Thursday, June 23, 2016

My Amazon Review of Clara Bingham's "Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost its Mind and Found its Soul"

The Late 60’s Through Rose Colored Glasses

Journalist Clara Bingham, born into the Louisville Courier Journal family, reflects her elite bias that was typified by the “radical chic” of 1970. Born too late (1963) to experience the late 1960’s she writes as a “wanna be” member of the Weather Underground. Her book is series of oral histories to describe the period between Woodstock (Summer 1969) to the end of 1970 as the anti-Vietnam War movement reached its apogee. The interviewees are a mixture of new left political types, veterans, G.I.s, pop culture figures, feminists, Black Panthers, LSD/marijuana entrepreneurs, high Nixon administration officials, occasional police officers and F.B.I. agents. She is at her best with histories of the Army math center bombing at the University of Wisconsin and National Guard killings at Kent State.

Although she has a host of interviewees her sample is biased towards her focus on the Weather Underground and in particular, Bernadine Dorhn and Bill Ayers. Recall that the Weather Underground glorified violence by initiating the “Days of Rage” in Chicago in 1969 and three of their members died in a bomb making factory in a very toney section of Greenwich Village. The victims of the bomb were to be G.I.s at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Ayers and Dorhn, both children of privilege, are unrepentant to this day. Not true of Michael Kazin and Mark Rudd who dropped out of the organization and moved on. Kazin is now a distinguished historian at Georgetown and Rudd taught for years at a community college in New Mexico. Rudd noted, and this is important, that it is results, not intentions that matter. Bingham’s failure is to look more to intentions than results.

I was more than a casual participant in the milieu of the late 1960s. In fact I knew several of her interviewees including Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, David Mixner, Barry Romo and Carl Bernstein. But unfortunately in her over-coverage of Dorhn and Ayers she leaves out her opponents in SDS who did not go the bomb making route. For example she could have interviewed Mike Klonsky and Marilyn Katz, both Chicago neighbors of Dorhn and Ayers. She also avoided interviewing the folks involved in what was then called the Revolutionary Communist Party. She fails bringing out the fact that there were an awful lot of little Lenins running around. They were hardly democratic and they worshipped at the altar of the Castro and Ho Chi Minh dictatorships. However, that would not have been consistent with her story line of how the late 1960s gave birth to the new soul of America.

She also quite accurately how much the new left was in thrall of the Black Panthers as the vanguard of the revolution, but she neglects to bring out that all too many of the panthers were street thugs. To bring out that point it would have helped if she interviewed former Ramparts editor David Horowitz who over the following decades moved from left to right. He witnessed the thuggery of the panthers in the Oakland of the early 1970s.

To be sure the reaction to the horrors of the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s changed America to its very core, but it would have helped if Bingham gave a more balanced account. Although on balance the 1960s were a force for good, the era left quite a bit of wreckage in its wake. 

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