May 21, 2013
Carol Brightman on the 1960s
Posted on Jan 3, 2008
The upheavals of the 1960s were the closest we came in the 20th century to radical change in the United States since the Great Depression. If, for some, the decade remains a media-hyped time of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, consider the following:
America fought a major war that was lost to an infinitely smaller power, and a growing anti-war movement at home kept military recruiters off college campuses, supported draft resistance, opposed, step by step, the escalation of troops and (contrary to popular mythology) eagerly welcomed a huge contingent of angry returning GIs who started their own movements. At a pivotal moment, after the Tet Offensive, the nation’s economic elite (known as the “Wise Men”) quietly counseled President Lyndon B. Johnson to withdraw from the upcoming presidential election and to halt the increase of troops in Vietnam, which had already reached 500,000.
Flying Close to the Sun
By Cathy Wilkerson
Seven Stories Press, 422 pages
Ravens in the Storm
By Carl Oglesby
Scribner, 352 pages
By Susan Sherman
Curbstone Press, 239 pages
The Wise Men were not interested in peace but in security. When domestic opposition to the war grew more fierce in 1969 and 1970, President Nixon was compelled to withdraw U.S. troops and proceed toward “Vietnamization,” in the forlorn hope that a corrupt South Vietnamese military could win where Americans had failed, or, at the least, provide cover for Washington’s retreat. The focus shifted to the bargaining table in Paris, to a long, drawn-out contretemps between diplomats, which finally succeeded in quieting domestic opposition to the war.
The history of that opposition has still to be written in all its complexity. The publication of memoirs by three activists who played roles in that movement will help. Cathy Wilkerson—and to a lesser extent, Carl Oglesby—struggles to understand Weatherman’s intoxication with violence, how it grew out of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and also drew inspiration from Third World revolts. Wilkerson digs deeper into the social turf of Weatherman than has any previous insider account. Susan Sherman, for her part, writes about the volatile sexual politics of the Lower East Side’s arts scene and provides a vivid snapshot of Cuba in 1967-1968. Each of them gives a different (though occasionally overlapping) picture of the times and throws those faraway events into sharper relief.
You’ll want to plunge right into Cathy Wilkerson’s “Flying Close to the Sun.” If you’re a ‘60s survivor (as I am), you’ll know it’s the real thing. But wait a moment; give the present its due for it is, after all, a present that has rid itself of the past and is tapping its toes to the beat of a different drummer. Today, with a war that never ends, the prospect of recession deepening into depression, the dollar that wears no clothes—you will perhaps wonder why people talk of the vote, as if who’s elected will matter a whit to the fall we’re about to take. Wilkerson will help you remember another, less blinkered, time.
Take 1968, for starters. The “system,” as we called it, was not so different from our “analysis” of it. Still mostly a home-grown thing, it was comprehensible. The Vietnam War made no sense, but there was, many of us thought, an endpoint if more and more people fought against it, and after the May 1968 Tet Offensive it was obvious that the Viet Cong were winning. A month earlier, when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, blacks erupted in the cities; then two months after Robert Kennedy was killed in June, white kids hit the streets of Chicago, host to the tumultuous August 1968 Democratic convention. (What was less obvious were the murmurings deep inside the system of a cabal, whose members were not much older than we, with different dreams, and a future: the neocons.)
In April 1970 I returned with hundreds of others from cutting sugar cane in Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade to a country that had tilted once again. Soldiers patrolled airports and railroad stations. The month before, three Weathermen had blown themselves up while making bombs in Greenwich Village. That year, according to the American Council on Education, protests, mainly against the war, would number more than 9,000. A breakpoint was reached in April when Nixon widened the war in Indochina by invading Cambodia. And days later, with 30 percent of the country’s colleges on strike, the National Guard fired on protesting students at Kent State in Ohio, killing four, and state troopers killed two black students at Jackson State in Mississippi. “Wholly unorganized and utterly undirected, the revolutionary movement exists,” wrote journalist Andrew Kopkind, speaking of the larger unrest that now included several armed undergrounds, “not because the left is strong but because the center is weak.”
That was the secret. The “system” was weak. Today, the left is weak, and with all the buffoonery in White House and Congress, the global order is slipping. Power has shifted from oil-consuming states to producers; from West to East. Abu Dhabi pours billions back into Citigroup, but stocks still slide. U.S. military strength—the string of bases encircling Middle Eastern and Central Asian oil and roping in Russia and China, as well—has faltered in action. In Iraq and Afghanistan. Big-time.
“On the morning of March 6, 1970, in the subbasement of 18 West 11th Street ... a piece of ordinary water pipe, filled with dynamite, nails, and an electric blasting cap, ignited by mistake.” Thus begins Cathy Wilkerson’s remarkably candid book, “Flying Close to the Sun,” about her life with Weatherman and what led to its emergence in 1969. The Greenwich Village townhouse lifted by a foot or two, shattering bricks and splintering wooden beams, then fell into a pit in which a ruptured gas main burst into flames. This was home to her father and stepmother, who were on vacation, due back that day. Wilkerson was ironing sheets, and “saw the glow, like an engorged sun rising up from a huge gaping hole between me and the front of the house.” She could open her eyes only by blinking, so the tears could rinse away the dust that grated under her lids like sandpaper.
Editor’s note: Ralph Schoenman, who is discussed on page 3 of this review, has written a response in the comments below.
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