'Subversives' Tells How Academic Freedom Came Under Fire and Was Changed Forever

The political drama that unfolds in these pages is a tragedy of the greatest kind: men who champion American ideals such as freedom of expression are squashed by men of power.

Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Regan's Rise to Power

Publisher: Picador
Length: 752 pages
Author: Seth Rosenfeld
Price: $24.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-07

If you dislike Ronald Reagan Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power will only help you dislike him more. The late president is the clear villain of this epic tome, a baddy that Hollywood would have killed to create. Of course, maybe it did create him. Filled with the kind of contradictions unique to hypocrites, Reagan frequently said whatever he needed to say to please those he was trying to please at the moment; he was a man who seemed to forget his own past, who betrayed friends and colleagues, and who favored either/or reasoning over nuanced discussion.

Reagan is just one of three major players in an expertly written and deftly-researched work that chronicles the most fascinating and tumultuous era of the latter half of the last century. Joining him in this story are UC-Berkeley president Clark Kerr and Mario Savio, a troubled but charismatic student at Berkley who became the major voice of the university’s Free Speech Movement (FSM) and the target of conservative ire during his brief but impressive moment in the spotlight.

If Reagan wears the black hat, it’s Savio who wears the white and Kerr who’s burdened with being the story’s most morally ambiguous character––a liberal but not a radical, he favored progress but not at the expense of tradition. His reluctance to embrace tyranny made him an easy target and ultimately cost him his position.

By the time Kerr became the first chancellor at Berkeley in 1958, there had already been a long tradition of political controversy on the prestigious campus. Faculty members J. Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest O. Lawrence worked on the Manhattan Project and their secrets were of great interest to Soviet spies and Soviet spies were, in turn, of great interest to the FBI.

Oppenheimer piqued the Bureau’s curiosity because, although he was initially “avowedly apolitical”, the rising tides of fascism and Nazism as well as events of the Great Depression had taught him “how deeply political and economic events could affect men’s lives”. He phoned Communists, attended gatherings they also attended, married a former member of the party and had a brother, Frank, who was himself a Communist. But the FBI never concluded that Oppenheimer was himself a red.

Though he was not destroyed by these accusations, others would be and soon, Rosenfeld writes, “Rhe FBI saw its mission as nothing less than protecting the American way of life. So sweeping were the presidential directives granting the FBI domestic intelligence authority that bureau officials could investigate any person or organization they deemed ‘subversive’.”

Rosenfeld adds, “The FBI would soon begin to misuse its intelligence machinery to destroy the careers of university employees engaged in lawful dissent.” The words “lawful dissent” are especially critical in understanding the controversy that later enveloped Berkeley and the Free Speech Movement itself.

By the early '50s Hugh M. Burns, chairman of the California state senate’s Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, was already convinced that the University of California “was nothing less than a hotbed of spies and subversives” and officials there “were ‘aiding and abetting’ the international Communist conspiracy to overthrow the United States government." This ultimately led Burns to develop a plan to “eliminate subversives on California campuses”. So-called “contact men” were to be appointed at each campus, but not every campus was willing to cooperate. Kerr was pegged as the point of contact for Berkeley.

At first glance he probably seemed an ideal candidate. He supported a campus ban on Communist faculty, “who he felt were too ideologically biased to fairly present ideas and information contrary to their own”; but although he’d signed a campus loyalty oath, he also supported those who refused to sign and upon Hughes naming him as the campus “contact man”, Kerr was “in astonishment”, convinced that Hughes’ “real targets were not spies, or even Communists, but law-abiding liberals” and that being a “contact man” would only create tension between himself and both professors and students.

Tensions began boiling over when, in 1959, the following question appeared on an English aptitude test: “What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to public criticism?” Of course students didn’t need faculty to rile them up about the role of the FBI in the society at the moment. There was concern about the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and organizations that were gathering with hopes of lessening social injustices. Naturally, there was fear that the Communists were specifically targeting youth. Already, by early 1960, J. Edgar Hoover believed that students engaged in protests were a threat to national security and needed closer scrutiny.

Hoover had penned a report, titled “Communist Target––Youth”, and Reagan, then host of General Electric Theater, a popular television show, wanted to produce an episode based on Hoover’s findings. When Hoover began an investigation named COMPIC (Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry), Reagan was among those whose names were consistently mentioned in the same breath as “suspicious activity”.

Reagan’s placement in Hollywood and some close ties to members made him an easy recruit for informing, which he did and maybe even reveled in. His role as present of the Screen Actors Guild gave him access to a number of actors and actresses whose political affiliations were suspicious and was able to deepen his ties with the Bureau.

