, Dostoievsky. E.g. Cervantes; E.g, Fulton (’s Folly). Eg...... e.g..... e.g. endlessly.
11. “A sturdy oak dining-room table is certainly a fine thing to eat from, and for some people, it is the best. But couldn’t you eat from the floor Instead? It Is oak, too, and the food would taste as good.”
No, I don’t want to study in Russian language somewhere else.
12. I have read Hale’s novel, “Man Without a Country” and remember it as absurd, rather asinine, chauvinistically inclined, and maudlin. Patriotism as it has come to be known (My country, right or wrong, but...) is very ugly, breeding slavish blind complacent-content vegetative foeti, completely uncritical of their country and hence unaware of and non-counteracting the evils that exist in the country. I subscribe to no political system, adhere to no party or country: I want to be a citizen of the world, a believer in the simplest (and yet presently most abused) human rights, an upholder of human dignity. The maintenance of familial, tribal, or national culture, on the other hand, is an extremely fine thing. For instance, I went to see a troupe of Ukrainian dancers, mandolinists, and folk-singers tonight: their cultural heritage was really wonderful to see. I only wish that I could have grown up speaking Norwegian and English at home, and had a richer bank of Anglo-Celtic culture.
* That is, this is a good example of the gross crudities, the abysmal stupidities, the atrocious injustices which have been and are being perpetrated by USA.)
13. I think that at one time (Jefferson, Adams, et al.), the U.S. was a great country, vibrant and young and sensitive, with all promise of becoming a stronghold of true freedom. MEN lived here. Unfortunately, U.S.A. became soured, poisoned somehow. An immense ugly festering chancre came into existence and is still spreading. I like the United States, I like its music, I like its literature, I like its forests and wheat-fields, and seashores, and foods, and good people. I think mongrels usually turn out better in most respects than inbred-for-generations pedigreeds. However, I loathe its corruption, its bureaucracy, its cheap petty chiselers, its Little Rocks & Ku Klux Klans, and McCarran Acts, and medieval county Jails, and [REDACTED], and reactionary Republicans who want to foist their by-standing-still Red-Queen type retrogression on whole country, and D.A.R.’s and bourgeousie morality and Easter-bunnies-Santae-Clausi yearly nod-to-God mockeries of all that is good in man. For some strange unfathomable reason, 1 want to try to correct some of these situations. I know, this is the beginning of a phase, ain’t he cute in his first faint blush of youthful radicalism, and all that. You may be right. I hope and implore my glands that this is not so. I think that I have, whether my instructors (in loosest sense) were aware of fact or not, been fed a pack of wild fantastic lies from infancy on widest plethora of subjects: religion, politics, morality, sex, economics, history, ............ you name it. I am only now beginning to feel in any definitive sense intellectually and emotionally free of these lies. Some are hidden very deep and will take a long time to root out. Society did a good job on me.
14. This completing my polemic on the advice given me, I should like to state that I realize perhaps more than you think your thoughts while and after reading this, and that my sincerest hope is that somebody who reads this can empathize with me and join me in my newly-begun efforts, (Such as — don’t buy at Woolworth’s), and that I fully realize that a huge and aching wound is perhaps[? word partly obscured —Jed] opened when a father, a veteran, hears such “subversive” words as these coming from the pen of his eldest son, and probably erects a great structure of mea culpa self-immolation-castigation for “making mistakes” on the firstborn, since there hain’t any such thing as a “practice” baby. I can but hope not, and if so, if you will listen hard enough to me, my salt-lashes carry their own balm.
So. sigh. Neat anecdote — which you mustn’t take seriously. [REDACTED] invited me to Easter dinner, and I went. [REDACTED] who had theretofore more-or-less concealed the fact of [REDACTED] incarceration (because he had gone out with her quite a few times) from her mother, was persuaded by me to cop out and tell her mother about his little escapade. So she did. So [REDACTED] who really likes and admires me, came forth with, “WHY DON’T YOU MARRY [REDACTED] PETE, AND YOU CAN BOTH LIVE HERE FREE AND I WILL SUBSIDIZE THE WHOLE THING!” which was in the manner of after-dinner repartee-raillery[? word partly obscured —Jed] but which had definite serious undercurrents. So I was in the same style (avec undertones) all for it, but [REDACTED], I explained, wouldn’t go for it. Now, at any rate. (End of anecdote)
Am dropping my modern poetry class 25 April — can’t STAND it any more. Too bad, ’cause it’s a 5-hour class, and will cost $5 to drop, but if I stayed in, would get a D or E in there, besides which the tension produced would likely drag down my other grades. Ah well.
