• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Berkeley: What We Didn’t Know

Ronald Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover at FBI headquarters in 1968, after a secret meeting about the Berkeley protests

Another FBI favor for Reagan also concerned a wayward child: his son Michael. In 1965, after Hoover had at last, reluctantly and under much pressure, finally begun investigating organized crime, an agent reported that “the son of Ronald Reagan was associating with” the son of Mafia clan chief Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno. Both sons enjoyed pursuing girls and driving fast cars, and the young Bonanno already had a police record at eighteen. The routine procedure would have been for FBI agents to interview Reagan for any information about the Bonannos he might have learned, but Hoover ordered instead that the agents should simply suggest to Reagan that he tell Michael to find another companion. Reagan, just then gearing up for his first run for governor, was most grateful.

The FBI provided him many other courtesies over the years: a personal briefing from Hoover, data for his speeches, quiet investigations of people the University of California was thinking about hiring—even though screening applicants for jobs that didn’t have to do with the federal government was outside the bureau’s jurisdiction. But Hoover’s biggest favor of all for Reagan was something he didn’t do. In 1960, an informer the agency thought was “reliable” reported that Reagan secretly belonged to the John Birch Society—an organization even the FBI thought so extreme (it considered President Eisenhower a Communist) that it was kept under surveillance. Rosenfeld says that he could not tell from the available records whether this claim was true. But, he notes, “it was precisely the kind of uncorroborated information” that the bureau had quietly slipped to dozens of politicians or journalists over the years when it wanted to damage the reputation of someone like Clark Kerr. This report—which could easily have wrecked Reagan’s future political career—Hoover kept quiet.

One appeal of hunting alleged heretics is that it is relatively easy. By contrast, good police work—chasing down corporate crime or the Mafia, for instance—is extremely hard. Small wonder that in building the power of the FBI, Hoover preferred the first to the second. But what happens to a professional anti-Communist when, on the home front anyway, there are almost no more Communists? Rosenfeld’s book is in part a portrait of an FBI clumsily looking for new targets. In a curious echo of the hostility the Soviets and their satellite regimes had toward the anti-authoritarian overtones of rock music, Hoover grew alarmed about the counterculture. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters came into his sights, as did organizations like Berkeley’s Sexual Freedom League.

But the world was shifting under the FBI’s feet. In the old days, of course, if you couldn’t wreck someone’s career by tying him to a known Communist, you could still do so by exposing a sexual misdeed. Or you could simply hint that you had such information—a method Hoover for decades used to blackmail potential congressional critics into silence. But even though the bureau dispatched a poison-pen letter in 1965 to reveal that a prominent Berkeley antiwar activist had fathered a child out of wedlock, the FBI’s Northern California chief wrote Hoover sadly that such leaks were no longer so effective. These student radicals, he explained, “do not have the same moral standards as a Bureau employee.” In such treacherously changing times, what was a poor blackmailer to do?

Although Subversives is perhaps one hundred pages too long (we don’t need to know a Free Speech Movement leader’s grades in each college course, for example), Rosenfeld’s many years of digging have produced other notable revelations. The most controversial concerns Richard Aoki, a military veteran and particularly confrontational student leader in the later stages of Berkeley 1960s activism—at one point he urged his comrades to steal weapons from National Guard armories. Aoki also provided guns to Black Panther Party members and gave them some of their first weapons training. When his book was first published, Rosenfeld startled just about everyone, it seems, by showing that Aoki was an FBI informant. This accusation has generated a furious fusillade in Aoki’s defense in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. But in my reading of both sides, the charge seems well documented and convincing; moreover, when Rosenfeld asked him directly if he was an informer, Aoki gave a vague and ambiguous answer.

