History

Nixon vs. Lennon

By David Jenison

Richard Nixon, it can be assumed, was not a fan of John Lennon. In the late 1960s, the former Beatle actively campaigned against the Vietnam War, cannabis prohibition and Nixon himself. During the Nixon Administration, the FBI spied on Lennon for an entire year, denied his visa renewal and started deportation proceedings. Ironically, the basis for the deportation was a questionable 1968 conviction for cannabis possession in England at the hands of Sergeant Norman Pilcher, a headline-chasing drug crusader who arguably planted evidence and ultimately ended up in jail himself. Pilcher arrests also included Ringo Starr, Donovan and members of the Rolling Stones, among others.

Lennon, whose political plans included a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention, ultimately had to bow out of his activism and deal with the deportation threat. Historian Jon Wiener, author of Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, said, “What this really is saying here is that the Immigration Service and the FBI have succeeded in pressuring Lennon to cancel his plans for this national concert tour and to withdraw from anti-war activity. His lawyers told him that his case for fighting deportation was a pretty weak one. In fact, they’d never seen anyone win a case under these terms, and therefore, the legal advice was [to not] do anything more that would further provoke the Nixon administration. He really wanted to stay in the United States. Yoko was involved, at that point, in a custody dispute over her daughter from a previous marriage—her daughter Kyoko. So John, if he had been deported, Yoko would’ve stayed behind. He didn’t want to be separated from Yoko, so he cancelled the plans for the concert tour. He dropped out of movement activity and the FBI is reporting that they have accomplished their job.”

The deportation fight continued after Nixon’s landslide re-election, but Lennon’s attorney Leon Wildes fought back with force. He filed lawsuits against the Attorney General John Mitchell (originator of the Controlled Substances Act) and other government officials claiming the deportation was a politically motivated conspiracy. Wildes’ investigation uncovered the first evidence that confirmed this (much more would follow), and the Watergate scandal became a larger issue for the President. His resignation in 1974 ended his fight against Lennon, and a year later, the New York State Supreme Court overturned the deportation order condemning the Nixon Administration for “selective deportation based upon secret political grounds.”

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