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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...

Also by the Author

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.

* * *

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?

* * *

Rosenfeld has spent too long in the archives. Entranced by pages upon pages of redacted documents, redolent of the patina of official authority, he has made a category error, regarding as holy writ the effluvia of careerists and spies while remaining largely blind to the multiple and often self-serving agendas at work by the documents’ dirty tricksters. Assessing these desiccated documents requires caution. Weighing statements and testimonies as evidence of the actual beliefs and practices of the alleged “subversives” under surveillance demands a nearly forensic care. Conspiracy is a rare commodity, much sought after by true believers. The FBI rarely found it among those that the bureau deemed enemies or potential enemies of the state; but neither is conspiracy in the precincts of the powerful to be much found among these often inherently dubious documents. Instead, what they evidence is mostly blunder and unintentional comedy. Rosenfeld’s often admirable dedication to flushing out the darker designs of the powerful renders him insufficiently attentive to other, arguably more significant, factors. Irony isn’t his strong suit.

A single example makes the point. A few years after the bureau established its Berkeley office in 1957, two senior agents secreted themselves in the crawlspace beneath the floorboards of the aristo ex-Communist Jessica Mitford and her husband Bob Treuhaft’s Oakland home, keen to collect any pearls of subversion that could be gleaned from the meeting of comrades taking place above their heads. But so dull was the gathering that one agent dozed off and began to snore, panicking his partner—and so, fearing discovery, they fled. Another agent, Rosenfeld informs us, after spending hours tapping Mitford’s phone, learned only that Decca’s preferred toothpaste was Ipana. Such, such were the goods.

Hoover, infamously, had made a fetish of finding Communists under every bed. His agents strained to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear. Often they could not. When in doubt, they tried to fail upward. What surprises is how often their dutiful investigations and wiretaps forced the more honest of the G-men to confess that, try as they might to catch them, actual Communists were elusive game, members of an endangered species. The suspicion gradually arose within the bureau’s ranks that by the late ’50s and early ’60s, they were largely a phantom of Hoover’s perfervid imagination, a thick gumbo whose ingredients were spiced in the early years of his efforts to break the back of radical strivings, out of which he had made his bones and to which he would remain unswervingly if stupidly loyal.

In 1968, for example, Hoover ordered his men to use every means to “neutralize” several of the more prominent leaders of the Bay Area New Left. The head of his San Francisco office pushed back, patiently pointing out that none of Hoover’s targets (which included Savio and Robert Scheer, an editor of the radical slick Ramparts, closely affiliated with the New Left) were “members of any known subversive organizations…. They are independent free thinkers and do not appear to be answerable to any one person or any group or organization.” Hoover was undeterred. He believed that the stigma of bureau investigation would be sufficient to frighten his targets into submission. After all, such tactics had worked on an earlier generation of radicals. Now, however, they were all but useless. The new radicals didn’t remotely resemble the cautious Communists he was used to intimidating. Jerry Rubin could never be mistaken for Gus Hall. They didn’t want society’s traditional jobs and spurned its blandishments. The culture had slipped Hoover’s grasp. But still he was convinced that by planting stories with compliant reporters exposing such radicals’ allegedly aberrant lifestyles, he could tarnish their public reputation. His man in San Francisco knew better, telling Hoover, “They are not embarrassed by this coverage. In fact, they seem to enjoy it and thrive on it.” Hoover refused to listen. He ratcheted up his efforts. Surveillance programs proliferated. Secret budgets ballooned. But little worked as intended. If the war on radicals was, at least in Hoover’s head, a war without end, it was a war largely without significant result, as Rosenfeld inadvertently makes clear.

A story, possibly apocryphal, that Rosenfeld doesn’t include contains a larger dollop of truth than the hundreds of thousands of FBI documents that he insists reveal government conspiracies run amok. It was a favorite of Warren Hinckle, the author of If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1974), his unjustly neglected memoir of his years presiding over Ramparts. The bureau was beside itself with the exposés the magazine regularly published, in particular by Scheer, Hinckle’s comrade-in-muckraking. And so it came to pass that the magazine’s North Beach lair was burglarized. Suspicion was strong that Hoover’s men were responsible. Scheer was possessed of a mind as startlingly lucid as his desk was invariably disheveled, covered with a mad shambles of telephone numbers and notes scrawled higgledy-piggledy on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper. His “runic scribble,” as Hinckle called it, was the bane of the magazine’s copy editors. And so it proved to Hoover’s black-bag men, who were unable to decipher Scheer’s poison penmanship. Hoover’s FBI, increasingly irrelevant, was more and more a spent force.

* * *

Rosenfeld seems not to understand this, however, convinced that he’s found in these documents a veritable Pentagon Papers. Rosenfeld argues that the FBI’s refusal to give up its secrets was rooted in a desire to keep hidden its decades-long effort to bend and often to break the law in pursuit of suspected “subversives,” fearing that revelation of its misdeeds might arouse the public’s ire. Another, more compelling reason suggests itself: on the evidence of the Everest of documents that the bureau sought to conceal, what Hoover and his successors were at pains to cover up was its thoroughgoing incompetence. As the bureau knew, few “subversives” were there to be found. Far from the model of a modern and relentlessly efficient intelligence-gathering machine, Hoover had instead created a massive and costly bureaucracy whose actual workings reveal an astonishing gap between its fearsome public image and its shabby, inept inner reality. What these hundreds of thousands of FBI documents show is how little the bureau actually accomplished for all its fevered exertions.