Savio, a man whose intellect and hunger for social justice make him the hero of this volume, is perhaps the most tragic character here––a man dedicated enough to his beliefs that he did not know when to temper his passions with intellect and an intellectual who, had he quelled some of those personal fires, might have made a greater difference in American life than what he was allowed. A better performer on tests than either Kerr or Reagan, he was also known for his down-to-earth personality as much as for his dedication to free speech.

His interest in mathematics led him to study that field and physics at Berkley, though he would change his course of study more than once. He was, by the time he arrived in the Bay Area in 1963, already politically motivated, having read David Horowitz’s Student which declared that the youth were the future, there to right the wrongs of their elders and to prevent “the destruction of all life”.

He may have been a gifted mathematician but his real calling came in the form of leadership and activism, both of which proved detrimental to his studies. He was arrested, jailed, and quickly captured the FBI’s attention with his radical politics.

Despite the Bureau’s ability to infiltrate the campus, Berkley students succeeded in gaining an upper hand in matters of protest. And Savio in particular became increasingly galvanized by what he viewed as Kerr’s reluctance to support academic freedom, encouraging more radical tactics after any indication that Kerr might come down harder on the FSM.

The political drama that unfolds in these pages is a tragedy of the greatest kind: men who champion American ideals such as freedom expression are squashed by men of power who will limit expression and dissent. By 1966 Reagan had abandoned the Democratic Party, convinced that it had become socialist, and began to voice, more loudly than ever, that the Communist Party was infiltrating the motion picture industry. No matter that he had no firsthand knowledge of such activities, Reagan was able to convince Hoover that he had “a nose” for the situation and that he could “smell” such an infiltration as it began to unfold.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Reagan would throw stones at Hollywood. Only a few short years earlier he’d been dismissed as host of General Electric Theater as company executives worried that his outside speeches were too radical. He had claimed, for example, that the Tennessee Valley Authority, which had brought electricity and employment to impoverished areas of the South, was a prime example of government overreach, something that did not sit well with GE given that the TVA was one of the company’s greatest customers. Moreover, though he had been in Hollywood, his contributions were at best minor and one begins to sense that maybe he adopted the petulance unique to those forever trapped on the fringe.

Savio supported the civil rights movement and saw it as the greatest instrument of change within the country; Reagan, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, wanted no intrusions “on the free market, on property rights, on profit”; Rosenfeld writes that, to Reagan, “the single biggest threat to America was communism, with socialism and liberals close behind”. But his disgust at the overreach of government didn’t stop him from calling in favors with the FBI, at least twice. In one instance, the Bureau was instrumental in suppressing information about Michael Reagan’s ties to the son of a Mafia boss.

Berkley and the student unrest there became Reagan’s greatest interest as he called for a “moral crusade” that he hoped might close what he called the “decency gap” and insisted that students who did not obey the rules as set forth by the state of California, should be expelled from the university. The future president’s tactics would have far reaching implications for the University of California itself and for higher education in general. Although he’d protest cutbacks while a student himself, he now called for a ten percent decrease in all state agencies that would reach about 20 percent for Berkley. He wanted to instate tuition for the first time the history of the college and, when this plan leaked to the press, the fallout was tremendous.

Hoover rushed to help Reagan rid the campus of its undesirable elements and, before long, Kerr was dismissed, though he left office with at the very least a memorable quip, indicating that he’d left the office just as he’d entered it, “fired with enthusiasm”. Then-governor Reagan even saw fit to blame the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on campus unrest and pin the blame on the FSM.

As Reagan rises, the strong images of Kerr and Savio fade, and we lose a little of our enthusiasm for the narrative as our two most compelling and nuanced characters leave the stage. Perhaps that’s telling of American politics and campus life in the wake of Reagan’s "great clean up". In subsequent decades college campuses have become places where real debate is increasingly rare and voices of dissent are often quickly silenced. In the American political landscape, too, we often see increasingly less nuance and more calls for obvious wearers of the black and white hats.

Rosenfeld’s book is thoroughly researched. He bases the work on confidential FBI files that were released only after a prolonged battle under the umbrella of the Freedom of Information Act. As he writes in the preface, “Many of these records, amassed during the tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, reveal bureau surveillance of law-abiding citizens and efforts to disrupt political organizations. Other documents illuminate the FBI’s long obscured relationship with Ronald Reagan and his activities as an informer, and disclose the names of those he informed on.”

The author addresses this battle directly in an illuminating appendix to the books 2013 edition. More than 150 pages of notes, a selected bibliography, and an impressive list of sources follow. Subversives straddles the line between an academic and popular work quite well and will be of interest to those who seek out a sometimes enraging political drama about a dark turn in the country’s history and those seeking to understand the era from a more academic perspective.

Exhausting, engaging, infuriating for those with a sense of social justice and/or those who value radical beliefs, and well worth your time.


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