[Note to readers: “Memories of the Student Movement and the New Left in the United States, 1960-1969” is a five-part participant-observer account of the period written in 1996 by Jim O’Brien, New Left activist, historian, and editor at New England Free Press. Part I of this essay can be found here.]
IN THE SHADOW OF VIETNAM, 1963-67
At the start of my senior year at Carleton I told a faculty member that I was quite radical. He said it probably wouldn’t last: “That’ll probably straighten out after you get some facts under your belt.” There was truth in what he said. For all the political controversies of my senior year — and for all my eagerness to jump into them — I was more and more impressed with how complex the world was. The high point of my radicalism in college was actually the summer between my junior and senior years, 1962, when I had a lot of time to read. The National Student Association congress at the end of that summer showed me what seemed to be a dynamic liberalism embracing the causes that I cared about most. Reform seemed much more practical than revolution. I pulled back from any kind of full-blown radical view of the world. Taking one issue at a time seemed easier to defend, because I would usually have liberal as well as radical arguments at my disposal.
Graduate school in history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison reinforced that caution: complex, in-depth historical research seemed to underline how complicated everything is. And I didn’t find a home with the community of political activists in Madison. In my first year, I went to one or two meetings each of several different groups (Student Civil Rights Council, Friends of SNCC, Socialist Club, Campus ADA). In the early fall of 1963, I went to my first demonstration against the Vietnam war. But I didn’t feel at ease in an atmosphere where everyone else seemed to know each other. I quickly let myself be defined entirely as a history grad student. My fondest political memories of that time are actually of a bizarre character named Captain Bollenbeck, a World War I veteran and former statewide commander of the American Legion. He used to show up at political lectures on campus and wait for the chance to ask embarrassing questions about communism. If the speaker was actually an anti-communist, the distinction was lost on the Captain. Still, he made the programs more interesting.
My second year on campus, 1964-65, felt a little different. Though I still didn’t get involved, I vicariously identified myself with the activist movements that were growing in size and militancy, especially around civil rights. I wore a SNCC button: “One Man One Vote.” I gave different explanations for it (sometimes calling it a declaration against women’s suffrage); looking back, I can see that I wore it because I had a friend working with SNCC in Mississippi. That helped to personalize the issue for me. I saw civil rights as the major issue separating Lyndon Johnson from the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, and Johnson’s landslide victory elated me.
The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the fall of 1964 moved me. It involved the two causes that I cared most about: civil liberties (“Free Speech”) and civil rights — because the original issue was whether students could use campus facilities to recruit for off-campus civil rights activities. Mario Savio of the Berkeley Friends of SNCC, who’d spent the summer in Mississippi and became the media-anointed spokesman for the Berkeley students, seemed like a hero to me. In the years to come I would often read the words he spoke from the roof of a police car during a critical point in the struggle:
There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even tacitly take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from running at all.
When the Vietnam war heated up in February 1965 — that’s when the daily American bombing of North Vietnam started — it caught my attention. There was something obscene about the American military throwing its weight around on the other side of the globe, trying to make one country into two. South Vietnam had a “government” only because the US had blocked nationwide elections in 1956, two years after the independence movement led by Ho Chi Minh defeated the French colonial forces. American strategists had installed the autocratic Ngo Dinh Diem as president in the mid-fifties, then helped to overthrow him in 1963 when his unpopularity made him too much of a liability in the face of a growing guerrilla movement. After Diem came a succession of ciphers, pliant tools of the American insistence on seeking victory in the war. (Only in mid-1965, when the autocratic Gen. Nguyen Cao Ky took power, saying his only hero was Adolf Hitler, did the US-backed Saigon regime have a touch of stability — if nothing else.) It was a war waged very heavily against civilians.
The war made me angry, but I was also in the throes of writing my master’s thesis. I couldn’t spare the time to march in the first national Vietnam demonstration, led by the Students for a Democratic Society in Washington in mid-April. Not until the late spring did I actually take part in an anti-war rally, outside the student union building in Madison. That was a combined protest against the Vietnam war and against the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in mid-April. Someone passed out signs: you could choose “U.S. Out of Vietnam” or “U.S. Out of Santo Domingo.” I forget which I took, but I discovered after the rally that I’d been holding it upside down. It seemed an appropriate comment on my degree of political involvement.
