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Reagan and Hoover, Sittin’ in a Tree

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Posted on Aug 14, 2012

By Peter Richardson

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

The protests at UC Berkeley in the 1960s—and the conservative backlash that followed them—helped propel Ronald Reagan to the governor’s mansion and then to the White House. Since then, a generation of conservative adoration has transformed Reagan into the embodiment of Republican virtue. Seth Rosenfeld’s new book, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” challenges that portrait in a unique and compelling way. Drawing on FBI files and scores of interviews, Rosenfeld shows how Reagan formed a partnership with the FBI that began in the 1940s and lasted at least until J. Edgar Hoover’s death in 1972. During that time, Reagan, Hoover and their allies sabotaged the careers of law-abiding citizens, defended reckless police violence and exploited an appalling double standard in the political use of FBI intelligence. Rosenfeld’s findings will have little effect on Hoover’s reputation, which has worsened steadily since his death. But they might aid former UC President Clark Kerr’s, and they certainly should be set against the gentler treatments that helped Reagan ascend to GOP heaven.

Rosenfeld’s central story begins in 1947, when Reagan informed on fellow members of the Screen Actors Guild. Shortly after becoming the guild’s interim director, Reagan received a visit from FBI agents who asked him about Communists in the film industry. He said that two actresses who opposed his candidacy “follow the Communist line” and offered the names of eight more actors and actresses. A few months later, Reagan’s executive secretary turned over another list of names that included Lloyd Bridges and Lee J. Cobb. As Rosenfeld observes, “Reagan—whose duty it was to protect the interests of his union members—was doing the very thing most likely to jeopardize their careers.”

book cover


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

By Seth Rosenfeld


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 752 pages


Buy the book

Historians have long known about Reagan’s decision to name names, but his premier biographer, Lou Cannon, mentions Hoover only once in “Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power” (2003). Rosenfeld uses new source material to track Reagan’s relationship with the FBI in general and with Hoover in particular. Reagan spent much of the 1950s barnstorming for General Electric, but Rosenfeld reports that he was also trying to interest Hoover in a television series about the bureau. Reagan’s anti-Communist rhetoric sharpened, and in 1961, he received another visit from FBI agents to investigate his claim that the Communist Party had “ordered once again the infiltration” of the film industry. “They are crawling out from under the rocks,” Reagan had told supermarket executives in Chicago. When the agents asked for evidence, he admitted he had none.

Reagan also told the agents that film executives weren’t hiring him because of his anti-Communist views. He had no evidence for that claim either, but the irony is rich. Scores of Hollywood leftists were ruined because government officials, aided by informers, considered their political beliefs subversive. And thanks to Rosenfeld, we now know that Hoover also scuttled a job opportunity for a university president whom he deemed “no good.” When President Johnson was considering Kerr for a Cabinet position in 1964, Hoover sent Johnson damning FBI intelligence about Kerr that he knew to be false. Johnson promptly scratched Kerr from his list of candidates. Kerr knew nothing about Hoover’s smear until Rosenfeld informed him decades later.

To see long excerpts from “Subversives” at Google Books, click here.

Hoover kept Reagan at arm’s length for years, but he frequently intervened on his behalf. At Reagan’s request, the FBI investigated his daughter Maureen’s turbulent love life, and as Reagan was preparing to run for governor, agents discovered that his son Michael had befriended the son of a notorious Mafia boss. Hoover discreetly alerted Reagan, who was grateful for the courtesy. Later, when Frank Sinatra campaigned for Reagan, FBI agents worried that the singer’s mob associations would harm their ally. Hoover wrote that he would personally brief Reagan about Sinatra. The mob, it seems, wasn’t subversive in the relevant sense. If it had been, Reagan’s relationship with mob fixer Sidney Korshak, whom Reagan met through his agent Lew Wasserman, might have placed him on the FBI’s Security Index decades before. (Rosenfeld makes no mention of that connection.)


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