Still Superego-Deficient after All These Years?

By Isserman, Maurice | Tikkun, July/August 1996 | Go to article overview

Still Superego-Deficient after All These Years?


Isserman, Maurice, Tikkun


Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, by Adam Garfinkle. St. Martin's Press, 1995. 370 pp. $24.95.

In a recent interview, Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned that, while a student at Wellesley College in the 1960s, her views on the Vietnam War had been profoundly influenced by antiwar activist Carl Oglesby. Mrs. Clinton then unfortunately went on to describe Oglesby as a "Methodist theologian." In reality, as a number of conservative commentators quickly and gleefully pointed out, Oglesby exercised a rather more secular authority in those yearsas a leader of Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.).

Adam Garfinkle, a resident scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, is among those amused by Mrs. Clinton's gaffe. "Methodist theologian Carl Oglesby?!," he snorts midway through his study, Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, "Did S.D.S. perform baptisms too?"

Well, in a sense, yes, if one accepts the argument Garfinkle presents. In his view, antiwar protest was, at bottom, not about the rights or wrongs of American involvement in Indochina. Antiwar protesters in the 1960s, he argues: seemed to need the belief in the equivalent of a moral apocalypse for reasons of personal commitment; the more portentous and dramatic the stake, the more praiseworthy one's dedication becomes and the more unequivocal one's commitment must be....The emotional backdrop of the antiwar movement, the personal catharsis it provided its adherents and the peer support it could generate go far toward explaining why many second-echelon activists, young and old, often seemed impervious to rational arguments about the Vietnam War or other aspects of U.S. foreign policy...

Or, as was sometimes said in the 1960s, the issue was not the issue. hen I heard Mrs. Clinton's comment, I was impressed that she was able to dredge up Oglesby's name at all, considering how he has been overshadowed in popular recollection of the era by more flamboyant types like Jerry Rubin. Still, the episode serves as a useful illustration of the malleability of individual memory and its pitfalls for the historian. Like many of us, the First Lady would prefer her life story to follow a coherent and uncomplicated narrative line, in which all past beliefs and actions are consistent with her current perspective and responsibilities.

But there's more than one way to rewrite history. Garfinkle describes himself as a "fringe member of the Vietnam generation" who took part in the Pentagon protest in October 1967, which marked the antiwar movement's self-described shift "from protest to resistance." Unlike Mrs. Clinton Garfinkle's mood in revisiting the moral and political battlefields of his youth is anything but wistful. Whether his regrets contribute to the accuracy of his analysis is another question.

Garfinkle contends that the antiwar protests of the 1960s were "counterproductive." Acting out a psychological agenda that led to the embrace of tactics and positions "deeply offensive" to the majority of Americans, youthful antiwar protesters and their "adversary culture" adult mentors not only "did not help stop the war," but indeed "helped prolong it." The war was a disaster, to be sure, but, as Garfinkle argues, only those afflicted with a deep and abiding rage against their parents and their country could have concluded that it reflected any systemic flaw in American society or foreign policy.

Telltale Hearts concedes that antiwar protesters were "well-intentioned," and neither dupes nor agents of the international communist conspiracy. Although Garfinkle makes frequent use of the term "adversary culture," he does not weight it with the implications of moral deviance or anti-Americanism customary in conservative discourse. In one of his better chapters, devoted to exploring the connection between the antiwar movement of the 1960s and "American traditions of dissent," Garfinkle declares: In America's past, fringe forces in politics have intersected continuously . …

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