Rosenfeld thinks the tale he’s telling is one of unbridled abuse of government power seeking by hook or by crook to dislodge and demolish a corpuscular and burgeoning movement of discontent. And it is, up to a point. The more sinister drama, however, is the one that unfolds in the shadow play of the backstage efforts to get rid of Kerr, deemed by establishment figures to his right to be no longer trustworthy: naïve at best and an unwitting, pusillanimous comsymp at worst. Kerr’s sin was to have betrayed his class—an even greater crime, as far as his overseers were concerned, than the obstreperous bleatings of a young upstart like Savio. Suspicious of his Quaker convictions, his fieldwork as a young graduate student studying the plight of striking farmworkers in the ’30s in the harvests of sorrow that formed California’s San Joaquin Valley, and his years as a labor negotiator, Kerr’s critics within the corporate boardrooms and private clubs to which the men who ran the state belonged assiduously sought his ouster. He was, they felt, invertebrate. Harder, more ruthless and more cynical men were needed. With Hoover’s connivance, they plotted Kerr’s removal. They were confident that the ever-pliant Reagan would do their bidding. After all, he always had, as Hoover had known ever since Reagan’s stoolie days for the bureau, when the second-rate star, as head of the Screen Actors Guild during Hollywood’s long night of redbaiting, yearned for Hoover’s recognition and approbation. The FBI documents on this count are convincing. When the fateful day came, just weeks after Reagan’s inauguration, Kerr was stunned. His sacking, he recalled, felt “like a whip across my face.”

Though it is heresy to say so, Kerr was, in a strange way, Savio’s doppelgänger. Who doesn’t remember Savio’s imperishable exhortation, one of the most eloquent remarks ever made in the history of modern American radicalism, uttered extemporaneously at the height of the Free Speech Movement:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

One wonders whether this striking bit of oratory may have evoked in Savio’s nemesis a sense of déjà vu, for it recalled the spirit and almost the very words of Kerr’s own profound distress more than thirty years before at seeing a pregnant mother and her ailing infant evicted from a one-room hovel in Pasadena. The sight had filled him with a barely contained anger. He knew to do the right thing. In an anecdote he all but buries, Rosenfeld tells how Kerr, in his own words, had joined with others to “break the law and move the family back in” by smashing the lock that police had placed on the shack’s door to bar their return. As Kerr later wrote to his father, “This country has come to a place where one must break the law in order to insure that the people may have the privilege of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” Kerr never entirely succeeded at ridding himself of the bleeding-heart cells that fitfully coursed through his veins, though he spent years trying. His masters, however, were experts at sniffing out such misplaced sympathies.

Kerr is Rosenfeld’s most tragic and misunderstood figure. One wishes that Subversives had made more of this dimension of the drama and explored the larger implications of Kerr’s unhappy end. His ouster as president of the University of California was the new governor’s first real political victory—a victory initially applauded by Savio and his comrades, who had come to detest Kerr nearly as much as did Hoover and Reagan. Kerr’s firing was a body blow to the hallowed and heretofore largely sacrosanct notion that the university and its campus ought properly to be a protected zone of discourse, free of state intervention. It was a principle that Kerr had fought to uphold. His defeat would have lasting consequences and was a rare victory for Hoover, whose machinations were often ineffective where they weren’t counterproductive.

* * *

Did the bureau, despite its legal, extra-legal and often criminal manipulations, actually bend history’s arrow? For all its provocations, did it really derail or significantly disrupt the New Left? Did it truly succeed in putting the kibosh on student protest? Was it an important factor in propelling Reagan to the pinnacle of power—a summit to which he somehow might not, on the strength of his own political genius, have risen?

The answer, contre Rosenfeld, is no. The FBI’s antics were a sideshow. The main drama was elsewhere. The war against radical students was, in several crucial respects, something like the thirteenth-century war against the Cathars, when the Catholic Church persistently denounced heresy in repeated inquisitions and crusades seeking to identify and stamp out beliefs that departed from the true religion. These persecutions were often campaigns of convenience against imagined communities of opposition. Often they masked rivalries within the Church that rent the outwardly coherent fabric of elite power. A similar dynamic seems to have animated Hoover and the FBI, Reagan and his henchmen. Their fiercest combat was as much against radical zealots as it was against reformers within their own ranks, against honorable do-gooders like Clark Kerr. Of course, cudgeling students played well with a public who saw Savio and his cohorts as little more than petulant brats who ought no longer to be indulged by hard-working taxpayers. The strategy worked, and so began the successful effort to return an unruly campus to the more controlling orbit of the state—and, ultimately, to launch the long counterrevolution to undo the achievements of the New Deal.

As for the wounds suffered by the New Left, they were largely self-inflicted. Did the FBI seek to take advantage of our weaknesses, to exploit our missteps, and to use our naïveté as a noose by which to hang an entire movement? Sure it did. Rosenfeld adds nuance and appalling detail to a familiar story of suppression: police attacks on peaceful demonstrators, the secret (and often successful) efforts to encourage extremism in order to isolate dissenters, and the open campaign to crush resistance by wielding the state’s powerful legal truncheon, thus draining the left’s always meager treasury and depriving it of its most able leaders. Such tactics encouraged the politics of paranoia. The result, as Christopher Lasch so clearly understood, “imprisoned the left in a politics of theater, of dramatic gestures, of style without substance—a mirror image of the politics of unreality which it should have been the purpose of the left to unmask.” But we did not need Hoover’s hooligans to prompt us to embrace the terrible logic of politics as a total art form. We came all on our own to believe that only by increasingly provocative spectacle could the veil of public apathy be pierced. It is we who elevated extremism to the level of strategy. It was a dialectic of defeat.

Seth Rosenfeld takes issue with Steve Wasserman’s review of his book and Wasserman replies
in an Exchange in the March 11-18 issue, “Stripping Down and Lighting Up.”

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