Luther Spoehr: Review of Seth Rosenfeld’s “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).



[Luther Spoehr is an HNN Book Editor and Senior Lecturer at Brown University.]

For aficionados of the abuse of power, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is a gift that keeps on giving.  Every time it seems that there can’t be anything left to reveal, somebody turns over a rock and out crawls another law-breaking, ethics-ignoring, ignominious episode.  Seth Rosenfeld, a prize-winning investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, has turned over a quarry-full of rocks and uncovered an appalling amount of sleazy behavior in post-war California, particularly in the turbulent 1960s.

Perhaps the best place to start reading this lengthy but compelling volume is on page 505.  That’s where Rosenfeld begins his brief background essay on “My Fight for the FBI Files,” which recounts his 30 years of filings under the Freedom of Information Act as he worked to bring to light the FBI’s intimate, decades-long involvement with California politics and higher education.  The documents he obtained, he says, “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.”

Rosenfeld takes the story from shortly after World War II, when the Cold War clamped its icy grip on the American psyche, into the 1970s, when California governor Ronald Reagan was well on his way to becoming a national figure, and the  two other primary figures in his narrative—Mario Savio and Clark Kerr—had been pretty much marginalized on the California scene.  Among other things, he shows that Reagan’s involvement with the FBI, starting when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, was much more extensive than has been previously known; that the FBI built files on Kerr from the time he became involved in California’s Loyalty Oath controversy in the early 1950s, even before he became Chancellor at UC-Berkeley and then President of the University of California; and that the FBI followed Savio, civil rights activist and frequent spokesman for the Free Speech Movement, for years after he left Berkeley, despite never coming up with the slightest evidence that he was in any meaningful sense “subversive.”

Then again, Hoover, the other main character in this drama, had an expansive definition of the term.  His arguably paranoid obsession with political dissenters may have led his organization to overlook real criminals, such as the Mafia, but he was also a skilled bureaucratic infighter and an expert at leaving no fingerprints at the scene of his slanders.  A favorite technique was passing along unproven charges about “subversives” to favored newspaper columnists, such as the San Francisco Examiner’s Ed Montgomery, who would put the charges in print.  The FBI would then add his column to its files and cite it when needed as a source of information.  Sometimes they would pass along unsubstantiated accusations without noting that follow-up investigations had proven the accusations to be baseless.  All, of course, in the name of the greater good, in the service of a cause: ridding America of the enemy within.

Some of this was suspected even as it was happening, and much was then proven by subsequent investigations, most notably the one that the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee conducted in 1975.  Rosenfeld builds on this record not only with the thousands of pages of documents he has received from his FOIA lawsuits, but also through extensive primary research elsewhere, including over 150 interviews.  Sometimes he went right into the lion’s den, interviewing FBI agents and officials who were involved in all this, as well as unapologetic Reagan associates such as Ed Meese.  He even interviewed Richard Aoki (now deceased), who apparently crossed the line from FBI informant to agent provocateur:  “He had given the Black Panthers some of their first guns and weapons training, encouraging them on a course that would contribute to shootouts with police and the organization’s demise.”  (In his interview, Aoki managed to avoid confirming or denying anything, but evidence from FBI files and other interviews is substantial.)

Other FBI informants were both ideologues and self-serving careerists:  Alex Sherriffs, a vice-chancellor at Berkeley in 1964, was hostile to student activists and thought Kerr was unconscionably “soft” on them.  This policy disagreement led to his demotion.  “Angry and resentful, the psychology professor…continued to supply Agent Don Jones with information from confidential university files about students, professors, and Kerr.”  After Reagan’s election as governor in 1966, Sherriffs rode his influence into a job as Reagan’s chief education advisor.

As noted, Rosenfeld argues that the FBI “sought to change the course of history.”  Certainly their illegal and unethical interventions changed the course of many lives (to put it mildly), but it’s hard to say just how much, if at all, they altered history’s overall direction.  Reagan’s key insights were political and they were his own:  when he saw and heard the crowds cheering his denunciations of the Berkeley demonstrators, he knew he had a winning issue—and he had the style to put it over:  “Obey the prescribed rules, or pack up and get out.”  Kerr’s presidency was doomed from that moment on, while the psychologically fragile Savio, periodically drawn back to activism like the proverbial moth to the flame, stayed true to his ideals.

If the FBI’s activities didn’t alter history’s direction, however, they certainly poisoned its atmosphere, contributing to and (in the minds of participants and adherents) even legitimizing a brand of polarizing, slanderous politics and policy-making that is still with us today.  And Rosenfeld’s story resonates in post-9/11 America in another way.  One of Hoover’s successors as FBI Director, Robert Mueller, wrote in 2002 that “As a citizen of this country, I abhor any investigative activity that targets or punishes individuals for the constitutional expression of their views.  Such investigations are wrong and anti-democratic, and past examples are a stain on the FBI’s greater tradition of observing and protecting the freedom of Americans to exercise their first amendment rights.  Any repeat of such abuses will substantially reduce public confidence in the FBI and therefore undercut our ability to combat crime and protect our country against terrorism and espionage.  For these reason, I will tolerate no such undertakings in today’s FBI.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But even with the “comprehensive oversight apparatus” now supposedly in place, we are still left with Plato’s question, “Who will guard the guardians?”  Rosenfeld’s important book is valuable as history and also, it must be said, as a cautionary tale.

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