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Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

4.34  ·  Rating Details  ·  299 Ratings  ·  60 Reviews
Subversives traces the FBI’s secret involvement with three iconic figures who clashed at Berkeley during the 1960s: the ambitious neophyte politician Ronald Reagan, the fierce but fragile radical Mario Savio, and the liberal university president Clark Kerr. Through these converging narratives, the award-winning investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld tells a dramatic and dis ...more
Hardcover, 752 pages
Published August 21st 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published June 5th 2012)
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Paul Wilner
Jan 05, 2013 Paul Wilner rated it it was amazing
This is a definitive, meticulously researched account of some of the darker days in our recent history. (The author, honesty compels me to add, is a former colleague of mine). It should be read as an antidote to some of the rosier versions of political hagiography going on about Reagan, portrayed here as a hypocrite who named names during the infamous Hollywood blacklist days (and lied about doing it), used federal resources to spy on the private lives of members of his own family and orchestrat ...more
Mar 06, 2013 Michael rated it it was amazing
30 years battling for these records and continuously researching/writing. A brilliant history. Can anyone think of Ronald Reagan the same again? I thought he was a bad actor and a bad president, but he was a truly untrustworthy, despicable, backstabbing snitch. People admire him -- really? Reagan's story is only a thread of this amazing book. A riveting history that enthralls and history that should be discussed!
Matt Willem
Dec 01, 2012 Matt Willem rated it it was amazing
Just lifting from my facebook status:

Can't recommend this book enough.

Rosenfeld is an award winning San Francisco investigative reporter who tenaciously spent thirty-one years suing the FBI for access to public records (with a rotating cast of pro bono lawyers who were dying of old age as the process dragged on) to flesh out and substantiate a definitive account of the dishonest, illegal and unconstitutional efforts of J. Edgar Hoover and Ronnie Reagan to malign, harass and suppress of the Berke
Kaje Harper
Jun 02, 2013 Kaje Harper rated it it was amazing
A meticulously-researched look at the underside of politics in Berkley in the 1960's. The author wrested free a vast trove of previously unavailable documents from classified and government sources, and used them to lay out the role of covert FBI investigations in the conflicts between the establishment and more radical groups. The information about Ronald Reagan's personal actions and his administration, described extensively in those files, is particularly startling. As someone who hates consp ...more
Mal Warwick
Jan 17, 2013 Mal Warwick rated it it was amazing
New Proof How J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan Stirred Up Violence in 1960s Berkeley

We’ve known for some time that the FBI and Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial administration were involved in the sometimes-violent conflicts that roiled Berkeley in the 60s. What we didn’t know — or, at least, what I didn’t know — was that J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan were personally and directly engaged not just in monitoring but in managing the secret government campaigns that helped raise the temperature to
Jan 29, 2013 Rebecca rated it it was amazing
"I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno. They say he's a decent man, so maybe his advisors are confused."

--H.I. McDonnough, Raising Arizona

With all due respect to H.I., Ronald Reagan was not a decent man. Seth Rosenfeld's Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power begins with J. Edgar Hoover and his obsession with the supposed Communist infiltration of America, stretching from the Palmer Raids
Dec 26, 2012 Tamara rated it it was amazing
..I started reading yesterday and I'm in chapter 5, "The Essay Question." I'm afraid that lots of the tactics that J.E. Hoover used illegally as the head of the FBI are now legal, under provisions of "The Patriot Act." My friends in Occupy feel it. I won't give this a rating yet, but I think its well on its way to 5 stars, for me. I have some new heroes already. I'm going to have to read a biography of Clark Kerr at some point.

This book changed my life. Now when I hear the stories of illegal im
Stephen Embry
Feb 13, 2014 Stephen Embry rated it it was amazing
A detailed history of the San Francisco renaissance and the free speech movement. Seth Rosenfeld has completed the definitive story of how a few brave souls who happen to be in a fulcrum point in time can have a lasting effect on history. The story also reveals how those in power act upon their paranoia and anxiety, seeing threats in the least disagreements.

