THE YEAR 1998 was a time for the nostalgia artists of the left to remember their glory days of thirty years before, and the magic of a moment that many of them have never left. It was a time in their imaginations of lost innocence, when impossible dreams were brutally cut off by assassination and repression. For them, it was a time of progressive possibility that has left them stranded on the shores of a conservative landscape ever since.
A summary expression of such utopian regrets is found in Steve Talbot's PBS documentary called 1968: The Year That Shaped A Generation. Talbot's narrative is shaped by radicals of the era like Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden, whom he interviews on camera. The choice of Gitlin and Hayden as authorities on the era is predictable for someone like Talbot, himself the veteran of a movement that promotes itself as an avatar of "participatory democracy" but closes off debate within its ranks in a way worthy of the Communist regimes it once admired. Thus the auteur of The Year That Shaped A Generation excludes from this cinematic paean to his revolutionary youth any dissenters from inside the ranks of those who were there.
I myself am one who does not share Talbot's enthusiasm for 1968, nor his view of it as a fable of Innocents At Home. One explanation may be that I am ten years older than Talbot, and therefore know firsthand the state of our "innocence" then. Yet Gitlin and Hayden are also pre-boomers. An age gap cannot really explain the different views we have of what took place. Naturally, I would prefer to recall the glory days of my youth in a golden light, just like Gitlin and Hayden. For me, however, the era has been irreparably tarnished by actions and attitudes I vividly remember, but they prefer to forget.
The myth of innocence in Talbot's film, begins with President Lyndon Johnson's announcement in March 1968 that he would not run for re-election. Talbot was nineteen years old and draft-eligible: "We were all like Yossarian in Catch-22," he recalls in an article written for Salon magazine reprising his documentary film. "We took this very personally. 'They' were trying to kill 'us.' But now Johnson had abdicated. We were free. It felt, quite simply, like a miracle." The miracle, of course, was the democratic system, which the left had declared war on, but which had responded to the will of the people all the same. In 1968, radicals like us were calling for a "liberation" that would put an end to the system. For us the "System" was the enemy. But contrary to what Hayden, Gitlin, Talbot and all the rest of us were saying at the time, the System worked. Looking back, we should all have defended it, and worked within it, instead of what we did do, which was to try to tear it down. Gitlin and Hayden have hedgingly (and sotto voce) acknowledged this fact but without accepting its consequences for making judgments about what they did. Talbot does not notice the difference. Nor does he reflect on the contradiction between what he and his comrades advocated then, and what everyone recognizes to be the case now.
The "they" Talbot refers to, and by which he means the government and the social establishment, were assuredly not trying to kill "us" in 1968. (Even in its retrospective voice, the narcissism of the boomer generation is impressive.) The attention of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were actually not on us but on the fate of Indochina. They had committed American forces to prevent the Communist conquest of South Vietnam and Cambodia, and the bloodbath that we now know were in store for the people, should the Communists win the war. As a result of the Communist victory (and our efforts to make America lose), more people more poor Indo-Chinese peasants were killed by the Marxist victors in the first three years of the Communist peace than had been killed on all sides in the thirteen years of the anti-Communist war. This is a fact that has caused some of us veterans of those years to reconsider our commitments and our innocence then. But not Talbot, or the other nostalgists he has invited to make his film.
For them, the moral innocence of their comrades and themselves remains intact to this very day. Their innocence, in the sense of idealistic possibility on the other hand, was brutally ambushed when forces inherent in the System they hated conspired to murder the agents of their hope: Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. And it was only that murder that caused them to become radicals at war with America. The year was 1968.
"I experienced King's assassination as the murder of hope," writes Talbot, speaking for them all. In the film, Gitlin, whose history of the Sixties first announced this theme, remembers his similar thoughts at the time: "America tried to redeem itself and now they've killed the man who was taking us to the mountaintop." This is a false memory and there is something extremely distasteful in the fact that it is proposed by a historic participant like Gitlin. For, as Gitlin well knows, in the year 1968 neither he nor Tom Hayden, nor any serious New Left radical, thought of themselves as a liberal reformer or was still a follower of Martin Luther King.
