World War II and the Cold War: The Shadow of the CIA and FBI
John Steinbeck once said, "I am trying to write history while it is happening, and I don't want it to be wrong" (Benson 375). He wanted to portray events accurately. During times of war, he served as a war correspondent and worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). However, in a turn of events, Steinbeck fell under the watchful eye of the CIA, which feared he was a communist spy.
Steinbeck was known for expressing empathy in his writing. During World War II, he wanted to draw attention to the unjust internment of Japanese Americans. Similarly, during the period of heightened anti-communism in the late 1940s, some readers felt that Steinbeck showed too much empathy for the residents of the Soviet Union. They found the comparisons that he drew between American and Soviet life disconcerting. His writing caught the attention of federal agencies seeking to rollback the influence of suspected communist sympathizers. Steinbeck realized that the CIA was monitoring him and wrote the agency to request that it stop doing so (Kannard 103-106).
At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began to interview Steinbeck's friends to see if they would provide key details that would hint at him being a communist spy. However, the FBI did not find any of this kind of evidence, and instead uncovered Steinbeck’s loyalty to the United States. You will notice a document on this page that articulates one acquaintance’s take on Steinbeck’s loyalty. Neighbors stood up for him as well and even went so far as to say that he would be a great asset to the United States in wartime. In short, Steinbeck was not a spy for the USSR; he was simply a writer fighting against the inhumane treatment of other human beings.
Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography. Viking Press, 1984.
Kannard, Brian. Steinbeck, Citizen Spy: The Untold Story of John Steinbeck and the CIA. Grave Distractions Publications, 2013.