The BYU Spy Episode, 1966-68 – confessions by the spys

The BYU Spy Episode, 1966-68 – confessions by the spys

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The BYU Spy Episode, 1966-68


Hankin was not the only chicken who came home to roost. Several other student spies, including the spymaster himself, Russell, “came in from the cold” to confess their wrong doing. Russell spoke about having developed a “slumbering spirit and the need for truth to come to light.” He said he had felt “a deep sense of responsibility which he began to recognize as a perverted sense of loyalty to Wilkinson and Bentley.” He said, “I was not forthright when asked about a group conspiracy or spy ring.” Leslie C. Updyke II told about his recruitment, the meeting, his assignment, submitting his report, and being debriefed by Sandgren. Mark Skousen admitted his involvement. Other spies sought forgiveness and apologized.

Russell came clean about his spying and the spy ring. He was encouraged to do so by events and his future wife. He confessed his wrongdoing to his campus bishop and then he and his bishop visited with Bentley and Wilkinson. He came first to Larry Wimmer, his academic advisor. Larry, after a two-hour visit (until midnight), advised him to go to his bishop. Larry Wimmer, with the assistance of Ed Firmage, set up a meeting the next day with President Tanner and Elder Lee. In the presence of Tanner and Lee, Russell confessed his role as a student spy and his working association with Wilkinson. Larry and Russell’s bishop, Duane Law, were in the meeting. It was a meeting much like the earlier meeting back in September. Elder Lee said he had but a few minutes and that he was there at the invitation of President Tanner. They wanted to know why the meeting was necessary and once they were satisfied and had heard Russell’s confession, they asked, “What do you want us to do?” Larry said, “Nothing, we simply want you to know.” They were very interested and the few minutes meeting lasted about 90 minutes.

The next day, President Tanner instructed Russell, Larry Wimmer, Vice-President Bentley, and President Wilkinson to forward to him, in writing, their account of what happened. Bentley’s version was the same as Russell’s and was more credible because he kept a detailed account in his personal journal. Moreover, he was loyal to Russell and was not going to leave Russell to “hang out to dry.” Wilkinson’s account was an echo of his statement to the press, accepting responsibility for student spying but unwilling to admit his personal involvement. Larry’s account was similar to the Russell and Bentley account. Larry knew Russell well, and while he was surprised at Russell’s turn around, he had good reason to assume that Russell was truthful to President Tanner.

Some time after the spying became public knowledge Wilkinson was questioned by the Board of Trustees. According to Elder Marion D. Hanks, Wilkinson appeared to be truthful about the spying. In May 1967, I visited with Elder Hanks in Vietnam about the student spying and he told me that he believed Wilkinson was telling the truth. He said he was present at a Board of Trustee meeting where Wilkinson was interrogated with such vigor and power that there could be no way he could have lied to them.


A year earlier, during their spring 1966 review of BYU, the Northwest Accreditation team had found a politically charged campus and reports of student spies. Before he left Provo, Professor John A. Howard, a member of the accreditation team responsible for the social sciences, read his preliminary evaluation of BYU’s academic programs. It was a negative report which was as embarrassing to those of us in the social sciences as it was to Wilkinson. We were enraged. Some of us, instead of closing ranks with Wilkinson, blamed him and he must have blamed us. There was a lot of loose talk about accreditation difficulties on campus and I participated in it. Students reported my anger to Wilkinson, who thought I was spilling my guts to the accreditation committee. In fact, I was never interviewed by the team. I only listened to John Howard read to us his preliminary report about the lack of freedom of inquiry. Howard reported that Keynesian economics or socialism could not receive fair treatment. He also pointed to the imbalance of visiting forum speakers, particularly since Wilkinson had lost his U.S. Senate race to Ted Moss in 1964. He said the president was more interested in dispensing doctrine than the pursuit of truth. Howard went too far with his criticism, but he did have an argument.

Syndicated columnist and arch conservative, Max Rafferty, who had recently received an honorary doctorate from BYU, did not help our image when, in his column, he praised BYU for not being “sick enough” and thus vulnerable to an adverse report from our accreditation peers. In public, Wilkinson was quick to disassociate the university from Rafferty’s praise of BYU’s right-wing environment.

Steve Russell announced to the local chapter of the Birch Society that he was certain that BYU would lose its accreditation. The great Mormon liberal and our institutional nemesis, Sterling McMurrin, who became U.S. Commissioner of Education, came to BYU’s defense, arguing with the team that we should not be punished and that the Wilkinson problem would take care of itself in due course.

