In Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, award-winning investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld transports readers to the fraught UC-Berkeley campus in the 1960s.
What gave you the motivation to stay with this story for the past 30 years?
When I came to Berkeley in the late ’70s to study journalism, the student newspaper had some FBI files on the Free Speech Movement, and I wrote a series [about them] that ran in 1982. I submitted an expanded request to the FBI in 1981 under the Freedom of Information Act. I had no idea it would take so long. At the University of California during the ’60s, you had the rise of the student movement, the Free Speech Movement, the antiwar movement, and People’s Park. At the same time, you had the rise of the conservative movement, led by Ronald Reagan, who campaigned for his first public office in 1965 and made the protests at Berkeley one of his main issues. This convergence of forces had a huge impact on the nation over the following decades.
You interviewed Clark Kerr and Mario Savio in person, but not Reagan.
The FBI records show that Reagan was much more active as an informer in Hollywood than he or the FBI has acknowledged. Beyond that, I think that these documents show that Reagan’s relationship with the FBI played an important part in his political development.
What surprised you the most in your research?
The incredible volume of files that the FBI accumulated concerning the university and the campus community, and the FBI’s surveillance of various student organizations. Also, [its] efforts to manipulate public opinion of events in the university by secretly leaking information to friendly news reporters, and [its] efforts to get Clark Kerr fired.
Do you think that we are more or less safe from FBI surveillance than we were in the 1960s?
There are more checks and balances now. Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of secrecy and power. When I wrote the book, I anchored it at the beginning of the cold war and tried to show how the FBI had this very important mission regarding Soviet espionage. The university’s radiation labs were very important to our national security. In the following years, the FBI diverged from that mission to focus on dissent. The FBI’s efforts to suppress the student movement sometimes backfired. They claimed Communists were behind the student protests and when it was disproved, it just wound up being an example for many kids of what was wrong with the establishment, and it attracted a lot of them to Berkeley, including Mario Savio.