For all my own passivity, my growing alienation from the American status quo wasn’t just a personal quirk. It was spreading fast on campuses across the country by mid-1965. Unknowingly, and without doing much about it, I was part of a distinctly new radicalism in the US, a New Left. Its chief ingredients were impatience at the pace of progress in racial equality and anger at the bloodshed in Vietnam. As the Free Speech Movement showed, the new mood could also fasten onto the colleges and universities themselves. This was a growth era in higher education as the post-1945 “baby boomers” reached college age — enrollment was to nearly double over the course of the 1960s. Nobody knew it yet, but the mixture of war, racism, and proliferating students was explosive.
A Year in New York
At some other time, I might well have settled in — might have accepted the complexity of history and sought to claim a small corner of it to explore. But this was 1965. My year in New York starting at the end of that summer got me actively involved in the New Left. It coincided with a steady buildup of American troops in Vietnam (from 23,000 at the start of 1965 to 180,000 at the end) and with the first big demonstrations against the war. I joined an exciting march down Fifth Avenue in mid-October with tens of thousands of people. The giant papier-mache figures of the Bread and Puppet theater, then located in New York, made the march seem bigger than life. I had never been part of a demonstration that drew much more than a hundred people, and this one had more than twenty thousand even by the police estimate.
That autumn, a backlash developed against the demonstrators — angry speeches denouncing us as traitors, threats of prosecution. Because of my knowledge of past waves of repression in American history, the outcry scared me. I thought of the prosecutions and mob violence during World War One. I got a kind of apocalyptic feeling that a giant war machine that would destroy Vietnam and, at the same time, enforce conformity at home. When I contributed money to SANE for an anti-war demonstration, I made the contribution anonymously in cash.
At the same time, I felt a loneliness in New York that came mainly from its sheer size. That feeling led me to read and re-read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I think expressed the same thing — it’s striking how many abstract categories of people he lists in his poems, and how few individuals. It also led me to identify a kind of make-believe community of my own, consisting of all people opposed to the Vietnam war. I remember writing to a friend in the fall of 1965 something like this: that I hoped like-minded people in the future could look back at us and conclude that we’d acted honorably and done the best we could.
The closest thing to an actual community I found was at a place that was so bizarre it is hard to write about. I first knew it as the Free University of New York, but the state of New York forced it to change “University” to “School.” It had a set of rooms above a coffee shop on 14th Street, a half-block west of Union Square, and it provided “alternative” classes on a range of subjects. The most popular was always “Krassner Views the Press,” taught by the iconoclastic humorist Paul Krassner (sometimes it was “Krassner and Guindon View the Press” with the cartoonist Dick Guindon). The most ultimately destructive was a course in economics taught by Lyndon LaRouche. In 1966 he seemed nothing more than a stereotypically sallow-faced Marxist intellectual — the last person on earth who seemed likely to start a personality cult. But his class at the Free University may have been one of his starting points for building what started as an eccentric left-wing sect and then, in the early 1970, became the violent right-wing cult that it remains to this day.
The two classes that I took at the Free School were both solid history courses: James Weinstein on American socialism (he was a leading authority on it) and Staughton Lynd on the life of W. E. B. Du Bois. Jim Weinstein I had met earlier, while working on my master’s thesis, but this was my first introduction to Staughton, son of the famous sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd (authors of Middletown). He taught history at Yale but had also become a leading figure in the anti-war movement and his job at Yale was soon to slip out from under him. He radiated a quiet, almost spiritual strength.
I tried teaching at the Free School myself — on the history of American civil liberties — but regular attendance never rose above two. Toward the end of my stay in New York, though, I got involved in the weekly meetings that set policy for the school. None of the teachers I’ve mentioned earlier came to these meetings, but a range of unusual characters did take part. The one who’s made a name for himself was Len Ragozin, a genial old-line Stalinist and talented folk singer. A couple of years ago, long after losing sight of him, I picked up a copy of the New Yorker and found that the feature article was about Len. It described his lucrative career advising racetrack bettors about horses.
