The Subversives book review

Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book will change how you see the federal government, specifically the FBI, and will change how you see Ronald Reagan. Even if you are familiar with the war waged by the FBI against civil rights activists and peaceniks during the 1960s and understand what COINTELPRO was meant to accomplish, this comprehensive narrative—detailing the abuses of power, hypocrisy, and assault on dissenting speech—is illuminating.

To quote the book’s preface, author Seth Rosenfeld “draws on court records, contemporaneous news accounts, oral histories, scholarly works, and hundreds of interviews with activists, university administrators, politicians, present and former FBI agents, and various other officials and observers,” as well as confidential FBI files released after three decades of FOIA requests. “There are no anonymous sources and no fictionalized accounts.” The result is a terrifying look into J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against dissent in the United States. His illegal and unethical misuse of “intelligence” and FBI resources wielded in the name of fighting Communism. America was so scared of the Red Menace that it provided a perfect excuse to accumulate power in the federal criminal justice and intelligence services.

Much of what went on attacking college students and other citizens for demonstrating free speech and protesting the War in Vietnam was done without official approval or oversight and often was explicitly political in helping more conservative, pro-Hoover politicians and officials gain or maintain power. Lives were ruined and in some cases lost in this battle between the FBI and student radicals.

Reagan’s role in all of this was highly-publicized at the time in terms of his own crusade against Communism. But Rosenfeld reveals how closely Reagan coordinated, aiding and abetting the illegal FBI maneuvers, from before he was Governor of California and throughout his political career. Like other conservative politicians of the era, he was a bit naive to Hoover’s true power, but was always happy when abuse of power served his interests. Reagan callously took advantage of UC Berkeley’s student protests for political success and had little time for facts that disagreed with his view of the matter. Reagan and Hoover’s end goals were mutually beneficial and they jumped at the opportunity to use each other’s power.

The Subversives is a cautionary tale. It reads like the dystopian novels that are rocketing up best seller lists this spring following Trump’s election. However, this is Nonfiction. This really happened. This was the U.S. government and figures like Reagan, who are broadly beloved or at least respected, that eviscerated the fundamental rights of thousands of Americans and enjoyed unchecked power, often supported by their own popularity.

We have seen the resurgence of some of these abuses following 9/11. Terrorism, not Communism, has been the excuse. With low trust in the institutions meant to check each other’s power, the responsibility falls disproportionately on citizens, like the book’s persistent author Seth Rosenfeld, to monitor our institutions and hold our government and politicians accountable.

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