FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

J. Edgar Hoover vs. Alfred E. Neuman

by Dave Randall The Independent

The congressional hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee are in progress. Senator Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin straightens his papers and looks up, licking his lips at the prospect of the next witness: a slight, boyish figure crossing the room. As he settles into the chair behind the microphone we recognise the tousled hair, prominent ears and freckles, and that lop-sided grin. “Alfred E Neuman,” the Senator barks, “are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”

All eyes turn to the witness, and, slowly, he grins, exposing a gap between his two front teeth.

But for the fact that Alfred existed only on paper, in the pages of Mad magazine, this scene could have happened. For, according to newly released files, the fearsome director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J Edgar Hoover, was watching Alfred. He was not alone: much of Middle America believed the lad was a Communist, local watch committees thought him a menace, and law enforcement agencies were on his case. For 20 years from the mid-Fifties, Mad’s cartoonists and spoof writers sent up everything from politics and television to church and big business. It was the must-read for bolshie baby-boomers, the magazine your parents and teachers did not want you to read; and, at its height in the early Seventies, it sold 2.8m copies.

It is only now, however, that we are able to present – courtesy of documents publicised under the US Freedom of Information Acts – the full story of Mad Meets the FBI.

The bureau’s documents on the magazine cover the years 1957-1971, and consist of 36 separate files. How many hours in the working lives of trench-coated investigators these yellowing documents represent we cannot say – but we do know, because the files tell us, the hilarious upshot of Hoover’s sledgehammer being applied to the Mad nuts.

Take the Case of the Draft Dodgers, or, as it is known to FBI librarians, Bufiles 62-106572-X3 to X9. In 1957 Mad published a test of military unsuitability which recommended that high-scorers write off for a Draft Dodger’s Card. The address given was J Edgar Hoover c/o Washington, and, sure enough, a number of fun-loving readers duly wrote in. Soon memos were flying around the FBI including one, which, while accepting that Mad was not actually guilty of sedition, let slip that files were kept on its publisher, and asked federal agents in New York to visit the Mad offices and “advise them of our displeasure and insist that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name”. Two FBI heavies duly turned up and “advised” a startled art editor whose eccentric publisher William M Gaines, who then wrote a letter of apology to Hoover, not forgetting to wish him a Happy New 1958.

Then there was the Case of Hoover’s Tonic. Editor Al Feldstein and his merry men had concocted a spoof ad for a pick-me-up whose copyline ran: “Try J Edgar Hoover Tonic. Special agents go to work in seconds, cleaning out your system and getting rid of all those harmful foreign elements … and you’ll be pleased with what it does to your red cells!”.

The G-Men duly rose to the bait. One M A Jones wrote to his fellow agent Mr DeLoach about “an allegedly humorous advertisement” in “this magazine which at one time presented the horror of a war to readers”. It ended with an instruction to contact Mad “once again … and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure at the tasteless misuse of the Director’s name”.

Not long after this, another FBI file was started. The trigger was a feature entitled “Mad’s Modernised Elementary School Textbooks” which included a specimen letter for would-be blackmailers. It read in part: “Dear Friend, I am fine. How are you? Put $25,000 in small unmarked bills in a paper sack and leave it behind the B & O freight shed or you will never see your kid again! Your friend, Desperate.” Inevitably, two lads in Seattle just had to try it out. So seriously did the FBI regard this attempt to coach the nation’s youth in the ways of blackmail that they involved the office of Robert Kennedy, then attorney general. Once again agents trooped down to the Mad offices to put the frighteners on those responsible. “The whole stupid, unreal situation demanded a stupid, unreal response,” recalled Feldstein. “And I gave it to them.”

The FBI’s suspicions of Mad were fed by a steady drip of letters from Middle America, which make up most of the files. “I feel that this magazine is a diabolical form of Red Propaganda used to infiltrate the minds of our Teenagers to destroy the American way of life,” wrote Greater Knoxville Youth for Christ. “This magazine constantly rebukes George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,” wrote another who detected the influence of Moscow in the editorial office. “Satire is one thing; but to disrespect our American heritage and our way of life … is startling to see. The leaders of our country are made to look like fools. In the October issue, you are ridiculed!”

Thin-lipped busybodies in the ‘burbs were not the only ticks on Mad’s fur. Members of the Cincinnati Committee on the Evaluation of Comic Books deemed the magazine “objectionable” after it failed no fewer than eight of their tests for wholesomeness. Even Irving Berlin had a go, suing the magazine after it had used one of his songs for a skit on hypochondria. He lost – as did the general who so vehemently insisted the magazine was Communist propaganda that he was sued by “the usual gang of idiots”, as the staff styled themselves. Little did the paranoids know that the “subversives” who ran Mad included several Second World War veterans, and Antonio Prohias, inventor of the classic cartoon strip Spy vs Spy so who had fled his native Cuba after upsetting the Castro regime.

