Alvin Toffler, who died in 2016, will be remembered for his many contributions to the work of futurism. Toffler was a prolific writer, most notably the author of the 1970 best-selling book Future Shock, and a man who became friends with important figures across the political spectrum in Washington DC, including Newt Gingrich. But Toffler’s newly released 400-page FBI file, obtained by Gizmodo through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Archives, reveals that he was also investigated by the FBI for being a communist, something Toffler didn’t often talk about after he became a public figure.
Alvin and his wife Heidi were a powerhouse couple who wrote extensively about the way that humanity would deal with the dramatic changes just over the horizon. The Tofflers were paid well for their opinions and Alvin Toffler emerged from the 1970s as one of the first “futurists” who was treated like a respected sociologist, rather than a weirdo with a crystal ball and too many science fiction comics.
Future Shock was a smash hit book when it was first published because it seemed to communicate these feelings of isolation and despair that had come to characterise the late 1960s and early 1970s. Future shock, according to Toffler, was nothing short of an actual medical condition—the thing that people suffered from when they felt like “the future” was coming too quickly. What was driving future shock in 1970? Social change, technological progress, pollution, and information overload. One example that Toffler used for information overload in 1970 was too many books being published, which perfectly illustrates just how relative a term like “information overload” can be.
Future Shock was even adapted into a documentary in 1972—a kind of apocalypse-sploitation extravaganza narrated by Orson Welles.
Few people who consulted with Toffler likely knew that he had been investigated by the FBI for his early left-wing activism. One of the most startling revelations from the FBI file is that Toffler was briefly on the FBI’s DETCOM list of people who should be rounded up and imprisoned in an “emergency” situation, presumably a war with the Soviet Union. We also learn that Toffler was eventually interviewed by the FBI and renounced his Marxist ideology but refused to name names of other communists that he may have been in contact with.
Toffler’s file begins in 1953 when he was 25 years old. The Cleveland office of the FBI started a file on Toffler that notes he joined the Army in March of 1952 but was honourably discharged that summer for a “medical disability” involving back and leg pain.
The files detail Toffler and his wife Heidi’s (her given name was Adelaide) involvement in the Chicago Labour Youth League (LYL) as well as their membership in the Communist Party (CP). It also details his role as editor of New Challenge, a localised Cleveland version of the LYL’s national publication.
The FBI kept a close eye on Communist-affiliated and generally pinko publications throughout the Cold War. Agents tracked not only the writers for those publications, which included Toffler, but anyone mentioned in those newspapers and magazines. Toffler’s FBI file makes note of the news that Toffler made in things like the Daily Worker, where Toffler was mentioned for standing up against attacks on students in New York.
Toffler’s file is incredibly extensive, with extensive biographical information, his height and weight, and lists of his immediate relatives. The file also contains testimony from several confidential sources, as well as notes about when Toffler’s car was merely in the vicinity of Communist-affiliated meetings.
The period from the late 1940s until 1953, which is largely glossed over in Toffler’s New York Times obituary, cites a number of “false statements” that Toffler allegedly made about his employment during this time. The file claims that Toffler was telling people he used to be a farmhand in Forsyth, New York, when in reality he had been engaging in political organising and “indoctrination” using the “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist philosophy,” according to the FBI.
Toffler’s file is updated repeatedly in 1955 with new home addresses, new employment information, and new associates. You really get the sense that the FBI was tracking his every step with informants around every corner.
Even a small sample of the file shows how extensive the surveillance on Toffler was:
And some of the meetings that were reported on didn’t even have a clear connection to Communism, the FBI’s mortal enemy. Some, like a meeting in Toffler’s file from June 9, 1954, was simply about vandalism and terrorism that was occurring in Cleveland against black people in all-white neighbourhoods. There’s no mention of it being connected to communist-affiliated groups in any way.
The file notes that a team of special agents (SAs) conducted photographic surveillance on Toffler on October 22, 1954. The team included special agents James J. Gaffney, Carl A. Eklad, Edward A. Shea, and Charles A. Harvey, all from the FBI’s Cleveland branch. There’s also mention of more photographic surveillance from the Omaha bureau in 1957.
As mentioned earlier, Toffler was on the FBI’s DETCOM Program list, which was compiled in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a list of people to arrest in an “emergency” situation.
