J.Edgar, Ronnie, Clark Kerr, Mario & The Peace Corps

The August 17, 2012 issue of the Chronicle Review, published with The Chronicle of Higher Education, has an excerpt from Seth Rosenfeld’s new book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Rosenfeld was for many years an investigative reporter for both The San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.The book is about Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley’s most notorious campus agitator, and Clark Kerr, the president of the university. It is also about Ronald Reagan and most importantly, J. Edgar Hoover, who in the 1950s and 1960s ran a secret operation within the FBI called the “Responsibilities Program” to hunt down professors whose political views were deemed by J. Edgar as unacceptable.

Frustrated in 1964 by the successful uprisings by students at Berkeley, Hoover was eager to find a collaborator in Reagan who had just been elected governor of California, having run on a campaign, in part, to get rid of radicals on campus.

Now I realize that there are fewer and fewer of us who were around in those early days of the ’60s when students demonstrated on campuses across the U.S. and demanded changes of all kinds at their colleges and universities. I can still recall the morning in 1964 when I was at work at Peace Corps HQ and opened the New York Timesand there was a photograph of Mario Savio at Sproul Hall and a front page story on how the Free Speech Movement had closed down Berkeley.mario

Students had never before closed down a college in America.

[In the fall of that year, newly returned from Ethiopia and working in what once was called, The Division of Volunteer Support, where I spoke to Trainees on college campuses across the country, I wrote a brash memo entitled “Why Mario Savio Would Be Selected Out?” to my boss. The point of the topic was that the Peace Cops was selecting out during Training those famous High Risk/High Gain PCVs.

The memo got circulated around the agency and found its way onto Shriver’s desk and he sent me-rightfully so-a blistering hand written note on the front of my memo to say that Mario Savio and Applicants just like him were getting into the Peace Corps everyday, and that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I regret now that I didn’t save and frame that message from Sarge, as years later I saved and framed a nice letter from Sarge thanking me for the work Marian Beil and I had been doing to promote Peace Corps writers and the Third Goal of the agency.]

Now back to Berkeley and the student uprisings of the early 60s.

What I didn’t know until I read the Chronicle Reviewarticle by Seth Rosenfeld was that at Eureka College in 1928, Reagan had joined a student strike, and even helped lead it, but he didn’t like the sit-ins at Berkeley, nor the strikers, or the picket lines of the Free Speech Movement with their drugs and sex and the anti-Vietnam War protests. Reagan declared that the “beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates” were proof of a “morality and decency gap” at the center of California’s Democratic Party.

And all those California gray-haired “little old ladies in tennis shoes” as they were called at the time, cheered the former actor. Reagan defeated the incumbent, Pat Brown, in a landslide.

Meanwhile, Hoover and the FBI were worried that the youth movement of Berkeley, fed by “free love,” drugs, and a general disrespect for authority would spread to other campuses across the country. Hoover was correct. It did.

jedgarStill, students had to be stopped. And Reagan as governor would stop it, as Hoover hoped. There was only one problem: President Clark Kerr of Berkeley.

Hoover blamed Kerr, more than anyone else, for not putting an end to campus dissent. Kerr at the time had led the University of California to new academic heights, played a key role in establishing the system that guaranteed all Californians access to higher education. He was a man of great integrity. A scholar. A gifted administrator. In Hoover’s eyes, however, Kerr had confused academic freedom with academic license, coddled Communist faculty members, and failed to crack down on “young punks” like Mario Savio. Hoover “directed his agents to undermine Kerr.” Hoover wanted Kerr removed as university president. As he blunted put it in a memo to his top aides, Kerr was “no good.”

Reagan was sympatric to Hoover’s wishes. Reagan wanted to get rid of all liberal members of the Board of Regents who opposed his policies. A week after he was elected governor, for example, Reagan proposed charging tuition for the first time in the university’s history.

Reagan had a long history of cooperation with the FBI. As an actor he was an informer in the FBI’s investigation of Hollywood Communists. He helped the FBI when he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. And Hoover, in turn, helped Reagan. According to Rosenfeld in his book, Hoover kept track of Reagan’s wayward and right-wing kids, Maureen and Michael. Hoover stayed with Reagan even when his first wife Jane Wyman dumped her failure of a husband, Ronnie, who also, as the time, was a failed actor, and had been reduced to being the sale person for GM projects on t.v.

Now Hoover helped Reagan deal with Berkeley by going after Kerr and Savio.

Regan signed off on a secret request to quell demonstrations at Berkeley before they ignited more protests at other campuses. Hoover wrote in one memo, “This presents the bureau with an opportunity.”

Savio was dragged away by the police in 1964 and the Free Speech Movement died on the steps of Sproul Hall, but Clark Kerr kept his presidency, kept above the fray, and would even go onto become an advisor to the Peace Corps.

The FBI has long denied their secret involvement in the university. Over the years, reporter Seth Rosenfeld brought legal challenges to the agency under the Freedom of Information Act. He filed five lawsuits over 27 years that forced the bureau to release more than 300,000 pages of its confidential records concerning individuals, organizations, and events on and around the campus from the 1940s through the 1970s. In the mid-90s another 50,000 pages were released that provided “a clearer picture of the agency’s relationship with Reagan and suggest that it profoundly influenced his political development,” writes Rosenfeld in his book.

In 1991 a District Courts judge, Marilyn Hall Patel, ruled that the FBI’s own records showed Hoover only went after Kerr because Hoover disagreed with Kerr’s politics and his handling of administrative matters. In 2002, the current director, Robert S. Muller III acknowledged that the bureau’s surveillance and harassment at Berkeley during the cold war was inappropriate.

Sargent Shriver’s Peace Corps, however, recognized the value of Clark Kerr. Shriver appointed Kerr to his Peace Corps Advisory Board in the early years, and in 1965 Kerr took a trip on behalf of the agency to Ethiopia to get a first-hand look at what the Peace Corps was doing overseas.

I had just arrived back in-country as the APCD when Kerr arrived in Addis Ababa and Don Wilson, the Country Director, asked me to drive Kerr down into the Rift Valley to visit PCVs teaching in several small towns on the road that led eventually into Kenya. Traveling with us was our Peace Corps doctor, Fuller Torry, who was making his monthly trip to check on the PCVs and, also, I guess, to see that nothing happened to Kerr, what with Coyne driving the Land Rover.

As one point on the journey south, traveling that narrow tarmac highway into the provinces, and acutely away of what Kerr had gone through as Berkeley during those recent turbulent times, I asked him what was his most difficult job as president.

I was expecting, and hoping, he might tell us stories about Mario Savio, who was a hero of mine, and for a few minutes Kerr didn’t respond. He just stared thoughtfully out the Land Rover window at the dry Rift Valley landscape we were crossing, and I thought, well, he wasn’t going to say anything. He was the president of a great university who had survived Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement, Hover and the FBI, even Ronald Reagan. He wasn’t going to say anything to a kid like me.kerr_clark_000

And then he replied in that refined and polite way he had, as both a gentleman and a full professor and university president, “Well, I guess I would say the most difficult problem I had to deal with at Berkeley was faculty parking.”

Welcome to academia!


Leave a comment
  • The Bay Area unrest during the anti-Vietnam campaign started at San Francisco State where I believe Savio was a student before going to Berkeley. It caused its president S. Hayakawa to close the school. I know because my wife was a student there and just managed to graduate before the school closed. She often recounts her experiences throwing blood bags at, or burning draft cards in front of, draft boads. Of course, since I subesquently worked in our “pacification” program in Vietnam we stay away from discussing Vietnam.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2022. Peace Corps Worldwide.