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Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power Hardcover – August 21, 2012

4.6 out of 5 stars 65 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

Documenting the depth of that covert alliance [between Reagan and the FBI] is only one of the amazing things this sweeping book accomplishes. The product of more than thirty years' indomitable work acquiring the files via the Freedom of Information Act to yield these secrets, this volume is also an outstanding primer on the postwar Red Scare; a riveting account of the origins, development, and philosophy of the New Left; and a penetrating look into the mind of Reagan. But most of all, it's the best acount I've read on how the FBI corroded due process and democracy. —Rick Perlstein


“[An] electrifying examination of a newly declassified treasure trove of documents detailing our government's campaign of surveillance of the Berkeley campus during the '60s.” ―Matt Taibbi, The New York Times Book Review

“Fiercely reported.” ―New York Magazine, The Approval Matrix (Highbrow, Brilliant)

“Armed with a panoply of interviews, court rulings, and freshly acquired F.B.I. document, Rosenfeld shows how J. Edgar Hoover unlawfully distributed confidential intelligence to undermine the nineteen-sixties protest movement in Berkeley, while brightening the political stars of friendly informants like Ronald Reagan. Rosenfeld's history, at once encyclopedic and compelling, follows a number of interwoven threads.” ―The New Yorker, Briefly Noted

“In case you've forgotten or are too young to know, the 1960s were the template for today's political divisiveness. In Subversives, Seth Rosenfeld chronicles how the abyss formed. His book is crucial history. It's also a warning . . . Profound thanks to Seth Rosenfeld for outing the truth and speaking truth to power.” ―Carlo Wolff, The Christian Science Monitor

“Several books have dealt directly or tangentially with the Berkeley student revolt, but Seth Rosenfeld's Subversives presents a new and encompassing perspective, including a revisionist view of Ronald Reagan and a detailed picture of FBI corruption. The details of the story did not come easily. It took Rosenfeld, a former reporter for The Chronicle and the Examiner, 25 years and five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to finally get all the material he requested from the FBI. The bureau fought him every inch of the way, spending more than $1 million of taxpayers' money in an effort to withhold public records, until it finally had no choice . . . A well-paced and wide-ranging narrative . . . A deftly woven account.” ―The San Francisco Chronicle

“Vivid and unsettling.” ―The New Orleans Times-Picayune

“Seth Rosenfeld fought the law and the people won; there can be little doubt of that . . . Subversives deepens our understanding of the political underpinnings of this period with the aid of many new details . . . Subversives will automatically become an essential reference for students of sixties unrest, of the career of Ronald Reagan, and of the FBI's long history of illegal shenanigans against American citizens.” ―Barnes and Noble Review

“Stunning revelations.” ―NPR, "On the Media"

Subversives is the story the FBI didn't want told.” ―Guernica

Subversives is more than a documentary history--it has the insight that comes only with relentless reporting. This book is the classic history of our most powerful police agency and one of the most influential political figures of our time secretly joining forces.” ―Lowell Bergman, Investigative journalist for The New York Times and Frontline

“[A] galvanizing account of the student radical movement in the 1960s . . . This book is the result of 30 years of investigation, including Rosenfeld's landmark Freedom of Information fight, which resulted in the FBI being forced to release more than 250,000 pages of classified documents (Rosenfeld's appendix detailing his struggle is gripping in itself). Besides FBI files, Rosenfeld relied on court records, news accounts, and hundreds of interviews. Clearly, he has the goods, and fortunately he also has the writing skills to deliver a scathing, convincingly detailed, and evocative indictment of the tactics of the FBI and of Ronald Reagan during his rise to power against the backdrop of Berkeley in the sixties.” ―Connie Fletcher, Booklist (starred review)

“[Rosenfeld] painstakingly re-creates the dramatic--and unsettling--history of how J. Edgar Hoover worked closely with then California governor Ronald Reagan to undermine student dissent, arrest and expel members of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, and fire the University of California's liberal president, Clark Kerr . . . [Subversives] is narrative nonfiction at its best.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Masterfully researched . . . A potent reminder of the explosiveness of 1960s politics and how far elements of the government were (and perhaps still are) willing to go to undermine civil liberties.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“All students of the sixties are indebted to Seth Rosenfeld for his years of persistent work prying documents out of the FBI. Freedom-loving Americans ought to be indebted to him for showing the lengths to which America's political police went, and how intensely they colluded with Ronald Reagan, to encroach upon liberty.” ―Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties and Occupy Nation


