'Subversives': Seth Rosenfeld details the intense search for commies in 1960s California

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Based on years of FBI files, obtained tortuously through repeated Freedom of Information Act requests, Seth Rosenfeld has chronicled and documented a key period in what is essentially modern California history, the 1960s. Its implications bear on the situation of all Americans to this day in their continuing efforts to exercise their civil rights -- in the face of a government that sometimes shows little or no respect for them.

Communist was the key "Open, Sesame!" codeword in this period. It was used generously, applied to university leaders, faculty and students and often anyone who had any association with them, to justify prying into their lives. Some 440,000 files were opened. Nowadays, the password to extensive, long-term FBI and other U.S. and local security agency surveillance of individuals, Americans or foreign, is "terrorist" -- used equally broadly.


By Seth Rosenfeld
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($40).

The other theme of Mr. Rosenfeld's investigation is a sort of dance that took place among three California-based and one Washington-based, highly political, to some extent opposed, individual Americans. One was Clark Kerr, president of the University of California. A second was Mario Savio, probably the most prominent and reportedly the most eloquent of the California student leadership. A third was Ronald W. Reagan, who became the 40th president of the United States after having been president of the Screen Actors Guild and governor of California.

The fourth was J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, to whom and to whose agents Mr. Reagan ratted on fellow actors and from whom he collected information on political rivals, university officials, and other Americans. The information helped him achieve his political ambitions across more than 40 years.

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Mr. Rosenfeld, who reported for San Francisco newspapers for more than two decades, is very careful not to praise or condemn any of the four, or any of the other prominent personalities of the time who appear in his chronicle. He leaves the judgments to the reader.

With Mr. Kerr it is a question of how one feels about the situation of a senior academic caught between a politicized Board of Regents and increasingly radicalized university students, fired up by causes including free speech at universities, opposition to the Vietnam War, and civil rights in the United States.

With Mr. Savio it was a struggle for him between strong principles, the mantle of student leadership that he partly sought and was partly thrust upon him, and the effort of a common man, a Roman Catholic from Queens, to marry, father children and hold a normal job in the face of governmental attention akin to a police state.

J. Edgar Hoover is not the principal among the four figures. But Mr. Rosenfeld's account of his support of Mr. Reagan and his insistence among his staff on the assiduous hounding of Mr. Kerr, Mr. Savio, the California students and other political figures in that state reinforce particular impressions of him.

The first is that in his work he had no respect for Americans' freedoms and especially their privacy. The second is that he defined "subversive" in the widest possible sense. The third is that he was probably honest in believing that the witch hunts he ordered carried out were in the best interests of the country, not just contributory to his own reputation.

The fourth is that, partly independently and partly because he and others consciously stoked the fears of Americans about communism at home, what he and the FBI were doing -- even though it wasn't public or legal -- probably had the support of many Americans.

Reagan is the most interesting of the four horsemen whose activities feature most interestingly in "Subversives" because he was elected president twice after they occurred. Mr. Reagan was a lot of things, no doubt, but the piece that emerges most clearly in this book is that he was a classic "snitch."

When he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, he smeared and ratted out fellow actors to the FBI. When he became governor of California in 1967, he sought FBI files -- illegally -- on people he worked with and people he was thinking of appointing to state posts. He even used the FBI to find out what his daughter Maureen and son Ron were doing. Mr. Hoover cooperated. Mr. Reagan's children must have found out because they apparently hated him.

Even if the reader lived during that period in California, and was paying close attention to what was going on, "Subversives" is a brilliant and eye-opening account of the era. The FBI files Mr. Rosenfeld drew on are a fascinating supplement to what may already have been known. What the FBI mounted against people in that period is still blood-chilling, particularly as Americans go through the "terrorist" witch hunts of our time with government agencies such as the FBI, CIA and Department of Defense as untrammeled as the FBI was in the 1960s, and armed with greater technical sophistication.


Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).


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