More than 50 years ago Fred C. Koch, father of the controversial billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, warned in an alarmist pamphlet that he wrote and distributed to more than 2.5 million people that “socialism is the precursor to communism” and accused President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a communist.
The 39-page document, among a trove of FBI files on Fred Koch obtained by Al Jazeera through a Freedom of Information Act request, prompted the FBI — then involved in an anti-communist initiative — to keep tabs on Koch, the founder of the oil company that bears his surname.
The partially redacted 176 pages of FBI documents show that Koch’s anti-communist pamphlet and his messaging campaign made an enormous impact on many corporate executives and American citizens, who believed they were under threat from subversives. His FBI files consist of dozens of letters sent to J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director and fervent anti-communist, concerning the pamphlet.
But the pamphlet — which, according to the files, Koch personally handed out, was distributed by some corporations and was even sold at a Boy Scout meeting — does not just capture a moment in time. The manifesto, “A Business Man Looks at Communism,” also sheds light on the Koch brothers’ political roots and their current high-profile campaigns on a plethora of conservative issues. Fred Koch’s manifesto makes many of the same arguments that Charles and David Koch have leveled in recent years about the direction the country is headed under a president the brothers have accused of being a socialist.
The Koch brothers’ disdain for Barack Obama’s policies are well documented. David Koch is on record calling Obama “a hardcore socialist” who is “marvelous at pretending to be something other than that, but that is what I believe he truly is … He’s scary to me.”
More than half a century ago, Fred Koch wrote in his manifesto, “Democracy cannot exist if the government owns all property. A communist take-over in a socialist country would be no trick at all.”
Fred Koch also railed against labor unions. “It is obvious that we are in great danger when a few unscrupulous labor leaders can compel a worker to join a union, contribute money to the union and obey the will of these leaders. When the tremendous sums so realized can be used for political offices about which the worker has nothing to say, dictatorship is just around the corner,” he wrote.
His words had an impact, the FBI files reveal. A widely distributed 1961 letter from an Omaha, Nebraska, dairy farm shows that an executive at the farm, whose name was not legible, was so impressed with Koch’s anti-communism work that he offered to distribute the pamphlet to politicians and others.
“It is a well-known fact that socialism permiates [sic] a country in direct ratio to the amount of property taken from the ‘haves’ and given to the ‘have nots,’” the letter reads. “It does not matter whether the property is taken by force or through excessive taxation. Communism then follows socialism as surely as night follows day.”
The letter also notes that Fred Koch spent “$25,000 of his own money in his personal fight against communism” — not insignificant, about $200,000 today after adjusting for inflation, but a paltry sum compared with the $400 million Charles and David Koch are reported to have spent lobbying for their political causes.
A letter from a citizen showed that the pamphlet stirred fears in those who had never considered communist ideology a threat to the U.S.
“I am an ordinary housewife, church secretary and grandmother but have never really been concerned about communism taking over here. Like the majority of people, we think it would never happen, but this booklet woke me up to the fact that it could and may happen,” the woman wrote in a Dec. 27, 1960, letter addressed to Hoover.
The FBI director sent nearly identical responses to letters about the pamphlet and used his replies to promote his anti-communist book, “Masters of Deceit,” but refused to offer an opinion on Koch and his activities.
“I can readily understand your deep concern over the grave threat posed by communism,” Hoover wrote to the woman, whose name is redacted. “With respect to the individual you mentioned, the FBI is an investigative agency and does not make evaluations or draw conclusions as to the character or integrity of any organization, publication or individual.”
Under Hoover’s leadership, the FBI opened files and spied on tens of thousands of individuals who were suspected of being national security threats because of their alleged ties to communism. However, FBI agents were also supplying Hoover with a steady stream of information about Koch’s work to fight communism.
The FBI’s files on Koch reveal that as letters from concerned members of the public poured into FBI headquarters about “A Business Man Looks at Communism,” the FBI paid closer attention to Koch and his movements, and tried to figure out if he was genuinely anti-communist or was a security threat.
