Magazine article The American Prospect

Swept Away in the Sixties

Magazine article The American Prospect

Swept Away in the Sixties

Article excerpt



Random House

What did the era amount to? One thing is certain: It wasn't a revolution

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

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. …

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