The fourth in a regular series of columns by Chay Lemoine: The Laxness Files, in which Chay encounters secrecy and intrigue surrounding Iceland’s favourite writer.
After the Allied occupation of Iceland ended in 1946 the United States proposed a continued presence in Iceland because of its strategic location. Nobel Prize winning Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness was a vocal opponent of the continued occupation of foreign powers in his country after the war. Iceland had declared independence from Denmark on June 17, 1944 and many Icelanders felt that this autonomy was in jeopardy by the proposed presence of the United States. When Iceland agreed to join NATO on March 30, 1949 the country experienced one of the most violent riots in its history. Some sources suggest that thousands took part in the demonstration. It was because of continued lobbying against a military base in Iceland that the United States under the auspices of J. Edgar Hoover conducted an investigation of Laxness’ finances which led to his blacklisting in much the same way that the American leftists in the entertainment industry were blacklisted during the red scare era. In a paper called “The Blacklisted of Halldor Laxness” which I presented at the Borders of the Novel Conference in Aberdeen Scotland in 2008 I detailed, along with proof of blacklisting, how communication between the Icelandic embassy and the State Department of the United States followed the movements of Laxness in Iceland.
In 2002 I began an informal study of why Halldor Laxness dropped off the literary map after the initial success of his epic novel Independent People. When published in the United States in 1946 the book was a major best-seller with sales of 450,000 copies. It was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month club and was mailed to thousands of households across the United States. In 1995 the publication of the article of “A Small Country’s Great Book” by writer and academic Brad Leithauser in the New York Review of Books began a Laxness revival and he was once again read and lauded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. After reading about Laxness’ support of Communism, I filed a Freedom of Information request, hypothesising that the United States government had information on the writer. After over a year of requests and denials I received proof that J. Edgar Hoover was involved in the investigation of Laxness which resulted in American publishers unwilling to publish an alleged communist at a time when such an association could result in jail and public scorn.
Although there was some initial cooperation, several pages were missing or blacked out and I filed an appeal requesting the missing documents. I was constantly thwarted in my efforts to find the truth, often given conflicting information on the existence and number of denied files. It would seem peculiar that after sixty years the United States would still fight to keep secret documents from the World War II era. I waited months for replies to my requests and in one instance I received a denial letter on October 9th and the post mark on the envelope was October 3rd. The denial letter was dated August 17th. I had sixty days to file an appeal based on the date of the denial letter. There were also no instructions on how to file an appeal for this particular denial. I thought it odd at the time that the office would actually hold on to the letter in order to prevent me from filing an appeal to this request.
Finally after years of wrangling, a Department of State Appeals Review Panel was convened. This high level security panel consisted of three former United States Ambassadors. It was determined by this panel that the documents must continue to be held. Three of the pages withheld were visa documents which are part of Laxness’ immigration files and are not covered under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act. The reason the remaining document(s) was not released was stated in the letter. “Information in one document withheld in full is properly classified under Executive Order 12958 (National Security Information) despite the passage of time. Its release reasonably could be expected to cause damage or serious damage to the national security of the United States.”
The United States State Department admitted that it had in its possession a document in the file of Icelandic Writer Halldor Laxness that if released would seriously jeopardise the national security of the United States. I presented this information to a history professor at a local university but was told it’s “probably nothing”. I talked with literary scholars but most knew little or nothing about Laxness or his role in Icelandic affairs after the war. I felt I needed some clarification on how a deceased Icelandic writer virtually unknown in some circles could jeopardise the national security of the United States. I contacted my Senator, who is the current President of the United States, Barrack Obama. At that time President Obama was conducting a presidential campaign. I felt I was wasting my time and would be lucky to get a form letter as a reply. As a testament to Obama’s willingness to support his constituents, a few weeks after my correspondence I received a letter from the Senator’s office which stated: “Unfortunately, the agency determination on your case is final, and there is nothing more we can do to reverse their decision”. Even a major Presidential candidate was denied access to the files.