The story begins with the transformations experienced by Mario Savio as he traveled through the south to assist in the civil rights movemen
Paul Knobloch
Mar 13, 2015 Paul Knobloch rated it really liked it
Just when you thought you knew everything about how foul and loathsome a character Ronald Reagan really was, here comes Seth Rosenfeld’s scathing and meticulously documented history of the Gipper’s collusion with J. Edgar Hoover and their effort to stifle the likes of Mario Savio and other political dissidents at Berkeley and in the Bay Area in the 1960s. Using thousands of pages of declassified material that he won access to in a lengthy court battle with the FBI, Rosenfeld paints a picture of ...more
Apr 16, 2013 Rob rated it really liked it

When Seth Rosenfeld first sought to investigate the FBI’s files on the University of California and the student protesters at UC Berkeley, he perhaps did not realize the long journey upon which he was embarking. Released last year, his Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, is a book 30 years in the making. Those long years of wandering through countless Freedom of Information Act requests culminated in a series of laws
Nov 27, 2012 Kenny rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-own
Reviewed for Hyphen Magazine - surprising involvement of Asian American in historically charged times

The FBI's Anti-Democratic Public Image Problem
A Review of Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power by: Seth Rosenfeld

By: Kenny Sui-Fung Yim

Who would have ever connected the FBI to the campaign to raise Asian American Studies to the fore of the curriculum? At Williams College, that movement is going strong and the extraordinary role that Japanese American Richard M
Nov 18, 2012 Nancy rated it it was amazing
I lived in Berkley during the spring of 1969, toward the end of the era covered in this book. Our apartment was close enough to the action that the National Guard cut off access for those who could not prove they lived in a small area around campus. The national guard blocked off all access to an area near campus while I was at work. Only my love of reading got me home. I didn't have a driver's license at that time, but Berkley library cards had addresses so the national guard soldier who was ab ...more
Jacob Sanders
Jul 30, 2013 Jacob Sanders rated it really liked it
A quaint little tale about how our government and some of it's key players were straight up douche-bags.

Reagan, bag. Blacklisted all of his Hollywood friends, just as his star was slipping. As Governor of Cali, he used the witch-hunt of communism to silence those who disagreed with his being a huge dick.

Hoover, bag. This guy! Who knows what to believe, but rest assured he followed everyone he didn't like and tried to, at every turn, expose them.

FBI, bag. These poor fucks thought they were doi
David Bales
Sep 25, 2012 David Bales rated it liked it
Shelves: 2012
A bit of a time capsule in this one, winding its way back to the campus of the University of California, Berkley during the years 1940 and into the '60s. Details the FBI's obsession with "radicals" and spies on the Berkley campus and how UC's liberal approach to education rankled so many during the red scare of the late 1940s and 1950s. Good descriptions of the Free Speech movement of 1964 and the "Filthy Speech" movement that later divided the campus. The FBI typically comes out as a bunch of g ...more
Jul 25, 2013 Brayden rated it really liked it
This book is perfect for you if you're interested in 1960's politics, if you love discovering new facts about how unlikeable J. Edgar Hoover was, if you find Reagan's rise in politics to be fascinating, or if enjoy learning about the evolution of higher education in the U.S. and California, in particular. I'm four for four on those dimensions. I'm also doing some research on Berkeley in the 60's and have been doing so at a snail's pace for the last six years. So this book was basically made for ...more
Jo Stafford
Apr 20, 2014 Jo Stafford rated it it was amazing
This book is the result of Seth Rosenfeld's painstaking research into the FBI's spying on students and faculty at the University of California, Berkeley - spying which went all the way back to the 1940s. It took 30 years and five lawsuits for Rosenfeld to gain access to the FBI files he wanted, and even then some of those files were heavily redacted. He also interviewed scores of people across the political spectrum, from campus activists and 60s radicals like Mario Savio, Jerry Rubin and Bobby ...more
Sep 25, 2012 Gsmalz rated it it was amazing
A fascinating history of the FBIs COINTELPRO, a spying program run for decades against ordinary U.S. citizens who did nothing wrong yet were considered potential "subversives" by proto-fascist J.Edgar Hoover. Researched for 30 years this is the definitive historical look at this program.
Cori Smith
Jun 23, 2015 Cori Smith rated it it was amazing
Admittedly, I'm not old enough to have lived through this, as I was born in the 70's, but this was an eye opener into the true nature of Ronald Reagan, and his "reign of terror" against imagined subversive activities at Cal, and the fact that his actions caused some of the most horrific atrocities during the 60's college civil rights movements. I gained a lot of knowledge about a subject I had limited knowledge of, and would highly recommend this book, even to Reagan fans and apologists. Seth Ro ...more
Jan 18, 2015 Bill rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
Subversives is a tale of widespread unwarranted surveillance of innocent citizens, excessive use of force by police resulting in civilian death, oversight of police departments by government departments with vested interests, and the risks that the relentless pursuit of invisible enemies by misguided politicians pose to democracy, among other issues. It is a highly relevant story that helps shine an historical light on current events.

