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For my parents
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
18 West 18th Street, New York 10011
Copyright © 2012 by Seth Rosenfeld
Map copyright © 2012 by Dan Hubig
All rights reserved
Distributed in Canada by D&M Publishers, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America
First edition, 2012
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint lyrics from the “I-Feel-LikeI’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish; words and music by Joe McDonald,
© 1965 (renewed 1993) by Alkatraz Corner Music Co., BMI.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rosenfeld, Seth, 1956–
Subversives : the FBI’s war on student radicals, and Reagan’s rise to power / Seth
Rosenfeld. — 1st ed.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978- 0-374-25700-2 (alk. paper)
1. Student movements—California—Berkeley—History. 2. College
students—Political activity—California—Berkeley—History. 3. University
of California, Berkeley—Students—History. 4. Reagan, Ronald. 5. Subversive
activities—California—Berkeley—History. 6. United States. Federal Bureau
of Investigation. 7. California—Politics and government—1951– I. Title.
LD760 .R67 2012
Designed by Jonathan D. Lippincott
Spies in the Hills
On the night of November 9, 1945, two FBI agents huddled in a sedan on
a dark street in the hills above the green slopes, quiet stone lecture halls,
and towering Campanile of the University of California’s Berkeley campus.
As fog blew through the eucalyptus trees along Grizzly Peak, obscuring the lights of San Francisco across the bay, the agents tried to stay alert
and peered down the road at the front door of a bungalow at 790 Keeler
Avenue. They were tailing a suspected Soviet spy named George Eltenton,
who was visiting the chemist who lived there. Herve Voge was a former
graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Berkeley physicist already
known as the father of the atomic bomb.
The war had ended only three months before, when the United States
bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with two atomic devices built at the topsecret laboratories managed by the university. Uneasy allies during the war,
America and the Soviet Union were becoming fierce adversaries as the
Soviets imposed what Winston Churchill would soon call an “iron curtain”
across Europe. The USSR seemed bent on world domination, and fear of
nuclear conflict spread.
Federal officials saw the American Communist Party as the secretive
arm of a foreign enemy, a Soviet-controlled organization whose members
infiltrated government and private institutions, subverted official policy by
fomenting unrest, and might engage in sabotage and espionage.
J. Edgar Hoover suspected that Eltenton and other Soviet spies had
targeted the Berkeley campus and were using party members in their effort to obtain nuclear secrets from Oppenheimer and other Berkeley scientists. The FBI director feared that if these spies obtained those Promethean
powers, the Soviet Union would use them against the United States.
Urgently trying to stop this foreign plot, he opened a massive investigation of Soviet espionage at the university’s atomic laboratories. On his
orders, FBI agents conducted illegal break-ins, planted microphones, and
tapped telephones. They kept suspects under constant surveillance, tracking them to their offices, dinner parties, and hotel rooms.
And on that cold and foggy night, they watched and waited for Eltenton
outside the house on Keeler Avenue. By and by, he pulled his car to the
curb and went in. Soon after, another car parked nearby, and its two occupants also entered the house. The agents took down the Washington State
license number, A-24916. They soon traced the car to its owner, a young
Berkeley professor named Clark Kerr.
Just below those same green hills almost a hundred years earlier, the Very
Reverend Henry Durant and several other men with top hats and great
expectations assembled by an outcropping. They gathered that day in
May 1866 to dedicate the fields of glistening grain and grand oaks that
unfurled toward the bay before them as the site for their College of California.
This land had been inhabited by Indian tribes for thousands of years,
and by the late 1700s it was home to the Huichin, hunters and gatherers
who were part of the Ohlone peoples. In 1769 Spanish explorers sailed into
the bay, established missions, and began converting the “heathen.” By the
1820s, European diseases had wiped out most of the Huichin. Around that
time, the Spanish governor of California rewarded one of his loyal soldiers,
Sergeant Luis Maria Peralta, with a grant of 48,000 acres along the east
side of the bay. Peralta’s family lost most of their land after the Gold Rush
began in 1848 and, as the historian J. S. Holliday wrote, “the world rushed
in.” Several years later, the men in top hats acquired some of that land as
the prospective grounds for their college.
