That Time the FBI Spied on Sartre and Camus and Couldn’t Spell Camus’ Name Right

sartre hoover

The FBI took special interest in French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, recent documents show. But they couldn’t be bothered to get Camus’ name right.

Andy Martin, in a recent article at Prospect Magazine examined FBI documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act on Camus and Sartre. They reveal a strange, sometimes comical, relation between the bureau and many French philosophers.

After spying on Sartre since 1945, FBI director John Edgar Hoover ordered his underlings to look into “Albert Canus.” Martin notes:

On 7th February, 1946, John Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, wrote a letter to “Special Agent in Charge” at the New York field office, drawing his attention to one ALBERT CANUS, “reportedly the New York correspondent of Combat [who] has been filing inaccurate reports which are unfavorable to the public interest of this country.” Hoover gave orders “to conduct a preliminary investigation to ascertain his background, activities and affiliations in this country.” One of Hoover’s underlings had the guts to inform the director that “the subject’s true name is ALBERT CAMUS, not ALBERT CANUS” (diplomatically hypothesizing that “Canus” was probably an alias he had cunningly adopted).

An earlier New York Times’ article notes that Camus is also referred to in his file as “Corus.” These people are only engaged in domestic spying, after all, not a god damned spelling bee.

French philosophy was of special interest to Hoover and the FBI. Martin notes that Hoover “needed to know if Existentialism and Absurdism were some kind of front for Communism.” This is especially surprising, considering Sartre was brought over to work with the Office of War Information, a propaganda bureau during WW2.

As a result, FBI agents had to study Sartre’s and Camus’ work to find out if it was all a giant communist facade. According to Martin, they even went so far as to attend lectures.

The FBI even stole personal items from the two philosophers. Martin notes:

One of the agents, having stolen some notebooks and diaries (“obtained from the personal effects”) in early 1945, complains that this “material [is] all in French” and translators were drafted in. Then the investigation proper could begin.

Read the full article at Prospect Magazine.