Swept Away in the Sixties

AP Photo

May 4, 1970: The Ohio National Guard moves in on demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding 11. 

Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul
By Clara Bingham
Random House

This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Kaleidoscopic pastiche is a serviceable form for conveying a helter-skelter swath of history, featuring many characters, locations, and vectors of action. Exemplifying the genre, Clara Bingham’s vivid Witness to the Revolution sets many scenes well and gets many moods right in conveying the sheer wildness and horror of the year that ended in August and September 1970, when a bombing at the University of Wisconsin Army Math Research Center killed an anti-war graduate student.

It was a time of extremes. In the fall of 1969, behind closed doors, President Richard Nixon threatened a drastic expansion of the Vietnam War, to the point of possibly using nuclear weapons. (Henry Kissinger told Nixon: “The action must be brutal.”) But Nixon backed off, also behind closed doors, when millions of Americans took part in demonstrations. In April 1970, he expanded the ground war into Cambodia (having already secretly expanded it from the air). The next month, in an unprecedented display of outrage, a majority of American college students took part in anti-war protests, and National Guard troops opened fire at Kent State, killing four students. Arson attacks on buildings linked to the military were commonplace. The largest student organization of the New Left, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was split between Marxist-Leninist factions, one of which, the Weathermen (later the Weather Underground), believed “the time was right for violent revolution.” The Rolling Stones had already used that line, albeit ironically, but the Weathermen were not into irony.

Reaching beyond the circle of usual sources, Bingham listens to National Security Council dissidents and FBI agents as well as would-be revolutionaries. She relishes derring-do, of which there was plenty to go around. Take the time, in September 1970, when the Weather Underground sprang the drug impresario Timothy Leary from federal prison (he was serving 20 years for marijuana possession) and smuggled him to Algeria. There, Leary was taken in by the incendiary Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver and then subjected to “revolutionary detainment.” So says Brian Flanagan, a Weather Underground member who escorted Leary to his not-so-happy exile, where, he says, “Eldridge was the lord of the manor.” Later, Leary informed on the folks who sprang him, claiming that the information he gave up was useless for prosecution. Such betrayals did not require police agents, though often enough they helped inflame the atmosphere to the boiling point.

The book is full of such particulars, most powerfully in the words of lesser-known people. It’s one thing to hear gruesome tales from Vietnam, but it’s unusual to hear from one soldier, Wayne Smith, to this intimate effect:

When I got home my family was very happy to see me. But I didn’t like them. They had no sense of how to ask what I did. I’m not sure I wanted to talk about it, but for them not even to ask, just to pretend, was avoiding this obvious subject. I treated them like strangers.

Unavoidably, the saga of the violent left looms large. New detail emerges about what happened when, in a fever of sectarian zeal, the Weather Underground broke up SDS. Mark Rudd, who had led the Columbia University SDS chapter before joining the Weathermen, explains he was “one of the people” to carry out the decision to shut SDS down nationally and in New York. Rudd and Ted Gold (later blown up with the rest of his bomb-making collective in a Greenwich Village townhouse) dumped the mailing-list stencils for the New York region into a garbage barge on the Hudson River.

“That was the end of SDS,” says Rudd. “If I had been an FBI agent, I couldn’t have done it better.” The Weathermen surely smashed up many bonds of trust, but from the accounts in this book I find myself wondering anew how important it was that SDS was no longer around when the student movement mushroomed after the Cambodia invasion and the Kent State killings. Sectarianism and delusion were driving it into a wall. Likely, Nixon’s minions and local Red Squads would have kept up the pressure and shattered the militant student left one way or the other.

Bingham’s book works best when the narrated events are compact or revolve around a single group or place. In the fall of 1969, the organizers of a nationwide protest called the Moratorium to End the War mobilized millions of people in Washington and elsewhere, from small-town greens to Army bases. Sam Brown, David Hawk, David Mixner, and Marge Tabankin, the Moratorium’s organizers, have rarely received the attention they deserve. They were less picturesque than the New Left heavies, but no less mauled by the Nixon White House. Mixner, a then-closeted gay, describes being seduced by a government agent, photographed having sex, and threatened by two other agents that if he didn’t leave the Moratorium in three days, “they were going to send these pictures to my family and the press.” Contemplating suicide, he opted to withdraw from a public role in the Moratorium instead. Then the Moratorium was targeted with still more blackmail from another quarter. Sam Brown testifies that the Weathermen’s Bill Ayers told him that for $20,000, they would call off their militant demonstration at the Justice Department so as not to distract from the Moratorium’s much larger, and peaceful, protest.

The accounts of the Kent State shootings are gripping and break new ground. One student saw the Guardsmen loading live ammunition but didn’t make the connection with what they were planning to do. He also witnessed them bayoneting fleeing students. Joe Lewis, a student who was shot twice, says that “some of the testimony [in the students’ civil lawsuit against the National Guardsmen] was locked away for seventy-five years,” until 2050. Too bad Bingham doesn’t ask why.

