Friday, October 5, 2012

Subversives: FBI War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power (book review)

Author:Seth Rosenfeld (published 2012)

"The most beautiful thing in the world is freedom of speech"--Mario Savio, student activist 1964, (quoting the philosopher Diogenes)

"The university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas."--Clark Kerr, Chairman of the California University Board of Regents

"Obey the prescribed rules or pack up and get out."--Ronald Reagan, actor, undercover FBI informant, two-term governor of California, 44th President of the United States of America.

"The presents the bureau with an opportunity"--J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI (1924--1972).

Mr. Rosenfeld has written an outstanding book that explains in detail the 1960's protest movements, those that generated and flourished on many college campuses in the United States. One of the most important centers for the Free Speech/Civil Rights/Minority Group/Anti-War movement was The University of California at Berkeley, the most prestigious university of the state system.

The book devotes just over 500 pages to the beginnings of the Cold War in the Berkeley of the 1940's when the Federal Bureau of Investigation was engaged in---legitimately in my view--keeping on eye on people who might have been transferring information from the Berkeley atomic research laboratory to foreign sources. The main focus was on Communist party members but little came from the efforts.

By the fifties and sixties, however, the whole "Red Scare" era was in full swing. People who had no links to espionage or the spy game or even belonged to a party or organization with revolutionary members, were suddenly in danger of losing their livelihoods and their freedom. Paranoia about subversion and communist-inspired control of academia and the movie and television business became the order of the day. Two men in America benefited from the paranoia and the witch-hunting. The first was J. Edgar Hoover, who continued to pursue young student activists and dissidents of all ages by tarnishing all left-of-center groups as being "reds". This despite the fact that very often Hoover's own special agents in the field could only report what they knew to be the truth: that the Communist party and other radical groups very often had little if any actual representation in protests like the 1960 demonstrations against the Congressional House on Un-American Activities Committee special session that convened at San Francisco City Hall. (A meeting where demonstrators were beaten by police with clubs and high=pressure fire hoses were used to literally wash people out of the public building.)

The other man who gained greatly from the Red Scare era was a well-known borderline Hollywood star-actor named Ronald Reagan. Reagan began the 1940's as a liberal and was on the verge of stardom when the USA entered the Second World War. Called into service--after getting several months of deferments from Washington courtesy of the clout that his boss, Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros Studios had--Reagan spent his war years mostly in Los Angeles making and appearing in films that trained other men to go out and fight the war in the Pacific and in Europe. He often slept in the same bed might after night with his movie star wife, Jane Wyman, and Captain Reagan still acted in a couple of Warner films such as 1943's "This is The Army"

It can safely be said that young Mr. Reagan had a "good war".

But by war's end, Reagan's luster as a leading man had worn off. His boy-next-door screen image was out of sync with a post-war America more urbanized and cosmopolitan than it had been in 1941. Also, with more time now on his hands and dissatisfied with the B-film projects he was doing at Warner Bros, Reagan turned more and more into studio and union politics.

As Rosenfeld states:

"Starting in Hollywood in the 1940s, Ronald Reagan developed a special relationship with the FBI. He became an FBI informer, reporting other actors whom he suspected of subversive activities, and later, when he became president of the Screen Actors Guild, the FBI had wide access to the guild's information on various actors. At one point, the guild turned over information on 54 actors it was investigating as possible subversives — so the FBI viewed Reagan as an extremely cooperative source in Hollywood. He was far more active than we know from previously released FBI records. As a result of this, Hoover repaid him with personal and political favors later."

The book details Reagan's ascent from screen actor/informant to "witch-finder", at one point outing a non-communist actress named Judith Braun for simply arguing with him at a party about the existence of a blacklist in the film business.

