Book Prize Recipient, 2013

Seth Rosenfeld has been awarded the 2013 Ridenhour Book Prize for Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. This remarkable book traces the FBI’s secret involvement with three iconic figures who clashed at Berkeley during the 1960s — the ambitious neophyte politician Ronald Reagan, the fierce but fragile student radical Mario Savio, and the liberal university president Clark Kerr.

Through these converging narratives, 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, Rosenfeld vividly evokes the life of Berkeley of that era — and shows how the university community, a center of the forward-looking idealism of the period, became a battleground in an epic struggle between the government and free citizens. As Rosenfeld concludes, Subversives illuminates “the dangers that the combination of secrecy and power pose to democracy, especially during turbulent times.”

Indeed, the FBI spent more than $1 million trying to block the release of the secret files on which Subversives is based, but Rosenfeld brought five lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act over 27 years that ultimately compelled the bureau to release more than 300,000 pages.

As Matt Taibbi wrote in the New York Times Book Review, Subversives provides “a relevant warning. Domestic intelligence forces will tend to use all the powers they’re given (and even some that they’re not) to spy on people who are politically defenseless, irrelevant from a security standpoint and targeted for all the wrong reasons. And policemen who abuse their powers don’t just ruin innocent lives and undermine our faith in the law. They miss the real threats.”

“Subversives at first appears to be about a single place at a specific moment in a part of our past that is safely tucked away,” said the Ridenhour judges. “But its genius lies in its masterful and seamless braiding of investigative research and storytelling dexterity to depict an American government that used its vast resources for partisan political gain under the cloak of protecting the nation from a nebulous external threat. Seth Rosenfeld has done us an enormous service to remind us today that the efforts of a courageous few — even against the most powerful institutions — can make a difference.”