In a memo dated December 19, 1955, from the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) in Cleveland to the Director of the FBI, Herbert Hoover, we see that Toffler was removed from the ComSab list, short for people who might commit Communist Sabotage. But the memo also says that Toffler should remain on the DETCOM list, which was compiled to make it easier to know who to round up after a national emergency.
By June of 1955, another note in Toffler’s file claims that he’s probably not important enough to warrant being on the list, but an FBI agent called Toffler’s mother and lied, saying that he was an old work friend, to obtain information about Toffler and his living plans for that summer.
The reports from informants throughout 1955 start to claim that Toffler was worried about losing his job as an assistant editor at a trade magazine called Industrial Welding and was contemplating leaving communist-affiliated groups. But the confidential sources also claim that the Tofflers were actively recruiting for those same groups during this period.
By December of 1955, Toffler picked up his family and moved to Bettendorf, Iowa where he worked at a short-lived publication called Labour Daily. But by 1957 he was also reportedly working as a political reporter attending White House press conferences as a representative of the Gazette and Daily in Pennsylvania. Toffler was trying to pick up work as a writer wherever he could. As you might expect, Toffler often spoke about this part of his life being hectic and involved a lot of moving around.
By May of 1957 the FBI finally decided that they want to interview Toffler about the “communist infiltration of labour unions.” By that time Toffler was living in Falls Church, Virginia but the doorstop interview wasn’t actually conducted until September 24, 1957, when special agents Elmer Lee Todd and John Joseph Bagley went to Toffler’s home.
The file claims that Toffler “was taken by surprise,” when the FBI agents showed up and seemed “slightly nervous.” Beyond that, Toffler didn’t furnish them with any information and declined to have a discussion. The FBI tried to interview Toffler again on November 1, 1957, but he was again “uncooperative.” By December of 1957, the FBI claims that they’re not sure of his present political affiliations but that could be just because they don’t have any informants that are friends with him.
A year later in November of 1958 the FBI went knocking on Toffler’s door again, but was “unwilling to discuss his past activities.” The file claims that Communist Party informants in the Washington D.C. area (Toffler and his family were still living in Virginia) weren’t familiar with Toffler.
But the Bureau’s attempt to get Toffler to talk was a bit more heavy-handed in 1958. The FBI agents said that as a freelance writer, Toffler often interviewed people and that’s precisely what the FBI was doing. But they held up patriotism and “the security of the U.S.” as their goal. The agents insinuated that Toffler was a hypocrite as a reporter who wasn’t willing to answer their questions. Toffler replied that he wasn’t going to inform on others associated with his past and that he was no longer a Marxist.
The FBI told Toffler that they wanted a written statement from both he and his wife, including lists of organisations that they belonged to and “all individuals with whom he had formerly been associated.” Toffler, seemingly frustrated, told the FBI again that he wasn’t going to name names.
In January of 1959 Toffler finally gave the FBI a written statement, but he never included names of Communists, opting instead to simply tell his life story and downplaying his participation in left-wing organising as something that was behind him. But Toffler definitely got his digs in, pointing out that they knew the FBI was watching them.
The file includes photocopied articles by Toffler, including one from the January 1959 issue of Coronet magazine, called “Washington’s Electronic Eavesdroppers.” But by February of 1959, the FBI was finally satisfied that Alvin and Heidi Toffler were no longer a threat to the United States.
That year, 1959, also happened to be the year that Alvin Toffler started writing at Fortune magazine, continuing in that job until 1962. He started freelancing in the 1960s for magazines like Playboy and by 1970 became an international sensation with Future Shock.
The file does become active again for unknown reasons involving his passport in 1971. The file notes that because of Toffler’s high profile it might embarrass the FBI if they tried to interview him again.
Was Toffler a secret Communist who only left behind his far left politics to succeed in the capitalistic world of consulting? No one knows but him. But if you’re interested you can read the entire FBI file in two parts, which Gizmodo has uploaded, at Archive.org. (Part 1 and Part 2)
Whatever his personal beliefs in the second and third acts of his life, Toffler had quite an impact on governments around the world. Including the ostensibly Communist Party of China. Toffler’s 1980 book The Third Wave is widely read in China and was in 2006 named as one of the 50 most important foreigners to influence the country.