Nineteen sixty-eight has often been cited as the year when America and the world went crazy. It was, after all, the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and American cities, the nation’s capital included, were set ablaze by black Americans enraged by King’s assassination. Paris exploded in a bloody student revolt; the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia; the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam galvanized North Vietnam to fight on. Demonstrators raged outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Richard Nixon was elected president.
Not so, says journalist and writer Clara Bingham, the time of psychosis really began in 1969. Her 600-page oral history Witness to the Revolution describes 1969 to 1970 as modern America’s most radical, and possibly most transformative, period. It was a time in which nearly two million Americans dropped acid and the nation experienced eighty-four acts of arson and bombing, and when a major social transformation took place, an era in which various subordinate communities—blacks, Latinos, gays, women—began to emerge and challenge the status quo.
Bingham has divided her book into twenty-six chapters that cover the draft, the psychedelic revolution, the women’s liberation movement, and radicals and resisters. From 2012 to 2015, she traveled the country interviewing some 100 individuals—(some) black and (mostly) white, (mostly) male and (some) female, primarily early Baby Boomers who “played an important role in bucking the system,” including Bernardine Dohrn, Greil Marcus, and Julius Lester. Many of those she interviewed, like Carl Bernstein, Daniel Ellsberg, Morton Halperin, Michael Kazin, Tony Lake, and Richard Reeves, went on to have a lasting effect on American politics and culture.
Bingham designates 1969 as the year the sixties generation “awakened”; she argues that the decade designation “the sixties” is arbitrary. For some, that specific sense of time—what the novelist Raymond Williams described as “a structure of feeling”—began with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. For the writer and poet John Perry Barlow, “the sixties” didn’t begin until 1966. “Prior to that,” he writes, “it was Eisenhower’s America.”
“From the start of the academic year in 1969 until the classes in September 1970, a youth rebellion shook the nation in ways we may never see again,” Bingham writes. “It was the crescendo of the sixties, when years of civil disobedience and mass resistance erupted into anarchic violence.” What makes that era different from today’s politics—when political debate is often confined to shouting on cable television and posting on Twitter—was that it was damn near close to actually being a revolution, she says. “The marches, demonstrations, rebellions, and resistance, in these often overlooked twelve months, threatened the very order of society.” During that period there were twenty-five political trials, the most famous being the prosecution of the Chicago 8.
Bingham chronicles the time before the “revolution” with voices such as David Harris, a draft resister who attended Stanford but also worked as an organizer in Mississippi when the New Left’s first struggle was the civil rights movement in the South. Harris, who married Joan Baez, was later jailed for his draft resistance, but was one of those who saw the folly in some New Left members’ embrace of violence that was to leave such an ugly legacy.
Frustration at being unable to effect change in U.S. policy in Vietnam led some Americans to “bring the war home” by engaging in arson and bombings, as in the rise of the radical, violent group Weather Underground, which included Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, and Bill Ayers. Tom Hayden and others recount how Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) went from being concerned with and supporting black empowerment to taking a more radical position opposing the Vietnam War before morphing into the Weather Underground. That group launched a program, “Days of Rage,” to bring the “revolution” to the U.S. At that point the New Left took the wrong turn and went down Revolutionary Road, which turned out to be a dead end. In the words of David Harris, it was “all these white kids pretending they were Black Panthers, and Black Panthers pretending they were third-world revolutionaries.”
Dohrn, one of the most wanted fugitives of that era, was a founding member of Weather Underground. When she and Bill Ayers (her husband and fellow Weatherman) finally surrendered in 1980, Dohrn was fined just $1,500 and placed on probation because the FBI had illegally obtained evidence against her. The Bureau had also targeted and incited violence against the Black Panthers, which led to the deaths of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago. Panther leader Ericka Huggins always believed that her husband, John, was set up by the police for assassination, orchestrated by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program—founded in 1956 primarily for targeting the activities of the American Communist Party, but often used to monitor groups from the Ku Klux Klan to the Black Panthers.
Even Cuban and Vietnamese allies told Mark Rudd, a former SDS leader now at Columbia, “You’re way too far ahead of where the base is, and not only that, but the Vietnamese want a united antiwar movement. And you’re already calling for a revolution.” But the Weather Underground’s response to such criticism was that they knew America was ripe for revolution. “[The] Cubans and the Vietnamese don’t understand our situation,” Rudd told Bingham. (Turns out that the Cubans and the Vietnamese did; it was the Americans who didn’t.)
Rudd best sums up what happened to the New Left movement: “The Weather made a fundamental mistake in forgetting about base-level organizing, which is relationship building, coalition building, all the things that built the antiwar movement up to that time, had built the civil rights movement, had built the labor movement.” The black professor and Newberry Award–winning writer Julius Lester agrees. “[W]hen movements become ideological,” he observes, “they lose sight of people. Ideology becomes more important than people.”
With Americans now reflexively thanking volunteer armed forces “warriors” for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to recall a time when the Army rank-and-file was in near mutiny and returning veterans organized against the war. Remember the famous footage of John Kerry and hundreds of other vets tossing their medals over a fence in front of the U.S. Capitol? Resistance to the Vietnam War draft resulted in 3,250 men being held in federal prisons. More than 400,000 deserted, with 100,000 fleeing to Canada and Sweden.
It is, nonetheless, worth remembering how returning servicemen were treated. Crowds of antiwar protesters would meet the buses and hurl invective at them. Wayne Smith, one such soldier, recalled, “I went into the men’s room and there were all these khaki uniforms bulging out of the trash bin, where people had taken off their uniforms and thrown them away as fast as they could. . . . The uniform thing was big, not wanting people to know you were in the military.”
Although the political revolution may have fallen short, the awakening had enormous social impact: Americans, as individuals and as members of social groups, were beginning to question the society they lived in, and what kind they wanted. Blacks were no longer going to be second-class citizens; women wouldn’t be content simply as mothers and wives; gay men and women weren’t going to exist in the closet or be persecuted. Unfortunately, these voices are barely represented in Witness. The rise of Native American or Puerto Rican liberation movements aren’t even mentioned, despite the fact that the American Indian Movement occupied Alcatraz Island for nineteen months in 1969.
All of this is deeply ironic for a 600-page opus. Indeed, one of the most decisive moments of the revolution occurred on the night of the Stonewall riots, which launched the gay rights movement. But the gay experience is only hinted at, as an episode in the life of David Mixner, a closeted gay man who was one of the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium organizers. His story is interesting, since it shows how he was targeted by a “honey trap” and then shown photos of the tryst by men with badges. In response, he simply stepped back from his high-profile organizing against the war.
Will uninformed readers, particularly younger ones, believe that gays and blacks, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Native Americans—the proverbial people of color—didn’t participate in the “revolution”? This narrative doesn’t explain the number of black, Latino, and Native American activists who were shot, killed, and incarcerated, compared to whites—many of whom went on to relatively normal lives.
By excluding these voices, Bingham unintentionally paints a picture of white middle-class activists who “went crazy” but then settled down, got jobs, became moms and dads, and watched as their children created apps and businesses like Uber. While there may be nothing wrong with that, it underscores that the brunt of state repression fell on the black and brown backs of those who are mostly absent from Bingham’s book.
Witness to the Revolution is an important legacy document. Most of the people interviewed are Baby Boomers, who are going to begin exiting the scene within the next two decades, and it is important to have a record of what they saw and how they acted during that time. Yes, they made mistakes. But in the best American tradition, they cared about the soul of their country.