Google doodle: Did John Steinbeck spy for the CIA? (+video)

Writer John Steinbeck offered to work for the CIA during the cold war. Evidence suggests that the agency accepted. 

By , Staff writer

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    Google honored author John Steinbeck Thursday.
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Google handed over its homepage Thursday to a short, interactive e-book honoring John Steinbeck. The author wrote several American classics, including "The Grapes of Wrath," "Cannery Row," "Of Mice and Men," "The Pearl," and "Travels With Charley." 

Mr. Steinbeck achieved great fame within his lifetime, winning the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature. But one of his most interesting actions only became public after his death.

In 2012, the Central Intelligence Agency released documents indicating that Steinbeck had offered to spy for his country. The author planned a tour of Europe in 1952 and asked the agency if it needed anyone on the ground.

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At the time, America and the Soviet Union had locked horns in a global cold war. The US needed smart men and women to gain the upper hand, and Gen. Walter Smith, director of the CIA, apparently was eager to recruit the author.

"If during this [trip to Europe] I can be of any service whatever to yourself or to the Agency you direct, I shall be only too glad," Steinbeck wrote to Smith in January 1952. "Again – I shall be pleased to be of service. The pace and method of my junket together with my intention of talking with great numbers of people of all classes may offer peculiar advantages."

The general wrote back just a few days later. "You can, indeed, be of help to us by keeping your eyes and ears open on any political developments in the areas through which you travel, and, in addition, on any other matters which seem to you of significance, particularly those which might be over looked in routine reports," wrote Smith. "It would be helpful, too, if you could come down to Washington for a talk with us before you leave. We might then discuss any special matters on which you may feel that you can assist us."

While we do not know what the two men discussed in Washington, author Brian Kannard believes that Steinbeck worked for the CIA through the 1950s and '60s. Mr. Kannard collected his evidence through Freedom of Information Act requests to the agency, as well as conversations with people close to Steinbeck, such as his son Thomas. 

Steinbeck's youngest son told Kannard about regular trips that he and his father took to Paris in 1954. "Each Thursday, John would take Thomas and his brother to 'get lost in and around Paris,' " Kannard writes in his book "Steinbeck: Citizen Spy." "Thomas now feels that these trips could have been used for John to meet with Agency contacts."

Yes, Steinbeck could use his fame to navigate Europe without raising too many questions, but the author's political views made him a curious choice for a cold war spy. In 1935, Steinbeck joined the League of American Writers, a group linked to Communist efforts. Thomas Steinbeck says the Federal Bureau of Investigation targeted his father. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover couldn't find any dirt on him, but encouraged the Internal Revenue Service to audit Steinbeck's taxes year after year, according to his son. "Do you suppose you could ask Edgar's boys to stop stepping on my heels?" Steinbeck wrote to US Attorney General Francis Biddle in 1942. "They think I am an enemy alien. It is getting tiresome."

The FBI has denied that Steinbeck was under investigation.

Whatever clandestine actions Steinbeck may have taken, he will be remembered most for his writing. But next time you read the novel "East of Eden" – which came out the same year that Steinbeck planned to meet with the CIA director – think about Steinbeck's potential nonfiction adventures.

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

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