History 190u: Power, Culture, and the FBI

FBI MemoHistory 190U
Power, Culture, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Wednesday 4:00PM – 7:00PM; Merrill Acad 002

This is a research seminar in which students explore Federal Bureau of Investigation files on a prominent citizen or group situated in the United States of America.  The FBI publishes  these files at vault.fbi.gov. There readers can examine the surveillance or security clearance documents regarding individuals as famous as Alfred Kinsey and Walter Disney. The  writer Ernest Hemingway had an FBI file, as did  actors Groucho Marx, Rock Hudson, and Orson Welles, educator Helen Keller, composer Irving Berlin, rock star Jerry Garcia, poet Langston Hughes, baseball legend Mickey Mantle, and the song “Louie Louie.” Groups as diverse as Greenpeace, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Zionist Organization of America, and the Monkees received dossiers.

Why did the FBI investigate these cultural figures or groups? How did anxieties and concerns prevalent in American culture from the 1920s through the 1990s inform these investigations? What do these investigations say about our democracy? Students will answer these questions in a 20 page research paper on an FBI subject, to be produced over ten weeks.

Learning outcomes

Students will gain hands on experience with the exploration and interpretation of primary sources—in this case government investigation documents.  They will improve their writing and content organization skills. The report they produce on an FBI subject will approximate an organizational internal review, often commissioned by corporations, non-profits, and government agencies. They will present their findings in class.

In addition, we will collectively read three histories that provide overviews of the FBI’s surveillance activities. Students will give reports on assigned questions about the readings in class.


Tim Weiner, Enemies: A History of the FBI
Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power
Athan Theoharis, The FBI and American Democracy

Your books are available at the Bay Tree Bookstore


Week 1: (January 11) Introduction to the class

Week 2: (January 18) An overview of the FBI, I
Reading: Weiner, Enemies, Parts One and Two

Week 3: (January 25) An overview of the FBI, II
Reading: Weiner, Enemies, Part Three

Activity: write a prospectus for your paper. Student picks FBI subject; student submits bibliography and two page biography of the subject. Templates for this and subsequent activities can be found on your Google Classroom site.

Week 4: (February 1) An overview of the FBI, III
Reading: Weiner, Enemies, Part Four

Week 5: (February 8) The culture of the FBI, I
Reading: Rosenfeld, Subversives, Part I

Activity: student submits two/three page essay—an overview of subject’s FBI file

Week 6: (February 15) The culture of the FBI, II
Reading: Rosenfeld, Subversives, Part II

Week 7: (February 22) The culture of the FBI, III
Reading: Rosenfeld, Subversives, Part III

Week 8: (March 1)

The FBI and the System

Theoharis, The FBI and American Democracy, entire book

Activity: student submits draft introduction and conclusion to their paper.

Week 9: (March 8) Student reports

Week 10: (March 15) Student reports

Grading: class participation will count for 25 percent of the course grade; presentations and drafts another 25 percent; the final paper the remaining 50 percent

Consistent attendance is required at this seminar. Students who miss more than one class will receive a five point final grade demerit for each additional missed class.

How to write your research paper

Your research paper will consist of the  following materials.

  1. Your FBI files from the “vault” website
  2. Secondary sources about your subject, mostly biographies, autobiographies, scholarly articles and newspaper articles.
  3. Your class background books, particularly Theoharis and Weiner.

From these materials you will compose a paper explaining why the FBI investigated this person and what the Bureau uncovered. What was the objective of this investigation? Did it accomplish its goals?

The paper will be structured as so:

  1. Introduction: the first two pages of your paper will outline your subject, its significance, and a thumbnail version of your argument/conclusions.
  2. General overview of your subject: who was this person or organization? Describe his, her, or its life and politics.
  3. Why did the FBI investigate this individual?
  4. Give the reader a tour of the FBI files that you have explored.
  5. Did the FBI (or whoever prompted the FBI to launch an investigation) accomplish its goals? What were its goals?
  6. Do you think this investigation was justified (or legal if you think you have a take on that)?
  7. Conclusion: a summary of your findings.


Can I speculate in the paper? 
If you want to speculate in your paper, that’s fine. Just make sure that you acknowledge that you are speculating. Why might your speculations be correct? Why might they not amount to anything? Make sure you offer detailed answers to both questions.

Can I use text blocks?
Just one or two. No more. Try to use your own words throughout the paper. Quote from your texts to offer color and flavor to your narrative, not to avoid the work of explaining stuff yourself.

Can I use subheads?
Yes. Subheads are best used as subtitles for the various parts of your paper outline. But don’t use subheads for more than that. The paper will look messy.

20 pages for the whole paper?
Yes. That includes the bibliography.

Please use Chicago Style citations for your paper:


Here is a broad guide to conducting research using FBI records.

Here is a quick example of how to cite a vault.fbi.gov record:

Report, 06/08/59, “Raymond Douglas Bradbury,”  Raymond Douglas Bradbury, Part 01 of 01, page 8, http://vault.fbi.gov/ray-douglas-bradbury-1/ray-douglas-bradbury-part-01-of-01/view; last viewed 10/02/2013.

How to Read an FBI File

The FBI’s redaction codes.

Lists of US government document redaction codes

Term paper rubric and checklist


An excellent paper for this course offers a strong, clear, original argument, supported by a compelling and well structured narrative. It explores your primary source (your subject’s FBI file), and contextualizes that primary data via secondary readings, among them your class readings. All important quotes and claims receive references. The writing flows and is thoughtful. The paper is professionally produced (see checklist below).

A very good paper offers an argument supported by a narrative which is adequately structured. It explores your primary source (your subject’s FBI file) and links the data to secondary readings. Quotes and claims are frequently but not always referenced. The writing is adequate to the task. The paper is well produced.

A fair paper lacks an argument supported by a structured narrative. But it does explore your primary source (your subject’s FBI file) and links the data to secondary readings. Quotes and claims are inconsistently referenced. The writing is sometimes adequate to the task. The paper is adequately produced.


1. Does your paper have a clear argument that appears in the first page of your essay?

2. Does your paper offer a clear conclusion that recapitulates your argument in expanded form?

3. Did you structure each section of your paper to support your conclusion?

4. Does your paper reference all quotes and factual claims?

5. Are you using footnotes a la Chicago style?

6. Is your paper double spaced with page numbers inserted on each page?

7. Have you spell checked and grammar checked your paper?

8. Have you checked for errors that a spell checker cannot find?

9. Does your paper include a bibliography listed right after the conclusion?

10. If you mention my name on your first page, is my name correctly spelled?

11. Are the names of your principal historical figures correctly spelled?

12. Are you writing your narrative in the past tense?

13. Are you taking pains to avoid plagiarism in this paper?

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