It is told in an engaging narrative, and seems to be a meticul
Mike Carey
Apr 13, 2014 Mike Carey rated it liked it
I loved the view of Free Speech Movement's early days and how the movement changed. In the beginning of the FSM the motives of the students were so pure and the things that they were fighting for are rights that are expected today on every college campus. As the 60's continued on the movement morphed into many other fights ( Vietnam, draft resistance, dirty speech rights, People's Park, Minority studies and dozens of other causes). It all became muddled with the active drug culture.
From it all h
Sep 24, 2012 Andrew rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I like the writing in the first half of this book better than the writing in the second half. The first half seemed written in a sort of noir style, while the second half, certainly the last third, seemed like straight journalism. It's an important book for historians. Salient facts include Supreme Court decision to demand that the FBI honor Rosenfeld's FOIA requests. Years of non-compliance by FBI. Years of bullying tactics by FBI. Would be nice to know how FBI behavior re: those bullying tacti ...more
Bonnie Irwin
Dec 30, 2012 Bonnie Irwin rated it it was amazing
As the professional reviewers have pointed out (NYT, SF Chronicle, WSJ), one of the truly remarkable things about this book is the author's persistence. Like me, he is a member of the Cal class of 1981, and he has been battling the FBI through the courts for 30 years to obtain all the documents that made the writing of this book possible. The narrative focuses on four men--Ronald Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Clark Kerr, Mario Savio--each powerful and charismatic is his own way, and the way their liv ...more
Sep 27, 2013 Mary rated it really liked it
I read this book while I was simultaneously also reading Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and found them both chilling reminders of how the power of fear so often overrides the desire for civil liberties and freedom. At what price safety?

Rosenfeld's book though also raises the important issue of access to information. If what every politician wanted done was public it would be much more difficult to carry out actions that so blatantly violate individuals' civil liberties. Of course, with the recen
Jul 20, 2013 Bill rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This is a very well written and well researched history of the origins of Bezerkley radicalism in the 1960s. It documents the fanatic pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover of subversives, i.e. people who didn't agree with his political views, using any and all means no matter how illegal. Additionally, it shows the demonization of people expressing their first amendment rights by politicians, especially Ronald Reagan, in order to pander to their core constituencies. More than just a history, it presents th ...more
Feb 11, 2014 Mimi rated it really liked it
I probably wouldn't have read this, but a friend loaned it to me. It is very well researched and written. The author spent well over 10 years trying to get information from the FBI that was supposed to be released earlier. I was most surprised by the extent of Reagan's informing to the FBI, and the incredible help he got from the bureau to be elected governor and then president, an amazing association. Hoover really started the whole intrusion into personal lives, as documented here.
Frances Levy
Apr 04, 2014 Frances Levy rated it really liked it
Clearly, many years of research went into this book, which explains in horrifying detail how J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and their enthusiastic toadie, Ronald Reagan, fucked over everybody whose politics they didn't like -- and innocent bystanders, as well. A lot like what Nixon did with his infamous "enemies list," just to a different set of victims and for a much longer time. It made me physically ill to read about some of the FBI's and Reagan's vicious attacks on law-abiding citizens.

Considering "S
Scott Schneider
Dec 20, 2012 Scott Schneider rated it really liked it
The Free Speech Movement was a little before my time (1965 whereas I graduated in 1969), so this book was an eye opener for me. It was amazing how much Hoover trampled on the civil rights of Americans just expressing their contrary views and how much Reagan was complicit in all this. I wonder how they hell he ever got elected or if the truth had come out if it would have affected his chances. The Left has never had it easy, and this book shows why. It also amazes me how Hoover ingratiated himsel ...more
Christopher Saunders
Jul 28, 2013 Christopher Saunders rated it it was amazing
Rosenfeld spent nearly three decades researching and writing this impressive book, suing repeatedly to get FBI files under FOIA and encountering agency obstruction all the way. Understandably, as he paints an unflattering portrait of the Bureau's efforts to stamp out Berkeley's Free Speech Movement and its offshoots. Rosenfeld unsurprisingly views Mario Savio and Co. as decent, perhaps confused kids abused by The Man. One's inclined to dismiss this as Boomer nostalgia, but the facts presented he ...more
Jan 03, 2014 Phyllis rated it really liked it
A book that took over thirty years, multiple Freedom of Information Act requests and subsequent lawsuits to complete. I kept having to put it down, because one might as well have been reading about events from a week ago. Individual freedom in the US is for all practical purposes ephemeral. The Patriot Act made legal acts the FBI was conducting illegally for years, such as monitoring the types of books public library users check out, and obtaining information on customers from private corporatio ...more
Jan 02, 2013 Llew rated it it was amazing
Another reviewer mentioned persistence, which is why it's necessary to read the postscript on this book. The details of the ongoing FOIA requests, how long they took, the reluctance of the FBI to release anything - all of it above and beyond due diligence. Incredible details to a story most people don't know much about.