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition first Printing edition (August 21, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374257000
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374257002
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.5 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #489,972 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Not fun reading for an American, even for a consistent liberal! Nobody wants to have the dishonesty and pettiness of his "leaders' rubbed in his face. Readers who identify themselves, rightly or wrongly, as Conservatives will detest the contents of Seth Rosenfeld's 'Subversives' and will do their best to discount his intensive research and discredit the author's impartiality as a historian/journalist. They won't have much of a case on either point. Rosenfeld spent thirty years suing and compelling the FBI to release more 250,000 pages of previously secret files, and his commitment to the inherent value and necessity of "national security" is utterly conscientious. It isn't the motives of Jay Edgar Hoover's FBI or of the ambitious politician Ronald Reagan that Rosenfeld criticizes; it's their unethical conduct, their betrayal of the ethics of the country they professed to defend.

So what does Rosenfeld expose?

1) Hoover's FBI, originally fostered by FDR, became a rogue agency, not answerable to any branch of the elected government. It was anything but impartial. It ignored and violated the "rule of law." It interfered with the political process and with elections as callously as the NKVD in the Soviet Union.

2) J Edgard Hoover was as ruthless, vicious, amoral and personal as Lavrentiy Beria, though his "murder toll" was nowhere near as high.

3) Ronald Reagan was a FBI "mole" - an informer against his own union and union colleagues long before he sought any elected office. Once again, Rosenfeld doesn't fault Reagan for his motives but rather for his self-serving failure of ethics.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was still a young teen when most of the action of the Sixties was taking place, but the antiwar movement really had gotten cranking by the time I was 16 and my father committed suicide. Because of the numinousness of the events--600 bombings in 1971 alone--the whole series of events from the beginning of the civil rights movements to the end of the Vietnam war in 1973, I was especially affected. After reading Rosenfeld's superbly researched book, I've come to realize just how much of an effect right-wing extremists have had in influencing how Americans think of this important turning point in American history. I've read a number of books about the period, but "Subversives" is the first book to take the issue strictly from the viewpoint of the University of California-Berkeley's Free Speech Movement. I knew only a little about Mario Savio, and didn't understand until reading this how important an influence he had on the events to come after his stirring 1964 speech during a rally motivated by restrictions against students advocating political issues on university property. Not only did Savio galvanize the UC Berkeley students and move the regents to allow political activity on campus, but he appeared at a crucial moment when students were risking their lives to register Blacks in the South to vote--only to see the very people they were trying to help get shipped off to Vietnam.

Rosenfeld brings this and other issues to the fore, and this is important, mainly because years of right-wing propaganda has branded the New Left that emerged in the Sixties as "Socialist" or "Communist" when those involved were merely citizens concerned over America's seeming racism in once again putting its boot down on people a world away, people who didn't happen to be white.
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Format: Hardcover
Drawing on FBI documents and scores of interviews, Seth Rosenfeld considers four figures that shaped the Berkeley student protests of the 1960s: UC president Clark Kerr, student activist Mario Savio, Ronald Reagan, and J. Edgar Hoover. He also probes the partnership Ronald Reagan formed with the FBI that began in the 1940s and lasted at least until Hoover's death in 1972. His findings indicate that the two men and their allies sabotaged the careers of law-abiding citizens, defended reckless police violence, and exploited an appalling double standard in the political use of FBI intelligence.

Rosenfeld tells his story patiently and reliably. He weaves his findings into a continuous narrative that presumes little prior knowledge of these men or the events they shaped. He also fleshes out that narrative with detailed accounts of supporting characters, many of whom aided the FBI and Reagan in their campaign against Kerr and the student radicals.

As an investigative reporter, Rosenfeld is relentless but by no means one-sided. Even as he probes the liaison between Hoover and Reagan, he also shows that Richard Aoki, a leader in the Black Panther Party and UC Berkeley's Third World Liberation Front, was an FBI informant. (He has since backed up that claim with more FBI documentation.)

One of the book's most interesting stories concerns the FBI's efforts to withhold information about its assistance to Reagan. In an appendix, Rosenfeld details the lawsuits he filed and won over three decades to acquire the relevant FBI documents.
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