The trustees gazed toward the shimmering bay, the red rocks of the
Golden Gate, and the seemingly infinite horizon beyond. This western
view had inspired them to name the site of their school after George Berkeley, the poet, philosopher, and Anglican bishop of Cloyne, who had posed
the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, has it really
fallen? He answered, in essence: To be is to be heard. The iconoclastic
Berkeley also held that entrenched bureaucracy was stifling the scholarly
pursuit of truth in the Old World, and that it could be accomplished more
freely in the New World. His vision of America as the “westward hope for
humanity” encouraged the trustees gathered by the outcropping. One of
them recited from Berkeley’s poem “Verse on the Prospect of Planting Arts
and Learning in America,” in which he wrote, “The Muse, disgusted at
an Age and Clime / Barren of every glorious Theme, / In distant Lands now
Spies in the Hills
waits a better Time / . . . Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
/ the pedantry of courts and schools . . .”
Despite their high hopes, the trustees encountered financial trouble
and their private college faltered. A separate plan for a state university,
meanwhile, also had stalled. But in 1862 President Lincoln signed the
Morrill Land Grant College Act, which radically changed the course of
higher education in America and events in Berkeley. The act gave states
large tracts of federal land they could sell to fund the establishment of
universities. Until then, colleges had mostly served the elite, but the act required land-grant universities to advance the national welfare by teaching
practical courses in agriculture and industry and by offering instruction
to the public.
Four years later, the California legislature passed the Organic Act of
1866, establishing the University of California as a land-grant college. With
the Organic Act of 1868, the legislators placed the university under the
authority of a largely autonomous Board of Regents and declared that the
school should be free from political, partisan, or sectarian influence. Reverend Durant and his fellow trustees donated their college and land to the
state, which absorbed it into the University of California. Opening in 1873
on the land dedicated to Bishop Berkeley, the university from the beginning
embodied independence, civil liberties, and national security, fundamental
values inherently in tension with one another.
By the 1920s, the campus was distinguished by nearly two dozen
massive buildings of the classically inspired Beaux-Arts style, white stone
structures with grand columns that paid homage to ancient ideals of truth
and beauty and signaled the university’s academic ambitions. In the center of campus, rising 303 feet and visible for miles, stood the Campanile,
the great granite clock tower topped with a pyramid spire and lantern
symbolizing “aspiration for enlightenment.” The university’s goals were
furthered in 1928, when two outstanding young professors were recruited
to Berkeley. Ernest O. Lawrence, an experimental physicist, soon began
work on the cyclotron, or “atom smasher,” a device that enabled him to
separate and study the components of the atom. In 1939, he became the
university’s first Nobel Prize laureate. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, possessed an extraordinary capacity to synthesize different
fields of knowledge. The two scientists drew other talented researchers to
the university, and as World War II approached they became vitally involved in federally funded weapons research. Paramount among these efforts was the army’s top-secret Manhattan Project to build the world’s first
atomic bomb. The university operated a vast radiation laboratory on a hill
above the Berkeley campus and another at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer and Lawrence were soon hard at work—and so were Soviet
The microphone hidden inside the Communist Party’s Alameda County
headquarters was identified in FBI reports only as “Confidential Informant SF- 631.” A special team of agents had installed the bug during an
illegal “black bag job,” surreptitiously breaking into the party’s Oakland
office without a warrant. It was risky business, but the agents had become
adept at these “special assignments,” which Hoover rewarded with cash
The job of monitoring the microphones and telephone taps on Communist Party members around the clock, however, could be numbingly
dull. The “commies” seemed to be involved in every social or political
cause out there, and they were always going on about some grievance, party
minutia, or petty personal matter. So bored was one agent assigned to the
listening post hidden in a tiny, unmarked commercial space a few miles
from the Berkeley campus that he risked censure from Hoover to play a
prank, placing a lipstick-smeared cigarette butt in the ashtray and leaving
the next agent on duty to wonder.
The tedium was broken on the evening of October 10, 1942. The bug
was picking up Steve Nelson, the head of the Communist Party in Alameda
County, a member of the party’s national committee, and an associate of
officials at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco.
Nelson was discussing his keen interest in learning more about the
secret experiments at the university’s radiation lab on the hill. He was talking to Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, a Berkeley physicist and fellow Communist Party member. “Rossi” was telling Nelson about his research on what
was cryptically described as “a very dangerous weapon.” But he added that
he was thinking of quitting his research job at the lab so he could openly
advocate the party’s goals to workers in local shipyards.
