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Wall Street Journal

 

When G-Men Do Research on Campus

August 12, 2012

By Sol Stern

Sol Stern reviews "Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power" by Seth Rosenfeld.

In Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s, my fellow student radicals and I believed with almost religious conviction that by protesting the Vietnam War and the corporate-dominated "multiversity" we were building a far, far better world. The most surprising revelation in Seth Rosenfeld’s "Subversives" is that J. Edgar Hoover, America’s most powerful law-enforcement official at the time, shared our movement’s wildly utopian fantasies of Berkeley as the epicenter of a world-wide rebellion.

The difference, of course, was that Hoover believed that our campus protests would lead not to a better world but to the ruin of everything that was good and proper in America. The FBI chief was certain that many of the Berkeley radicals were under communist discipline and constituted an imminent threat to the republic. Without consulting any of the attorney generals or presidents he ostensibly served, Hoover launched what Mr. Rosenfeld calls a "secret war" against the Berkeley student movement. And the author has the documents to prove it.

Hoover supervised dozens of FBI agents who broke into the homes of Berkeley protest leaders and tapped their phones. The FBI compiled dossiers with intimate details of the lives of hundreds of students, planted informers and provocateurs within the ranks of campus antiwar groups, and tried to disrupt constitutionally protected political activities.

Not content with spying on the students, Hoover authorized illegal surveillance of professors and college administrators who were deemed too sympathetic to the campus radicals. The FBI’s intelligence-gathering operation even extended into the heart of California’s political and business establishment: the members of the university’s Board of Regents. And Hoover secretly worked to get the regents to fire the university’s president, Clark Kerr, for failing to crack down on the student protesters.

A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mr. Rosenfeld deserves credit for his dogged, three-decades pursuit of the relevant government documents, including filing three separate Freedom of Information lawsuits in federal court. In the end, he did manage to force the FBI to release 250,000 pages of internal memos from its Berkeley undercover operation. He has turned this treasure trove of primary-source materials into a well-written, dramatic narrative on Berkeley in the 1960s containing many scoops—not just about Hoover and the student radicals but also about the University of California administration and, most surprisingly, about a future president of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

The extent of the FBI’s nationwide counterintelligence operations during the Cold War years has been exposed in several recent historical works, and the operations were the subject of a vast congressional investigation led by Sen. Frank Church in 1977. Yet none of the background we already know prepares us for Mr. Rosenfeld’s revelations about the sheer intrusiveness of the FBI’s surveillance activities in one college town or about the FBI director’s Ahab-like pursuit of a communist conspiracy that existed only in his fevered imagination. Hoover was obsessed with the notion that the two leading figures at the center of the Berkeley campus upheavals—22-year-old student leader Mario Savio and the president Clark Kerr—were each pursuing hidden and malevolent agendas.

Mr. Rosenfeld reminds us that Savio was raised as a devout Roman Catholic in Queens, N.Y., and even considered joining the priesthood before he entered college. He was a brilliant physics and math student at Manhattan College but decided to transfer to Berkeley in 1963 after reading a book about the emerging student activism on the University of California’s most prestigious campus.

The following year Savio emerged as the most eloquent spokesman for the campus Free Speech Movement. The group began by protesting the university’s restrictions on student political activity. It morphed into an all-purpose radical movement challenging Kerr’s vision of liberal higher education. Kerr’s "multiversity," according to Savio and the radical students, was no citadel for learning and critical scholarship but rather a service center for the dominant institutions of an unjust society—business, government and the defense establishment.

The point of view was best expressed in Savio’s iconic speech on Dec. 3, 1964, when he led 1,000 students on a sit-in at the university’s administration building: "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious . . . that you’ve got to put your bodies upon the levers. . . . 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."

Make no mistake, this was a radical assault on the existing order, and the Berkeley student movement eventually embraced ever more disruptive and violent tactics. Yet Savio was fairly typical of the 1960s student activists who were initially drawn to the New Left and the civil-rights movement out of idealistic motives. He served no outside party interest. As the FBI documents show, even the agents who monitored Savio’s activities 24/7 conceded this.

The bureau’s agents, submitting hundreds of memos to national headquarters on Savio’s activities and private life (almost all read by Hoover), were unable to come up with any evidence that the Berkeley student leader was a communist or especially sympathetic to the Soviet Union. But Hoover could not abide that inconvenient truth. He wrote comments on the memos urging the agents to keep looking for the missing link. To the end Hoover remained convinced that Savio was a frontman for a communist conspiracy to spread revolution and undermine America.

Hoover’s frustration with the bureau’s effort to get the goods on Savio partly explains why he was so outraged by Clark Kerr, one of the stalwarts of liberal higher education. Just before the Berkeley campus erupted over the issue of free speech in 1964, Kerr had won an academic freedom award from the American Association of University Professors. The FBI surveillance operation targeted Kerr and checked into rumors that he had ties to communists. Hoover eventually accepted the fact that Kerr was just a weak-kneed intellectual who was allowing the radical students to run roughshod over the university and its traditions.

Exasperated with Kerr’s failure to crack down on "young punks" like Savio, Hoover worked behind the scenes with conservative members of the regents and with the newly elected California governor, Ronald Reagan, to get Kerr fired. The documents detailing the secret political partnership between Hoover and Reagan are among the most significant historical revelations in "Subversives." Hoover fed Reagan confidential—but often erroneous—FBI reports on Kerr and liberal members of the regents, though Mr. Rosenfeld’s claim that the "FBI’s dirty tricks at Berkeley helped . . . launch Ronald Reagan’s political career" is something of a stretch.

Mr. Rosenfeld has produced a prodigious work of research, but ultimately "Subversives" falls short of telling the complete story of Berkeley in the ’60s. He settles for an uncomplicated morality tale pitting the idealistic Mario Savio, who "represented many of the best qualities of his generation," against the near-deranged FBI potentate. Mr. Rosenthal seems oddly incurious about the self-destructive turn taken by Berkeley’s radical generation after the bucolic early days of the Free Speech Movement.

In short order, the Berkeley movement imploded into violence and mindless anti-Americanism. Tom Hayden, one of the New Left’s stalwarts—who moved to Berkeley in the late 1960s and lived in one of the city’s many radical communes—called the Black Panthers America’s "internal Viet Cong" and exhorted white youth to create "liberated zones" to serve as Panther sanctuaries. Mr. Hayden and various Berkeley radicals organized trips to North Vietnam and North Korea and came back singing the praises of Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung as "righteous" revolutionaries. By 1970, Ramparts, a magazine run by ex-Berkeley radical students (where I had once served as an editor), published a cover story depicting a burning Bank of America branch. The revolutionaries who firebombed the bank, said the accompanying text, "may have done more for saving the environment than all the teach-ins put together."

Mr. Rosenfeld is certainly aware of these appalling developments, yet he chooses to end his account with a quote from Mario Savio touting democratic humanism, as if such a benign view captures the full outlook of the radicalism that the Free Speech Movement set in motion. Left untold is the story of how a once idealistic student movement crossed the line to anti-democratic ideologies and undermined the possibility of a decent left in America.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443991704577579202115210744.html

 

 
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