Richard Aoki’s Troubled World: A Response

by Gregory Shank

Seth Rosenfeld’s case documenting Richard Aoki’s role as an FBI informant understandably provoked a strong reaction from those who knew him or had extensively researched his life. In his 70 years, Aoki had developed deep networks among veterans of Asian American and African American struggles, as well as the broader progressive movement and educational community. He projected an image of cool toughness, combining the bushido code with an articulate defense of oppressed peoples. He was a founder and chair of the Asian American Political Alliance (May 1968), a central committee member of the Third World Liberation Front (and leader of the strike lasting from January to March 1969), and consequently a founder of Ethnic and Asian American Studies at U.C. Berkeley. He was intimate with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, among others, well before becoming a high-level Black Panther Party functionary. The sense of betrayal is thus profound. Snitches are universally detested, and in prison are dealt with forcefully. Disbelief was even more pronounced: How could someone be so contradictory as to be committed to these social justice movements while informing to the FBI on their activities? If the allegations were true, was Aoki arming the Black Panthers in self-defense or acting as an agent provocateur who was setting them up for police repression? The latter was not the case with respect to providing guns, but the release by Rosenfeld of another 221 pages of FBI files on Aoki’s activities gave some skeptics pause. Perhaps there was something substantive there after all. In that case, the inflammatory attacks on Rosenfeld’s motives appeared regrettable. Yet, they were likely correct to insist that there be no rush to judgment against this Native Son, that it is troublesome to base conclusions solely on evidence provided by FBI sources, and that the government should make unredacted versions of the documents available.

With Rosenfeld’s claims gaining momentum, associated concerns, such as historical context and Aoki’s motives, came to the fore. Some have mentioned his childhood experience of incarceration in a World War II-era concentration camp for Japanese living on the West Coast. Aoki, his parents, and extended family were uprooted from their Bay Area homes and taken first to the stables at Tanforan Racetrack south of San Francisco, and then were sent to the Topaz concentration camp, on the edge of the desert 140 miles south of Salt Lake City. He was four years old when he arrived in 1942, and was only released in 1945. And he was old enough to remember the conflict and violence of Topaz. In high school, Aoki’s American-born father joined the ROTC, suggesting a patriotic position as early as 1931. While incarcerated, he was probably sympathetic to the politically dominant Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a civil rights organization that emphasized assimilation and Americanization. It gained notoriety during the war years for collaborating with the FBI. As Takagi and Shank (2012: 29–30) observe:

Two points about the JACL are now incontestable: J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI recruited its leadership as confidential informants (as did naval and military intelligence), and the JACL’s strategy of going quietly into the dark night of concentration camp life stripped the Japanese community of any option of mobilizing in defense of its civil and constitutional rights. The organization’s exclusionary membership policy split the camp communities along generational lines, aggravating the problem of the FBI’s virtual decapitation of its cultural, financial, and intellectual leadership in the initial arrests after Pearl Harbor.*

The latter technique was honed from the counterinsurgency campaign waged by the United States in the Philippines after the defeat of Spanish imperial forces in 1898 and was systematically applied to political policing in the United States thereafter. At the Manzanar and Topaz concentration camps, Hoover sent in FBI agents to develop confidential informants among the interned and JACL members were receptive. This intervention into camp governance was a major contributing factor to the Manzanar Riot. Richard Aoki followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the military directly out of high school. He encountered trouble with the police as a petty criminal, and by the 1960s held politically conservative beliefs, telling Diane Fujino that he had voted for Richard Nixon.

At the University of California, Berkeley, where Aoki became a graduate student and public radical, the FBI had maintained a long, shadowy presence. Under the guise of protecting nuclear secrets, it hounded Robert Oppenheimer. It manipulated the professorial ranks through loyalty oaths and pliant faculty willing to do the bidding of state and federal un-American activities committees. Hoover’s FBI tracked participants in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer and its connection to the Free Speech Movement (FSM), all the while engaging in an extralegal program of character assassination and manufactured public pressure that sought to remove President Clark Kerr. Aligned with Hoover were CIA Director John McCone, a Berkeley alumnus, McCone’s close friend, senior regent Edwin Pauley, and right-wing forces on campus. Journalist Seth Rosenfeld has done an admirable job of exposing the contours of these infringements of free academic and political expression.

Rosenfeld may even have contributed to unveiling one agenda behind the closure of Berkeley’s School of Criminology. J. Edgar Hoover gave Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign a boost when he endorsed the candidate’s proposal to set up a new police-training academy. In autumn of 1966, Reagan announced his plan for a new anticrime academy that would teach “police, sheriff’s deputies and other law officers the newest methods in crime prevention and solution.” The academy would be located in Berkeley. And “with Mr. Hoover’s help,” Reagan said, “such a school could become a sort of FBI academy of California.” That brought notions of an ideal academic institution full circle to the original “West Point” model to replace the emergence in 1968 of a radical presence within the School. Ed Meese III, who prosecuted the FSM defendants and had a background in military intelligence, was Governor Reagan’s Legal Affairs Secretary while a member of the Advisory Council of the School of Criminology, 1971 to 1972. Berkeley’s Chief of Police, Bruce B. Baker, also belonged to the Advisory Council.

So Richard Aoki may have been a minor eddy in this larger torrent of government intrusion, a young man with untested allegiances who became enmeshed in a web from which it was difficult to extricate himself. There has been conjecture that Aoki believed that he could manipulate the situation. That seems unlikely, but crazier things happened at the time. After all, FBI Deputy Director W. Mark Felt, immortalized as Deep Throat, helped to bring down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.


* See Paul T. Takagi and Gregory Shank, Paul T. Takagi: Reflections and Writings (2012); Brian Masaru Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment(2010: 150).

Citation: Shank, Gregory. (September 17, 2012). “Richard Aoki’s Troubled World: A Response.” Social Justice Debates. Copyright © 2012 Social Justice, ISSN 1043-1578. Social Justice, P.O. Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140.

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