The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power
by Seth Rosenfeld
Being a staunch Gen Xer in a city of militant hippies can be a confusing existence. Starting with the realization that there is such a thing as a militant hippie. So I figured that Subversives, which chronicles Berkeley in the 60’s, might provide me with some missing historical knowledge about this place that’s become my home and, in the process, maybe I would start to understand the mysterious habits of an indigenous species known as the Baby Boomers.
Subversives follows the trajectories of three men whose paths converged during Berkeley’s student protests: Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement; Clark Kerr, president of the University of California; and Ronald Reagan. Seth Rosenfeld, the book’s author, spent more than 30 years piecing together this story as he battled the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act to attain secret agency files. Four lawsuits later, he finally obtained 250,000 pages of previously unreleased material that fleshes out the standard 60’s narrative in a detailed and fascinating way. Given my penchant for getting to the bottom of this whole Baby Boomer thing, I found myself particularly drawn to Mario Savio’s story.
Born in 1942 and raised in a Catholic household, Savio was an uber intellectual with a genius-level IQ and a sensitive soul. He loved math and science and assumed he would become a physicist. As he hit his teenage years, Savio’s deep thinking became more complicated as he tried to reconcile his scientific mind with his devout religious beliefs.
Later, looking back on his childhood, Savio claimed that his most formative experience was when he came across pictures from the Holocaust for the first time. “It’s like a dark, grotesque secret that people had, that at some time in the recent past people were being incinerated and piled up … I started to get the idea that people weren’t really coming completely clean about things … that there was almost a conspiracy not to tell the truth to oneself, even on a mass scale.”
Reading this quote from Savio, I started to get where his generation was/is coming from a little more. If one feels that society has refused to acknowledge evil and act accordingly, it would follow that one would Question Authority and all the convention, consumerism and bureaucracy that comes along with that authority. So, yeah, trying to change the world comes with some entitlement.
There isn’t space here for me to tell you exactly how, a decade later, Savio found himself standing on top of a Berkeley police car delivering an improvised speech to hundreds of his fellow students who sat surrounding the car. That speech would come to mark the beginning of the Free Speech Movement and, some would argue, the beginning of The Sixties.
I began reading Subversives during the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. I’d been riveted by CNN’s 24-hour coverage (by the way, if anyone can tell me why people hate Don Lemon, I’d love some insight) and I was feeling like I needed a reading selection with some relevance—however indirect—to current events. In Rosenfeld’s prologue, he explains that his book “illustrates the dangers that the combination of secrecy and power pose to democracy, especially during turbulent times.” Enough said. I recommend this book to anyone interested in a history of Berkeley and/or those seeking to fan any dying flames of resentment toward Ronald Reagan.
Speaking of Reagan, I think I’ll be reading fiction next …