In March 1967 the local media had a field day on spying at BYU. Hankin’s charges reached the national wire service. In Vietnam, I read about BYU’s “long smoldering spy case” in the international edition of Newsweek (March 7, 1966, 112). Kirk Hart told Newsweek that I said, “the Viet Cong are easier to handle than the Birchers.” Hart reflected my sentiments well. In Vietnam, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley asked me if my assignment in Vietnam was as tough as BYU. Referring to the spy scandal, he said, “We are having some problems at BYU.” I was unaware of his knowledge of my challenges. Some of the leads in the press were:

Y President Denies Student Forum Charges

BYU Denies Purge of Liberals

BYU Professors Ask for Inquiry into Spy Ring Charges

“I Spy” Catches on at Brigham Young University

Wilkinson Admits Spy Ring Exists at BYU

Wilkinson Gives Apologies for BYU Spy Ring

On March 25, The New Republic said, “[In] another bizarre instance, Ernest L. Wilkinson, President of Brigham Young University in Utah, admitted that the university last year had recruited a ring of students to spy on eight liberal professors.”

After “the breaking news” locally, there were discussions in the media about the lack of academic freedom at BYU.

BYU faculty, attending their professional conferences, were bombarded with inquiries about spying and academic freedom. Several colleagues in the Political Science Department, attending the Western Political Science professional conference in Arizona, said they found many eager to know what was going on at BYU.

Elder Harold B. Lee was deeply concerned about image. He reluctantly approved Wilkinson’s negotiated cover-up letter only after he told him “that his statement to the press was a lie and that he knew it was a lie and that he knew that he knew it was a lie.” Elder Lee said, “If it were not for the damage this publicity does to the Church and BYU, I would not let you get away with it.”

The BYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, with such distinguished members as Briant Jacobs, Richard Poll, Kenneth Cannon, Ted Warner, and Tom Alexander, was alarmed about a negative image that could work against BYU’s scholarly interest and search for grants. They also feared an investigation by the national headquarters that could lead to sanctions against BYU.

The “enemies” of the university and the church made the most of the spying revelations. Talk shows worked us over and other universities had grist to mill for months.

The account of the spy episode in the BYU History, which was commissioned by the university, was another cover-up that led to more adverse publicity. Instead of writing a truthful account, the authors took a cheap shot at so called liberal or dissident faculty. It triggered a reaction of such magnitude that the university allegedly lost a two million dollar contribution.

I had tried to put the episode aside. Martin Hickman, my dean and good friend, had advised me to “let go.” I had made progress with his counsel. But I was asked by one of the authors about the spy episode being in the history. I told them to leave it out. But they felt it was too important to ignore. “Tell the truth,” I said. They didn’t. They lied again.

When the four volume history was published in 1975-76, I made a point not to read how they had treated the spy episode. Even when the books were given to the faculty as a second “turkey” at the Christmas turkey social I did not look it up. Carolyn, my wife, pressed me. “Read it,” she said. One day, passing through the bookstore I opened volume three and read:

People often misunderstood President Wilkinson when they came to him with complaints. He welcomed complaints when he was certain of their validity, but he abhorred rumors. Consequently both faculty and students found it dangerous to raise an issue which they were not prepared to prove since the president was likely to subject the tale-bearer to such vigorous cross-examination that the informant felt that he, himself, was the offender. In a number of ways this reaction by the president was unfortunate since it gave the informant the impression that he should go out and gather “evidence” when it was not within his province to do so. This led to what came to be known as the “spy scandal of 1967-68.” When a number of students complained about certain members of the faculty teaching principles antagonistic to the precepts of the Church or statements of its leaders, the president took his usual stance that unless there was evidence to support their allegations he could take no action. The students concluded that they should immediately make secret tape-recordings in class. When the faculty found out about this practice, they accused the administration of spying. Some expressed the feeling that their intellectual freedom had been put in jeopardy, and morale dropped to a low ebb.

Naturally, I was upset. So I wrote a letter to W. Cleon Skousen, one of the authors, with copies to the new BYU President, Dallin H. Oaks, and Dean Hickman. An Associated Press stringer, Vern Anderson, called Cleon, Louis Midgley, and myself. Anderson had acquired a copy of my letter. I asked him how he got a copy of my letter. He would not reveal his source. He gave the university another embarrassing moment with “Y Teachers Blast Spy Scandal Cover-Up.”

In my letter, I invited Cleon to visit the Church Archives and examine my papers. He did so and expressed regret that he did not know about the papers. I followed-up with a 17 page single-spaced letter regarding the episode. I sent copies to the editors, including Wilkinson. Because Wilkinson was recovering from heart surgery, they kept the letter from him. It was correct to do so, but he must have read it later. Oaks said my letter, together with Marvin Hill’s scathing review of the Wilkinson history, induced Wilkinson to withdraw his sizable contribution to BYU.

