Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, Seth Rosenfeld, 21 August 2012

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, Seth Rosenfeld, 2012

Subversivesis based on some 300,000 pages of FBIdocuments, pried out of the resistant agency over more than two decades in a series of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The papers largely concern FBI surveillance, disinformation, and other monkey business during the student revolts that roiled the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s….

Everyone knew that the FBI had no love for student leftists, but Hoover’s intense hatred for Kerr [president of the University of California system] is the major revelation of Rosenfeld’s careful and thorough book—and it was a revelation for Kerr as well when Rosenfeld shared some of this material with him shortly before Kerr died in 2003. “I know Kerr is no good,” Hoover scrawled in the margin of one bureau document.

Although Kerr was largely reviled by the activists of the Free Speech Movement, who were—quite rightly—protesting his university’s ban against political advocacy on campus, he was far more than the colorless bureaucrat he appeared. For one thing, he had a wry sense of humor, at one point quipping that the real purpose of a university was to provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty. More importantly, he was a man of principle. From 1949 to 1951, for example, the university was riven by a fierce controversy over a loyalty oath required of all employees. More than sixty professors refused to sign, and thirty-one of them, as well as many other staff, were fired. Though a staunch anti-Communist, Kerr spoke out strongly against the firings and the witch-hunt atmosphere surrounding them. His stands on such matters won him the enmity of right-wingers, and he was soon on Hoover’s radar.

The heresy that Hoover feared most was not communism; it was threats to the power of the FBI. And so what pushed him over the line from hostility to absolute rage at Kerr was an exam question. University of California applicants had to take an English aptitude test, which included a choice of one of twelve topics for a five-hundred-word essay. In 1959, one topic was: “What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to criticism?”…

[T]he misuse of intelligence-gathering for political purposes, from Ralph Van Deman and the Palmer Raids to J. Edgar Hoover and his meddling with a university board of regents, should make us aware that such things can happen again. The combination of electronic data collection, a vague and nebulous foreign threat, and tens of billions of dollars pouring into “homeland security” each year is a toxic mix, ripe for new demagogues. Subversives is a timely warning. That essay question on the 1959 University of California entrance exam is one we must never stop asking.