Bingham’s story of the anti-war movement in Madison, Wisconsin, is properly detailed and dark. Madison gets short shrift in most movement histories, and Bingham makes good use of her wide-angle kaleidoscope. She gets an account from a Madison policeman, Tom McCarthy, whose face was smashed with a brick at a demonstration. McCarthy didn’t forget. He reports:

Everyone on the Madison police force celebrated after we heard about the Kent State shootings. During the riots that followed, I would taunt the kids by putting up four fingers with one hand and make a zero with the other, like a score keeper: Kent students zero, Army four [meaning that the National Guard had killed four].

Such stories are, to say the least, telling.

At times, Bingham’s account goes scrappy and thin. Her feminist witnesses are too few. Some snippets sound too-often-told. Errors creep in, such as the claim that SDS began as a civil-rights group (it was multi-issue from the start) and that it held its first convention in Ann Arbor, rather than in Port Huron, north of Detroit. But, leaving aside these points of detail, the more important question is what Witness to the Revolution tells us about the conflict that ruptured America in the 1960s.


WHAT DID IT ALL amount to? Bingham concludes rightly that “the cultural revolutionaries won and the political revolutionaries lost,” and that “[h]ippies, feminists, and black power, environmental, and gay rights advocates permanently changed the DNA of American freedom.” It would be less triumphal, and more thorough, to note that they also panicked much of America and spurred an unending right-wing recoil.

By any serious definition, there was no revolution. What shall we call what happened, then? A merciless, devastating, unwinnable, unpopular war fueled a mass uprising, or rather, several; authorities disgraced themselves, and conventional Cold War politics hollowed out. It’s ungainly to put it that way. No wonder authors like Bingham reach for the word revolution as a capsule description.

After all these years, the surest assessment of the “political revolution” that didn’t happen remains a January 1969 article in The New York Review of Books by Barrington Moore Jr., sociological master of the comparative study of modern revolutions. Well before the Weathermen took shape, Moore was telling them, and their rival would-be revolutionaries, what they did not want to hear. The left offered no ideological current that would have been both plausible and new. The political-economic system was reformable. The ruling elites had not lost “unified control over the instruments of violence: the army and the police.” True, the armed forces were seriously dysfunctional. Bingham reports that the Pentagon counted 162,000 deserters in 1969 and 1970; roughly three times as many went AWOL. Nixon at his most astute ended the draft and shipped tens of thousands of veterans home where they were free to live out their rage and bewilderment without much help.

As for the prospects for mass revolt, Moore wrote coolly that the conditions were absent:

The main factors that create a revolutionary mass are a sudden increase in hardship coming on top of quite serious deprivations, together with the breakdown of the routines of daily life—getting food, going to work, etc.—that tie people to the prevailing order. … [The] proximate cause is the general breakdown of the flow of supplies into the city.

Moore concluded, “There has never been any such thing as a long-term revolutionary mass movement in an urban environment.” The Weather Underground and other terrorist handfuls were inspired by Latin American urban guerrillas, none of whom succeeded in taking power. Revolutionary movements need secure bases (China’s hinterland, Cuba’s Sierra Maestra), which New Left wannabes could not duplicate with “such symbolic gestures as offering sanctuary to draft resisters or ‘liberating’ a university through a student riot.”

Major disruptions might be possible, Moore went on, but “would very likely result in martial law or worse. … [A]ny temporary collapse within the next twenty or thirty years would probably have utterly tragic consequences. Even if it succeeds in taking power, a revolution that tries to remold society against the mores and folkways of the mass of the population must turn to terror and propaganda on a gigantic scale in order to stay in control.” A Bolshevik-type takeover “would almost certainly be a failure.”

How much more desperate might things have gotten? Brian Flanagan refers tantalizingly to the Weathermen’s “unconscionable” preparations, and says that on March 6, 1970, the day the townhouse blew up, “there were other things that were going to go on that day, too, that were going to get a lot of people killed.” Readers will discover more, in October, when the historian Arthur Eckstein’s Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground Beat the FBI and Lost the Revolution is published by Yale University Press. In fact, hundreds of people would have been killed if the three planned Weather Underground bombs had gone off that day at their intended targets (the townhouse bomb blew up prematurely, while one in Detroit was a dud and another was defused, unexploded, by a police infiltrator). In the aftermath, thousands of New Left activists would have been herded into concentration camps, as urged by one high official of the FBI while J. Edgar Hoover dragged his feet. Not exactly martial law, but not far from it.

Although what took place in 1969 and 1970 was no revolution, it was something uncanny, unprecedented, hugely consequential, and passing strange. Bingham nicely conveys some of the weirdness but doesn’t sufficiently explore the effects of the violent turn. For example, some interviewees think that the movement violence of that year set back the left. Paul Soglin, an anti-war member of the Madison City Council (and later mayor), says that the Army Math bombing “sucked the life out of the national antiwar movement. … If the bombing had not taken place, the movement would have been far stronger as we went into the fall of 1970 and the winter of 1971.”

The known unknowns will remain unknown, and if nothing else, this book is an enlivening reminder of how many remain.

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