So: hoping you will bear in mind point 14,
I’ll sign off here, having really explored
Prolick City in this letter. (Original joke)
[x] Sincerely, [x] Love,
Partial List of Lies I have Been Told
1. A benevolent omnipotent God exists.
Refutation: Evils exist in the world. Either God cannot prevent these or He will not. If He cannot, He is not omnipotent. If he will not, he is not benevolent, but a malevolent monster. Or, if these evils only seem evil to our limited scope or are only means to good ends, then either God cannot use better means or he will not, giving rise to the same contradiction.
2. An omniscient God exists, and humans have free will.
Refutation: If God already knows exactly what I’m going to do one minute from now, I cannot in any nontrivial sense be said to have free will. If I do have really “free will” then God cannot possibly know what I am about to do.
3. If Christianity is correct, then I win eternal happiness by believing its tenets. If it is not, then I lose nothing anyway by believing it.
Refutation: [REDACTED] [The redacted phrase here and below is presumably “Pascal’s Wager” —Jed], as this insidious argument is called, is refuted by hypothesis of a rational God who put Christianity on Earth as a test — whoever had insight & rationality enough to see the various flaws in Christian dogma (which unfortunately cannot be patched up by Theosophy) (2 of which are explained above)--whoever was rational enough to see these would go to this rational God’s “heaven” but whoever was so irrational he blindly limited his consciousness to the straight line of faith in Christian dogma instead of letting mind range over the whole figurative plans would be condemned: thus a person could definitely lose [REDACTED]
4. Christianity worships life.
Refutation: Man first worshipped the sun. As he came to understand its regularity, he turned to, say, the moon. Understanding of its monthly cycles led away from its being worshipped. Similarly animal worship, pantheism, …, all more or less fell away with increased understanding. Religion is humility before ignorance. Thus it is that nearly all religions extant, Oriental & occidental, presently worship death, the only thing not really understood by men now. Incidentally, it is not true that all peoples have a religion.
5. and on and on and on.
George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree; he was a real roué and had several illegitimate children; Christianity does not say anything like what Christ was saying, any more than the situation in Russia remotely reflects what Marx was saying; sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, …, …, none are “evil” per se--only the misuse of them: et ad nauseum.
List of very Enlightening Books, with which I for the main part concur.
*1. “Why I am not a Christian” — Bertrand Russell
2. A Free Man’s Worship — in “Logic & Mysticism”, Ibid.
*3. “Marriage & Morals” — Ibid.
4. “Doors of Perception” — Aldous Huxley
*5. “Myth of Sisyphus” — Albert Camus
6. “Thus Spake Zarathustra” — F. Nietszche
*7. “Notes from Underground” — Dostoievsky
8. “The Stranger” — Camus
*9. “The Plague” — Ibid.
10. “Caligula” — Ibid.
11. “The Fall” — Ibid.
12. “The Immoralist” — André Gide
13. “The Counterfeiters” — Ibid.
14. “Lafcadio’s Adventures” — Ibid.
15. “Strait is the Gate” — Ibid. (is intensely interesting, poignant, sensitive: but I can’t agree with it)
16. “A Hero of Our Times” — Lermontov
*17. “Anti-Dühring” — F. Engels
18. “Barbary Shore” — Norman Mailer
19. “The White Negro” — Ibid.
20. “Generation of Vipers” — Wylie (perhaps a bit over-verbose, but still valid)
21. “Man & Superman” — G.B. Shaw
*22. “Androcles & the Lion” — Ibid.
* especially enlightening, lucid, instructive.
Met [REDACTED] at the picket-line Saturday who has been in just about every county jail in the nation--protesting income-tax, atomic tests, segregation, …; he is a “Catholic anarchist”.
Lest everything in this whole letter seem narrow and dogmatic in its liberalism, let me state that I have a vitally healthy disrespect for absolutes, that every conclusion herein expressed is a generalization and as such is acknowledged to have exceptions and points of discontinuity, that I maintain as completely open a mind as possible, in the spirit of scientific method, and that I am always willing to completely change any point of view, given sufficient evidence. I am intolerant only of intolerance, there existing no absolute truth, no absolute morality, no absolute good.
Well, really have to stop this time — must correct papers. Sorry to impose on your time to extent of 9 ½ pages, but it is good to get some of my beliefs down on paper sometimes, and also, I remember mother saying one time — (she will probably change her mind after reading this) that I hurt my parents more by remaining silent than by anything I can say. So —
Auf Wiedersehen for now —
Would appreciate if you could answer questions in 1st letter …
(I bet this is one of the longest letters any parents have ever gotten from away-at-college offspring) hi-hi
…Side note about that signoff: This is the only time I’ve ever encountered the phrase hi-hi from Peter. It’s a phrase that I sometimes use in greeting, but I’m pretty sure that I picked it up in college; I don’t think I ever heard Peter say it.