Paranoia masquerading as vigilance has been the catalyst for many American witch hunts, from fearful Salem to the wretched House Un-American Activities Committee. During J. Edgar Hoover’s directorship of the FBI, such aggressive suspicion — we think he’s a communist, so let’s prove he’s a communist — was often standard operating procedure. The political, personal, and social damage wrought by Hoover’s bureau is well-chronicled, but Seth Rosenfeld’s “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” offers a grim, powerful reminder of Hoover’s ruthlessness.
SUBVERSIVES: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power
“Subversives” is much more than a rehash of Hoover’s previously revealed folly, though. The product of a decades-long battle with the FBI, “Subversives” draws on 250,000 newly released FBI documents. The bureau fought Rosenfeld, a former investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle, every step of the way. But after 30 years, four lawsuits, and nearly $1 million of taxpayer money spent by the FBI to thwart his efforts, Rosenfeld lays bare the bureau’s sometimes illegal, 1960s surveillance and intervention efforts aimed at student and faculty activities on the University of California-Berkeley campus. Rosenfeld also shows us a long suppressed, unflattering side of Ronald Reagan, then an aging actor and fledgling politician.
All politics is a battle for the future, and during the 1960s the future seemed perilously up for grabs. Civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, women’s, and Third-World liberation movements were laced through the student body, the small city that contains the campus, and the nation at large, threatening the status quo with methods that would grow increasingly disruptive and violent. By focusing on four key players, Rosenfeld manages both a granular history of the UC campus protest and a primer on the broader cultural unrest of the period.
On one side we have Hoover and Reagan, a long-time FBI informant who manages to turn public disgust with the campus disturbances into a political asset. Against Hoover and Reagan, though by no means allies, Rosenfeld places Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, and Mario Savio, combative student leader of the Free Speech Movement, a radical student organization.
Kerr aroused Hoover’s disapproval in 1959 when the school asked prospective students an entrance exam question about “the dangers to a democracy [posed by] a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to criticism.” Free Speech Movement protests fueled Hoover’s growing hatred of Kerr — to be so permissive with rebellious, communist students meant that Kerr was either a communist dupe or an active Soviet collaborator. In response, Hoover devotes substantial resources to an effort to professionally ruin and personally disgrace Kerr.
As part of the Free Speech leadership, Savio was also suspected of communist collaboration. Although their personal stories are fascinating, Kerr and Savio appear in many ways incidental to the history. Hoover’s commie-lust, Reagan’s ambition, and the student uprising likely would have resulted in a similar dark kaleidoscope, regardless of student or faculty leadership.
Eventually, Hoover’s own agents reported that Kerr and most of the students were free of communist influence, but Hoover didn’t relent. Rosenfeld writes that, at Hoover’s command, “bureau officials misled a president by sending the White House information the bureau knew to be false; mounted a covert campaign to manipulate public opinion about campus events and embarrass university officials; collaborated with the head of the CIA to harass students; [and] ran a secret program to fire professors whose political views were deemed unacceptable.”
Reagan curried favor with the FBI from an early date. Starting when he was a movie actor and continuing through his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan was a frequent, enthusiastic informant for the bureau. Reagan’s appreciation for the FBI went so far that he personally appealed to Hoover for approval to create and star in an authorized show about the agency. This appears to be among the very few times Hoover balked at one of Reagan’s requests.
Once Reagan assumed the California governorship, his relationship with the FBI intensified. Putting down the student protests became part of Reagan’s law-and-order agenda, and as his political fortunes became increasingly tied to taming the chaotic campus, viewed by many on the right as the heart of American radicalism, Reagan relied more and more on Hoover’s ideologically driven misinformation. Tensions flared, and the ultimate result was a violent disaster, with students beaten, shot, and harassed.
At more than 700 pages, “Subversives” falls a bit short in making clear the more explosive and anarchic trajectory that segments of the protest movement were on. It shines, however, in recalling and unearthing material demonstrating the anxiety and contempt sparked by those suspected of radical activity. One trenchant example: During the climactic 1969 “Peoples’ Park” protest, sparked by a government attempt to reclaim an unused lot that had been turned into a makeshift community park, an Alameda County deputy shot and killed a 26-year-old spectator from San Jose named James Rector. Rector’s offense? He allegedly had thrown a rock. Years later, Ed Meese, Reagan’s adjutant during the Berkeley protest and later attorney general during Reagan’s presidency, summed up the establishment point of view: “James Rector deserved to die.”
Despite its few flaws, Seth Rosenfeld has produced a readable and important book about a key turning point in 20th century America.