The predominant political drift at those meetings was third-worldism. The idea was that, whatever class divisions might exist in the US, they were less important than the mistreatment of poor third-world countries by Western (especially American) imperialism. A lot of people identified strongly with third-world liberation movements, including especially the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. This kind of politics could lead to a generalized hostility to American society. I remember one very glum student and hanger-on who interrupted a discussion to say, “I advocate the extermination of the entire population of Arkansas” (I could sort of guess where he was from). When, after I left, the core group at the Free School started a magazine, they called it Treason.
But I don’t want to make it seem too bizarre. The one issue of Treason I saw was pretty thoughtful. Third-worldism was an attempt to get outside the normal framework of respectable debate over American foreign policy. At that time there was a lot of pressure on (and within) the anti-war movement to confine itself to “constructive” proposals about the war, such as urging negotiations. The Free University people were saying that the framework itself — the idea that somehow the US had a “right” to a voice in deciding Vietnam’s destiny — was part of the problem. They were right. But these people took themselves over-seriously in a way that anticipated Students for a Democratic Society at the end of the decade. (In fact, several of them showed up in the “Weatherman” faction of SDS in 1969.) At one meeting, on a visit to New York at the end of 1966, I heard an extraordinary argument over the need to take detailed minutes at the weekly meetings. One woman said that after a revolution in the US, people would want to know, not just what decisions the Free School made, but what everyone had said at the meetings — to see whose arguments had been vindicated by history.
The Student Movement as a Sleeping Giant
When I returned to Madison in the fall of 1966, I was ready to throw off the political caution of my first two years of graduate school. The campus Students for a Democratic Society chapter seemed like the way to do it. SDS was the biggest radical student group nationally, and it had an ideological looseness that I found appealing. I was already nominally a member, in fact, having sent dues to the national office in the winter of 1965-66 even though I never met any other members in New York. I was introduced to the Madison chapter by Jack Kittredge, a college friend who’d worked for SDS for a year and now was helping to start a community organizing project in Madison’s mainly working-class East Side. He had written me exuberantly the year before, describing a student sit-in protesting the university’s cooperation with the Selective Service System.
When I got back to Madison, most of the grad students I’d known during my first two years there had scattered — they had either dropped out or else they were off somewhere teaching while they worked slowly on their dissertations. (I had a job grading correspondence lessons for the University’s extension division, which gave me more than enough income to meet the very modest living expenses of an unmarried grad student in the mid-1960s.) My only real friend in the history department was Ken Acrea, a short, methodical, very funny grad student who had lived next door in the high-rise dormitory where I lived in 1963-64. He shunned radical politics, but at least he shared my jaundiced view of mainstream politics as well. We stayed good friends until he went off to teach in St. Cloud, Minnesota in 1967 and stayed in touch by correspondence off and on afterwards. He dropped out of teaching in the late seventies to work in a factory because he found it more comfortable.
Madison was no hotbed. My political memories from that fall are mostly disheartening: small SDS meetings; tiny attendance at a campus anti-war rally; a very popular student petition apologizing to Senator Ted Kennedy after some anti-war students heckled him; a taunting editorial in the campus newspaper, the Daily Cardinal, on the decline of the left. Meanwhile, the Vietnam war plodded on. For all I could tell, the massive American firepower was inexorably grinding the Vietnamese “enemy” into submission. It felt like a time of political futility.
But my perspective was limited. The 1966-67 school year as a whole shows, not inertia, but the remarkable volatility of the campus atmosphere. Even in the autumn, I should have noticed what was going on beneath the surface. The outward haplessness of the campus left was less important than changes in the campus culture.
