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Spy vs. Spy
BOOK REVIEW - Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld
On Oct. 1, 1964, a student on the Berkeley campus of the University of California (UC) set up a table to distribute literature about civil rights. He was arrested by the police — there had been a ban on political activities on campus since the 1940s — but before he could be removed, hundreds and then thousands of students surrounded the police car. The confrontation developed into an all-night protest and only ended when the students, intimidated by 500 police threatening to forcefully remove them from the area and encouraged by concessions offered by the university, agreed to a compromise. It was the first major protest on the Berkeley campus in history. By the end of the school year, students had won the right to organize political events on campus in time to create the first massive protests against the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam.
The radical student movement had a powerful enemy: J. Edgar Hoover, director, beginning in 1924, of the Bureau of Investigation, which became the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1935. Starting in the 1930s, Hoover undertook campaigns of illegal, covert surveillance and dirty tricks against anyone the FBI suspected of being a “subversive” — a definition that went far beyond members hip to the Communist Party. At one time about 10 percent of the memebers of the Socialist Workers Party were FBI informants. Anyone who questioned government foreign policy or racial segregation was likely to end up with an FBI file.
As Berkeley became an epicenter of the student movement, Hoover set out to contain, sabotage and repress the movement. Part of his solution was to facilitate the election of Ronald Reagan in 1968 as governor of California. Reagan’s platform centered on repressing the movement on UC campuses.
Sound like a conspiracy theory? Author Seth Rosenfeld anchors “Subversives” in 300,000 pages of FBI files released after successive court cases. Among numerous revelations, the files document Reagan’s activities as an FBI informant from his days as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s. The FBI provided quid pro quo for his cooperation, such as investigating Reagan’s estranged daughter, downplaying in public reports the Mafia involvement of Reagan’s adopted son, and feeding Reagan useful information for his political career.
The files also document Hoover’s secret campaign to get Clark Kerr, the liberal head of the UC system, fired, since Hoover saw Kerr as a compromiser who was only encouraging the protestors. Reagan engineered Kerr’s dismissal at the first Board of Regents meeting after his election as governor.
The next year Reagan got the Board of Regents to reject a student proposal to turn a university-owned vacant lot into a People’s Park. “Dorothy Walker, a Berkeley city planning commissioner, told the
governor, ‘The blood of the people of Berkeley will be on your hands.’ ‘Fine,’ Reagan replied. ... ‘I’ll wash it off with Boraxo,’” referencing a soap advertised on one of his TV shows.
In the 1969 deadly confrontation that followed, an innocent bystander was killed, another was permanently blinded and at least 50 other civilians — some protestors, some not — were injured by police shotgun blasts of birdshot and buckshot.
Rosenfeld follows three figures in the history of Berkeley protest: Reagan, Kerr, and Mario Savio, a major leader of the first student protests in 1964. Each represents a different political current: Savio, the increasing radicalization of the student body and its alienation from the political process; Kerr, the mainstream liberals who had some commitment to civil liberties but accepted what they saw as political reality; and Reagan, the conservative reaction. Rosenfeld finds parallels in their personalities and interests, but the device can’t quite hold the story together: Savio’s intense involvement in the movement was short-lived, and he abhorred the idea of being a “leadership figure,” believing it antithetical to participatory democracy.
Reagan went on to become president of the United States; Kerr immediately found another job with the Carnegie Foundation; and Savio, in part because of ongoing FBI harassment, had a hard time finding a job for a number of years.
The history is fascinating. Rosenfeld draws on a number of sources, not just FBI files, to give insight as to how and why the Berkeley movement in the 1960s developed as it did, while introducing at each point information about the ongoing FBI surveillance and reaction to events. The reader can get lost in the complexity of the story. Rosenfeld often introduces chapters with climactic events and then goes back in time to explain how they happened. The book could benefit from a chronological table showing the relationship of various protests and meetings in time.
The detailed revelations of FBI surveillance raise important issues about how police powers can be abused in the absence of strong civilian oversight, especially since many of the safeguards enacted after Hoover’s death have been eroded in the past 10 years. Still, the real interest of the narrative is the story of how a quiescent campus (or society) can come to challenge the foundations of power in the course of a very short time.
Related SIdebar: Richard Aoki
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