It is important to note that Reagan himself always claimed in his two mostly ghost-written biographies that he had never pointed the finger at any one actor or actress or member of the film community. In other words he wasn't a squealer--just a "concerned citizen". Thanks to Mr. Rosenfeld's twenty five year battle to get the FBI to release files on Reagan and others, through the Freedom of Information Act, we now know differently. Although he never named anyone in public testimony--such as his October 1947 appearance before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, Reagan was a key informant in his role as multi-term President of the Screen Actors Guild.

For the next couple decades Reagan did his best to cultivate a close relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, even at one point asking if Hoover would get him a key role in a major film about the Bureau called "The FBI Story" with James Stewart. (Hoover decided Reagan's past affiliation with liberal/left groups during World War II and just after precluded him getting any role in the film.) When he started running for public office, however, Hoover helped Reagan get elected by making sure his agents in Los Angeles passed information to him about campus activities and also how his own son, Mike Reagan, was involved in a friendship with the son of a Mafia kingpin, Joe Bannano while both young men were living in Phoenix, Arizona.

The fact that the FBI wasn't supposed to aid political candidates in state elections did not deter Hoover, anymore than a lack of real Communist or Socialist Worker party control over the Free Speech
or Vietnam Day Committee protests from his own agents prevented him from making propaganda hay out of the most feeble links Hoover could exploit to boost his national prestige.

Rosenfeld also chronicles the life of Clark Kerr, the former University of California Chancellor, who more than any other man outside an elected official created the formula for the state of California's Multi-University system. Keer's "Plan for Higher Education" created a free-to-state residents public college program that made it possible for all qualified high school graduates to attend either a community college, state university or University system program.

But Doctor Kerr, a liberal and Quaker who had participated in Peace Caravans as a young man, would lose credibility with conservative members of the Regents and conservative politicians in his role as head of the University Board of Regents. The 1960's brought groundswells of change that came into American society, ones that left Kerr's careful and temperate policies unacceptable to older voters who wondered what all the fuss was about. In the end, Kerr was caugth between the increasing radicalism of student activists and the atavistic desires of politicians like Reagan and his like-minded friend, Alameda County District Attorney Ed Meese, who wanted to push all the social movements back into the 1950s and refuse to treat grown men and women on campus as anything but spoiled brats.

This only made things worse; by the time Reagan was elected governor of California in a landslide, black/Asian/Hispanic (Chicano) and catch-all groups like the Third World Liberation Front were protesting on campuses. Having fired Kerr in a power-play, Reagan was as defiant as the demonstrators and willing to spill blood to keep the university free of protests "with fixed bayonets" if needed. He mobilized the California Highway Patrol and called out the National Guard at the campus and blamed everything he could on "dangerous militants", again a small minority of the protesting groups on campus.

This "zero tolerance" policy endeared Reagan to older voters and paved the way for his entry into national politics.

The fourth person profiled by Rosenfeld is Mario Savio, the activist who emerged as the leader of the Free Speech Movement, immortalized as one of the students who stood on top of a police car in October of 1964 to demand the right of students to set up political booths and speak out on current topics on university grounds, something that had been denied them throughout the 1950 and early 1960's. Savio's fate is the saddest of the four; pursued by his own personal demons and family tragedies, his efforts made him into an American Lawrence of Arabia, a man looking for a normal life after too much weight of publicity was thrust upon him. But J. Edgar Hoover made sure the FBI hounded him out of work and harassed his family long after he ceased to be an strident activist. (The man being attacked by police on the cover of the book is Mr. Savio.)

Rosenfeld is a prize winning journalist who worked for both the San Francisco Examiner and also The S.F. Chronicle


  1. Very interesting review Doug. I just may have to pick up a copy and learn something :-) Thanks for sharing

  2. Thanks Perfect. I think if you're interested in American politics and protest in the 1960s , you can't do better than giving this book a look-over. :-)

  3. This sounds like a book I would enjoy reading as well Doug. I quite like books on American history, and getting wide ranging perspectives is always interesting. I will add this to my future reading list. Thanks for the review :)

  4. You're welcome Scott. It does cover a lot of history, and a lot of the information and research from government records that went into this book is not to be found elsewhere.