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A Bomb in Every Issue

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Posted on Aug 21, 2009

By Peter Richardson

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from a chapter of “A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America” by Peter Richardson.

The Havoc of War: How Ramparts Magazine Challenged American Culture

Revered mostly by media aficionados and older activists today, Ramparts magazine (1962-75) was once America’s premier forum for investigative journalism. Founded by Edward Keating, it began as a Catholic literary magazine based in Menlo Park, California.  But soon after Warren Hinckle became its editor, he hired Dugald Stermer as art director and recruited Robert Scheer to write about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  During Hinckle’s tenure, Ramparts moved to San Francisco, developed a cutting-edge design, published a series of hard-hitting exposés, and boosted circulation to almost 250,000.  A Time magazine headline in January 1967—“A Bomb in Every Issue”—described its impact.

By that time, Ramparts was riding high, but the sailing was far from smooth.  The magazine had attracted powerful enemies, including the CIA, which began investigating Ramparts after it ran an April 1966 story on the agency’s covert activities in Vietnam.  By the end of that year, Keating had engineered Eldridge Cleaver’s release from San Quentin state prison and hired him at the magazine.  Three months later, Cleaver witnessed an armed showdown between Huey Newton and the San Francisco police outside the magazine’s office.  Shortly after that, Keating departed following a messy and well-publicized fight over control of the magazine. 

 

book cover

 

A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America

 

By Peter Richardson

 

New Press, 272 pages

 

Buy the book

What followed these fractious events proved to be a critical period in Ramparts’ short life.  Over the next year, Scheer would debate the magazine’s critics on national television; a Ramparts photo-essay would profoundly influence Dr. Martin Luther King’s position on the Vietnam War; Hinckle would fascinate some readers and enrage others with his coverage of San Francisco’s flower children before the Summer of Love; and Ramparts would earn the prestigious Polk Award for excellence in magazine reporting.  This essay, adapted from a longer study, considers that fateful time in the magazine’s history and maps its extraordinary effect on American politics and media.

 

***

In June 1967, Scheer appeared on Firing Line, a television program that featured debates with conservative host William F. Buckley.  The episode’s title (“Is Ramparts Magazine Un-American?”) indicated that Buckley was leaving little to chance. 

Buckley’s interest in Ramparts was three-fold.  Like Keating, he was the founding publisher of a political magazine and was constantly battling the economic realities of that enterprise.  Even a half-century after its creation, with a circulation of almost 155,000 and a generation of conservative national leadership to support it, National Review was operating at a substantial deficit.

Another source of Buckley’s interest in Ramparts was his Catholicism.  His undergraduate experience at Yale had introduced him to the “nonchalant and cheeky secularism” that he targeted in his first book, God and Man at Yale.  Buckley may have supported Keating’s original urge to sponsor a Catholic literary quarterly, but he had every reason to deplore its transformation into a nonchalant, very cheeky, increasingly secular, and unabashedly left-wing publication under Hinckle and Scheer. 

A third reason for Buckley’s interest in Ramparts was his affiliation with the CIA.  Four years before he founded his magazine, Buckley was recruited into the agency.  After training in Washington DC, he served in Mexico City as a deep cover agent.  His supervisor was E. Howard Hunt, who gained more fame than a former CIA agent should when he was apprehended for the Watergate burglary in the 1970s.  Buckley’s CIA service was apparently short-lived; he lived in Mexico for less than year.  In a 2005 National Review editorial, he referred to his government service:

In 1980 I found myself seated next to the former president of Mexico at a ski-area restaurant.  What, he asked amiably, had I done when I lived in Mexico?  “I tried to undermine your regime, Mr. President.”  He thought this amusing, and that is all that it was, under the aspect of the heavens.

If subverting the Mexican government was amusing a half-century later, Buckley was less diverted by Scheer’s exposé of the CIA’s activities in Vietnam while the conflict there was raging. 

To prepare Scheer for the Firing Line taping, staff writer Bob Avakian assembled a packet of research material on Buckley and the show.  Staffers also told Scheer that Buckley frequently interrupted his guests.  They advised him not to tolerate that but rather to take the offensive, which Scheer proceeded to do.  The result was an intellectual food fight at a time when such spectacles were rare on broadcast television. 

The sharp words began with Buckley’s backhanded introduction of Scheer, who emerged at Ramparts after the “liquidation” of its founder.  Scheer had visited Asia several times, Buckley continued, “in his passion to find the United States responsible for all that goes wrong there.”  When his turn to speak came around, Scheer complimented Buckley’s reading of his cue cards and then suggested a hypothetical and equally unfair introduction in which Buckley would be described as supporting white supremacist governments in Africa.  “I think I see why you don’t have your own show,” Buckley quipped. 

Most of the exchange centered on a story Scheer had written about British philosopher Bertrand Russell in May 1967.  For that issue’s cover, Stermer commissioned Norman Rockwell to draw Russell’s portrait.  Given Rockwell’s reputation for all-American pictures, the cover was an ironic comment on Russell’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy. 

