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Exit Stage Left: The FBI and Student Radicals | The Nation

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Exit Stage Left: The FBI and Student Radicals

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Berkeley in the years that I came of age was heady with the scent of night jasmine and tear gas. It whipsawed, sometimes violently, between clichés, from the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Apocalypse and back. I well recall the evening in February 1969 when hundreds of us, exhausted from a day of battling cops seeking to break the Third World Liberation Strike at the University of California’s campus, trooped down to the Berkeley Community Theatre, where we hoped to find relief in the much-ballyhooed provocations of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre.

Subversives
The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.
By Seth Rosenfeld.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Steve Wasserman
Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, served as editorial director of Times Books and...

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Much to our surprise, the production of Paradise Now was a bust. What was an outrage to bourgeois sensibilities elsewhere—nearly nude members of the troupe intoning mantras of prohibition against smoking pot and sexing it up in public—was greeted by the solemn radicals and spirited anarchists of Berkeley as feeble and largely empty gestures. “Super Joel,” one of the town’s more colorful and ubiquitous characters, stood up and loudly denounced Beck and Malina for their faux-radicalism, then lit a joint and began to disrobe. Others quickly followed. Hundreds surrounded the couple, angrily demanding that their tickets be refunded. Dozens of debates erupted all around—over the nature of drama and the character of revolution. The show did not go on. The audience stormed the stage. Finally, at midnight, the fire marshals arrived and kicked us out. Beck and Malina had inadvertently achieved what had previously eluded them: goading the audience into taking collective action, seizing the moment, arguing over whether to remain passive spectators or become actors in a drama of their own making. It was unforgettable. I also remember the denouement: no sooner had the Living Theatre departed than, the next day, a furious Governor Reagan arrived and threatened to deploy the National Guard, in addition to the hundreds of police from throughout Northern California that filled the streets.

Bedazzled as we were by the spectacle of our own high ideals and the intoxications of making history, we perhaps might be forgiven for mistaking the theater in the streets as the main event, while failing to tumble to another high drama taking place, as it were, offstage. We were deaf, alas, to the malign fugue that was being played within the inner circles of the old order. It is the welcome and signal contribution of Seth Rosenfeld’s important, if flawed, tome Subversives to provide a necessary threnody to an era whose many tumults and contradictions still lie buried beneath a carapace of cliché. Rosenfeld, a former longtime, prize-winning investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, aspires to tell how, in one small American hamlet whose recalcitrant students had won for it an outsize international reputation as a magnetic pole of rebellion, the state waged a two-front struggle—one open and without apology, and the other often invisible and illegal—to stamp out opponents, real and imagined, to its rule.

Berkeley called itself the “Athens of the West,” a moniker meant to summon its origins and promise as the mid-nineteenth-century site of the fabled first campus of the University of California. The conceit suggested the agora of ancient Greece, where citizens would freely debate the issues of the day and Socratic dialogues would occur about the meaning and purpose of life. Educating citizens to build and manage the expanding American imperium was at the center of this great project, born of the lofty ambitions of California progressivism. This publicly funded university and its eight (now nine) other campuses throughout the state, which any qualified high school student could attend for a paltry annual cost, were the pride of California. The University of California had, by almost any measure, quickly joined the ranks of the private Ivy League institutions that had dominated the higher tiers of elite American education. Its students counted themselves among America’s best and brightest. They were also renowned for their political activism. Robert McNamara would remember, with not a little nostalgia, the protests he participated in as an undergraduate during the 1930s—protests he would have occasion to recall decades later when, as a principal architect of the Vietnam War, he would be condemned as a war criminal by students at his alma mater (and not only there).

From the militant longshoremen’s strikes and upheavals of the Great Depression through efforts by Communist spies in the late 1940s and ’50s to steal the nation’s atomic secrets at Berkeley’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, to the forcing of loyalty oaths upon the campus’s professoriat, Berkeley—and San Francisco, too—had long been regarded by the grim men in Sacramento and Washington as swamps of subversion. For years, J. Edgar Hoover and his Federal Bureau of Investigation had sought to drain them of suspected traitors. By the mid-1960s, the FBI’s San Francisco Bay Area offices boasted several hundred agents. Hoover’s obsessions would keep the hive humming.