The amount the FBI was willing to do all because they assumed that protestors=traitors, and therefore anything they did was justified eventually turns the FBI into America's secr
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Seth Rosenfeld is freelance journalist based in San Francisco. A former reporter for the San Franisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle for 25 years, he is winner of the George Polk Award and other professional honors. Please contact him through this email address:
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“Lynum had plenty of information to share. The FBI's files on Mario Savio, the brilliant philosophy student who was the spokesman for the Free Speech Movement, were especially detailed. Savio had a debilitating stutter when speaking to people in small groups, but when standing before a crowd and condemning his administration's latest injustice he spoke with divine fire. His words had inspired students to stage what was the largest campus protest in American history. Newspapers and magazines depicted him as the archetypal "angry young man," and it was true that he embodied a student movement fueled by anger at injustice, impatience for change, and a burning desire for personal freedom. Hoover ordered his agents to gather intelligence they could use to ruin his reputation or otherwise "neutralize" him, impatiently ordering them to expedite their efforts.

Hoover's agents had also compiled a bulging dossier on the man Savio saw as his enemy: Clark Kerr. As campus dissent mounted, Hoover came to blame the university president more than anyone else for not putting an end to it. Kerr had led UC to new academic heights, and he had played a key role in establishing the system that guaranteed all Californians access to higher education, a model adopted nationally and internationally. But in Hoover's eyes, Kerr confused academic freedom with academic license, coddled Communist faculty members, and failed to crack down on "young punks" like Savio. Hoover directed his agents to undermine the esteemed educator in myriad ways. He wanted Kerr removed from his post as university president. As he bluntly put it in a memo to his top aides, Kerr was "no good."

Reagan listened intently to Lynum's presentation, but he wanted more--much more. He asked for additional information on Kerr, for reports on liberal members of the Board of Regents who might oppose his policies, and for intelligence reports about any upcoming student protests. Just the week before, he had proposed charging tuition for the first time in the university's history, setting off a new wave of protests up and down the state. He told Lynum he feared subversives and liberals would attempt to misrepresent his efforts to establish fiscal responsibility, and that he hoped the FBI would share information about any upcoming demonstrations against him, whether on campus or at his press conferences. It was Reagan's fear, according to Lynum's subsequent report, "that some of his press conferences could be stacked with 'left wingers' who might make an attempt to embarrass him and the state government."

Lynum said he understood his concerns, but following Hoover's instructions he made no promises. Then he and Harter wished the ailing governor a speedy recovery, departed the mansion, slipped into their dark four-door Ford, and drove back to the San Francisco field office, where Lynum sent an urgent report to the director.

The bedside meeting was extraordinary, but so was the relationship between Reagan and Hoover. It had begun decades earlier, when the actor became an informer in the FBI's investigation of Hollywood Communists. When Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, he secretly continued to help the FBI purge fellow actors from the union's rolls. Reagan's informing proved helpful to the House Un-American Activities Committee as well, since the bureau covertly passed along information that could help HUAC hold the hearings that wracked Hollywood and led to the blacklisting and ruin of many people in the film industry. Reagan took great satisfaction from his work with the FBI, which gave him a sense of security and mission during a period when his marriage to Jane Wyman was failing, his acting career faltering, and his faith in the Democratic Party of his father crumbling. In the following years, Reagan and FBI officials courted each other through a series of confidential contacts. (7-8)”
“some 1,500 people set out from Sproul Plaza to downtown Berkeley to demonstrate peaceably. But the troops and police were waiting for them, ready to spring a trap identified in Cable Splicer records as “Operation Box.” As the professors leading the march reached the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, police ordered them to disperse but did not try to enforce the order. Instead, the guard and police diverted their path. Then, at Allston Way, the march was stopped by a tight line of National Guardsmen. Many people who did try to leave found their path blocked by a second line of soldiers, who had come up behind them. Troop transport trucks roared up with more soldiers, who closed all other exits and boxed them in. A combined force of police, deputies, and highway patrolmen herded the marchers—and everyone else—into a parking lot by the Bank of America. There Captain Charles Plummer of the Berkeley Police announced that they were all under arrest for unlawful assembly.” 0 likes
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