15 September 2012

Rather less of a communist than first anticipated

[FBI director J Edgar] Hoover’s obsession with the university [of California] intensified in 1959, when a test for incoming freshmen included the question “What are the dangers to democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to criticism?” What followed was one of those laugh-to-keep-from-crying moments that students of FBI history know too well: The bureau acted like a fascist organization by targeting anyone accusing it of acting like a fascist organization, all in order to publicly prove it was nothing like a fascist organization. Hoover’s right-hand man, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, “swiftly mounted a covert public relations campaign intended to embarrass University of California officials and pressure them to retract the essay question.” The regents soon cravenly apologized, but the bureau still deployed thirty agents to discover who wrote the offending question. They settled on a UCLA English professor named Harry Jones, and they were probably responsible for the poison-pen letter later addressed to the UCLA chancellor reporting that the professor and his wife were “fanatical adherents to communism”—all a bit disconcerting to poor Professor Jones, who was actually a fanatical conservative, and (of course) hadn’t even written the question. That investigation also produced a sixty-page report on the University of California system that read, Rosenfeld writes, like “a description of a foreign enemy.” It portrayed the schools, which Clark Kerr had by then taken over and masterfully turned into the greatest university system in the world—neither Reagan nor Hoover cared a whit about that—as containing “a wide range of political beliefs,” but also fatefully harboring faculty members guilty of offenses such as getting Communist books in the mail, having “immediate relatives” who subscribed or contributed to publications deemed subversive, or urging the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

- Rick Perlstein in Bookforum, Sept-Nov 2012, reviews Seth Rosenfeld's Subversives ('The FBI's war on student radicals, and Reagan's rise to power'), 2012. 
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