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A politician vilifies left-wing college students and professors, helping to raise his profile before running for national office. The year is 1966. The politician is soon-to-be California Governor Ronald Reagan. Historian Gerard J. De Groot tells the story.

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De Groot writes that the University of California, Berkeley became a hotspot for student protest with the Free Speech Movement that began in late 1964. By 1966, the campus was becoming known for cultural as well as political radicalism, with sex, drugs, and rock and roll running rampant.

This was far from the full story. Also in 1966, the American Council of Education chose Berkeley as the nation’s “best balanced distinguished university.” But for Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign, campus radicalism was a goldmine. Rhetorically, he tied the “rioting” and “anarchy” of Berkeley students to academic freedom run amok and communist professors indoctrinating the next generation. He promised that, if elected, he would institute a code of conduct for faculty and appoint former CIA chief John McCone to investigate why “the campus has become a rallying point for Communism and a center of sexual misconduct.”

De Groot writes that student protest and law-breaking on the Berkeley campus “brilliantly highlighted the populist themes of Reagan’s campaign: morality, law and order, strong leadership, traditional values, and anti-intellectualism.”

Once elected governor, Reagan had little actual power to fulfill his campaign promises, but he kept the issue in the spotlight. In January 1967, he convinced the university’s board to fire its president, liberal Democrat Clark Kerr. In 1969, he claimed that “Negros” had threatened a university dean “with switchblades at his throat,” forcing him to admit them to courses. This was totally unsubstantiated, but it received more press coverage than subsequent debunkings. He also frequently compared campus radicals to Nazi brownshirts, arguing there was “no longer any room for appeasement.”

De Groot writes that Reagan made the military metaphor literal. In 1969, he sent police, and later National Guard forces, to attack protestors at People’s Park and tear-gas the campus from a helicopter, leaving one person dead and hundreds injured.

Reagan also introduced tuition at the UC schools, which had been free since they opened a century earlier. He presented this as part of the solution to student unrest, arguing that it “might affect those who are there really not to study but to agitate, it might make them think twice about paying a fee for the privilege of carrying a picket sign.”

Reagan’s actions did little to actually reduce protest or left-wing views on campus. His aggressive response merely radicalized more students. But it also boosted his popularity, particularly with older white voters who had not gone to college themselves.

“By turning a relatively small problem into a massive conspiracy to overthrow democratic society, and then meeting that threat with maximum force, Reagan established himself as a leader worthy of national attention,” De Groot writes.

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Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 1 (February 1996), pp. 107–129
University of California Press