The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power
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Review by Lucas A. Powe, Jr.
Thanksgiving dinner 1964, my senior year at Yale, was with several of my classmates at the residence of Sam Chauncey (a descendant of Yale’s first graduate), then an assistant dean but destined for more important jobs at his alma mater. At some point the University of California at Berkeley came up in conversation—and no wonder. A year earlier with the publication of UC-system President (and former Berkeley Chancellor) Clark Kerr’s Godwin Lectures The Use of the University combined with Kerr’s description of his beloved Berkeley as a “multiversity” (supposedly “a city of ideas”) had created serious discussions that Berkeley had surpassed Harvard and Yale as the leading American university. But in the fall of 1964 student protests at Berkeley—the Free Speech Movement—dominated headlines. Chauncey expressed schadenfreude at the situation, not realizing that a stifling insensitive bureaucracy was not limited to a self-proclaimed multiversity. The protests at Berkeley are an integral (but hardly complete) part of Seth Rosenfeld’s new book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power which is based on hundreds of personal interviews and 250,000 pages gained under the Freedom of Information Act—but only after decades of litigation.
While Subversives concentrates on the 1960s (which began with protests mocking the House UnAmerican Activities Committee then holding a hearing in San Francisco and successful protests to end compulsory ROTC), Rosenfeld goes back into the 1940s Hollywood as well as the loyalty oath controversy at Berkeley in the early 1950s. The cast of characters is rich indeed. As the subtitle indicates, there is Ronald Reagan, who was a more considerable FBI informant than he ever admitted, on his way to defeating Pat Brown in 1966 by explicitly running against Berkeley. Rosenfeld adds further documentation to the abuses of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was sure that the protests at Berkeley were communist inspired and he had his Bay Area agents working hard to prove it. The only problems were that they weren’t communist inspired and the agents couldn’t find the evidence Hoover wanted—but that did not deter Hoover, who used informants and disinformation to discredit the protesters. Then there is Clark Kerr, arguably the most important mid-century college administrator and the creator of the tiered California higher education system. He was the quintessential reasonable man caught between unreasonable forces and at the first Regents meeting that Reagan attended Kerr was fired, as conservative Regent Ed Pauley had long desired. There is Mario Savio the charismatic (but quite shy), idealistic leader of the Free Speech Movement who never could quite get his act together. Finally there are the incompetent (and angry) local police.
Subversives is a rich and well-documented story of idealism and cynicism in a pivotal place at an important time. Rosenfeld has also provided us with yet another cautionary tale of police organizations, from the FBI to the local level, that slip their boundaries to serve the governors and not the people.
Hardcover Book : 752 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux ( August 21, 2012 )
Item #: 13-634573
Product Dimensions: 6.0 x 9.0 inches
Product Weight: 36.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)