Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power

Seth Rosenfeld fought the law, and the people won; there can be little doubt of that. Beginning in 1985, and with the help of various lawyers working pro bono, the longtime San Francisco Chronicle reporter eventually compelled the FBI to cough up over 300,000 documents in response to FOIA requests improperly redacted, delayed, and/or denied.

The documents describe the Bureau’s flagrantly illegal attempts to suppress the student movement at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, and to exert secret, partisan political control over the university’s faculty and administration; they represent “…the most extensive record of FBI activities concerning a university during J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure, and the most complete release of bureau records on Ronald Reagan.”

These documents show that during the Cold War, FBI officials sought to change the course of history by secretly interceding in events, manipulating public opinion, and taking sides in partisan politics. The bureau’s efforts, decades later, to improperly withhold information about those activities under the FOIA are, in effect, another attempt to shape history, this time by obscuring the past.

Reagan turns out to have been far more intimately involved with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI than has previously been made public; this involvement began in the 1940s and continued into his tenure as governor of California and beyond. The FBI spent over $1 million to prevent these documents from coming to light — your tax dollars at work! — and in Rosenfeld’s new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, it’s made clear why.

The conflict between the Republican Right and the student Left at UC Berkeley throughout most of the sixties was already well documented, notably in contemporary newspaper accounts. When Reagan ran for governor of California, he made a lot of political hay out of the unrest at Berkeley by throwing his weight around. “No one is compelled to attend the university. Those who do attend should accept and obey the prescribed rules or pack up and get out.”

But Subversives deepens our understanding of the political underpinnings of this period with the aid of many new details. There were two currents: the liberal dissent rooted in the broader civil rights movement and resulting in the Berkeley-centered Free Speech Movement and the antiwar movement; the other was the rise of the Republican Right, which Rosenfeld connects to concern over protecting nuclear secrets from hostile powers during the Cold War. This legitimate need for covert activity on the part of the FBI eventually morphed into the secretive, paranoid hostility of Hoover’s autocratic intelligence empire toward the never-quite-defined “subversives” whom he wanted to root out and “eliminate.”

The perfidy of J. Edgar Hoover — an inveterate lawbreaker and opponent of democracy and free speech — has also long been known. But we now have proof that Ronald Reagan was lying when he said that he hadn’t helped to blacklist any individual actors during the HUAC period. He did: those actors are named in Rosenfeld’s book. And that’s just the beginning. The Reagan who emerges from these documents is light-years away from the image of the tough, principled American hombre confected after the fact. Here, instead, is the Reagan whom many observers suspected lay behind the Iran-Contra scandal all along: a paranoid, vindictive martinet who thought nothing of breaking or subverting laws in order to advance his own interests, or to crush his ideological opponents — even when those opponents were law-abiding university professors or student protestors.

I hadn’t known that Hoover himself intervened to prevent the unsavory association of Reagan’s son Michael with the son of mobster “Joe Bananas” Bonanno from becoming public as Reagan prepared to enter politics. Nor that the FBI deliberately falsified Reagan’s background checks, “cleaning up” evidence of the “subversive” organizations he’d been associated with before becoming “a staunch anti-Communist.” The FBI similarly doctored the records of liberal UC president Clark Kerr, providing false information in order to prevent Kerr’s being considered for a position in the Johnson Cabinet.

The difficult question of why and how Clark Kerr failed to make an ally of student leader Mario Savio or of the Berkeley protestors in general is also greatly illuminated by Rosenfeld’s account, and in a manner likely to interest students of the American Left. Had these two been able to reach an accommodation, they might have been able to forestall the worst consequences of Reagan’s rise to power. For example, had Kerr known of the FBI’s many illegal efforts to get him fired, or the illegal tactics Hoover & Co. had used against Berkeley faculty and students, would he still have treated their ally, Governor Reagan, with such patient forbearance? Would he have responded to the ideology of Savio and his associates, or resisted their demands, in quite the same way?

It’s a big, rambling book, over 700 pages long, closely annotated. Its style is episodic and reportorial, lacking a narrative arc or much in the way of analysis. Even so, I imagine that Subversives will automatically become an essential reference for students of sixties unrest, of the career of Ronald Reagan, and of the FBI’s long history of illegal shenanigans against American citizens. It’s to be hoped, too, that Rosenfeld will share his documents, perhaps with the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, for the benefit of future scholars.

The book focuses on four personalities, though just three are named in the flap copy: Savio, Kerr, and Reagan. But it’s the specter of Hoover that looms largest over Rosenfeld’s story; as the years roll on, it has become increasingly impossible to avoid the conclusion that it’s his dark legacy we’re suffering from the most in our own divisive times.

“Totalitarianism,” after all, just means a one-party state, and it is clear that that is what both Hoover and Reagan favored, each in his own way, and however ham-fistedly; no legal or moral consideration was more important to them than quashing dissent. Any liberal or leftist, any supporter of the civil rights movement or student protestor, was by their lights a likely subversive, probably controlled by “the Commies.”

The still-recent memory of the disorienting rightward swerve of the Bush years, which saw such a dramatic erosion of civil liberties in the name of “security,” makes Subversives very queasy reading, with echoes of Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (Harper’s, November 1964) and 1987’s Ronald Reagan, the Movie: and Other Episodes in Political Demonology, by the late Michael Rogin, the latter an investigation of the dream world halfway between cinema and real life inhabited by Reagan, as well as an analysis of the traditional role of the right-wing reactionary in the U.S.

The demonologist splits the world in two, attributing magical, pervasive power to a conspiratorial center of evil. Fearing chaos and secret penetration, the countersubversive interprets local initiatives as signs of alien power. […] The countersubversive needs monsters to give shape to his anxieties and to permit him to indulge his forbidden desires. Demonization allows the countersubversive, in the name of battling the subversive, to imitate his enemy.

“Subversive,” at the height of Hoover’s paranoid reign, had no official or legal definition; like “terrorist,” it invoked the fear of a mysterious enemy who could be hiding anywhere. But among the four men at the center of this book, who were the ones really subverting American principles?