January 30, 2010
In the last years of the 1960s, it appeared that most American
university students, and quite a few of their Canadian
contemporaries, had suddenly converted to a passionate, angry
socialism. For leftists operating in democracies, this was a brief
but sweet moment in a mainly disappointing century.
The reason was the Vietnam War. It aroused such horror among young
people that their rage spilled over into every corner of public life.
Those who set out to campaign for peace were caught up in a tangle of
self-righteous leftish causes. Capitalism, liberal democracy and
universities were among the forces blamed for war. Among the
students, a New Left was born, celebrated itself, then slowly expired.
There are those who argue that we should forget the 1960s. But in
certain ways, it's with us still, the nightmare from which North
American politics has never quite escaped. It appears now in a milder
but persistent form; Naomi Klein, for example, plays like a 1960s rerun.
For several of those remarkable years, a San Francisco-based
magazine, Ramparts, functioned as the most exuberant, effective,
foolish and hysterical expression of New Left feelings. It lasted
only 13 years and mattered for only about three, 1966 to 1968, but
its impact was unquestionable. The circulation reached 250,000,
spectacularly high for a publication of its type.
Peter Richardson, who was seven years old in 1966, now brings that
peculiar moment alive with his bright, evocative history, A Bomb in
Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America.
In 1967, a Ramparts article revealed that the CIA was secretly
funding liberal anti-communist organizations. Ramparts uncovered
sponsorship of the National Student Association; other journalists,
inspired by Ramparts, disclosed clandestine support of Encounter
magazine, the American Federation of Labor's international program,
and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization led by
intellectuals such as Arthur Koestler and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Gloria Steinem proved be a recipient of CIA funds, and so did Norman
Thomas, head of the Socialist Party of America. CBS broadcast a Mike
Wallace program, In the Pay of the CIA. Most of the people involved
said they'd believed the money came from independent foundations.
Ramparts made national celebrities out of the Black Panthers while
carefully refusing to notice that most of them were thugs who
considered Marxism a meal ticket. It published the best-known leftist
writers of the era, among them Susan Sontag, Jessica Mitford, Seymour
Hersh and Noam Chomsky. The most admired of several editors, Warren
Hinckle, never met a radical he didn't like. He published the diaries
of Che Guevara and an attack on American "barbarism" by Fidel Castro.
Anyone with a conspiracy theory, particularly if it involved John
Kennedy's assassination, was assured of a place in Ramparts. A cover
in the last years of Ramparts showed the burning of a Bank of America
branch in Southern California. The text that accompanied it said that
the radical students who set the fire "may have done more for saving
the environment than all the teach-ins put together."
For several of its principal creators, Ramparts ended in regrets. Two
major editors, Peter Collier and David Horowitz, turned against
everything it stood for and became much-published right-wing
journalists. A third senior editor, Sol Stern, became a conservative
critic of liberal education. Recently, in City Journal, he
acknowledged that Ramparts "changed America" -- but for the worse.
As a result of attacks against America like those in Ramparts, U.S.
liberals lost their nerve. They were left chagrined and repentant and
came to think American power could never be used for good. That
explains why liberal guilt still paralyzes America, inhibiting the
use of power when American power is needed, as it is increasingly in
the 21st century.
Ramparts campaigned for total withdrawal of all American troops,
Stern recalls, because "we wanted the communists to win and were sure
that they would." The editors thought the communists were Vietnam's
rightful rulers. A Ramparts cover showed Ho Chi Minh as George
Washington crossing the Delaware.
Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998) perhaps moved farthest from the Ramparts
ideal. He was hired as a staff writer and celebrated as a charismatic
black radical in a cover story. Later, as a born-again Christian, he
briefly led a revivalist ministry. Then, under the brand name
Eldridge de Paris, he designed a line of men's clothing, featuring
pants with a codpiece, a "Cleaver Sleeve." He re-entered politics as
a conservative Republican and in 1980 and 1984 endorsed Ronald Reagan
Like many figures in this book, Cleaver learned to reject the toxic,
self-loathing creeds of the 1960s. Others, sadly -- including many
who were not yet born during that decade -- still insist on
celebrating a time of infinite self-delusion.