“Koch is reportedly a chemical engineer who built some oil refineries in Russia from 1929-1931,” reads a special agent’s note in one letter to Hoover. “His booklet is an exposé of communism based on his experiences and travels. We have no identifiable derogatory information concerning him and we have had limited prior cordial experience with Koch.”
Another FBI agent’s note reads, “Bufiles [bureau files] reflect that [Koch] has endorsed the [far-right] John Birch Society and contributed considerable money and support to Robert Welch, its founder. Koch felt this Society was the only group he found interested in overcoming the drift to socialism in the United States.”
One file shows that an informant the agency was cultivating had delivered a letter to the FBI dated July 6, 1958, that an American engineer working at the Daura refinery in Baghdad sent to Koch. It was written on the day the revolution against the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq broke out.
“What you say about ‘American people are the luckiest on the face of the earth but don’t appreciate it’ is so very true, and believe you me they better start awful fast appreciating it and doing something to protect it, because communists will take care of the whole situation, non-appreciation included,” reads the letter, which contains a handwritten note from an FBI special agent that reads, “God save America.”
The letter continues, “Fred, from one who was in the midst of this communist thing in China 1945–1949 — and now again in it here for the past four years, my firm opinion is the sooner the United States kicks the entire [United Nations] gang out of our country and disassociates itself with it, and at the same time breaks diplomatic relations with the Russians … the sooner the Unites States is gonna get down to the real business of preserving what we have over there and what we ‘don’t appreciate’.”
Not everyone who encountered “A Business Man Looks at Communism” knew what to make of Koch at first.
“Would you consider Fred C. Koch of 321 West Douglas Wichita, Kansas, a security risk?” asked a reader of Koch’s pamphlet in a 1962 letter to Hoover. In another letter to Hoover, an individual wrote that the pamphlet filled him “with a sense of futility and fear” and asked, “Is Mr. Koch an alarmist?”
Later FBI files note that Koch was added to the agency’s special correspondents’ list, a designation reserved for people considered friendly to the bureau. Koch purchased 1,000 copies of “Masters of Deceit” and distributed copies to his friends and supporters.
Koch did not believe it was communists who were destroying America at the time. Instead he railed against what he saw as Americans’ ignorance of current events. “America is being destroyed by citizens who will not listen, are not informed and will not think. The uninformed are easily misinformed,” he wrote in the pamphlet.
His anti-communist screed was written in 1960, decades after he returned from the Soviet Union, where he made a fortune building cracking stills for Joseph Stalin’s regime. Disgusted by the Soviet Union’s oppressive politics, Koch returned to Wichita and invested vast sums to try to stop communism from spreading to the U.S.
Daniel Schulman, an editor at Mother Jones and the author of the book “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty,” said in an interview that much of Charles and David Koch’s conservative worldview can be traced back to Fred Koch’s ideology.
Democrats in particular accuse the Koch brothers of using their wealth and influence to put forward an anti-government, anti-regulatory agenda that often ties in with their corporate interests. Documentaries have been produced about the alleged threat many liberal activists believe the men pose.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has posted a fact sheet on his website along with 13 bullet points on the policies and programs — such as the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Social Security, the minimum wage and unemployment benefits — that he says the Koch brothers hope to dismantle by using their power to affect the outcome of elections.
A few months ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-described democratic socialist, wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post warning Americans that Charles and David Koch’s agenda is to “move this country from a democratic society with a strong middle class to an oligarchic form of society in which the economic and political life of the nation are controlled by a handful of billionaire families.”
“In terms of the [Koch brothers’] collectivist vs. individualist ideology, that very much was something that seeped in during dinner table conversations and things like that and influenced the politics of Charles and David,” Schulman said in an interview with Salon. “I also found a lot of stuff that [Fred Koch had] written back in those days, and he was absolutely against the ‘welfare state’ and things of that nature.”