Nelson deftly dissuaded him. He told the young scientist he was considered an undercover member of the Communist Party, which needed to
know about “these discoveries and research developments.” His help was all
the more important, Nelson said, because another scientist at the lab placed
his research there above his support of the party. Though Nelson did not
name this person, FBI agents believed he was J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer was perhaps the single most important scientist involved in the race to beat the Nazis in developing the bomb, and the FBI
Spies in the Hills
already had compiled a thick dossier on him. A New York native, he was
the elder of two sons of a well-to-do textile merchant father and an artist
mother. He attended Harvard, Cambridge, and Göttingen universities, and
by 1929 was teaching physics at Berkeley. He spoke eight languages, was
an authority on baroque music, and was well versed in art and literature.
Gangly and kinetic, he sported a broad-brimmed porkpie hat and was
given to jabbing the air with his pipe to emphasize a point. He seemed to
vibrate with the energy of the atoms he studied and was often the nucleus
of a crowd of awestruck students.
“Oppie” had been avowedly apolitical, known for his eccentricities
and the strong martinis he served at his home on Shasta Road in the
Berkeley Hills. But by late 1936 he had become interested in left-wing
causes. He’d grown concerned about the Depression and the Nazis’ treatment of German Jews. “I began to understand how deeply political and
economic events could affect men’s lives,” he would later say. As he became involved in organizations supporting unions, better working conditions for migrant farmworkers, and the fight against fascism in Spain, he
met other activists, including members of the Communist Party. Party
membership grew during the Depression years, and in the 1930s about
250,000 Americans joined at least briefly, among them some 6,000 members in California, and 500 to 600 members in Alameda County.
FBI agents had spotted Oppenheimer at a social gathering in Berkeley attended by Communists in December 1940. They had obtained phone
records showing he called Communists in the years before the war. They
knew that his wife, Kitty, had been a Communist, and that her previous
husband, Joseph Dallet, was a prominent Communist who had died fighting in the Spanish Civil War. They also knew his brother, Frank Oppenheimer, had been a member of the Communist Party as recently as 1941,
and perhaps later. At least one informer claimed, in 1938, that Oppenheimer
himself was a member of the Communist Party, but Oppenheimer always
denied it and the FBI had been unable to prove it.
Now the bug inside the Alameda County office of the Communist
Party had picked up Steve Nelson talking about his efforts to get some
very dangerous secrets from him.
N.J.L. “Nat” Pieper, the special agent in charge of the San Francisco
FBI office, sent an urgent report about Nelson’s conversation to Hoover at
There is, he said, a “situation” in Berkeley.
With his snub nose, piercing eyes, and rapid-fire speech, J. Edgar Hoover
was as fearsome a figure as a Washington bureaucrat can hope to be.
Close acquaintances had the privilege of addressing him as Edgar, the
name by which his domineering mother summoned him. Clyde Tolson,
his second in command at the FBI and his close companion, called him
Eddie or Speed. Senators, who knew he collected secrets, deferred to him
as Mr. Hoover. The agents who worked under his dictatorial supervision
simply referred to him as the Boss.
He was driven, detail-oriented, and tough, and he adroitly administered the bureau’s myriad investigations of government applicants, criminals, spies, and those he deemed subversive. He dealt deftly with the
elected officials who ostensibly oversaw the bureau and he became virtually autonomous. Presidents came and went, but over the decades Hoover
remained. He effectively manipulated press coverage of his operations,
and used his position not only for law enforcement but to promote proper
“American” values. He was, above all, suspicious of anyone who deviated
from the mainstream, especially aliens.
John Edgar Hoover was born on January 1, 1895, in his parents’ home
at 413 Seward Square, in a predominantly white and Protestant neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C. The government clerks and their
families who lived there, like most people in the District of Columbia
during the years Hoover was growing up, observed Jim Crow customs. His
father, like his father’s father, was a minor government functionary.
The youngest of four children, Hoover as a boy was “skinny, high
strung, sickly, and excessively fearful, clinging to his mother whenever he
could,” according to The Boss, a biography by Athan G. Theoharis and
John Stuart Cox. At Central High School, a public school for whites only,
he never went on dates and was “known for his morality and celibacy,”
wrote Ovid Demaris in The Director. Rejected by the football team, he
joined the school’s ROTC program and eventually became captain of his
company. He proudly wore his uniform when he taught Sunday school at
his Presbyterian church. Although he would later say he had contemplated
becoming a minister, as an adult he would rarely attend ser vices.
