RecentReads: Subversives: A sad, enraging tale

September 28, 2012 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power is a sad, depressing and ultimately enraging story.

First, many thanks to Rosenfeld and the attorneys who worked with him to bring us this information. It took more than 30 years and repeated suits against the Federal Bureau of Investigation to pry this information out of the bureau. They stuck with it and got the story — at least, a good part of it.

The story here is that J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan betrayed the nation. They weren’t agents of a foreign power. Instead, they became what they said they were fighting — subversives. They (and many others with them) actively undermined the laws and values of America to advance their own political agendas and to gain and maintain their political power.

In the 40 years since Hoover’s death, much has been revealed about how he used his considerable power and the resources of the FBI to spy on American citizens, conduct “black-bag jobs,” such as illegal break-ins and wiretaps, and spread false information — all to discredit people he perceived to be “enemies.” Hoover’s administration of the FBI has been thoroughly discredited.

What this book reveals is how much Ronald Reagan cooperated with the FBI from the time in the 1950s when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild to when he became governor and declared war on the Free Speech Movement at the University of California in Berkeley. Reagan was so obsessed with the idea of a “Communist conspiracy” that was subverting American life he became a first class snitch for the FBI, willing to inform on them at any time and for any reason (including the fact that they disagreed with him about Guild policies.

The Free Speech Movement, with its fuzzy-headed appearance, goals and excesses, was made to order for someone with the attitudes and ethics of Reagan, and Hoover rarely hesitated to help him out.

It is little wonder that the FBI so vigorously resisted — and continues to resist — revealing this information. The “subversives” of the title refers not to people like Mario Savio, leader of the Movement, or Clark Kerr, chancellor of the University (and a favorite target of both Reagan and Hoover). Rather, the true subversives are the people were our leaders.

I have two quibbles about this book, both having to do with photography. First, the jacket design is terrible – both confusing and somewhat misleading. Second, there are not enough pictures in the book, and those that are included are of terrible quality. The publisher owed this book and its fine author more attention.


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