One indicator of the self-conscious dissociation of radicals like Gitlin and Hayden from reformers like King is that neither of them nor any other white student activist, SDS leader, or anti-war spokesman was in Memphis for the demonstrations King was organizing in 1968 at the time he was killed. In fact, no one in the New Left (at least no one who mattered) could still be called a serious supporter of King in the year before he was assassinated. The new black heroes of the New Left were prophets of separatism and violence, like Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, and the martyred Malcolm X. King had been unceremoniously toppled from the leadership of the civil-rights movement two years before. The agendas of the radicals who pushed King aside were "black power" and revolutionary violence and they had already replaced King's pleas for non-violence and integration in the imaginations of the left.
Like other New Left leaders, Todd Gitlin was far from the idealistic liberal he impersonates in his book or Talbot's film. Like practically everyone else in the New Left, Gitlin had stopped voting in national elections as early as 1964 because, as the SDS slogan put it, "the revolution is in the streets." To Gitlin and other New Leftists, the two parties were the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the corporate ruling class. Activists who saw themselves as revolutionaries against a "sham" democracy, dominated by multi-national corporations, were not going to invest hope in a leader like King whose political agenda was integration into the System, and who refused to join their war on the Johnson Administration, its imperialist adventures abroad and "tokenist" liberalism at home.
In Talbot's film, Hayden, too, embraces a doctrine of original innocence, but his disingenuous presentation of self involves fewer flat untruths than Gitlin's. He relies on subtle shadings and manipulations of the truth, a style of deception that became his political signature: "At that point," Hayden says of the King assassination, "I had been so knocked out of my middle-class assumptions that I didn't know what would happen. Perhaps the country could be reformed and Robert Kennedy elected president. Perhaps we would be plunged into a civil war and I'd be imprisoned or killed."
The reality is that any "middle class assumptions" held by Hayden or any prominent SDS activists had already been chucked in the historical dustbin years before. Three out of four of the drafters of the famous 1962 Port Huron Statement were "red diaper babies" and Marxists. The fourth was Hayden himself, who by his own account in his autobiography, Reunion, learned his politics in Berkeley in 1960 at the feet of children of the Old Left. (Hayden names Michael Tigar and Richard Flacks, in particular, as his mentors). By 1965, SDS president Carl Oglesby was proclaiming publicly, in a famous speech, that it was time to "name the System" that we all wanted to destroy. The name of the System was "corporate capitalism," and it was analyzed by SDS leaders in pretty much the same terms as in Party texts read by the Communist cadres in Moscow, Havana, and Hanoi.
Hayden was already calling the Black Panthers "America's Vietcong," and planning the riot he was going to stage at the Democratic convention in Chicago that August. This pivotal event is described conveniently, but unhistorically as a "police riot" in Talbot's film, Gitlin's book, and Hayden's own memoir, which singularly fails to acknowledge his efforts to produce the eruption that ensued. Civil war in America was not something that was going to be imposed on the SDS revolutionaries from the outside or above, as Hayden disingenuously insinuates. Civil war was something that radicals Hayden foremost among them were trying to launch themselves.
Talbot continues his mythologizing of the spring of '68 and the period just prior to the Chicago Riot by romanticizing the political ambitions of Bobby Kennedy, and mis-remembering how the left reacted to them. "Out of the ashes of the riots in the wake of King's murder, new hope came in the form of Bobby Kennedy, who had undergone a profound transformation from Vietnam hawk and aide to Sen. Joe McCarthy to dove and spokesman for the dispossessed."
It is true, of course, that Bobby Kennedy made a feint in the direction of the anti-war crowd and more than one gesture on behalf of Cesar Chavez. It is also true that Hayden attended Kennedy's funeral and even wept a tear or two. But those tears had little to do with Hayden's political agendas at the time, which were more accurately summed up in Che Guevara's call to create "two, three many Vietnams" inside America's borders. Hayden's tears for Kennedy were personal, and he paid a huge political price for them among his revolutionary comrades on the left (who were not overly impressed by Kennedy's sudden political "transformation"). After the funeral, SDS activists wondered out loud, and in print, whether Hayden had "sold out" by mourning a figure whom they saw not as the great white hope of the political struggle that consumed their lives, but as a Trojan horse for the other side.
