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In Subversives, It is the FBI, Not the Student Radicals, Who Subvert the Constitution

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld (2012).

Seth Rosenfeld, a San Francisco reporter, spent thirty years in Freedom of Information Act litigation against a stubbornly resistant FBI to obtain all the files that form the raw material for Subversives, his copiously detailed narrative of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California/Berkeley in the 1960s, and of the FBI’s many underhanded efforts to destroy it. Leading characters in this political drama are Ronald Reagan, governor of California from 1967-1975 and a longtime informer for the FBI; Clark Kerr, president of the sprawling University of California system—the quintessential man caught in the middle of the battle—; Mario Savio, icon of the student movement, gifted orator, and deeply troubled soul; and above all, J. Edgar Hoover, whose power as FBI director over more than 60 years enabled him to unleash his lengthy repertoire of dirty tricks against not only any group or individual he thought was communist-inspired, but also against liberal political dissent.

There are many intriguing, amusing, saddening, infuriating, and sobering moments in Rosenfeld’s story—about Hoover’s cozy alliance with Reagan, about his long, ultimately successful campaign to purge Kerr—a case study in slimy academic politics—; and about the struggles, strategies, and moral choices of Savio and a large cast of minor characters: idealistic activists, angry professors, conniving journalists, dubious informers, and fuming trustees. Rosenfeld’s technique is to weave information from the FBI files into his account of the background and history of the Free Speech Movement and his portraits of its main protagonists—in particular, Reagan, Kerr, and Savio.

Occasionally, Rosenfeld makes facile biographical comparisons; for example: “Like Kerr on his Peace Caravans and Reagan on tour for General Electric, Savio was embarking on a demanding journey into new parts of the country to spread passionate views about freedom and democracy.” The reader hardly needs this far-fetched editorial attempt to link the life experiences of three such disparate characters. But for the most part, the details are fascinating, especially Rosenfeld’s rendition of Hoover’s favors for Reagan over many years, from trailing his daughter Maureen, who had left home at 18 and, Reagan and ex-wife Jane Wyman suspected, was living with a married man, to petty corrupt practices like selling Reagan a $19,377 armored Cadillac for a mere $3,000, to a later incident during Rosenfeld's torturous Freedom of Information Act litigation, when the agency tried to redact the identity of another Reagan offspring, Michael, who was implicated in Mafia activities, from a document that it finally had to turn over. (Judge Marilyn Patel ruled that Michael’s name was not exempt from disclosure under the FOIA exemption for “law enforcement activities,” because it did not concern legitimate law enforcement but merely the FBI desire “to protect or promote Reagan’s political career.”)

There are innumerable other tidbits that shed light on the actions and moral choices of characters in the ongoing political drama. The FBI files mention that Katharine Hepburn, a star not easily intimidated by the anti-communist purge in Hollywood in the 1940s and ‘50s, was “not a very high type” because she was living with the married Spencer Tracy. Hoover loved spreading sexual gossip like this—of course, anonymously: one 1965 memo recounts how agents exposed the “immorality” of an anti-Vietnam War activist by sending an anonymous letter to an anti-communist publication announcing that he had fathered “a son born out of wedlock.”

Other dirty tricks included plans to print a bumper sticker attacking movement activist Bettina Aptheker with the words “Bettina Craptalker for Governor,” and attaching it to the bumpers of “appropriate communist-owned automobiles.” Hoover’s memo approved the idea but cautioned: “This must be handled in such a way as to completely protect the Bureau’s interest. San Francisco should use all appropriate security measures in carrying out this operation so that this effort cannot be traced in any way to this Bureau.”

Talk about wasteful expenditures of taxpayers’ money. This caper would be just an amusing footnote to history were it not so deeply representative of the lawlessness of the agency that did so much to cripple left and liberal protest throughout the twentieth century.

Rosenfeld’s interviews with former FBI agents add further detail to the story. Burney Threadgill, Jr., was a particularly fruitful source. He told Rosenfeld that on one occasion he and a fellow agent were assigned to spy on a meeting at the home of radical journalist Jessica Mitford and her husband, the lawyer Robert Treuhaft; they hid in a crawl space underneath the house, and “as the meeting wore on, Threadgill fell asleep and began to snore loudly.” The other agent quickly “rousted him and they crept away.” 

Another agent, William Turner, who specialized in telephone taps, eventually became a critic of the agency; he later saw Mitford at a party, and knew he had heard that “mellifluous British voice” before. He approached her, explained that he recognized her voice and why, and said he even knew her favorite toothpaste (Ipana). “Mitford, characteristically, burst into laughter.”

Rosenfeld’s narrative is scrupulously footnoted. In all of its 502 pages of text, I noticed only one error: he reports that James Meredith, with the help of a court order, finally succeeded in integrating Mississippi State University. In fact it was not Mississippi State but “Ole Miss”—the University of Mississippi.

Subversives is invaluable as history and makes for compelling reading. It adds detail to a story, however, that is already well-known, about the illegal conduct of the FBI over many years, culminating in its COINTELPRO program of spying and sabotage against the New Left. Nor does Rosenfeld grapple with the big questions raised by this history—among them, how deeply did it undermine democracy by stifling dissent and frustrating progressive change? To what extent is it responsible for the political stagnation we face today?

In January 2014, Margaret Talbot wrote in The New Yorker, apropos of Edward Snowden’s revelations, that National Security Agency surveillance today, despite its breadth, is "nowhere near as disturbing as COINTELPRO’s activities” were, because it is

neither ideologically motivated (the NSA’s actions were initially ramped up in response to a real attack; Hoover’s were intent on destroying perceived enemies) nor thuggish (it entails surveillance but not infiltration or harassment or blackmail or smear campaigns). Yet in one regard—its technological prowess—it is worse.1

What Talbot does not mention is that, in addition to the vast technological scope of the NSA’s data collection, police intelligence units today continue to spy on disfavored political and ethnic groups. Much of the detail of their anti-“subversive” activity is unknown. One hopes that it will not take fifty years and another crusade like Rosenfeld’s to learn the full scope of government campaigns to sabotage political dissent today.

Marjorie Heins

This review was published in the journal American Communist History, Vol. 13, Issue 2-3, 2014.

1. Margaret Talbot, “Comment: Opened Files,” The New Yorker, Jan. 20, 2014, 19-20.

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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