Central to what happened later in Madison was a change in the lifestyle and mood of a critical mass of students, mainly those who lived off campus in what became known as the “Mifflin Street area,” a few blocks southeast of the campus. Once a family neighborhood with students in scattered apartments, these blocks were now becoming a center of a nonconformist youth culture. On some blocks, the older residents who stayed were the elderly, now stranded in an alien environment. (I myself lived near the Mifflin Street area but not in it. I lived in a three-room house by the railroad switching yard with a black family on one side and a white cabdriver’s large family on the other.) The student tenants in the Mifflin Street area were free from parents and from dormitory regulations. In some of the apartments (though not yet many) men and women were living together.
Drugs. Marijuana was coming into vogue and there was a kind of humorous mystique about LSD. That was still an innocent time: soft drugs hadn’t led to hard drugs, theft wasn’t a problem. I remember driving away from Madison for a two-week vacation in December of 1966 and realizing I’d forgotten to lock the outside door of my apartment. I kept driving, correctly figuring that nothing would be taken. I didn’t even have a key to the apartment where I lived in 1967-68, in the same near-campus area. (Soon afterwards, though, locked doors were the general rule. Hard drugs had established their foothold.)
Rock music. Tracy Nelson had just emerged from Madison’s off-campus culture to make it big nationally. Recorded rock music by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin among others became part of a generation’s identity. It expressed the defiant, nonconformist values that were most common in the off-campus apartments — freedom, self-expression, and the glorification of youth. A bit at a time, the Mifflin Street area came to rival (and would soon surpass) the “fraternity row” of Langdon Street as a prestigious part of Madison for young people to live.
The music scene in Madison was very different from what I’d known in college. At Carleton people sat around and sang folk songs. In Madison it was much more passive. Even the live music was amplified. You watched and listened to performers, you didn’t take part yourself. But the music was much more expressive — vicariously it expressed sexuality, exaltation, anger, defiance, egotism, individualism.
The military draft hung like a thundercloud over the heads of most male students. The draft meant Vietnam. A source of both fear and resentment, it kept people in school who didn’t want to be there. Even as college deferments widened the gulf between working-class and middle-class young people, the draft itself led to a smoldering anger on the campuses. It brought Vietnam home even more than television did. In Madison, it helped to cement an off-campus community that defined itself partly by its alienation from American society.
Liberal arts students dominated the evolving community. Students could set their own pace in liberal arts courses — let term papers and readings pile up till the end of the semester if they wanted. Liberal arts students, especially in the humanities and social sciences, also tended to come from more affluent, better educated families than students in the vocational fields like engineering and teacher education. To them, college felt more like an inalienable right than a precarious foothold on the ladder of social mobility. And (as at Carleton) the liberal arts courses exposed students to grand overviews of society.
There were several favorite restaurants and bars, Lorenzo’s and the 602 Club especially, plus an eating co-op that brought politically involved people together. But in the daytime the center of life for the growing off-campus student community was, ironically, the student union building. Its cafeteria and Rathskeller (selling diluted beer with 3.2 percent alcohol) were the favorite hangouts except in the warm-weather months, when the union’s outdoor terrace afforded a beautiful view of Lake Mendota.
A sizeable alternative community was growing up in and near the campus. It was only ambiguously political. Nearly everyone opposed the Vietnam war, but people drifted in and out of direct political involvement. Meetings meant work, and not always productive work. As it happened, our SDS chapter had a creatively anarchist chairman, Hank Haslach, whose style of leadership was to encourage small groups of people to work on projects that interested them. Actual chapter meetings were a sideshow for him. For the most part, though, neither SDS nor other groups on the left tapped more than a small portion of the energies of the emerging community.
Still, initiatives were underway in the autumn that would help to shake up the campus later in the school year. One was a series of meetings (at first including men and women, then just men) to plan a “We Won’t Go” statement of draft refusal as a way of dramatizing the protest against the Vietnam war. The statement would appear in February as a full-page ad in the campus Daily Cardinal, signed by forty-two male students. Another group, sponsored by our SDS chapter, was readying a Madison production of Barbara Garson’s fierce comedy MacBird, updating Shakespeare to link President Johnson to the Kennedy assassination. Two newcomers from Ann Arbor, Ira and Susan Shor, were floating the idea of a radical campus political party to contest the Greek societies’ dominance of student government. All of these projects bore fruit in the winter and spring.