In 1912, Hoover’s senior year at Central, his father, Dickerson Hoover,
suffered a psychiatric breakdown and spent time in a sanitarium. Hoover’s
mother, Annie, was the stronger personality, a disciplinarian “rewarding
obedience and punishing disobedience with military impartiality,” as she
was described in a 1937 New Yorker profile. Hoover was afflicted with a
stammer, but worked hard to overcome it by practicing elocution in his
Spies in the Hills
room at night. He became a leading member of the debate team, earned
excellent grades, and was voted class valedictorian.
On graduating, Hoover took a job as a clerk in the Library of Congress and enrolled in night classes on law at George Washington University. In 1916 he earned a Bachelor of Law degree, without honors, and
in 1917 a Master of Law degree. That April, the United States declared war
on Germany, but through the help of a family friend Hoover secured a
draft-exempt clerk’s post at the U.S. Department of Justice. He worked in
the Alien Enemy Bureau, and by war’s end was the department’s expert
on foreign-inspired radicalism.
On June 2, 1919, a bomb exploded on the front porch of Attorney
General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home in northwest Washington, D.C. The
bomber was killed in the blast and never identified, but anarchist literature
was found in the rubble. Palmer began an antiradical campaign, promoting Hoover, now twenty-four, to be his special assistant and putting him
in charge of it. Hoover studied the writings of Marx and other Communists. He built a network of informers. And he created an index of sixty
thousand suspected radicals, according to Secrecy and Power, The Life of
J. Edgar Hoover, by Richard Gid Powers. He developed the administrative
techniques, theories of guilt by association, and alliances with self-styled
patriotic organizations that would define his career. He also came to believe radicals not only held dangerous political theories, according to The
Boss, but were “intellectual perverts.”
Hoover oversaw a Justice Department program to round up and deport noncitizen immigrants whom he had concluded were radicals. Under
immigration laws, department officials could use relatively loose administrative procedures to deport aliens who advocated anarchism or political
violence, or who belonged to organizations that did. The officials were not
required to meet the higher standards of evidence for criminal cases.
They did not have to prove, for example, that an alien had actually resorted,
or would resort, to violence. Aliens had no right to counsel while being
Based on Hoover’s evidence, police and immigration agents conducted
raids in twelve cities on November 7, 1919, arresting more than four hundred people. Most were poor and could not speak English. They had committed no violent crime and were guilty only of the technical charge of
being aliens and members of a proscribed organization. To generate publicity, Hoover also gave special attention to the nation’s most famous radical, a diminutive Russian immigrant named Emma Goldman, who wore
pince-nez spectacles and high-collared blouses. He sought to deport her
also on technical grounds: that she was not a citizen because her prior
marriage to an American was invalid. An administrative judge agreed,
and soon Goldman and 248 other foreign-born radical aliens ensnared in
the raids were on a boat bound for Russia. Goldman’s forced return there
further disillusioned her about Soviet communism, and she moved to
Britain. The deportations were Hoover’s first big victory and, as he had
hoped, they made front-page news.
Hoover next targeted thousands of aliens who were members of two
radical organizations—the American Communist Party and the American Communist Labor Party—both of which took inspiration from the
Russian Revolution. He prepared legal briefs alleging that each group had
a manifesto advocating the violent overthrow of the government, and that
each of their members was required to know it. On the basis of membership alone, he argued, they should all be deported. Relying on Hoover’s
assertions, Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, who had jurisdiction
over immigration laws, authorized arrest warrants. On January 2, 1920,
Justice Department agents led raids in thirty-three cities, this time detaining some six thousand alien radicals.
At first, the so-called Palmer Raids brought Hoover and Palmer more
praise, but soon they became a scandal. The detention facilities were inadequate and unsanitary. Many detainees were held incommunicado for
days. The inhumane conditions of confinement sparked public outcry.
Louis Post, the assistant secretary of labor who was to rule on whether
each arrestee should be deported, discovered that Hoover’s legal briefs
blurred important differences between the two organizations. Contrary to
Hoover’s claims, the evidence showed that most members of the American
Communist Labor Party did not know their organization professed violent
overthrow of the government. Moreover, he found, the evidence showed
that most of the immigrants were harmless.
Calling the raids a “gigantic and cruel hoax,” Post ordered the release
of about three thousand of the four thousand detainees who had been
formally arrested and were facing deportation. On May 5, his boss, Secretary of Labor Wilson, also ruled against Hoover, concluding that membership in the Communist Labor Party was not cause for deportation. On
June 23, a federal judge in Boston went further, finding membership in
neither of the radical groups was ground for expulsion. The judge also condemned Hoover’s use of informers and agents provocateurs. Ultimately,
only 556 people would be deported.