I had once again reached an impasse but with each denial my curiosity grew. I had decided that the secret file would continue to remain secret when I received word that the Laxness family had spoken with Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, Iceland’s then Minister for Foreign Affairs and had requested that she try to gain access to the secret files. It was reported that when Ingibjorg met with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in late May 2007 the issue was discussed, although it was initially reported that the documents were requested in January, 2007. On July 30, 2007 thirteen documents were received by the Icelandic government. Sadly these were not the files in question. The documents were dated 1974-1988 and had little to do with the denied files as requested by the Icelandic government.
After Obama was elected President I contacted the office of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. Once again I received assistance. My case was assigned to a senatorial aide who got in touch with the FBI. The FBI contacted me by email and informed me that the decision made by the panel was final. The last paragraph of the email explained that the FBI no longer had the files in question and that they were sent to the State Department.
I had my share of surprises while trying to gain access to the Laxness Files. This information was definitely surprising. What was so sensitive in these files that they were turned over to the State Department? I had nothing to lose so I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the State Department sending the same letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Dick Durbin, an undersecretary of state and the Freedom of Information Act office. After several months I received a phone call.
It is at this point that I am going to make inferences based on my conversation with the official. I was asked “what could they do for me” and I explained my request. It was stated that they had three pages of information plus visa information. I stated emphatically that I do not have interest Laxness’ visa information. I wanted the missing 1-3 pages from the FBI or possibly the CIA that were denied. This individual checked the files and I could tell that they had absolutely no idea why this file was “top secret”. I asked what was the document protecting and the answer was “a person”. I was told that clearance from the agency in question was necessary and they would get back with me.
A few weeks later I received another phone call and once again the documents were denied. When I was told that the documents were protecting a person I knew that they would not be released. I had long thought that the documents were protecting a person or persons either in the US or Iceland. Since the official did not seem to view the information protected as important I am now under the impression that the documents are protecting an Icelander.
I feel that if the information contained the name of an American engaged in subterfuge in Iceland then there would be no doubt that the information needed to protected. The name of an Icelander or Icelanders would not seem so obvious especially after sixty years. This is a very broad assumption and I could be very wrong but I got to this point by making very broad assumptions.
I understand the Icelandic government is once again going to make a request for the documents. Now that we know this is some dirty little secret, does any government official really want the documents released? Washington feels its better locked in the Secret File vault and Iceland may feel the same way once the information is made available.
Halldor Laxness was afraid that the new nation would gain its independence from Demark but would lose its autonomy by aligning itself with the United States. Halldor Laxness was the opposition at a time when the opposition meant communist/socialist. He used his voice to curb what he thought was American encroachment into the affairs of the small developing country. The United States was not going to accept “no” for an answer relating to Iceland’s fiercely debated military base. It was important to the United States and its allies that the administration in Iceland was open to the base and membership in NATO.
The question is not whether the United State interfered with the forming of the Icelandic government and its decisions after the war; the question is to what degree. Although weak, the United States viewed the Community Party with respect. A declassified CIA document dated October 1949 and declassified in 1978 states that “Despite their lack of direct political influences Communists can still arouse and solidify a fairly substantial segment of public opinion particularly by acting through front organisations and fellow travellers”. The United States had an interest in not allowing this to happen.
Iceland was a poor, newly independent country that had spent the war years occupied by the UK and the US. The influence during the war was evident. The degree of the influence after the war is contained in The Laxness Files. Was there cooperation by individuals in Iceland with the United States or did the United States independently engage in subversive activities in Iceland? Without a doubt the United States is protecting something and its time that The Laxness Files and all documents from the WWII era are released.
Chay Lemoine is an American scholar who, among other things, is a renowned Halldor Laxness expert. Chay writes a regular column called ‘The View from Here’ on IceNews where he talks about Laxness, life, Iceland, and whatever else is on his mind.
(Main page photo: Gljufrasteinn.is)