Aoki’s defenders do not believe that so charismatic a leader could have been anything other than the passionate fighter for justice he appeared. Yet in the murky world of surveillance and double agents, some people can serve two masters. Perhaps the most famous such figure was Yevno Azev (1869–1918), for a decade and a half the key informer for the tsarist secret police, on whose behalf he infiltrated the Russian revolutionary movement and betrayed hundreds of his comrades. But while leaking the details of some assassination plots to the authorities, he nonetheless zestfully helped plan others, including the murder of a provincial governor, of the Grand Duke Sergei (the tsar’s uncle), and of the minister of the interior. It appears that neither Azev nor his alarmed police handlers ever figured out which side he was really on. Was that true for Richard Aoki?3 We will never know: ill with kidney disease, he committed suicide four years ago.

Aoki’s record raises the question: Was the Black Panther Party’s descent into criminal violence mainly the work of FBI agents provocateurs? Were more undercover agents whom we don’t yet know about responsible for the move toward violent confrontation, also beginning around 1969, by other groups, such as the Weather Underground?

I think not. Even though new information about FBI manipulation may eventually surface, there was already plenty of madness in the air by end of the 1960s. The trail of Black Panther extortion, beatings, murders, and other crimes—especially in Northern California—is so long as to be far beyond the FBI’s ability to create it. And by 1970, there were also too many white leftists who romanticized third-world revolutionaries, talked tough, wore military fatigues, and spoke a different language than the nonviolent one of the Free Speech Movement leaders of 1964–1965.

The principal activists of that movement knew their fight was a universal one. They cared about civil liberties from Mississippi (where FSM leader Mario Savio had been a civil rights worker) to Moscow (a year after their own mass arrest, FSM veterans held a Berkeley campus rally for imprisoned Soviet dissidents Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel). But political generations were short-lived in the 1960s, and by a few years later, some of the fatigue-clad solidarity activists who passed through Eastern Europe en route to North Vietnam showed little concern over the Soviet-bloc invasion that had crushed the Prague Spring of 1968.

Rosenfeld rightly appreciates the best of the Free Speech Movement leaders, especially the late Mario Savio, whom I came to know toward the end of his life: a gentle, eloquent, deeply intelligent man whose passion for civil liberties and social justice had the strength of a religion. Even though Savio’s lifelong battle with depression and keen belief that the movement could not thrive if it were centered on him personally led him to stay in the background after 1965, it did not prevent the FBI from following his every move, monitoring his bank account, and aggressively questioning his neighbors, employers, friends, and landlords.

Even at its worst, the FBI was far less draconian than dozens of secret police forces active around the world then and today. Poison-pen letters are one thing; disappearances, torture, and murder another. But changes in technology have vastly increased the ease of surveillance. In the 1950s, Rosenfeld reports, in order to eavesdrop on a meeting in Jessica Mitford’s house, two bumbling FBI agents hid in a crawl space beneath it; the mission almost came to grief when one fell asleep and started snoring. But today those agents would have access to vastly more: not just Mitford’s phone calls—which they were already tapping—but her credit card statements, her Google searches, her air travel itineraries, her bookstore purchases, her e-mails, her text messages, her minute-by-minute locations as signaled by the GPS in her mobile phone. To hold longtime records of this sort on whomever it chooses to monitor, the National Security Agency is building in Bluffdale, Utah, for $2 billion, the largest intelligence data storage facility on earth—five times the size of the Capitol building in Washington. It is scheduled to open later this year.4

Naturally, it’s all in the name of stopping terrorism, but the misuse of intelligence-gathering for political purposes, from Ralph Van Deman and the Palmer Raids to J. Edgar Hoover and his meddling with a university board of regents, should make us aware that such things can happen again. The combination of electronic data collection, a vague and nebulous foreign threat, and tens of billions of dollars pouring into “homeland security” each year is a toxic mix, ripe for new demagogues. Subversives is a timely warning. That essay question on the 1959 University of California entrance exam is one we must never stop asking.


Subversives’ August 15, 2013

  1. 3

    He and Azev apparently both had personal motives for some of their actions: J. Edgar Hoover, surprisingly, had opposed the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans that had placed Aoki in a prison camp as a child, and Vyacheslav von Plehve, the minister of the interior whose assassination was plotted by Azev, a Jew, had orchestrated a series of pogroms. 

  2. 4

    See James Bamford, “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say),” Wired, March 15, 2012. 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print