Ron Priddis and Gary Bergera embarrassed the university with their investigative reporting on the spy episode. Ron wrote the first substantive journalistic account in the Seventheast Press entitled “BYU Spy Case Unshelved,” and Gary and Ron wrote a surprisingly accurate account in their book, Brigham Young University: A House of Faith. Their chapter on the spy episode was based not only on my papers in the Church Archives, but also on Wilkinson’s personal papers. Later, Michael Quinn wrote a well documented piece for Dialogue putting the spy cases in historical and political context. While I had some difficulty with some of their conclusions and the tone and objective of their publications, they were persuasive. They were also very successful in embarrassing the university.

Part Three


Some thought I would not return to BYU. In January 1967, Russell Horiuchi wrote to me in Vietnam insisting that I return and fight the good fight. However, he said, “if you quit we all quit, and we are generally in this frame of mind.” Lee Farnsworth was prepared to resign. Paul Hyer called on Wilkinson with a long memorandum listing reasons why I must return to BYU. Paul, Lee, and Russ sent a memo to Crockett asking that six hundred dollars be taken from their salaries and given to me. Dick Poll, who had a dynamic “war” record with Wilkinson, weighed the pros and cons of my return and said, “I hope you will stay at BYU.” Richard Wirthlin, making a name for himself in Arizona, thought I should return for at least a year and to stand up to them. Crockett and Lewis wrote apologetic letters encouraging me to return. Crockett told Ed and Lou that he was disgusted with the “search and destroy mission” of Russell and that he was prepared to resign if justice was not served. The Asian Studies and Political Science faculty signed petitions. Ed Morrell and Louis Midgley assumed that their efforts on my behalf would not be in vain. Lou kept writing manifestos (he would have been a great pamphleteer during the American revolution) and Ed worked assiduously for my return. For instance, he pressed that I be sent an early contract and when it was not enough, he pressed to have it increased. During the year that I was in Vietnam he would meet with Carolyn to keep her up to date on how things were going. With this kind of encouragement from friends and colleagues, I felt obliged to return and sort things out. I was reminded that BYU was my university as well as Wilkinson’s. President Hugh B. Brown said I should have a “return ticket” from Vietnam. In Vietnam, Elder Marion D. Hanks encouraged me to return, saying that I was “needed” there. Fortunately, President Tanner and Elder Lee were prepared to act when the news broke. Most important, Carolyn wanted me home in Provo.

When I returned from Vietnam in July 1967 I was a “celebrity” of sorts. It was because Vietnam had the attention of the whole country, no less in Utah. I was invited to give the summer convocation address on the war and I also gave a paper on my research in Vietnam to the faculty and staff on political warfare in Vietnam. Wilkinson attended, as did many of the curious. It felt good to be back.

When I returned from my sabbatical as a Fulbright scholar, I had a reputation at BYU to restore and I had a compelling interest in correcting the errors in the committee’s report that I had been seething over for months.

I compiled volumes of data: letters, articles, testimonies, notarized statements, interviews, apologies, confessions. In this effort I was assisted by colleagues. I had Russell’s testimony, President Bentley’s apology, Larry Wimmer’s statement, Lou Midgley’s account, and the endless assistance and counsel of Ed Morrell. Ray Beckham became my stake president again. I served on his high council and President Bentley was Ray’s first counselor. Ray asked me about returning as bishop of one of his wards. My health (colitis) and the spy matter induced me to pass. Nevertheless, I have always regretted not accepting this wonderful opportunity again, despite having a full agenda. My high council assignment was to work with President Bentley on a priesthood committee. Ray threw us together with the hope that we could reconcile our differences. The first thing Bentley did was to invite me to his office and apologize for participating in the spying. He said he set things up for President Wilkinson but the president does not remember it that way. He said his wife advised him not to do it, but he did anyway and it was wrong. It was a forthright and honest apology. It was a tender moment and I have never forgotten it.

I thought I had amoebic dysentery. Finally, an internist, Dr. Krebs, asked me if I worried a lot. With a tone of humor I said I had been through a tough year avoiding Viet Cong in Vietnam and Birchers at BYU. They don’t like me. I told him a bit about the spy episode. He said, “Wilkinson? I have had other BYU patients with the Wilkinson problem.”

