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The Red OxyContin Kings
Newly Declassified FBI Files Reveal that the Three Founding Brothers of the Sackler Dynasty were Committed Communists
It might surprise many people that the three Sackler brothers who founded Purdue Pharma were zealous communists before they became uber-capitalists. Decades before Forbes listed them as one of America’s wealthiest families, with a net worth of $14 billion, the FBI had investigated the Sacklers for 25 years over suspicions about their communist sympathies and at one stage whether they might have been involved in espionage.
I broke the news about the family's communist history in my 2020 book, Pharma Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America. That scoop came from declassified FBI files I received after I made a series of Freedom of Information Act requests starting in 2015 about the brothers, Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond.
When Beverly Sackler (née Feldman), Raymond's wife, a long time Purdue board director, died in 2019, I made another FOIA request (government agencies will not release information when someone is alive, unless that person gives written permission).
Three and a half years later, the FBI has declassified another 509 pages. The Bureau’s investigative files lay out the remarkable scope of the Sacklers early political radicalism. They also provide a glimpse into the FBI's Cold War biases about Jews and leftist politics.
Filing a FOIA request with government agencies is one of the first things I do on a new book project. Using the Freedom of Information Act is excruciatingly slow. Getting documents declassified is often unnecessarily difficult and convoluted. Still, as evidenced by the Sacklers, the process sometimes produces important revelations and news.
The FBI files expose a part of the family past that the Sacklers had hoped later to keep secret. The documents reveal that the young Sackler brothers were committed communists.
What turned the FBI on to the family was a confidential informant who secretly took photos of the 1944 membership list of the Communist Party’s Kensington Club in Brooklyn. Among the card-carrying party members on that list were Raymond Sackler and Beverly Feldman. When they moved to Boston in April so Raymond could finish his medical school studies, the couple transferred their membership to the party's Boston chapter. After Raymond graduated, the newlyweds returned to Brooklyn and asked their party memberships to be sent back to the New York chapter.
The Communist Party the couple joined was at its peak in the years following the Great Depression and World War II. Before the 1929 stock market crash there were only 6,000 members. A decade later, membership surged to 66,000. In the 1930s and 1940s, half of the members were Jewish, mostly Eastern European immigrant families like the Sacklers and Feldmans.
The files opened by the FBI on the Sacklers in 1944 remained active for a quarter century.
The Bureau occasionally assigned agents to call on or visit the Sacklers, always under some ruses, to discover if their Communist Party affiliation made them security risks. The new files reveal the extent to which the Bureau prioritized their SACKLER investigation for many years.
Half a dozen informants reported regularly to the Bureau about the family. The Sacklers travel records were monitored. For a while, their mail was intercepted; the Bureau was initially disappointed that there were so many medical journals but perked up when they noted that the brothers subscribed to "The Daily Worker," the weekly publication of the Communist Party in the U.S.
The FBI sometimes put the brothers and Beverly under photo surveillance. Agents were also dispatched to conduct “discreet neighborhood investigations.” The Bureau expanded its inquiry to include interviews with the Sacklers’ work colleagues.
The early FOIA files revealed that the FBI had penetrated Arthur's medical advertising agency with informants and concluded it was “a haven for past or present CP (Communist Party) members...” Arthur used that firm to hire journalists who had lost jobs after their employers blacklisted them for refusing to answer before Congressional committees whether they were, or had been, Communist Party members.
Whenever the Sacklers attended what the FBI dubbed “subversive social events,” the Bureau filled their growing case file with the names and home addresses of other attendees. It was suspicious, for instance, that at one dinner —a fundraising event for the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee —playwright Lillian Hellman shared her firsthand impressions of how hard Russian troops had fought to preserve Soviet Communism. In other instances, the FBI tracked the Sacklers to medical conventions and alerted U.S. Embassies when they traveled for vacations to Europe (one memo surmised the holiday trips might be a cover for their rendezvous with Soviet assets or agents abroad).
The three Sackler brothers were psychiatrists. That was a profession the files reveal that the FBI viewed with skepticism because it consisted of a disproportionately large percentage of Jewish professionals. The FBI believed that Jews were more likely to be communists and disloyal to America. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's 1951 espionage conviction for passing along atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets reinforced that idea. When describing Raymond Sackler in a March 1945 security memo, the FBI notes with concern that he is “single and a Hebrew.”
When Mortimer Sackler served in the U.S. Army at Colorado’s Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in 1953, the FBI got the Army’s Counter Intelligence detachment to conduct a security investigation to “determine HIS loyalty” (emphasis in original). The internal probe discovered that Mortimer had briefly registered with the American Labor Party and a student medical association, both of which the FBI considered “un-American.” He, and his brother Raymond, had refused to sign a loyalty oath in 1952, “claiming Federal Constitutional Privilege.” The FBI file noted derisively that “Arthur Sackler has reportedly attempted to explain their conduct by stating that it was contrary to a tenet of the Jewish faith to inform on anyone.”
The result of the Counter Intel security investigation into Mortimer? It recommended a dishonorable discharge based on a provision for barring “disloyal and subversive military personnel.” The same conclusion about “disloyalty” followed after a probe into Raymond.
The FBI interests in the Sacklers picked up pace after two friends of the family, Alfred Stern and Martha Dodd, were exposed as Soviet agents and fled the U.S. Arthur had socialized with the couple at their Ridgefield, Connecticut home, the place where the duo met Soviet handlers. Mortimer, the Bureau noted, was a friend of the two spies.
Were the Sacklers involved in espionage against the U.S? While the FBI files repeatedly demonstrate the intense interest the Bureau had in that question, they do not reveal a shred of credible evidence of any treasonous activity.
What the FBI files provide ultimately is a snapshot of the extent of the Bureau’s own frenzied mania and fear over communism during the Cold War. FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, was obsessed with all things Red, and that had become the primary reason for launching security probes.
What is a shame is that no U.S. law enforcement or regulatory agency remotely demonstrated any investigative interest in the Sacklers when they were later running their multibillion-dollar OxyContin empire. If a fraction of the effort expended by the FBI over twenty-five years in investigating the family’s Communist past had focused instead on Purdue’s misdeeds in the marketing of OxyContin, maybe the opioid epidemic would have been cut short and lives saved.