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Book Review: ‘Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power’ by Seth Rosenfeld

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Seth Rosenfeld is a true investigative reporter. He spent 30 years filing multiple lawsuits to obtain the documents that illustrate just how much of a rogue agency the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was and the part that Ronald Reagan played in helping the agency destroy the careers of many innocent people, condone violence, and ignite protest on a massive scale in the 1960’s, beginning in Berkeley and spreading throughout the country.


To tell this story, Rosenfeld filed multiple lawsuits that ultimately forced the FBI to release over 250,000 pages of files. These documents proved what many of us who were alive in the 60’s already knew: the FBI was ruthless, often vicious, and above the law. What we probably did not know was the part that Ronald Reagan played and how much it benefited him personally and politically to betray his own union as a mole for the agency.

The main characters through which this story are told are J. Edgar Hoover, Clark Kerr, the president of University of California- Berkeley in the 60’s, Mario Savio, the student activist who led the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, and Reagan, whose alliance with the FBI began in the 1940s and lasted at least until 1972, when Hoover died.

The part of this story which was most shocking to this reporter had to do with the FBI’s use of political information and power to boost the political career of Ronald Reagan in ways that were clearly immoral as well as illegal. For others, it may be the exposure of prominent characters in protest organizations such as The Black Panthers as moles for the FBI or any of the many instances of extreme misconduct that the FBI got by with as revealed by their own documents.

Even for those of us who already know that our government has often done bad things when they thought they had good enough reason, this book is going to be shocking and eye-opening. Rosenfeld is to be commended for his perseverance in researching this book despite all odds and for bringing the truth about Hoover’s FBI, Reagan, and the war against student activism to the public.

Any American citizen who really wants to know about American political history and to understand how dangerous unchecked political power can be will benefit from reading this book.

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.
  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    President Truman originally created the CIA to integrate disparate info gathering. The agency evolved into an operational role which may have actually lead to a decade-long lengthening of the Vietnam War. President Truman criticized the growing operational role of the CIA in a December, 1963 article. He called for returning the agency to an information gathering role rather than an operational one. Also, President Eisenhower warned of the growing military industrial complex before leaving office. These warnings apparently were not acted upon.

    Today, the Patriot Act is back into operation from a re-authorization in recent years. Right now, we need to know what protections will be in place due to this re-authorization. While this book makes for interesting reading, the more immediate problem is dealing with the re-authorization of the Patriot Act which
    could lead to many more of the abuses Rosenfeld rightfully deplores.

    I would really like to see a book which traces the increasing encroachment of government power and discretion from 1948 onward.

  • bliffle

    The CIA was formed by old Office of Strategic Services (OSS) guys after WW2 to preserve the function of spying on foreign enemies. At first it was prohibited from operating on US soil, and was restricted to “eyes and ears” functions, watching and listening, and was prohibited from actions such as assassination. The restriction on action was soon ended (thanks to that idiot Allen Dulles) and the new CIA soon instigated the coup against the democratically elected Iranian President Mossadegh, thus unleashing a torrent of muslim hate and a century of conflict that we are still fighting. Why that fool Dulles ever thought that a deposed prince (Pahlevi, the Shah of Iran) would better represent American interests than a mildly socialist popular president is beyond me. I guess it was the temper of the times, with that fool Joe McCarthy prancing around in Washington. Of course, the Dulles brothers were said to be deeply religious so I suppose that Spirits appeared to them during their nightmares summoning them to war against the infidels. Ike himself, when leaving office in 1960 told Allen Dulles “you have left me a legacy of ashes”.

    Still, some honorable trace of the old CIA “eyes and ears only” role remains in the successful accomplishments of the U-2 and the SR-71 (still flying after all these years, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!).

    The FBI was a totally different agency since it was formed to prosecute domestic criminals. In fact, the two agencies were consciously exclusive.

    The FBI was founded to fight bank fraud, land fraud, and slavery. Their most glorious moment was getting the Mann Act, which prohibited taking women across state lines for immoral purposes, so called “White Slavery”! What a glorious name! It scared the hell out of us young Lotharios intending to drive a girl down to Hudson Wisconsin for a Blue Sunday beer! Whatever happened (usually nothing!) was heightened in intensity by the utter dangerousness of it all.

    When Hoover took over (after the expected scandals) he began a series of Public Relations scenarios involving arresting desperate criminals, often in a hail of gunfire while Hoover sat safely in a nearby car, ready to appear for the press and flashing flashbulbs.

    Hoover started certain hiring policies, like requiring a college degree (usually CPA) for agents, and biasing toward southern men. Hoover cannily deduced that there was a premium of personal loyalty from southern men who were eager to exemplify Honorable Southern Gentlemen to counteract the bad reputation southerners had gotten as traitors in the civil war. To this day there is a strong hiring preference for southerners (also evident throughout the USA uniformed services, especially the Secret Service that guards the President).

    In the 20s and 30s the FBI started to take over most of the actions previously taken by the “Pinkertons” (a private detective agency) against union organizers as a rich source of Federal funding. Basically, this consisted of beating and perhaps murdering union organizers, characterizing their meetings as “riots”.

    Since many American workers were recent immigrants it was easy for the FBI to move into Alien Suppression as another revenue source.

    Then the FBI found the mother lode of revenue: harassing student rebels, who seldom have guns, come from obedient American families, like to socialize and are intemperate in speech (like young people everywhere and whenever). And there were millions of them during the 60s! We need more funding, said the FBI. And some new legal privileges, too!

    The parents of America were eager to shower money on the FBI. They too were upset by their own children and willing to surrender moola to the FBI (and anyone else) and they didn’t mind at all transgressing American principles, like the constitution.

    After those Kent State students were killed by the National Guard a young Kent State student, argued with his parents “It might have been me that was killed!” and they retorted “And you would have deserved it!”

    By this time, of course, the FBI had acquired a “black” budget that was inaccessible to mere congressmen and journalists and other snoops who had better watch their ways.

    In the modern era the FBI has joined with CIA (under cover of 9/11) in forming the dreadful Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which doles out money to local PDs for equipment (all that lovely black high-tech garb and such) and staffing. The PDs love it because it replaces the equipment and payroll budget cuts they had to make to satisfy the Tea Partiers.

    And that’s another story.

  • bliffle

    COINTELPRO! One morning after the 9/11 murders, a former student protester in Berkeley, now a Social Security retiree, answered the knock on his door to find the same FBI detective who had harassed and questioned him during the 60s, now similarly gray-headed, standing there with some questions to ask! COINTELPRO never dies!