Seth Rosenfeld


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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Subversives: The FBI's War ...

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

“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.”
Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

“Congress would later find that though bureau officials undertook COINTELPRO in the name of national security, its purpose was “preventing or disrupting the exercise of First Amendment rights.” The program took tactics developed for use against foreign adversaries during war and applied them to citizens: leaking phony allegations, sending anonymous poison-pen letters, interfering with jobs, having people arrested on drug charges, distributing misinformation, and encouraging violence. “In essence, the Bureau took the law into its own hands, conducting a sophisticated vigilante operation against domestic enemies,” the committee said. “Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that. The unexpressed major premise of the programs was a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order.”
Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

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