Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Seth Rosenfeld. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.
Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power is a sweeping, narratively rich tour de force. It provokes more questions than it can answer about the FBI’s rampant abuse of power in higher education during the early Cold War and the 1960s. Bringing to bear news reports, personal interviews, secondary literature, and more than three hundred thousand pages of new documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, author Seth Rosenfeld contends that the University of California’s Berkeley campus— located in “the most radical city in America”—became a centerpiece in the construction of the modern American university, the New Left, and the New Right after World War II. He grounds his study in the biographical triptych of Clark Kerr, Berkeley’s first chancellor and later president of the UC system; Mario Savio, who became the best-known figure in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement; and former Hollywood actor and corporate spokesperson Ronald Reagan, whose relentless criticisms of the campus led him to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento.
All three were mutually antagonistic, yet each embodied the roiling social forces of the period. Kerr shepherded Berkeley into the upper echelons of the nation’s academic rankings, and his 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education became an organizational model internationally. Savio’s campus activism, inspired by his involvement in the civil rights movement and his rejection of soulless bureaucratic management, catapulted him to national prominence as an icon of student radicalism. By painting Berkeley as a hotbed of Communist intrigue and a symbol of failed liberalism, Reagan, for his part, “reduced the complex and unsettling changes sweeping America to the ostensibly simple matter of giving ungrateful college kids and egghead administrators a little old-fashioned discipline” and transformed himself into a folk hero among cultural, economic, and antistatist conservatives. Reagan’s criticism of the campus paved the way for his landslide victory in California’s 1966 gubernatorial race, which, in turn, burnished his credentials to pursue the White House.
The linchpin to this unlikely trinity was the FBI, which, Rosenfeld argues, “mounted the most extensive covert operations” the bureau is known to have conducted in any single university community. Motivated by ideological and political aims rather than legitimate law-enforcement concerns, bureau agents targeted and unlawfully investigated Kerr and Savio, while Reagan benefited directly from FBI sabotage and enjoyed the protection of bureau director J. Edgar Hoover. Effectively granted carte blanche to engage in domestic intelligence activities against any individual or group deemed “subversive,” the FBI operated outside the boundaries and even the knowledge of lawmakers, judges, and the president.
The campus first found its way into the FBI’s sights during the 1940s, amid concerns that Communist Party operatives were seeking nuclear secrets from Berkeley scientists. FBI attention escalated in the furor over the adoption of a special loyalty oath for university workers, and it intensified again after an unflattering essay question was included on the applicant exam for undergraduate admission (“What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to criticism?”). Hoover’s animosity toward the university fully metastasized in 1960, when Berkeley students protested hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco. The bureau and its allies characterized the protest as a left-wing plot.
Under the guise of containing the spread of radicalism in the academy, Hoover’s agents oversaw a secret program in the early 1950s to screen the appointments of state university professors, lecturers, and even nonteaching staff members who held “suspect” views—typically through unsubstantiated claims of disloyalty from anonymous accusers. At decade’s end, Berkeley had among the highest number of people on the bureau’s “Security Index” of individuals considered a threat to national security.
When proscriptions against oncampus advocacy for civil rights and other causes ignited the Free Speech Movement in 1964, the FBI launched a covert campaign (ultimately successful) to quarantine Savio, fire Kerr, and oust Democratic governor Edmund “Pat” Brown. By the time Berkeley student activism transformed into protests against the deepening war in Vietnam and demands for ethnic studies, government scrutiny was firmly entrenched in the university: both the FBI and the CIA were engaged in the illegal surveillance and harassment of hundreds of students, professors, staff members, and members of the board of regents. Adding to this shameful intrusion was the fact that campus officials, including those in the upper administration, collaborated by sharing confidential information with agents and allowing them to review student records.
As Rosenfeld indicates, these developments mirrored Reagan’s crusade as president of the Screen Actors Guild against suspected Communists in Hollywood and his emergence as a doyen of the Right. Indeed, he owed his ascent in large measure to his relationship with the FBI as an informer and his outspoken support of Hoover—who, in gratitude, suppressed information that could have personally embarrassed Reagan or thwarted his electoral ambitions. Indeed, as governor, Reagan continued to receive and use FBI intelligence about students, faculty members, and potential state hires. “The FBI’s dirty tricks at Berkeley,” Rosenfeld concludes, heightened student-administrator conflict, distorted the nature of campus upheaval, misrepresented the university to the taxpaying public, weakened the California Democratic Party, launched Reagan into the political stratosphere, and served to “exacerbate the nation’s continuing culture wars.” This state-sponsored repression also inspired the growth of a cottage industry of private intelligence gathering and blacklisting and, as Rosenfeld’s postscript on Savio poignantly illustrates, unraveled lives.
