Why did the FBI single out Bethel?

Feb 26, 2018 by

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During the Vietnam War era, students and some faculty at Mennonite colleges were involved in protest movements. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, saw the student movements as a great national danger. Without lawful authorization, the bureau launched a secret surveillance program known as COINTELPRO to monitor and disrupt the campus protest groups.

At the time, some of us at the colleges suspected the FBI was checking up on Mennonites. But where was the evidence? Now we have new tools of research.

Bethel College’s reputation as a bastion of opposition to the Vietnam War caused tension in the community, as indicated by signs on a local pastor’s car outside Memorial Hall on campus in a photo from around 1970. — Mennonite Library and Archives

Bethel College’s reputation as a bastion of opposition to the Vietnam War caused tension in the community, as indicated by signs on a local pastor’s car outside Memorial Hall on campus in a photo from around 1970. — Mennonite Library and Archives

Mary Sprunger, professor of history at Eastern Mennonite University, and I decided to try to find out if the FBI surveillance — famous for intrusion at radical centers like Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley — extended to the Mennonite colleges.

We used the Freedom of Information Act to request documents from the FBI files about secret COINTELPRO-type surveillance at Bethel, Tabor, Hess­ton, Fresno Pacific, Goshen, Bluffton and Eastern Mennonite colleges from 1965 to 1975. The response, in material so far received, was of investigations at Bethel but not at the other Mennonite colleges. Previously, Freedom of Information Act documents have not been much used in writing Mennonite history.

The FBI wanted to learn about Bethel Peace Club activities, especially in 1966 and 1969, the names of the student members, the names of the faculty sponsors, and similar material. In 1969-70 the concern was to see if national radical groups like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen were penetrating the Mennonite protest movements.

The methods of surveillance included information gathered from the Newton police and Harvey County sheriffs and the recruiting of “established sources” on campus. One document from 1966, signed by J. Edgar Hoover, warns of someone at Bethel being a danger to the safety of President Lyndon Johnson because of “expressions of strong or violent anti-U.S. sentiment.”

The documents are redacted to remove most names. Today, we are concerned indeed to know who the FBI spies were — faculty, students and staff? One reason for our research was to identify, if possible, some of these names by using the context. Another question was why Bethel was targeted for surveillance, more so than the other Mennonite colleges.

If others have asked for information through the Freedom of Information Act about anti-Vietnam War activities and received FBI materials, we would be pleased to hear about it.

We describe our research more fully in the January issue of the historical journal Mennonite Quarterly Review, “Big Brother Is Watching: FBI Surveillance of Antiwar Activities at Mennonite Colleges in the 1960s.”

Keith Sprunger is Oswald H. Wedel Professor Emeritus of History at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.


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