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The Bay Area was engulfed by multiple and successive student protests. The most notable included the anti-HUAC protests of 1960; the great civil rights sit-ins of the spring of 1964 at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco, along with the Auto Row demonstrations seeking an end to racial discrimination, which began in late 1963 and continued through the spring of 1964; the Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964, followed by one of the nation’s first teach-ins, organized by the Vietnam Day Committee in May 1965; and, three months later, the efforts to prevent the passage of troop trains through Berkeley. Then came the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966 and the riotous anti-draft demonstrations in Oakland in 1967, culminating in the violent suppression of People’s Park protesters in May 1969, which saw the death of one onlooker and the blinding of another by shotgun-wielding Alameda County deputy sheriffs, the indiscriminate gassing of the campus by a National Guard helicopter, the imposition of martial law and the month-long occupation of the entire city by thousands of armed troops. These traumatic irruptions form the epic backdrop to Subversives.

It is Rosenfeld’s achievement, after a twenty-seven-year legal battle, to have compelled the FBI to make public some 300,000 pages of its secret files—files the bureau was so loath to see the light of day that it spent more than $1 million of the taxpayers’ money to prevent their release. Those documents would provide, Rosenfeld hoped, the Rosetta stone that would crack the bureau’s greatest secret: the record of its hidden war against Berkeley’s student radicals and the heretofore unacknowledged alliance between Reagan and Hoover. And indeed, Rosenfeld’s labors help to deepen our understanding of those years of hope and rage.

The story is, at first blush, straightforward: a tale of dirty high jinks pursued by a rogue institution—the FBI—dominated by an aging despot at its helm, unwilling to let go the delusions that had so successfully made him one of America’s most powerful and feared men. Rosenfeld builds his narrative around four figures: Mario Savio, the brilliant and emotionally tormented avatar of the Free Speech Movement; Clark Kerr, the hapless liberal anticommunist head of UC Berkeley, much reviled as a soulless toady by the students whose protests he ineffectively sought to contain (for which services he would incur the enduring enmity of his minders); Ronald Reagan, the demagogic former actor whose landslide election in 1966 as California’s governor would later catapult him into the White House; and J. Edgar Hoover, the notorious scourge of all things pinko, who had long worked to enlist Reagan’s vaulting political ambitions and willing acquiescence in Hoover’s crusade against communism. It is through their interactions that Rosenfeld weaves the threads he has teased out from the welter of FBI documents.

What embarrassments did the bureau so desperately want to conceal? According to Rosenfeld, the documents detail the extraordinary lengths—often duplicitous and sometimes criminal—that Hoover and his men went to in their decades-long effort to demonize and marginalize citizens suspected to be of an oppositional bent. The trove, writes Rosenfeld, “is the most complete record of FBI activities at any college ever released. The documents reveal that FBI agents amassed dossiers on hundreds of students and professors and on members of the [university’s] Board of Regents; established informers within student groups, the faculty, and the highest levels of the university’s administration; and gathered intelligence from wiretaps, mail openings, and searches of Berkeley homes and offices in the dead of night.” More: “FBI documents show that bureau officials misled a president by sending the White House information the bureau knew to be false; mounted a covert campaign to manipulate public opinion about campus events and embarrass university officials; collaborated with the head of the CIA to harass students; ran a secret program to fire professors whose political views were deemed unacceptable.” Rosenfeld claims that “These documents show that during the Cold War, FBI officials sought to change the course of history by secretly interceding in events, manipulating public opinion, and taking sides in partisan politics.”

This isn’t exactly news. Can anyone at this late date, after the COINTELPRO revelations and Church Committee reports of the mid-1970s, and numerous other subsequent journalistic scoops of government skulduggery over the past four decades, affect to be shocked? Almost everything we had long suspected turns out to be true, only more so. Were telephones tapped? Routinely. Were agents provocateurs planted? Every chance the government got. Rosenfeld reveals, for example, that one of the early and influential members of the Black Panther Party—not unexpectedly one of the few who knew most about how to use guns—was very likely a longtime government informant. But is anyone other than Bobby Seale, who publicly praised the man as a stalwart hero of the revolution on the occasion of his funeral several years ago, entirely surprised?

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