With King dead in April and Kennedy in June, the stage was set for what Talbot calls "the inevitable showdown" in Chicago in August. And here he allows a glimmer of the truth to enter his narrative. "Both sides, rebels and rulers, were spoiling for a confrontation." But just as quickly he reverts to the mythology that Hayden and his cohorts first created and that liberal historians have since perpetuated: "Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley made it possible. He denied permits for protesters at the Democratic Convention." The denied permits made confrontation inevitable.
In fact, the famous epigram from '68 "Demand the Impossible" which Talbot elsewhere cites, explains far more accurately why it was Hayden, not Daley, who set the agenda for Chicago, and why it was Hayden who was ultimately responsible for the riot that ensued. The police behaved badly, it is true and they have been justly and roundly condemned for their reactions. But those reactions were entirely predictable. After all, it was Daley who, only months before, had ordered his police to "shoot looters on sight" during the rioting after King's murder. In fact the predictable reaction of the Chicago police was an essential part of Hayden's calculation in choosing Chicago as the site of the demonstration in the first place.
It was also why many of us did not go. In a year when any national "action" would attract 100,000 protestors, only about 10,000 (and probably closer to 3,000) actually showed up for the Chicago blood-fest. That was because most of us realized there was going to be bloodshed and didn't see the point. Our ideology argued otherwise as well. The two-party system was a sham; the revolution was in the streets. Why demonstrate at a political convention? In retrospect, Hayden was more cynical and shrewder than we were. By destroying the presidential aspirations of Hubert Humphrey, he dealt a fatal blow to the anti-Communist liberals in the Democratic Party and paved the way for a takeover of its apparatus by the forces of the political left, a trauma from which the party has yet to recover.
One reason the left has obscured these historical facts is that the nostalgists don't really want to take credit for electing Richard Nixon, which they surely did. As a matter of political discretion, they are also willing to let their greatest coup the capture of the Democratic Party go un-memorialized. Instead they prefer to ascribe this remarkable political realignment to impersonal forces that, apparently, had nothing to do with their own agendas and actions. Talbot summarizes: "While 'the whole world (was) watching,' [Daley's] police rioted, clubbing demonstrators, reporters, and bystanders indiscriminately. The Democratic Party self-destructed." Well, actually, it was destroyed by the left's riot in Chicago.
When the fires of Watergate consumed the Nixon presidency in 1974, the left's newly won control of the Democratic Party produced the exact result that Hayden and his comrades had worked so hard to achieve. In 1974, a new class of Democrats was elected to congress, which included anti-war activists like Ron Dellums, Pat Schroeder, David Bonior, and Bella Abzug. Their politics were traditionally left as opposed to the anti-Communist liberalism of the Daleys and the Humphreys (Abzug had even been a Communist). Their first act was to cut off economic aid and military supplies to the regimes in Cambodia and South Vietnam, precipitating the bloodbath that followed. Though it is conveniently forgotten now, this cut-off occurred two years after the United States had signed a truce with Hanoi and American troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam.
"Bring The Troops Home" may have been the slogan of the so-called anti-war movement, but it was never its only goal. The slogan was designed by its authors to bring about a "liberated" Vietnam. Within three months of the cut-off of military aid, the anti-Communist regimes in Saigon and Phnompenh fell, and the genocide began. The mass slaughters in Cambodia and South Vietnam, from 1975 to 1978, was the real achievement of the New Left and could not have been achieved without Hayden's sabotage of anti-Communist Democrats like Hubert Humphrey.
