May 20, 2013
Reagan and Hoover, Sittin’ in a Tree
Posted on Aug 14, 2012
Hoover and Reagan thought the real subversives were on campus, and in 1966, Reagan met with UC Berkeley staff and faculty who were also FBI informers. They briefed him about “communist efforts to influence the students” and argued that Kerr’s removal was vital to the university’s future. One paid informer, Berkeley professor Hardin Jones, proved to be too much even for the FBI. Agents noted that he was sincere but at times “seemed to be carried away.” The FBI stopped paying him in 1965, but Jones and Alex Sherriffs, a high-ranking UC employee and FBI informer, later joined the Reagan administration.
Having demolished Pat Brown in the general election, Reagan underwent a background investigation, during which he claimed no affiliations with subversive organizations as defined by Executive Order 10450. A 1946 FBI report, however, described him as a sponsor of the Los Angeles Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy, which was covered by that order. Yet the FBI gave Reagan a pass in its final report. That leniency was significant; the bureau had ruined the careers of others with only slight connections to such organizations.
Two weeks after Reagan took office, FBI agents came to his home to brief him on subversive elements in Berkeley. He asked for additional intelligence on Kerr, liberal UC regents and any upcoming protests. Less than a week after that, the regents fired Kerr with Reagan in attendance. Regent Edwin Pauley, who had resented Kerr’s liberal outlook ever since the university’s loyalty oath controversy in the early 1950s, led the charge. Pauley had shared confidential FBI files with CIA Director (and Berkeley classmate) John McCone, who suggested that President Johnson order the FBI to “clean out the Communists and get rid of Clark Kerr.”
Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power
By Seth Rosenfeld
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 752 pages
Neither Reagan nor Hoover ever entertained the possibility that student protests were responses to systemic problems rather than subversion. An accomplished labor negotiator before he returned to academia, Kerr actually knew a few Communists, and he was far less likely to mistake dissent for international conspiracy. Student activist Mario Savio, who had spent time in Mississippi as a civil rights worker, also knew that America’s most serious domestic problems had little to do with Moscow. But in 1965, Savio decided to focus on his private life. He married, dropped out of school and looked for work to support his family.
The campus unrest continued without Kerr and Savio, and in 1969, riot police shot dozens of Berkeley protesters and bystanders with birdshot and buckshot, permanently blinding one man and killing student James Rector. Reagan told an Orange County audience, “The police didn’t kill the young man. He was killed by the first college administrator who said some time ago that it was all right to break the laws in the name of dissent.” It was a transparent attempt to blame others for the “bloodbath” he had welcomed in an earlier public remark. Even more outrageously, Reagan aide Edwin Meese told journalist (and now Truthdig Editor-in-Chief) Robert Scheer, “James Rector deserved to die,” an opinion he repeated to Rosenfeld. Some deputies were sanctioned for the shootings but none were convicted, and federal charges were dropped after Reagan pressed U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell. The Reagan administration’s policy—“Obey the rules or get out”—seemed to apply only to university students.
Meanwhile, Hoover expanded COINTELPRO, his counterintelligence program, to target Savio. To support his family, Savio had joined the longshoremen’s union as a ship’s clerk, but the bureau used its influence with an International Longshore and Warehouse Union dispatcher (and FBI informer) to make sure Savio received no work. Savio struggled psychologically and professionally before dying of a heart attack at age 53. Hours after his dismissal from the University of California, Kerr was named chairman of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education, where he directed a series of important studies designed to increase access to colleges and universities. But his reputation in the UC system suffered for many years.
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