This review fell through the cracks at HuffPost so I’m punting it over to AT2.
J. Edgar’s G-men on campus
reviewed by LJW
Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives chronicles the unlawful policies of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover during the 50s and 60s, that were aimed at students, faculty and others Hoover and his operatives deemed a threat to America. Those in bed with Hoover included then California governor Ronald Reagan, who was completely invested in tactics to smear, intimidate and disrupt academic freedom at UC Berkeley.
This book is a defining document of a largely untold story of oppression by the US government against its own citizens. Rosenfeld is a passionate investigative reporter and a fierce meticulous researcher. Rosenfeld actually started the book 30 years ago as a student journalist and eventually had to sue under the Freedom of Information Act for the most vaulted FBI files and Hoover papers that were still embargoed. Without knowing fully what was in them, Rosenfeld had to lobby in advance that the release of this material would be vital to the public interest. Talk about a literary Catch-22. Much of it was, indeed, explosive. Hoover sanctioned wire-taps, pay-offs, spies, loyalty oaths, doctored evidence, press smears, fictional dossiers, misappropriation of government funds and stealth operations that were clear abuses of power.
Before getting around to the so-called radicals on the Berkeley campus, Hoover was already conspiring with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in investigating Hollywood, ostensibly to flush out communists, but actually was maintained for its network of informants and keeps everyone in line for fear of a smear. At the top of the heap of informants was Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, a political star on the rise, who was feeding the feds rumors about his colleagues to both HUAC and Hoover.
When Hoover’s investigations turned up no concrete evidence on any of the key players among the student protesters, he didn’t back off. Rosenfeld chronicles the full scope of corruption and Hoover’s broad attacks on intellectuals, artists and faculty at Universities around the country. When campus protest started to focus on the war in Vietnam and started to spread quickly to involve colleges and universities across the country, Hoover tried to intimidate and smear the groups as anti-American and treasonous. Reagan, in a landslide victory in his campaign for governor of California, used local and federal force to bust up protests at UC Berkeley and other hot spots of social activism.
Rosenfeld vividly brings the turbulent era to life, by not going over well-trod territory. Subversives is a deft bio-history of the lead characters driving the events at Berkeley, including Clark Kerr, the liberal leaning, but vilified from all sides, president of the university. Kerr became a political target of Reagan and was unceremoniously dumped by the politicized board of Regents at Berkeley. Kerr went on to define policies of academic freedom at schools and was the architect of such progressive programs as Pell grants.
At the heart of the book is Rosenfeld’s portrait of Mario Savio, the troubled freedom fighter who became the ad hoc leader of the Free Speech Movement, and was targeted by Hoover and Reagan even after he was no longer directly involved. He became an iconic symbol of the student counterculture movement that defined the 60s. An Italian-American New Yorker headed for the priesthood, Savio became a brilliant physics student, bailed on a promising career to be part of the freedom riders working for black voter registration in Mississippi, which inspired him to mobilize the FSM on the Berkeley campus. Savio overcame a lifelong stutter when he spoke in public, faced down the academic hierarchy at Berkeley.
Clark Kerr and the Regents at UC sided with the Constitution on the rights of the FSM on campus, to the consternation of Hoover, who was planting stories in newspapers that Savio and the FSM was in bed with the communists. As villainous as Hoover come off, Rosenfeld really turns the heat up on Reagan, particularly over his militaristic handling of the People’s Park standoff, where he imposed martial law at Berkeley.
has dissected one of the fabled periods in American history, with lazar-beam veracity and craft. Rosenfeld digging out the final truth, you can almost see him typing bleary-eyed FBI notes with neon lights slashing through his windows. Meanwhile, this is a completely engrossing book of real citizen heroes towering over the Orwellean tactics Hoover’s private mafia.