In an attempt to summarize his differences with Scheer, Buckley offered the following: 

Mr. Scheer, you seem to be extremely reluctant to accept what I consider to be the intellectual requirements of your analysis: namely, that sure, Bertrand Russell’s anti-American, but he has a good right to be anti-American because during the 1960s we became a highly unlovely country and anybody in fact who is pro-American at this in time has an addled wit, to say nothing of an unserviceable amoral sense.  Now, why don’t you say, Yes, I am anti-American?

Scheer refused to bite.  If he accepted Buckley’s invitation to endorse Russell’s criticisms, Buckley would dub that position anti-American, then un-American, and then pin that label on Ramparts and its staff.  The House Committee on Un-American Activities had ruined many lives and careers in the 1950s with similar tactics.  HUAC was still active, but Berkeley activist Jerry Rubin had dramatized its waning authority when, describing himself as an American revolutionary, he appeared before the committee in full colonial garb. 

The debate between Buckley and Scheer then took an even more personal turn. Buckley mocked Scheer’s writing style, and Scheer made a crack about the faces Buckley made while speaking.  As the program drew to a close, Scheer raised the moderator’s hackles when he compared Buckley to a Stalinist or Maoist with an $11-million inheritance.  “Mr. Chairman, don’t get upset,” Buckley told the moderator.  “This is his syndrome.” 

Buckley closed as follows: “Here is a man who when he ran for election used as a campaign manager a Communist whose magazine defends a lot of positions that are uniquely defended by Communists.  I don’t think he understands the consequences of it.”  Scheer replied:

I mentioned Mr. Buckley’s eleven million because I find it presumptuous that he could so accurately perceive the needs of people in underdeveloped countries who live on $50 a day (sic).  I also find him to be highly anti-American in that his contempt for freedom has supported the McCarthy Committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his own red-baiting, and his own attacks on anyone that dissents in this society, and in fact his own attempts to make a person who is a Communist a non-person in much the same way as the Soviet Union has done.

The two spent most of the hour jousting rather than clarifying the underlying issues, which were matters of life and death for thousands of Vietnamese and Americans.  When they touched on the original question, Scheer resisted but didn’t refute Buckley’s charge that Ramparts was un-American. 

In fact, Buckley and the editors at Time weren’t the only ones who considered the Ramparts crew unpatriotic.  While relaxing at Elaine’s in New York City, staff writer Peter Collier and Hinckle were approached by Willie Morris, the Mississippi native who became Harper’s youngest editor in 1967.  “The trouble with you all,” Morris said, “is you didn’t love America.”  Collier was struck by Morris’s use of the past tense.  Even if America had become unlovable (or, in Buckley’s argot, unlovely), Morris implied that the Ramparts critique was diluted if they had never loved America. 

Scheer saw it otherwise.  For him, the main point of Ramparts was to apply what he had learned at City College about the American system, including the First Amendment, limited government, and checks and balances.  “We weren’t defending any ground,” Scheer later said.  “We weren’t leading a movement. That was extremely liberating.”  As for foreign policy, Scheer’s main point was that other countries, including Cuba and Vietnam, should be allowed to make their own histories without interference from the United States.  In the context of the Cold War, that position was widely regarded as pro-communist, but it outlasted that conflict and eventually extended to nations like Iran, where, Scheer later wrote, U.S. mischief beginning in the 1950s had produced “a sorry history.”

***

Although the Firing Line episode produced more heat than light, it showed that Scheer was becoming the magazine’s face to the world.  He was also recruiting more staff from his Berkeley circle.  One such recruit was Peter Collier, a graduate student in English who dropped his dissertation on Jane Austen and joined the Free Speech Movement.  The product of a Southern California suburb, Collier thought of Berkeley in the early 1960s as a vibrant, bohemian intellectual center.  It was “an amazing time—Wordsworthian,” he recalled, alluding to that poet’s famous lyric on the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”

After working on Scheer’s campaign, Collier joined the staff at Ramparts, where his writing and editing skills were rewarded.  He was skeptical of Hinckle, whom he later described as a “dime-store Citizen Hearst,” but he appreciated Hinckle’s fundamental insight that the New Left had broader appeal than the mainstream media suspected.  During this time, Collier’s three-year-old son became fascinated by Hinckle’s eye patch and began referring to him as “that pirate guy.”  Collier later remarked that his son was closer to the truth than he could have known.

Collier’s position at the magazine made him an eyewitness to some of its signature moments.  One involved Hunter S. Thompson, whose first bestseller, Hell’s Angels, Collier had reviewed upon its publication in 1967.  Thompson was living on Parnassus Avenue in the Haight when Collier brought him by the office for lunch with Hinckle.  At the time, Hinckle was keeping a capuchin monkey there.  He bought it for his daughter, but the family dog had gone after the monkey, which then bit Denise.  Renaming the monkey Henry Luce after the founder of Time magazine, Hinckle decided to quarter him in the office.  When he wasn’t in his cage, Henry Luce frequently ran along the tops of the office dividers, screeching loudly.  But after the office was burglarized overnight, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Henry Luce was the only witness, and he wasn’t talking.


