When Tom Hayden was 17, he wrote his swan song editorial for the Daily Smirker (rhymes with worker) back at Royal Oak High School in Detroit, Michigan, on the overcrowding of public schools. Bland as the body of the editorial was, Hayden employed a bold-faced, big-letter beginning for each paragraph that altogether spelled out his vertical farewell to high school journalism. “Go to Hell,” it read down the page. With petulant outrage, the high-school administration punished Hayden by holding up his academic awards for nearly a year. Of such small beginnings, though, an era of protest was being created in the middle and late Fifties. Even at Royal Oak, it was impossible to guess that America was coming out of the five-and-dime era into a boxcar epic with consequences still unimaginable.
Not that Hayden had any real inkling of it either. He was the bookish, only child of an Irish-American family who spent part of his childhood in San Diego where his father was stationed with the Navy. He used to squash tin cans flat as a boyhood contribution to the war effort and watch the rim of the Pacific for a sign of sinister masts that might someday bring an invasion fleet of the murderous enemy. When the war was over, and the family returned to Detroit, young Tom took to school with an impish curiosity and a quick mind that made him at once popular among his classmates and a source of mild exasperation for his teachers.
He was part of the biggest baby boom the world had ever seen, all born out of a wartime passion that pumped kids out of maternity wards faster than factories could put out Jeeps. By 1950, every Saturday afternoon the 40-cartoon festivals that came on in neighborhood theaters all over America looked like a children’s crusade. In America, at least, what the kids of that generation had of their individuality was always matched by some formidable experiences they shared in common.
When the air raid came — was that two short blasts or four long ones? — you got away from the windows, crouched down under your desk with your hands covering the back of your neck and waited to be disintegrated. And while we waited for what everybody insisted on calling the “next war,” we got older in the biggest bash of abundance since the Romans — a fact alarming enough in itself to the amateur historians who kept warning us about what all that decadence did to Rome. It had not nearly so much to do with growing up alienated as it did with growing up prepared for whatever that vague disaster was that our parents kept promising.
There were diversions, of course, and most of them came via kinescope in black and white. Any kid on the block could recite Herbert Philbrick’s three lives before you could call out “card carrier” — Communist, Counterspy and … what was that other one? Ricky Nelson said “I don’t mess around, boy,” to the point of tedium long before he ever heard of an echo chamber, and once a week, Clark Kent — Superman — did it right for “truth, justice and the American way.” Missing American Bandstand on a Monday or The Mickey Mouse Club on a Friday could create a serious disruption in almost anybody’s life.
James Dean would be 41 now, but you knew all along he was never destined to get old, even if Marlon Brando did. Whatever it was, after you saw something like Rebel Without a Cause, you felt like going out and breaking a few windshields. And once in a while, you did, or at least you chucked a couple of water balloons at passing cars. That was you, man, a brooding nobody with something silent inside just seething to get out.
More than anything else, there was the music. It held us together like some kind of mystic glue and came out of us in everything we did. We lived at 45 revolutions per minute and moved at a decibel range that put it all in code. It was the thing that set us apart from the Your Hit Parade generation, that made us feel unique, like charter members in some secret society. Not all of it made sense, but all of it was meaningful, and later on the music came down from people like Dylan and Baez as legends being told in our own time and in our own language, until some of the time you didn’t know if you were living out the lyrics or the lyrics were talking about your life. It all moved faster than we were able to think about it, and for a while our lifestyles changed almost as fast as the Top 40 charts.
We only half believed it ourselves, but we were developing a culture all our own. We had our own music, our own costume, our own language and our own code of ethics, all of which, we were incessantly told, was a passing fad — especially rock & roll. They treated it like that at first too, relegating it to juvenile cacophony that had nothing to do with real music, until finally even some of them had to recognize how ludicrous Snooky Lanson was singing “Blue Suede Shoes.”
There was a generalized Us and a vague Them, none of whom understood much more than a few clichés about this younger generation. What we knew of them was principally that they were older — they were our parents, the generation that brought us World War II, split-level consciousness and, of course, the Bomb. We figured early that we’d annihilate the Russians all right, but we might have to forget about everybody east of Kansas City, poor bastards.
