By Mike Kaszuba
In the late 1960s, Twin Cities peace activist Marv Davidov was on the radar of legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who told the Secret Service that Davidov may have tendencies indicating a “propensity for violence and antipathy toward good order and government.”
Hoover would later update his assessment of Davidov, and write in the early 1970s that the activist was “potentially dangerous because of background, emotional instability or activity in groups engaged in activities inimical to U.S.”
Both Hoover memos are part of the latest batch of FBI documents obtained by Saint Paul-based non-profit organization Public Record Media. The documents – and other FBI records previously released to PRM — have provided a revealing look at the Twin Cities’ most enduring peace activist. At the time the documents were authored – in the 1960s and 1970s – Davidov was under federal surveillance during the height of student protests against the Vietnam War. Davidov died in 2012.
FBI files document infiltration, discord
The latest FBI records show how federal agents relied on informants to infiltrate a variety of national peace groups that Davidov was connected with. The materials also reveal how many of the groups were often marked by disorganization and infighting.
One memo, written in April of 1972, spoke of a disillusioned Davidov. “The subject has been unable to exert any influence because followers of various anti-war establishment groups no longer regard subject as a leader,” the memo stated. The author of the document added that Davidov “fears the radical community is avoiding him” and noted that he had become depressed. “He has given thought to entering the priesthood,” according to the memo.
Although Davidov would re-emerge in the 1980s and 1990s as a leader of protests against Minnesota-based defense contractors – including Honeywell Inc. – many of the newest FBI memos deal with Davidov’s early activities in California in the 1960s and 1970s.
The newly released records tracked a planned trip by Davidov to Sweden in 1970. At another point, the records indicate that the FBI tried to gather information on whether Davidov was traveling to China in the 1960s. Federal agents also documented a trip that Vicki Esken – Davidov’s then-wife – took to Bulgaria in the late 1960s. Records show that agents discussed whether her activities should place her on an FBI watch list.
Many of the newly-released memos outline Davidov’s apparent frustrations, as well as those of fellow peace activists. According to a December 1965 memo, Davidov had announced that he was resigning as a paid staff member of the Vietnam Day Committee in California because the group had voted “for violence to be used in the last resort.”
Through information provided by informants, the memos include details on Davidov’s attitudes toward civil disobedience. An October 1965 memo relayed a talk given by Davidov to a peace group, during which he told attendees that he had been arrested nine times. The memo also stated that Davidov “believes in civil disobedience and thinks those that commit civil disobedience and are bailed out in a couple of days are ‘chicken’ and are not really serious about the movement.”
In another memo that detailed a separate peace group presentation, Davidov reportedly told activists that cattle prods had once been used on him and others during a peace walk through the rural South. “He said that in one town they fasted in the jail for 22 days. He said they were [force] fed after the 22nd day because the police were afraid they’d die,” the memo stated.
A summary of a November, 1965 protest meeting (provided by an FBI informant) reported that Davidov was voted down for asking the Vietnam Day Committee to encourage the burning of Selective Service draft cards to protest the war.
Davidov’s preference for peaceful protests was also on display in the FBI memos. In a December, 1965 memo about discussions related to an upcoming protest march, Davidov “made the suggestion that the march should be a completely non-violent one. He stated even if someone batters one of the marchers, they should not fight back. Many people were in disagreement with this thought.”
Files show Davidov’s connections to anti-war luminaries
The FBI memos show that Davidov collaborated with some of the leading anti-war protest leaders of the era.
One 1965 FBI memo linked Davidov with Jerry Rubin – the nationally-known protest leader who was a key member of the Vietnam Day Committee, and who would later become one of the Chicago 7 defendants charged with conspiracy and inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. According to the memo, Davidov and Rubin discussed setting up a meeting with members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang in California “so that Hell’s Angels will not attack [Vietnam Day Committee] marchers” at an upcoming peace rally.
Another FBI report described a rally and march at the University of California-Berkeley, and listed Davidov as an attendee along with Allen Ginsberg, the well-known poet, philosopher, and writer who was one of the leading figures of the 1950s’ so-called Beat Generation. Ginsberg, the memo stated, “read a very [obscene] poem which was anti-war in nature” at the rally.
The memos also described the internal conflicts and personality clashes that hampered the peace groups. For instance, one memo contained complaints leveled at Jerry Rubin by other activists. The memo quoted an attendee of a 1965 meeting of the Vietnam Day Committee as saying that Rubin was a “self-centered and egotistical bastard.” Another memo, written by an unnamed informant, described a meeting of the group as having “rambled on as usual with much discussion on very trite matters.”
Yet another report described a Vietnam Day Committee meeting where a member announced that he was “very destitute and is down to his last $15.” The informant at the meeting described another member as writing to then-U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to take credit for a pamphlet on draft dodgers. “He also stated that he may try and flee country. Seems to want to be arrested,” the informant said of the pamphlet-writing protester.
FBI memos detail Davidov’s characteristics
The FBI memos went into deep detail on Davidov himself. The memos claimed that in the early 1950s, Davidov had a poor credit rating, and was a C+ student while attending Macalester College in St. Paul – ranking 97th out of a class of 133 students.
In describing the peace activist, one memo described Davidov as “Jewish” with “black hair with [receding] hair line and thinning out, about 5’-7”, slim build.”
The memos stated that Davidov had an IQ of 104, though they acknowledged that it could be as high as 110 to 120. The FBI documents added that the peace activist had “strong compulsive tendencies” and a “paranoid personality.”
FBI director Hoover personally weighed in on Davidov in agency memoranda. In a July 1967 memorandum to the Secret Service, the Hoover checked a box on a form that listed Davidov as showing “evidence of emotional instability (including unstable residence and employment record) or irrational or suicidal behavior.”