Spies in the Hills
Hoover fought back. He accused Post of being a Bolshevik and tried
to get him impeached, but Congress instead criticized the sweeps. Hoover
had hoped the raids would prompt Congress to enact a peacetime sedition law banning radical activities not only of aliens but also of citizens,
but the debacle stymied his plans. By the spring of 1920, Communist revolts in Europe had fizzled and membership in domestic radical groups
had fallen. The Red Scare faded. No one ever was charged for the bombing of Palmer’s porch that had ostensibly triggered the dragnets.
Blamed for the disastrous raids that now bore his name, Attorney General Palmer’s hopes for winning the Democratic nomination for president
Hoover, however, suffered only a temporary setback on his continuing
ascent. When the director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation was fired for his part in a scandal involving bribes for government oil leases near Teapot Dome, Wyoming, Hoover got his big chance.
In 1924, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone named him head of the
bureau. Hoover boldly began to build a modern investigative agency. Firing
scores of incompetent and unreliable agents, he replaced them with men
trained in law or accounting. He tightened their supervision, ordering
agents to report directly to him about other agents’ “use of intoxicating liquors, the neglect of duties as well as other indiscretions.” All agents were
required to file detailed reports on their daily activities, and strict standards
were set for securely handling bureau records. Using the latest technology, he established the bureau as a central clearinghouse for fingerprintlinked crime records, which helped local police track fugitives and
positioned Hoover as a leader of the nation’s law-enforcement community.
Hoover was still living at home with his mother. His father had died
in 1921, and he was supporting her. Now slightly stocky, he had become
a bit of a dandy, favoring summertime suits of white linen with a silk handkerchief tucked in the breast pocket. In 1928, he met Clyde Tolson, a Missouri native who had been confidential secretary to the secretary of war
and had joined the bureau as an agent that year. Tolson was an excellent
administrator, and within two years Hoover named him assistant director.
They quickly became close, dining, commuting, and vacationing together.
Hoover, meanwhile, had not fully honored Attorney General Stone’s
admonition to refrain from engaging in domestic intelligence, and he
would soon be deeply involved in political spying during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On taking office in 1933, FDR
inherited an economic, social, and moral crisis. The Roaring Twenties had
imploded. A decade of unregulated stock market speculation ended in the
Great Crash of 1929 and the worst economic depression in the nation’s
history. Prohibition added to the national hangover. The constitutional
ban on liquor from 1920 through 1933 not only failed to stop drinking but
fostered widespread disrespect for the law and gave powerful mobsters such
as Al Capone the opportunity to build lucrative and violent organizations
running bootleg booze.
Roosevelt responded with the New Deal, the series of unprecedented
federal programs intended to provide relief, recovery, and reform, and
tapped Hoover to lead the New Deal’s war on crime. Hoover’s immediate
mission was to take down the notorious gangsters—the “public enemies”—
terrorizing the Midwest in a wave of sensational bank robberies, kidnappings, and shootings. In 1933 and 1934, Hoover’s men caught or killed
George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and George
“Baby Face” Nelson. These cases brought Hoover tremendous publicity,
which he exploited with the help of newspaper editors, radio station executives, and motion picture producers hungry for heroic tales. Hoover’s agents
became known as G-Men—short for government men—and soon there
were G-Man radio shows, G-Man comic strips, and a series of Warner
Brothers’ G-Man movies.
By the time the Bureau of Investigation was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, Hoover had become one of the president’s
stars. And as Europe edged toward war, FDR turned to him to combat possible foreign espionage and sabotage at home. Although known as a great
liberal, the patrician Democrat secretly expanded the FBI’s domestic intelligence operations without consulting Congress or adhering to courtordered limitations.
On August 24, 1936, Roosevelt summoned Hoover to the White House
for a private discussion that would determine the course of the FBI’s internal security operations far into the future. Hoover told the president that
Communists were planning to “get control” of three major unions—the
West Coast longshoremen’s union, headed by Harry Bridges; the United
Mine Workers Union; and the Newspaper Guild—“and by doing so they
would be able at any time to paralyze the country.” Hoover also claimed
Communists had “inspired” activities in some federal agencies, including
the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled on disputes between
employers and unions.
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