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Reagan and Hoover, Sittin’ in a Tree

Posted on Aug 14, 2012

By Peter Richardson

(Page 3)

With Reagan, of course, the rest is history. In one of his first presidential acts, he pardoned high-ranking FBI officials who had authorized warrantless break-ins at the homes of relatives and friends of Weather Underground fugitives. In announcing the pardons, Reagan said, “The record demonstrates that they acted not with criminal intent but in the belief that they had grants of authority reaching to the highest levels of government.” One of the prosecutors flatly refuted that claim. “That assertion is false,” Francis J. Martin wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. “The FBI’s own documents attest to the fact that it is false. After an eight-week trial, 12 jurors unanimously found it to be false.” 

Rosenfeld recounts these and other episodes patiently and reliably. He weaves his findings into a continuous narrative that presumes little prior knowledge of these men or the events they shaped. He also fleshes out that narrative with detailed accounts of supporting characters, most of who aided the FBI and Reagan in their campaign against Kerr and the student radicals.

As an investigative reporter, Rosenfeld is relentless but by no means one-sided. Even as he probes the liaison between Hoover and Reagan, he also corrects some leftist hagiography. His research indicates that Richard Aoki, a leader in the Black Panther Party and UC Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front, was also an FBI informer. Instrumental in supplying weapons to the Panthers, Aoki later earned a graduate degree, taught at Merritt College in Oakland and become the subject of a flattering documentary film released in 2009. When Aoki died that same year, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale told a local newspaper that Aoki “was one consistent, principled person who stood up and understood the international necessity for human and community unity in opposition to oppressors and exploiters.”

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

But Aoki didn’t sound especially consistent or principled when Rosenfeld interviewed him.

When this author asked Aoki whether he had been an FBI informer, during a lengthy interview about his life in 2007, Aoki’s first response was a long silence. After a while he replied, “Oh is all I can say.” When this author asked if he was wrong in understanding that Aoki had been an informer, he replied, “I think you are.” But Aoki added, as if by way of explanation, “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.” When pressed further for a yes or no, Aoki again replied indirectly, saying, “I’m denying it. Or ‘no comment’ is the standard response, I think.”

Rosenfeld’s interview with FBI agent Burney Threadgill left little doubt about Aoki’s status. Threadgill described how he recruited and developed Aoki in the late 1950s, when Aoki was well disposed to the FBI. (Hoover had opposed the wartime internment of Japanese, which broke up Aoki’s family.) Readers might agree with Aoki that the situation was complex and with Rosenfeld that Aoki was an FBI informer. 

One of the book’s most interesting stories concerns the FBI’s efforts to withhold information about its assistance to Reagan. In an appendix, Rosenfeld details the lawsuits he filed and won over three decades to acquire the relevant FBI documents. The heroes of this saga include San Francisco federal Judge Marilyn Patel, who ruled that “Information regarding acts taken to protect or promote Reagan’s political career, or acts done as political favors to Reagan[,], serve no legitimate law enforcement purpose.” Having studied some 50,000 pages of FBI records, Rosenfeld reaches the following conclusion:

These documents show that during the Cold War, FBI officials sought to change the course of history by secretly interceding in events, manipulating public opinion, and taking sides in partisan politics. The bureau’s efforts, decades later, to improperly withhold information about those activities under the [Freedom of Information Act] are, in effect, another attempt to shape history, this time by obscuring the past.

“Subversives” allows us to see this part of our history steadily, whole and for the first time. It is both a major achievement and a fresh opportunity to consider who, exactly, was subverting what. 

Peter Richardson is the author of “A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America” (2009) and “American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams” (2005).


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