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Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power Hardcover – August 21, 2012
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
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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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Rosenfeld researched this book for over thirty years, not because he wanted to, but because he was forced to sue the FBI repeatedly to induce the agency to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act. As the author states in his preface, “Many pages were disclosed for the first time, including those concerning the surveillance of law-abiding citizens and efforts to disrupt political organizations. Many others were reprocessed to release additional information, such as the names of people Ronald Reagan informed on” (loc 64). Almost fifty percent of the book consists of appendices, FBI files, notes, selected bibliography, documents, interviews, other sources, acknowledgments, and a subject index.
While Rosenfeld was speaking on C-SPAN, I became reacquainted with this era of unrest, the early and middle 1960s, and after I finished the book I became more and more satisfied with the fact that I’d never mustered much respect for the gipper (or is it gypper?). Rosenfeld produces evidence that Reagan began buying favors from J. Edgar Hoover by turning in certain Hollywood celebs who were suspected of being communists. In exchange, he would later ask Hoover to tail his eighteen-year-old daughter, Maureen, in the Washington, D.C. area to see if she was truly living with a man much older than she. Why would a leader who hated excessive government exploit said government for private reasons instead of hiring his own private investigator? Was he just cheap? Why would Reagan use his power as California governor to remove a liberal chancellor at UC Berkeley by seating himself as one of the regents? All throughout his life as a politician of “less government,” he used more government to further his own political standing. Our upstanding Reagan, according to Rosenfeld’s information, was quite promiscuous by way of starlets as much as fifteen years his junior during the period following his divorce from Jane Wyman and before he met Nancy Davis. He neither cared much for nor spent much time with his “Wyman" children, and, well, we know through Patty Davis how great a father he was to the “Davis" kids. What an all-around wonderful human being he seems to have been—having justified all his actions on behalf of his brilliant career. If you can stand getting angry all over again, as I did, you might enjoy reading how Rosenfeld documents everything that seemed to be true about Reagan and his horrible misuse of power but which one couldn’t prove. By the end of the book, you realize that Rosenfeld’s title, Subversives, is true not only (according to the media and popular culture) of the UC students who rioted for reform but also of Reagan, who used his power to subvert democracy, the very ideal he purported to be protecting.
Anyone who lived through those times as a sentient adult will surely remember some of the seminal events: the protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960, lodged in memory through the iconic footage of students being fire-hosed down the steps of San Francisco City Hall; the 1964 Free Speech Movement that pushed the University of California at Berkeley into the forefront of student protest, brought Mario Savio to prominence, and began to change public attitudes about the police; the 1965 Vietnam Day Teach-In that fastened students' attention on the escalating U.S. war in Vietnam and initiated the public's disillusionment with the U.S. government; and the violent clash over People's Park in 1969, which led to the death of young James Rector and confirmed in so many minds the view that law enforcement officials were out of control.
Subversives breaks new ground in several ways because of Rosenfeld's dogged, three-decade pursuit of classified government files that cast new light on the events themselves as well as the major players whose decisions drove them. The author keeps the story from getting out of hand by maintaining a tight focus on Hoover, Reagan, Savio, and UC Berkeley President Clark Kerr.
In Subversives, Rosenfeld relates the roles (hitherto largely undocumented) of J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan in these familiar events, demonstrating the ruthlessness with which both men pursued "Communists" and their lack of respect for the truth. We see Hoover aggressively pushing his agents to seek out embarrassing personal details -- largely rumors -- about Mario Savio, Clark Kerr, and their collaborators, illegally passing the information along to Right Wing publications, and later citing it as documented truth in reports to the President and to the public. We see Reagan eagerly seeking out the FBI to inform on his rivals in Hollywood and secretly naming names behind closed doors with HUAC, destroying the careers of talented actors, directors, and writers because he disagreed with their political beliefs. From a vantage-point of half a century, both men appear to be thoroughly unscrupulous and careless about the sometimes tragic consequences of the action they directed from their privileged positions.
Seth Rosenfeld, a winner of the coveted George Polk Award and now a staff member of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting, was previously an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.