One of the best things written from within the 1960s student movement was a book called The Radical Probe, by Michael Miles. I don’t remember which campuses he based it on, but UW-Madison might as well have been one of them. His basic idea was that campus protests started small, as a core group of activists initiated something, and then they either caught on and became very big or fizzled out. Nobody could really predict exactly what chain of events an action might set off. Under the circumstances of early 1967, an SDS demonstration against the Dow Chemical Company in February brought a radical change to student politics on the Madison campus.
The idea of blocking the Dow recruiters came up in our SDS chapter because Dow made napalm for use in Vietnam. Napalm attaches to human flesh and burns it horribly. It made a peculiarly striking symbol of the war, and Dow Chemical had already provoked a small-scale consumer boycott of its products. Several other SDS chapters around the country had blocked the recruiters. We approved the proposal casually and floated the idea to other groups on the left. It snowballed. Meetings of progressively larger size (considered to be SDS meetings just because the original idea had been ours) voted to go ahead with the disruption. We met considerable flak on campus, based on the notion that everyone had a right to recruit and be recruited. I didn’t agree with that argument, but the controversy convinced me, for one, that we should back off).
After all the votes, the actual march to the site of Dow recruiting foundered in disarray. Not surprisingly, the site had been changed. The demonstrators with the loudest voices then persuaded most of us to head for the administrative offices at Bascom Hall. A few people, on their own, found the Dow interviews and were arrested trying to enter them; a few others were then arrested for trying to block the police cars, for a total of fourteen arrests.
The university chancellor, Robben Flemming, defused an emotional situation by writing a personal check for the bail. But a storm of protest still arose — directed against the demonstrators. Campus conservatives, calling themselves the “We Want No Berkeley Here Committee,” drew a big crowd (much bigger than we could have mustered) for a rally later in the week denouncing the protesters. The student government and the student-faculty-administration Student Life and Interests Committee began proceedings to have SDS kicked off campus.
By now you may be getting the picture that this demonstration was a fiasco. Actually, it wasn’t. It shook up the university more than anyone could have imagined. It helped gain attention for the “We Won’t Go” draft resistance statement that appeared in the Daily Cardinal during that same week. It galvanized the left for the student government elections soon afterwards — and the new party finished a close second with thousands of votes. The student paper picked up the broader issues raised by the Dow Chemical recruitment and ran an editorial complaining that the University had become an amoral “filling station” for the dominant institutions of American society.
Even the attack on SDS backfired. The law-school Student Court, which normally handled parking tickets, ruled that the Student Life and Interests Committee was illegal and therefore couldn’t kick SDS off campus or do anything else for that matter. This court ruling, in turn, emboldened the student government to issue a list of sweeping demands on the administration under the rubric of “student power.” The lid had come off.
In some way that I don’t understand, our bumbling effort to thwart Dow Chemical had struck a spark in the dissident off-campus community. Maybe it was the arrests — seeing people facing jail because they acted on things that most of us believed in. Maybe it was seeing how thoroughly the powers-that-be on campus were upset at the demonstration. Whatever the cause, the mood changed that spring. Always in the student movement there was a back-and-forth motion between feelings of futility and feelings that something could be accomplished if enough people tried. At those moments we used each other for leverage — everyone’s efforts were part of a “movement.” There was a kind of suspension of disbelief at those times.
Our ebullience was further affirmed by the launching of an underground newspaper, Connections, in the spring, and by the spread of the “hippie” concept to Madison. That was the time of the anticipated “summer of love” in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and before anyone knew how fragile and vulnerable the “love” was. Finally, the convergence of the first really big demonstration against the Vietnam war — a crowd in New York variously reported as two hundred thousand and a half-million — encouraged even those of us who hadn’t gone. I remember the date: April 15, 1967.
