Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Recommendation: "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power" by Seth Rosenfeld

A recently released book, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld, recounts a fascinating history involving Ronald Reagan, the University of California at Berkeley, and the FBI during the 1960s.  The author spent about 30 years prying documents out of the FBI relating to this history using the Freedom of Information Act.  Even though the FBI is much changed since the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the agency kept fighting to keep secret documents that showed the FBI in a less than favorable light during this earlier period.  The FBI lost its court fights and had to release many of the documents to the author.

The book is rather long, and some of the details, while interesting, do not further the author's main themes, which involve an unaccountable FBI which furthered the political agenda of its director, the FBI's relationship with Ronald Reagan as head of the Screen Actors Guild and then governor of California, and the student protest movement at Berkeley.  The book does serve to remind one of this tumultuous history, and the description of the demonstrations over People's Park in the late 1960s and the use of lethal force against the demonstrators is particularly harrowing.  It also provides information that has not been in the public domain.  The information about Ronald Reagan should make even some conservatives temper their admiration of him as president by some of the information in this book about an earlier portion of his career.  While it has been in the public domain, I was amazed to learn that Reagan as governor wrote a letter to the regents of the University of California that attempts, unconvincingly, to link the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to a "climate of violence" emanating from the Free Speech Movement.  

The book does recount some of the excesses of the student movements in the late 60s, but it is clear that the author is most disturbed at the excesses of various government entities.  The author does not say this, but the story he tells makes one think that excesses by one side encouraged excesses by the other.

The book is worth reading not only for the new information it provides but as a useful reminder that vehement political disagreements and divisiveness are nothing new.  It is now fashionable to bemoan how divided and dysfunctional the political system currently is; this has happened before and it has been worse and certainly more violent.  The history the book recounts is also a useful warning about how fear can be used to erode liberties; the fear of domestic Communists was prevalent in the fifties and the sixties and spawned what effectively were inquisitions by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

As a final observation, the book's title is ambiguous.  Who really were the "subversives" in this narrative?

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