The brutal war that Hoover’s FBI waged against dissidents and accused “subversives” is widely known among historians of the period. As scholars (including this author) have maintained, the domestic hunt for “Reds” after World War II became a means of trampling civil liberties, denying due process, and discrediting initiatives to expand racial and economic justice. More specifically, it sowed the seeds of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTEL) against civil rights, Black Power, and antiwar organizations. But even if Rosenfeld’s overarching point is not a novel one, his account of the extent of FBI interference on the Berkeley campus and in the town itself is stunning. Academics employed in state institutions are likely also to find chilling his description of the ways in which professors, administrators, and staff members colluded in political spying and repression. These passages evoke recent “Occupy” actions at the University of California, Davis, during which passive student demonstrators were peppersprayed. That incident, like the demonstrations during Berkeley’s tumultuous heyday, spotlighted excessive force by police, administrative negligence, and an absence of consensus regarding campus protest. Likewise, Rosenfeld’s work brings to mind the more routinized ways in which faculty autonomy and free speech are being undermined today through the neoliberal restructuring of higher education, including public disinvestment; the ballooning strata of administrators, many of them immersed in corporate, consumer-driven models; the growing reliance on temporary academic labor; rising standards of productivity; and outcomes assessment and departmental auditing.
A great deal of attention has been paid to Rosenfeld’s assertion that the late Asian American activist Richard Aoki—a onetime member of Oakland’s Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and a leader of Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front—was an informer recruited by the FBI in the late 1950s. This claim comes on the heels of the discovery that the famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers, who had access to Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, doubled as an FBI informer. Historian Christopher Phelps more recently revealed the same about Herbert Hill, the outspoken labor secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The vigorous debate that Rosenfeld’s claim has sparked is emblematic of the continuing salience of the 1960s, and its iconic personalities and organizations, among veteran activists and sympathetic scholars today. (Another vivid case in point is the controversy surrounding Manning Marable’s 2011 biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.) To be sure, the shifting knowledge about this recent past suggests that, notwithstanding the wealth of literature that already exists about the 1960s, much more needs to be written.
More intriguing than Rosenfeld’s revelation about Aoki is how he chooses to interpret it. He writes that Aoki “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.” Elsewhere, he poses the question: “Did Aoki help the Panthers fight for justice, or did he set them up?” Both approaches too easily conflate being an informant with being an agent provocateur, and they implicitly rob the Panthers of their agency. It would be a mistake to imply that the Panthers’ armed patrols were an FBI-sponsored gimmick. Rather, they reflected long-standing grievances about police violence in black urban neighborhoods, observance of a California law that allowed the public carrying of firearms, and the influence of anticolonial politics from abroad.
Moreover, the author’s treatment of Aoki excludes a closer examination of the contradictions that molded him—a subject of Diane C. Fujino’s Samurai among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life—as well as the hegemony of the state in his life, from his internment during World War II to his enlistment in the military to escape his juvenile record. He becomes, in effect, a prime scapegoat in the Panthers’ move to “extreme militancy” and in what Rosenfeld depicts as the Third World Liberation Front’s tendency toward bloodshed.
In this way, the book subtly casts New Left activists of color as purveyors of destruction and fails to problematize the aggressively punitive nature of the state’s role in the Bay Area’s communities of color. It also buttresses a continuing dichotomy between the “good” 1960s of nonviolent resistance and a “bad” 1960s of armed protest, as exemplified by black militants and their associates. The youth movement, as presented here, is largely white, and multiracial protest is relegated mainly to a chapter in the last third of the book. As a result, Rosenfeld leaves out a range of voices and interests from his narrative and misses an opportunity to consider how California was not only a key staging ground of 1960s social ferment but also an incubator of a modern carceral state that today disproportionately imprisons black and brown people. (The latter is the focus of recent work by such scholars as Donna Murch and Julilly Kohler-Hausmann.)
The issues surrounding Aoki aside, Rosenfeld’s most damning claim is that the FBI surreptitiously cultivated Reagan’s political career, which raises the troubling possibility that the US intelligence community helped manufacture a government representative who subsequently won the presidency. As Rosenfeld describes, the Reagan White House not only protected agents convicted of charges connected to FBI criminality but also continued COINTEL-style operations in the 1980s against activists who opposed covert, illegal US military involvement in Central America. Reagan, Kerr, Savio, and Hoover are all deceased, and in the wake of the Church Committee’s hearings on the US counterintelligence program in the 1970s, bureau directors have formally disavowed Hoover’s unsavory methods. Yet Subversives comes as an important cautionary tale in the midst of news that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, local police, and the banking industry worked together to put down Occupy protests, and track their participants, in fall 2011. At several US universities, campus police supplied the FBI with information about students involved in the protests. Meanwhile, since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the FBI has been conducting surveillance of Muslim students and, indeed, Muslim communities. This time around, fears of a “terrorist threat” rather than “Communist subversion” have provided the justification for spying and crackdowns. As current events make plain, the legacies of the FBI’s uncivil war against dissent are alive and well, and perhaps even more insidious than before.
Clarence Lang is associate professor of African and African American studies at the University of Kansas. He is the author of Grassroots at the Gateway and coeditor (with Robbie Lieberman) of Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.