Nearly 35 years after the incident, newly revealed files suggest that former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover may have declined an honorary degree at Brigham Young University because of what the FBI said may have been subversive activity there.
Yes, that's the same BYU known for its clean-cut students who are famous for not joining in radical political movements.But back in 1956 - after the height of the anti-communism drives of the '50s - the school didn't quite pass an FBI check about subversive activity because of a phone call by students to Moscow asking about freedom of religion in the Soviet Union.
Documents suggest that led Hoover to skip the school's offer of an honorary doctorate.
However, the one surviving man involved in the episode - W. Cleon Skousen - insists Hoover passed up the degree only because of his busy schedule, not because of worry about BYU students phoning the Soviet Union.
The story now emerges because of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Deseret News that led to the release of FBI files on former LDS Church President David O. McKay - who was also chairman of BYU's board of trustees.
The story began when Skousen - a former FBI agent who in 1956 was a BYU professor - called on behalf of BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson to Hoover's office on March 1, 1956, to offer him the degree and a chance to speak at commencement on June 1, 1956.
Documents say Skousen - who would later found the conservative National Center for Constitutional Studies - also told the FBI "that Robert Hinckley, an official of the American Broadcasting Co., was willing to work out extensive radio and television coverage" if Hoover spoke.
Documents show that Hoover was interested in the offer but before accepting it ordered agents in a memo to "let me know something of background of & our contacts with Brigham Young University," which he signed simply with his initial "H."
Agents wrote back on March 13, 1956, that FBI files "contain no derogatory data concerning this institution, and there have been numerous cordial contacts with its various representatives," especially with President McKay.
But then came the negative information.
The memo said, "It may be recalled, however, that in May 1955, several students at Brigham Young University placed a call to Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin in Moscow and were put in contact with an individual representing himself to be Bulganin's private secretary.
"The conversation lasted several minutes during which the students proposed five questions concerning America's relations with Soviet Russia and the status of the freedom of religion in the latter country.
"It was stated in the newspapers that this project began as a prank and was the work of a group of students exclusively. There is no indication that the university or any of its representatives had foreknowledge of the call or were involved in its execution," the memo said.
After Hoover received that information, he apparently lost his earlier interest in receiving the honor.
A week later on March 21, 1956, he wrote President McKay saying he was "deeply touched" by the school's offer but declined it.
"For the past several years, I have adhered to a strict policy of not accepting invitations in view of emergency matters which are constantly arising that require my personal attention," Hoover wrote. He said he tried to make an exception in this case, but his schedule was too uncertain to allow it.
Skousen said conversations he had with Hoover led him to believe Hoover truly was too busy to come to BYU - with fighting possible plans by President Eisenhower to replace him with someone who was not as anti-communist and with watching unrest in Cuba.
"He was actually looking forward to coming. He had great admiration of the LDS people. If it hadn't been for circumstances, he would have come," Skousen said. "He even talked about coming some other time."
BYU spokesman Paul Richards said the university ended up awarding honorary degrees instead that year to LDS Relief Society President Belle Spafford and musician Igor Goren. Canadian businessman N. Eldon Tanner, who would later become a member of the First Presidency, gave the commencement speech.
Richards said the story is ironic because BYU was well known - especially in the 1960s - as one of the few campuses that escaped violent student protests.
"We were criticized for being too passive," he said. "Ernest Wilkinson went around the country giving speeches on how to avoid anarchy on campuses."
Another footnote to the episode is documents showing that President McKay later tried again to lure Hoover to Utah to give a speech but failed.
That happened after Hoover sent President McKay a letter thanking him for quoting in an April 1965 LDS general conference discourse part of an anti-crime speech that Hoover gave the year before at a dinner in his honor in Chicago.
President McKay wrote back thanking Hoover for his note and shortly afterward asked Hoover to speak at a dinner that the Salt Lake Sertoma Club wanted to sponsor similar to the one that produced his earlier quote.
Hoover declined, again writing, "I am unable to do so due to the uncertain nature of my official schedule."
Hoover and McKay maintained a long, cordial correspondence through the years, often complimenting each other on achievements.