In retrospect, the Vietnam war strikes me as a magnificently mad adventure. It’s unthinkable today that a half-million American troops could be sent into battle to maintain the artificial division of a country halfway around the world. The war — swallowing almost sixty thousand American lives and overheating the domestic economy — required an extraordinary pride and stubbornness on the part of American policymakers. It was the violent, vain expression of America’s preeminent place in the post-World War Two international order. Maybe the sixties youth culture and New Left were a kind of equivalent of the war. We thought big just as the rulers thought big. Just as they thought they could enforce a worldwide status quo, we thought we could bring a whole new world into existence through the sheer force of our will.
SDS itself was a balloon. Of the hundreds of people who came to what were nominally considered SDS meetings during the Dow episode, almost nobody stayed. Within a month, we were back to meetings of little more (or no more) than a dozen. But that was the nature of the campus left: organizations were less important than mood. And in the spring of ‘67 the mood was ebullient. The Dow protest had succeeded in galvanizing the dissidents on campus, and it revealed a nascent kind of generational solidarity that went well beyond the normal ranks of the left. In the words of one of Bob Dylan’s most popular songs, “the times” were “a-changin’,” and we were part of that change. We were part of the flow of history.
. Quoted in Massimo Teodori, ed., The New Left: A Documentary History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), p. 156. Mario Savio was the only person who refused to be interviewed for my dissertation on the origins of the New Left. On a research trip to the Bay Area in 1969 I went to the off-campus bookstore where he worked and asked if I could interview him. He politely said no and added something like this: “That was in the past. I’d be glad to talk with you about the work I’m doing on the Middle East, but I don’t want to be a historical character talking about what happened back then.”
. Minorities within the US were considered to be part of the Third World in this viewpoint. The year 1966 was the year when Black Power arose as a slogan within the civil rights movement, promulgated especially by angry young black militants within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It accentuated the estrangement of black militants from the society, and it helped radicalize the white New Left. Black Power constituted an indictment of the whole society. (Of course, it also had its far more accommodationist aspects — it could be used by any group of black people who wanted to use it to give themselves a share of power.)
. This was also the meeting where I heard one of my favorite political sputterings. Somebody had been criticized for giving some of the school’s mimeograph paper to leaders of a student sit-in at New York University nearby. The critic said the sit-in was “reformist.” The man who was criticized said in a near-shout, “At least those people were off their asses and sitting-in!”
. At Carleton, the alienated students had been alienated mainly from what they considered the stifling midwestern small-town atmosphere of the college. In Madison, the alienation was more general. It was a revulsion at American society as a whole, symbolized by the war and the draft. To the extent that student anger later turned against the university itself, it was because the university was seen to reflect the shortcomings of the wider society.
. This doesn’t mean that the new party fully embraced the tactics of the Dow protest. In fact it was funny to see conventional political wisdom at work. I attended an open meeting at which the party had to decide on a statement about the protest. The members voted to approve the most radical version — a fiery polemic by Jeff Herf, later a neo-conservative scholar, who said it was necessary to take a stand against evil, as represented by Dow. Later I asked a party leader what had become of the statement and he said, “We’re only showing it in certain districts, and only to people who seem sympathetic.”
. For all our optimism, one conversation stands out for me especially clearly. It was with Marty Tandler, an intense fifth-year senior who’d been president of our SDS chapter the year before, acted now as a regional organizer in Wisconsin, and had been one of the forty-two signers of the “We Won’t Go” statement. The signers had gotten invitations to speak in a number of dormitories from students who were curious as to why anyone would take such a strong stand. He told me that after giving one of those talks he’d felt terrible — that it was easy enough to convince people that the war was bad, but he hadn’t been able to answer the question “What can we do?” Marty wasn’t satisfied with any of the fatalistic half-answers that satisfied me. Today he runs a small but lucrative company in New York City that imports textiles.
. The saddest book I’ve read about the 1960s was Don McNeill’s Moving Through Here, all the sadder because it was a posthumous book — the author, a brilliant young writer for the Village Voice, drowned at age twenty-two. The book describes the futile efforts to restless, alienated young people to build a community on the Lower East Side. Their presence hastened social disintegration rather than alleviating it. The same thing happened in Haight-Ashbury.
[EDIT 3/6/2017: I have edited the prefatory remarks above to note that this history was written in 1996. – LDB]