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Revealed: How Ronald Reagan, J. Egdar Hoover, and the FBI Plotted to Crush 1960s Dissidents

The FBI's greatest secret: its hidden war against Berkeley’s student radicals and the alliance between Reagan and Hoover.

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A story, possibly apocryphal, that Rosenfeld doesn’t include contains a larger dollop of truth than the hundreds of thousands of FBI documents that he insists reveal government conspiracies run amok. It was a favorite of Warren Hinckle, the author of If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1974), his unjustly neglected memoir of his years presiding over Ramparts. The bureau was beside itself with the exposés the magazine regularly published, in particular by Scheer, Hinckle’s comrade-in-muckraking. And so it came to pass that the magazine’s North Beach lair was burglarized. Suspicion was strong that Hoover’s men were responsible. Scheer was possessed of a mind as startlingly lucid as his desk was invariably disheveled, covered with a mad shambles of telephone numbers and notes scrawled higgledy-piggledy on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper. His “runic scribble,” as Hinckle called it, was the bane of the magazine’s copy editors. And so it proved to Hoover’s black-bag men, who were unable to decipher Scheer’s poison penmanship. Hoover’s FBI, increasingly irrelevant, was more and more a spent force.

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Rosenfeld seems not to understand this, however, convinced that he’s found in these documents a veritable Pentagon Papers. Rosenfeld argues that the FBI’s refusal to give up its secrets was rooted in a desire to keep hidden its decades-long effort to bend and often to break the law in pursuit of suspected “subversives,” fearing that revelation of its misdeeds might arouse the public’s ire. Another, more compelling reason suggests itself: on the evidence of the Everest of documents that the bureau sought to conceal, what Hoover and his successors were at pains to cover up was its thoroughgoing incompetence. As the bureau knew, few “subversives” were there to be found. Far from the model of a modern and relentlessly efficient intelligence-gathering machine, Hoover had instead created a massive and costly bureaucracy whose actual workings reveal an astonishing gap between its fearsome public image and its shabby, inept inner reality. What these hundreds of thousands of FBI documents show is how little the bureau actually accomplished for all its fevered exertions.

Rosenfeld thinks the tale he’s telling is one of unbridled abuse of government power seeking by hook or by crook to dislodge and demolish a corpuscular and burgeoning movement of discontent. And it is, up to a point. The more sinister drama, however, is the one that unfolds in the shadow play of the backstage efforts to get rid of Kerr, deemed by establishment figures to his right to be no longer trustworthy: naïve at best and an unwitting, pusillanimous comsymp at worst. Kerr’s sin was to have betrayed his class—an even greater crime, as far as his overseers were concerned, than the obstreperous bleatings of a young upstart like Savio. Suspicious of his Quaker convictions, his fieldwork as a young graduate student studying the plight of striking farmworkers in the ’30s in the harvests of sorrow that formed California’s San Joaquin Valley, and his years as a labor negotiator, Kerr’s critics within the corporate boardrooms and private clubs to which the men who ran the state belonged assiduously sought his ouster. He was, they felt, invertebrate. Harder, more ruthless and more cynical men were needed. With Hoover’s connivance, they plotted Kerr’s removal. They were confident that the ever-pliant Reagan would do their bidding. After all, he always had, as Hoover had known ever since Reagan’s stoolie days for the bureau, when the second-rate star, as head of the Screen Actors Guild during Hollywood’s long night of redbaiting, yearned for Hoover’s recognition and approbation. The FBI documents on this count are convincing. When the fateful day came, just weeks after Reagan’s inauguration, Kerr was stunned. His sacking, he recalled, felt “like a whip across my face.”