While Talbot forgets this denouement, he does get the significance of the war right: "The war in Vietnam and the draft were absolutely central. I remember a cover of Ramparts magazine that captured how I felt: 'Alienation is when your country is at war and you hope the other side wins.' " This is a softened version of what we actually felt. As the author of that cover line, let me correct Talbot's memory and add a detail. The Ramparts cover featured a picture of a Huck Finn-like seven-year-old (it was our art director Dugald Stermer's son) who was holding the Vietcong flag the flag of America's enemy in Vietnam. The cover line said: "Alienation is when your country is at war and you want the other side to win." This represented what we actually believed Hayden, Gitlin, Steve Talbot and myself. What lessons my former comrades draw from our service to the wrong side in the Cold War is not that important to me. I just wish they would remember the events the way they happened.
I also wish they would have the good grace not to project onto themselves retrospective sympathies for the struggle against Communism, a struggle they opposed and whose true warriors and champions however distasteful, embarrassing and uncomfortable this must be for them were Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and the political right they hated and despised. Go over the fifty years of the Cold War against the Soviet empire and you will find that every political and military program to contain the spread of this cancer and ultimately to destroy it was fiercely resisted by those who now invoke the "spirit of '68" as their own.
"Assassinations, repression, and exhaustion extinguished the spirit of '68," Talbot concludes his story. "But like a subterranean fire, it resurfaces at historic moments." Citing the socialist writer, Paul Berman, the originator of this ultimate myth, Talbot argues that "the members of '68. helped ignite the revolution of 1989 that brought liberal democracy to Eastern Europe and ended the Cold War." The distortion of this memory is one thing for Berman, who at some point joined a miniscule faction of the left that was indeed anti-Communist, while still hating American capitalism almost as much. (How much? In Berman's case, enough to support the Black Panthers "America's Vietcong" in the 1970s and to praise the secret police chief of the Sandinista dictatorship in the 1980s as a "quintessential New Leftist.") But this attempt to hijack the anti-Communist cause for a left that abhorred it is particularly unappetizing in Talbot's case. Talbot, after all, made films into the '80s celebrating Communist insurgents who were busily extending the Soviet sphere in Africa. America, bless its generous heart, has already forgiven Steve Talbot for the indiscretions of the past. So why lie about them now?
Of course, New Leftists were critical of the policies of the Soviet Union (as, at various times were Khrushchev, Castro, and Ho Chi Minh). But their true, undying enemy was always democratic America the hatred for which was never merely reactive (as is sometimes suggested) and never truly innocent, while remaining remarkably intact to this day. The world-view of this left was aptly summarized by the adoring biographer of the journalist I. F. Stone, who approvingly described Stone's belief that "in spite of the brutal collectivization campaign, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the latest quashing of the Czech democracy and the Stalinist takeover of Eastern Europe … communism was a progressive force, lined up on the correct side of historical events."
Berman, Gitlin and now Talbot have mounted a preposterous last-ditch effort to save leftists from the embarrassments of their deeds by attempting to appropriate moral credit for helping to end a system that the left aided and abetted throughout its career. It may be, as Berman and Talbot claim, that East European anti-Communists drew inspiration from anti-government protests in the West. But this was a reflection of their admiration for democratic system that embraced dissent and promoted freedom, not the anti-western agendas of the New Left demonstrators. Even in its best moments, the western left disparaged the threat from the Communist enemy as a paranoid fantasy of the Cold War right.
The unseemly attempt to retrieve an honorable past from such dishonorable commitments might be more convincing if any of these memorialists (including Berman) were able to come up with a single demonstration against Communist oppression in Vietnam, or the genocide in Cambodia, or the rape of Afghanistan, or the dictatorships in Cuba and Nicaragua. Or, if one veteran leader of the New Left had once publicly called on the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall, as Ronald Reagan actually did. Support for the anti-Communist freedom fighters in Afghanistan and Africa and Central America during the 80s came largely from Goldwater and Reagan activists on the right, like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Grover Norquist, Elliot Abrams, Dana Rohrabacher, and Oliver North, whom progressives for this very reasonpassionately despise.
It would have been nice the thirtieth anniversary of the events of 1968 had been used to end the cold war over its memories and o start restoring a sense of the tragic to both sides. But to do that, the nostalgists of the left would first have to be persuaded to give up their futile attempts to re-write what happened, and start telling it like it was.