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By Dree, January 26, 2010 at 10:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gonna read it later.

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By james o. clifford, December 27, 2009 at 3:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

An informative read, particularly for those who know little about Ramparts. A better starting point, however, is Warren Hinckle’s “If you have a lemon. make lemonade.” No Hinckle, no Ramparts,at least not the hotfoot kind he produced.
  A couple of people in Peterson’s book saw Hinckle for what he was - a marketing genius. I remember thinking when he broke the MSU story that he realized the important part of news conference was “conference.” Just getting news people in one place was the key. Once they were there they would have to justify being there. And the place was important. The conference was held in New York, not San Francisco where the mag was HQed.
  He was also a pioneer in validation journalism in which you give the reader what they want to hear.
There were a lot of lawyers connected to Ramparts, which I don’t think Peterson realized. The magazine was close to propaganda, where only one side is shown. Could have been the result of Hinckle’s legal and Jesuit training. I am not sure, but I have watched this kind of reporting grow over the last 30 or so years, and it will only become stronger with the Net.
    This trajectory, combined with the virtual death of UPI, which gave AP a monopoly on news distribution, is the real “bomb.”

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By Gera Rosy, August 23, 2009 at 7:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As an undergraduate at Kent State before the massacre, Ramparts Magazine was my guidebook for understanding the chaotic world of the time. It has never been replaced.

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By miller, August 23, 2009 at 6:34 am Link to this comment

Thank you.  I enjoyed the article. I have fond memories
of reading Ramparts.

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By wagonjak, August 22, 2009 at 6:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I did illustrations and production work for Ramparts when it was in SF and
remember meeting Hinkle a couple of times…it was a real voice for lefty politics
when there were very few to none in the country…

I also did illustrations and production work for Sundance Magazine…that one
lasted about 6 issues…I remember Ken Kelly throwing an all-out fit about
something and throwing triangles across the room to make his point. I think he
just passed on recently too. Many memories of that era…

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By P. T., August 22, 2009 at 1:51 pm Link to this comment

Ramparts was good at coming up with covers that would catch people’s attention.  I remember I bought a copy at the college bookstore and took it to the abode of a friend whose brother was home on military leave from his base in Turkey, where he eavesdropped on the Soviet Union.

The cover had the headline “Why Nothing Works:  The U.S. as an Underdeveloped Country” or something close to that.  My friend’s brother saw it and started laughing.

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By wagonjak, August 22, 2009 at 1:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I did numerous illustrations and production work for Ramparts and met Hinkle
and others there at the offices in SF…it was always financially troubled, and
seemed to exist for awhile from issue to issue. It was a voice of intelligent leftist
reason during a time when there was very little of that anywhere, and the
blogosphere was way over the horizon…I never knew Scheer, and I wonder if the
tape of this interview is available anywhere…Carl Muecke

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By Paul O'Curry, August 21, 2009 at 1:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Back in 71/72 when I arrived in the US from Europe I was a subscriber to Ramparts , MS, and I.F.Stones weekly.  I can still remember many of the articles I read at that time and notice that Mother Jones is trying to bridge the gap.  The battle against neo fasists is more dire than ever!

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By Helen Hickman, August 21, 2009 at 10:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ramparts was an incredible magazine, and it certainly made an impact on my life. 
I was living in a small, isolated community on Vancouver Island and the articles,
especially on Vietnam, had a profound effect on me.  I still have all my copies of
the magazine, and intend to keep them forever.  My grateful thanks to Robert
Scheer and to Truthdig.

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By NYCartist, August 21, 2009 at 8:39 am Link to this comment

I read Ramparts in the mid1960s, at the very least.
In my mid20s, went south for two years of small cog in the wheel civil rights work and began my art career.
Went with mag subs because, as I later wrote in letters to friends back in NYC, “I only knew I was still in the US because the mail trucks said ‘US Mail’ on them.”.  (I’d been to Europe the summer before I went South.)

I’d gone South for, and with, my then-spouse’s new job, organizing in the AntiPoverty Program.  I got a pt time job, “volunteer” with a civil rights law firm after the local police took our photos (for intimidation) exiting an antiwar speech from a visiting professor, in the local Black YMCA, just after we arrived.
Spouse was told by his boss that an agent of the US gov’t (an agency), came to his office, waving a list of our mag zubs and said, “They are communists. Fire him.”.  The boss laughed, told spouse, who told me. (History lesson:I was too young to be a communist. No ideological bent, procivil rights, antiVietnam War, former teacher. How radical was that? Spouse and partner were doing real community organizing work, based on community desires: on police brutality and starting a credit union by mothers on welfare.)
I thought it was funny until I learned of COINTELPRO.
(No, spouse did not get fired. After 2 years, people in the community took over his and co-organizing partner’s jobs, which is what it was sposed to do.)  We went to another city, where I could not get volunteer work with the public defender’s office “Your having worked in a civil rights law office is too controversial for ...(the city).”

  I think Ramparts was on the list, but for sure, The Nation, The Catholic Worker (only 1cent per issue) and IF Stone’s Weekly were on the list.

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