Perhaps the strangest of Mad’s encounters was after it published a cartoon of a three-dollar bill bearing Alfred’s grinning face. Some enterprising readers cut out the notes and used them, despite their having text on the back, in the rather primitive change machines of the time. Enter, at Mad’s offices a few days later, two agents of the US Treasury, who not only confiscated the original artwork, but also, lest readers wreck the entire economy dime by dime, demanded the original printing plates. They left clutching the address of the printer.

The last entry in the files is a complaint from 1971, about Mad’s use of the US flag, by the American Federation of Police, which tried to halt distribution. But, with anti-Vietnam war protests in full swing, the FBI had bigger fish to fry. Hoover was fading (he died a year later), and civil-liberties legislation had begun to cramp the bureau’s style. It has since considerably cleaned up its act.

Mad has changed, too. It now carries advertisements, is owned by the media giant Time-Warner, and sales are well down from the peak. Alfred E Neuman has also undergone a transformation. His face has been used to promote such products as Lands’ End clothing, breakfast drinks and Lucky jeans, and he has even had cosmetic dentistry to appear in an ad for the molar-enhancing properties of milk. (A condom bearing his features was, however, vetoed.)

He presides now over a magazine that is a little sexier, a touch more scatological, and less threatening than it seemed to Hoover’s men. But who’s to say, given the US’s current illiberal mood, that Alfred E Neuman and his ilk won’t be brought in for questioning again one day?

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Obama Said Hillary will Continue His Legacy and Indeed She Will!
Jeffrey St. Clair
She Stoops to Conquer: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Rob Urie
Long Live the Queen of Chaos
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Evolution of Capitalism, Escalation of Imperialism
Vijay Prashad
The Iraq War: a Story of Deceit
stclair
It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling
Brian Cloughley
Could Trump be Good for Peace?
Patrick Timmons
Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas
Gary Leupp
The Coming Crisis in U.S.-Turkey Relations
Pepe Escobar
Is War Inevitable in the South China Sea?
Margot Kidder
My Fellow Americans: We Are Fools
Norman Pollack
Clinton Incorruptible: An Ideological Contrivance
Robert Fantina
The Time for Third Parties is Now!
Andrew Tillett-Saks
Labor’s Political Stockholm Syndrome: Why Unions Must Stop Supporting Democrats Like Clinton
Andre Vltchek
Like Trump, Hitler Also Liked His “Small People”
Serge Halimi
Provoking Russia
Andrew Stewart
Countering The Nader Baiter Mythology
Ron Jacobs
Something Besides Politics for Summer’s End
David Swanson
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
Erwan Castel
A Faith that Lifts Barricades: The Ukraine Government Bows and the Ultra-Nationalists are Furious
Steve Horn
Did Industry Ties Lead Democratic Party Platform Committee to Nix Fracking Ban?
Robert Fisk
How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest
Colin Todhunter
Sugar-Coated Lies: How The Food Lobby Destroys Health In The EU
Franklin Lamb
“Don’t Cry For Us Syria … The Truth is We Shall Never Leave You!”
Frederick B. Hudson
Well Fed, Bill?
Harvey Wasserman
NY Times Pushes Nukes While Claiming Renewables Fail to Fight Climate Change
Uri Avnery
The Orange Man: Trump and the Middle East
Marjorie Cohn
The Content of Trump’s Character
Missy Comley Beattie
Pick Your Poison
Joseph Grosso
Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York
John Repp
Real Cooperation with Nations Is the Best Survival Tactic
Binoy Kampmark
The Scourge of Youth Detention: The Northern Territory, Torture, and Australia’s Detention Disease
Kim Nicolini
Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It
Cesar Chelala
Gang Violence Rages Across Central America
Tom H. Hastings
Africa/America
Robert Koehler
Slavery, War and Presidential Politics
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
Jeffrey St. Clair
Night of the Hollow Men: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Renee Parsons
Blame It on the Russians
Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Is it the Cops or the Cameras? Putting Police Brutality in Historical Context
Russell Mokhiber
Dems Dropping the N Word: When in Trouble, Blame Ralph
Howard Lisnoff
The Elephant in the Living Room
Pepe Escobar
The Real Secret of the South China Sea
Ramzy Baroud
Farewell to Yarmouk: A Palestinian Refugee’s Journey from Izmir to Greece
John Laforge
Wild Turkey with H-Bombs: Failed Coup Raise Calls for Denuclearization
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail