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Berkeley: What We Didn’t Know

Ted Streshinsky/Corbis
Clark Kerr and Ronald Reagan leaving the meeting of the University of California’s board of regents at which Kerr was fired from his position as president of the university at Reagan’s insistence, Berkeley, January 1967

A curious thing about the United States is that anticommunism has always been far louder and more potent than communism. Unlike sister parties in France, Italy, India, and elsewhere, the Communist Party here has never controlled a major city or region, or even elected a single member to the national legislature. Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party in 1948 received no more than 2.4 percent of the popular vote with Communist support; and Wallace himself soon repudiated the Communists here and abroad.

American anticommunism, by contrast, built and destroyed thousands of careers; witch-hunted dissidents in Hollywood, universities, and government departments; and was a force that politicians like Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon rode to great prominence. Of course this was not the first time that heresy hunters have overshadowed the actual heretics: consider the Inquisition, which began before Martin Luther, the greatest heretic, was even born, or how, on accusations of Trotskyism, Stalin imprisoned or shot Soviets by the millions—numbers many times those of Trotsky’s beleaguered, faction-ridden actual followers. But heresy hunting is seldom really about ideas; it’s about maintaining power.

Power begins with surveillance, and the pioneer in American anti-Communist surveillance was Ralph Van Deman, whose elongated hawklike face made him someone a movie director would have cast for the job. A career US Army officer, Van Deman first made his mark keeping a close eye on Filipinos who might have the temerity to resist the long occupation of their country that began with the Spanish-American War. As the military intelligence chief in Manila starting in 1901, he used a web of undercover agents and the newest record-keeping technology—file cards—to track thousands of potential dissidents.

Later in his career, back in the United States, Van Deman filled his cards with the names of American socialists, labor activists, and supporters of the Russian Revolution, the sort of people rounded up in the notorious Palmer Raids of 1919–1920 that jailed some ten thousand leftists. He continued collecting information about Communists and other left-wingers long after he retired as a major general in 1929. With funding from the Army and J. Edgar Hoover’s new Federal Bureau of Investigation, he maintained a private network of informants until his death in 1952, keeping his 250,000 file cards in his house in San Diego, where they were frequently consulted by police Red squads and the FBI.1

It was Hoover, of course, who would take Van Deman’s search for real or imagined Communists to far greater heights. More than forty years after his death, we know a great deal about this unpleasant and power-hungry man, but the California investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld adds significantly more in Subversives, which is based on some 300,000 pages of FBI documents, pried out of the resistant agency over more than two decades in a series of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

The papers largely concern FBI surveillance, disinformation, and other monkey business during the student revolts that roiled the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s. These upheavals made Berkeley surely the only college campus in the world with four full-time daily newspaper correspondents stationed on it, and for a while, as a greenhorn reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, I was one of them. I watched firsthand the mass arrest of 773 Free Speech Movement sit-in demonstrators in December 1964 for demanding an end to restrictions on political speaking and organizing on campus, the massive marches and teach-ins against the Vietnam War over the following several years,2 and the astonishing sight of a California National Guard helicopter swooping across the campus in 1969 indiscriminately spraying a dense white cloud of tear gas.

I thought I knew all that was going on, but it turns out there was much that none of us knew, from the fact that the FBI secretly jammed the walkie-talkies of monitors directing a huge 1965 anti-war march I covered to the agency’s decade-long vendetta against Clark Kerr, the man who was first chancellor at Berkeley and then president of the University of California system.

Everyone knew that the FBI had no love for student leftists, but Hoover’s intense hatred for Kerr is the major revelation of Rosenfeld’s careful and thorough book—and it was a revelation for Kerr as well when Rosenfeld shared some of this material with him shortly before Kerr died in 2003. “I know Kerr is no good,” Hoover scrawled in the margin of one bureau document.

Although Kerr was largely reviled by the activists of the Free Speech Movement, who were—quite rightly—protesting his university’s ban against political advocacy on campus, he was far more than the colorless bureaucrat he appeared. For one thing, he had a wry sense of humor, at one point quipping that the real purpose of a university was to provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty. More importantly, he was a man of principle. From 1949 to 1951, for example, the university was riven by a fierce controversy over a loyalty oath required of all employees. More than sixty professors refused to sign, and thirty-one of them, as well as many other staff, were fired. Though a staunch anti-Communist, Kerr spoke out strongly against the firings and the witch-hunt atmosphere surrounding them. His stands on such matters won him the enmity of right-wingers, and he was soon on Hoover’s radar.

The heresy that Hoover feared most was not communism; it was threats to the power of the FBI. And so what pushed him over the line from hostility to absolute rage at Kerr was an exam question. University of California applicants had to take an English aptitude test, which included a choice of one of twelve topics for a five-hundred-word essay. In 1959, one topic was: “What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to criticism?”

In response, a furious Hoover issued a blizzard of orders: one FBI official drafted a letter of protest for the national commander of the American Legion to sign; other agents mobilized statements of outrage from the Hearst newspapers, the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. An FBI man went to see California Governor Edmund G. Brown and stood by while Brown dictated a letter ordering an inquiry into who wrote the essay question.

Hoover himself wrote to members of the university’s board of regents, who swiftly apologized. But his ire did not subside; he ordered an FBI investigation of the university as a whole, assigning an astounding thirty employees to the task. The result was a sixty-page report, covering professorial transgressions that ranged from giving birth to an illegitimate child to writing a play that “defamed Chiang Kai-shek.” The report also noted that seventy-two university faculty, students, and employees were on the bureau’s “Security Index.” This was the list Hoover kept of people who, in case of emergency, were to be arrested and placed in preventive detention, as in the good old days of the Palmer Raids. Like Hoover’s forebear Van Deman, the FBI maintained the index on file cards, but now these were machine-sorted IBM cards.

One of Rosenfeld’s finds is that when the FBI didn’t have another weapon handy, it sent poison-pen letters. The man initially suspected of writing the offending essay question, for instance, was a quiet UCLA English professor and Antioch College graduate, Everett L. Jones. When intensive sleuthing couldn’t find anything to tie Jones to the Communist Party—the usual FBI means of tarring an enemy—someone in the bureau wrote an anonymous letter on plain stationery to UCLA’s chancellor, signed merely “Antioch—Class of ’38,” saying that the writer had known Jones and his wife in college, where “they expressed views which shocked many of their friends,” and later became “fanatical adherents to communism.”

Hoover’s anger at Clark Kerr was reignited in 1960, when thirty-one Berkeley students were among those arrested in a large demonstration against a hearing by the House Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco’s City Hall—an early landmark in what would be a tumultuous era of American student protest. Hoover was outraged when Kerr refused to discipline the students taking part. Kerr said, reasonably enough, that any student demonstrators were acting as private individuals and “were not in any way representing the university.”

The upheavals of the Free Speech Movement, which had Berkeley in turmoil during the 1964–1965 school year, and of the protests against the Vietnam War that began shaking the campus soon after, brought renewed scrutiny by the FBI. As always, Hoover’s anticommunism had little to do with the Soviets: although the FBI’s responsibilities include counterespionage, only twenty-five of the three hundred agents in Northern California were assigned to this, while forty-three were at work monitoring “subversives,” which meant people like student activists at Berkeley—and, it turns out, even some of those they thought were their enemies, like the university’s regents.

Hoover gathered information about several liberal pro-Kerr regents and funneled it and other ammunition to a major enemy of Kerr, regent Edwin Pauley, a wealthy Los Angeles oilman. An FBI official then reported back to Hoover that an appreciative Pauley could be a useful informant and could “use his influence to curtail, harass and…eliminate communists and ultra-liberal members on the faculty.”

The balance on the board of regents changed following Ronald Reagan’s election as California governor in 1966 (the governor and several other state officials are ex officio regents), and at Reagan’s first meeting, Kerr was fired. Even though Hoover can’t be blamed for Kerr losing his job, he had already made sure that there was another one the educator didn’t get. Some months earlier, President Johnson had decided he wanted Kerr to be the next secretary of health, education, and welfare. “I’ve looked from the Pacific to the Atlantic and from Mexico to Canada,” LBJ told Kerr in his famous arm-twisting mode, “and you’re the man I want.” Kerr said he would think it over. Meanwhile, Johnson ordered the usual FBI background check. Among the documents Rosenfeld wrested from the agency in his legal battle is the twelve-page report Hoover sent the president. Included in it were allegations from a California state legislative Red-hunter who claimed that someone named Louis Hicks had worked with Kerr in the 1940s and declared that Kerr was “pro-Communist.”

“Hoover’s report failed to note, however,” Rosenfeld writes, “that when FBI agents interviewed Hicks he denied making the charge.” The report made a string of similar misrepresentations, among them another such charge—with no mention of the FBI investigation that found it untrue. Before Kerr could tell LBJ that he had decided to turn down the post, the president withdrew the offer.

Hoover’s FBI did its best not only to wreck the careers of enemies like Kerr, but to promote those of its friends, like Ronald Reagan. Although Rosenfeld far overstates the bureau’s influence on Reagan’s rise, it is nonetheless jarring to see how much help he got from an agency that was supposed to stay above partisan politics. Reagan had been trading information with the FBI about alleged Communists and radicals ever since his days as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s, and he continued to feed the bureau Hollywood political gossip for long afterward. The FBI did various work for him in return, for example investigating whether a live-in boyfriend of his estranged daughter Maureen was already married (he was).

  1. 1

    For Van Deman’s story, see Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009). 

  2. 2

    This was enough to gain a notation in my own FBI files, which I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act years ago, that “acting as a representative of the press,” I had been in contact with the march organizers. Although I was a very small fish indeed, my FBI and CIA files from the 1960s run to more than one hundred pages. 

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