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

Seth Rosenfeld




Trade Paperback

752 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

Winner of the Ridenhour Book Prize
Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Research Nonfiction
Winner of the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award
Winner of the Society of Professional Journalists Sunshine Award

Subversives traces the FBI’s secret involvement with three iconic figures at Berkeley during the 1960s: the ambitious neophyte politician Ronald Reagan, the fierce but fragile radical Mario Savio, and the liberal university president Clark Kerr. Through these converging narratives, the award-winning investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld tells a dramatic and disturbing story of FBI surveillance, illegal break-ins, infiltration, planted news stories, poison-pen letters, and secret detention lists. He reveals how the FBI’s covert operations—led by Reagan’s friend J. Edgar Hoover—helped ignite an era of protest, undermine the Democrats, and benefit Reagan personally and politically. At the same time, he vividly evokes the life of Berkeley in the early sixties—and shows how the university community, a site of the forward-looking idealism of the period, became a battleground in an epic struggle between the government and free citizens.

The FBI spent more than $1 million trying to block the release of the secret files on which Subversives is based, but Rosenfeld compelled the bureau to release more than 250,000 pages, providing an extraordinary view of what the government was up to during a turning point in our nation’s history.

Part history, part biography, and part police procedural, Subversives reads like a true-crime mystery as it provides a fresh look at the legacy of the sixties, sheds new light on one of America’s most popular presidents, and tells a cautionary tale about the dangers of secrecy and unchecked power  


Praise for Subversives

“[An] electrifying examination of a newly declassified treasure trove of documents detailing our government’s campaign of surveillance of the Berkeley campus during the ’60s.”—Matt Taibbi, The New York Times Book Review

“A grim, powerful reminder of Hoover’s ruthlessness . . . By focusing on four key players, Rosenfeld manages both a granular history of the UC campus protest and a primer on the broader cultural unrest of the period . . . Rosenfeld has produced a readable and important book about a key turning point in 20th century America.”—Michael Washburn, The Boston Globe

“Rosenfeld has turned over a quarry-full of rocks and uncovered an appalling amount of sleazy behavior in post-war California, particularly in the turbulent 1960s . . . Rosenfeld’s important book is valuable as history and also, it must be said, as a cautionary tale.”—Luther Spoehr, History New Network

“A rich and well-documented story of idealism and cynicism in a pivotal place at an important time. Rosenfeld has also provided us with yet another cautionary tale of police organizations, from the FBI to the local level, that slip their boundaries to serve the governors and not the people.”—Lucas A. Powe, Jr., History Book Club

“Armed with a panoply of interviews, court rulings, and freshly acquired F.B.I. documents, Rosenfeld shows how J. Edgar Hoover unlawfully distributed confidential intelligence to undermine the nineteen-sixties protest movement in Berkeley, while brightening the political stars of friendly informants like Ronald Reagan. Rosenfeld’s history, at once encyclopedic and compelling, follows a number of interwoven threads.”—The New Yorker

“In case you’ve forgotten or are too young to know, the 1960s were the template for today’s political divisiveness. In Subversives, Seth Rosenfeld chronicles how the abyss formed. His book is crucial history. It’s also a warning . . . Profound thanks to Seth Rosenfeld for outing the truth and speaking truth to power.”—Carlo Wolff, The Christian Science Monitor

“Several books have dealt directly or tangentially with the Berkeley student revolt, but Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives presents a new and encompassing perspective, including a revisionist view of Ronald Reagan and a detailed picture of FBI corruption. The details of the story did not come easily. It took Rosenfeld, a former reporter for the Chronicle and the Examiner, 25 years and five Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to finally get all the material he requested from the FBI. The bureau fought him every inch of the way, spending more than $1 million of taxpayers’ money in an effort to withhold public records, until it finally had no choice . . . A well-paced and wide-ranging narrative . . . A deftly woven account.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

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
Read the full excerpt


  • Seth Rosenfeld

  • Seth Rosenfeld was for many years an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, where his article about the free speech movement won seven national awards. He lives in San Francisco.
  • Seth Rosenfeld Heidi Elise Benson