The spy episode taught me something about strategy. It’s what any good lawyer would know. Richard Bushman, a member of the history faculty, hypothesized that I “lay it all out and let the chips fall where they may. You are dealing with honorable men. They will be fair.” Wirthlin, on the other hand, said, “Wilkinson is ruthless. You cannot trust him. He is scared and we have him in a corner. Be wary.” In the meeting with President Hugh B. Brown I ran these two ideas before him. “The committee is the president’s men” he said. “They will protect the president. Gather your evidence, as much as you can. Let them see your stack of papers but hold them in reserve, issuing them one at a time. A good poker player does not reveal his hand.” I followed President Brown’s counsel. I had stacks of stuff and I brought it to each meeting. They stared at my documents (two fat binders). On one occasion, President Crockett observed, “I can tell you have done a lot of research. You have lots of documents.” It might have been overkill, but it worked. They would look at me and say, “What next?”


Because of illness, vacations, and other demands on their time, I was unable to meet with the committee until February 1968. They did not feel keen about meeting. Present at the first meeting were Sandgren, Lewis, Crockett, Morrell, and John T. Bernhard. Bernhard had been added since he was my Dean and was back on campus after a one-year leave to Brazil. The agenda of the first meeting was to review the committee’s October 1966 report on its findings and President Wilkinson’s letter. I expressed my anger and asked for an opportunity to respond verbally to their letters that I had yet to answer. “They owed me that much,” I said.

In early March, the group met to review my detailed account of the spying, the results of my research. I did most of the talking. It was my day in court. I provided them with documentation.

On March 22, we met a third time to hear the testimony of President Bentley and Larry Wimmer’s account of Russell’s confession. By this time they had to be tired of the long meetings, stuff to read, and my endless complaints. Would this ever end?

Wilkinson wondered why the committee continued to meet with me and when he learned that Bentley was going to appear, he sought to head off the March 22 meeting. Ray Beckham met with Wilkinson the night before and telephoned me the next morning at 7:30 AM to arrange a meeting at which Wilkinson would “make peace” with me. Ray as the “peacemaker” hoped to avoid a meeting in which there could be an ugly confrontation, further embarrassment to President Wilkinson, and a further erosion of the BYU presidency. When Ed Morrell and I arrived at the 8:00 AM meeting, Ray Beckham and John Bernhard were waiting for us in the hall outside Sandgren’s office hoping I would accept Ray’s suggestion. The committee and Bentley were waiting in Sandgren’s office. I rejected Ray’s idea. I was in no mood for a deal.

President Bentley took one hour to relate his account, reading from a statement he had prepared for President Tanner and from his journal. He verified most of what I had outlined in our previous meeting. Larry Wimmer took the second hour, often reading from Russell’s statement that Russell had prepared for President Tanner. It also verified my data.

After Wimmer’s testimony we had a very somber discussion. The facts were all in. The evidence was clear. Wilkinson had Bentley organize a spy ring and he had lied about it. Each vice-president spoke in turn of how the president had repeatedly denied his involvement and how they in turn were part of his falsification. They all agreed their letter of findings should be corrected and that the president owed me an apology. They said they should meet with him. But Lewis cautioned, “It is hard for President Wilkinson to apologize. It is not one of his strengths.” They met with Wilkinson the next day, March 23, 1968.

The vice-presidents were convinced that my account was accurate. You could see the conviction in their eyes. They had been used. They had been part of the cover-up. Then, they apologized. Sandgren said he would never have prepared the committee findings that were sent to me in Vietnam had he known the facts. Referring to his role as the president’s investigator of student spy reports, he said he was extremely naive not to have known what was going on. It became evident that he was at the heart of the spy ring.

“What do you want us to do?” said Sandgren.
“Correct the report.”
“What else?”
“President Wilkinson should own up to his spying and apologize to the faculty.”

The committee, after visiting with Wilkinson on March 23, came back with two proposals. First, that I meet with President Wilkinson and give him a chance to apologize. Second, consider expunging the record. I asked, “What do you mean by expunge?” They said it would mean destroy the data, clean out all the files, Wilkinson’s as well as mine, leaving no evidence or history of the spy episode. I said emphatically, “No, I will stand by the record. I intend to place my papers in the Church Archives and BYU Library’s Special Collections. I will not go public but I will not restrict their availability either.” Unfortunately, my papers were not consulted by the authors of the BYU history, but they were popular with investigative reporters and dissenters. They were useful in convincing W. Cleon Skousen, one of the authors of the BYU history, that they had it wrong about the spy conspiracy.

I reasoned that expunging the record would simply be another step in the cover-up. And, frankly, I did not trust them. How would I know if they destroyed their records? Surely, some documents would be squirreled away some place.

On to the Final Part

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