It was pretty damn demoralizing when the Commies got Sputnik into orbit, if they really did it at all and weren’t lying like they always did. But it woke you up, boy. You started worrying what might happen if we didn’t get on the stick pretty fast. So the very next semester you took a physics course for the good of America. It seemed like the only scientist we had in those days was Werner Von Braun and a few other Nazis we swiped from Germany, and the Russians’d got all the good ones from there anyway. We had a bona fide case of paranoia built up in us since the days of Dick and Jane.
While all this was growing in the great body of white middle-class teen America, Rosa Parks was getting on a bus in Alabama.
There were two things happening at once. One was that the people in power were beginning to freak over what looked like it might be a stretch run by the Russians in the Cold War arms race. The other was that new and increasing communications was letting everybody see the racism and poverty that had been squatting in the land of the free all along. We were just idealistic enough to see the contradiction. And we caught them in their first big lie.
That whole mess of war babies was just about getting out of high school and driving off to college so they could get a good education and make a lot of money someday when John Kennedy started talking about the Peace Corps. A lot of us were going off to college, that is, more than had ever gone before, but not all of us. We had a link with something special that set us apart, a rhythm in our lives that hooked us to a personal freedom our parents could not understand. At first, social observers lumped us in as part of what they were calling the Beat Generation. But it wasn’t quite right; the beats had been an interim crowd, older than us, younger than our parents. They got caught in a sour-wine zone of transition where melancholy rain fell a lot of the time. But they were kindred spirits. We could understand them better than anybody else, and we could imitate the freedom we admired in their lives. Some of us who had the guts dropped out early into enclaves like North Beach and Greenwich Village. Some disappeared there. But more were only visitors, weekend beatniks and sometime travelers on the sleepy road. And that created something else that was new.
The new generation of college kids wasn’t just a cloistered collection of the gifted and privileged. Many of them were neither, and even those who were often made more out of their lives by rejecting wealth than by flaunting it. They were more comfortable relating to the undemanding freedom of people they met away from their homes who never got too friendly with money. Between the people who dropped out and the people who put themselves in college, there was a degree of understanding that fuzzed and eventually almost eliminated the distinctions in their lifestyles.
Tom Hayden was just one of those people as he packed up and traveled on to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1957 when he figured he was about to begin a regimen he counted on making him into a world-famous foreign correspondent someday, trench coat and all. He had dark unruly hair that was maybe a little longer than his mother might have liked it, but nothing outrageous, and his teen-age acne had left a permanent mark. There wasn’t anything particular about him that made it possible to predict he would become one of his generation’s leading politicos and one of his country’s most notorious radicals. His writing would become known too, from five books and scores of magazine and newspaper articles. But that fall in Ann Arbor, Tom Hayden was thinking about romantic assignments and intriguing adventures. The phrase “New Left” had not even been invented yet.
Some writers have tried to say that the New Left had its origins back in the Fifties out of such conditions as the lagging aggressiveness of the trade union movement, the decline of the Communist Party, Stalin’s speech at the 20th Party Congress, uprisings in Hungary and Poland and the disbanding of the Communist Labor League in 1956. But most of the people in the new generation of American leftists never heard of the 20th Party Congress until years after it happened, and a lot of them have still not heard of the Labor Youth League. What turned on the New Left might have been the Ban the Bomb groups that started in England and spread over here with a semaphore symbol. It might even have been the enthusiasm of somebody like John Kennedy. For sure many people were inspired by the sheer ballsiness and romantic courage of someone like Fidel Castro or outraged by the dragged-out agony of someone like Caryl Chessman.
Maybe some of it was just sheer mad boredom at the bullshit Fifties. But in America at least, the New Left began as the rebellious child of hypocrisy. Young people were not at first socialists or communists or even leftists. If, later, they were forced to put a label on themselves, it was usually “liberal,” and that stood for believing that people should be allowed to live with all the freedom and equality and justice that the platitudes they’d been hearing about America for years said they should. That was why in May, 1960, hundreds of students and beats protested against the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee which was holding hearings in San Francisco. Elected representatives of America called the demonstration “Communist-inspired” and “Communist-led,” and San Francisco cops hosed young men and women down the marble stairway of the San Francisco city hall, beating those they could catch.
Young people all over the country saw the film Operation Abolition a documentary of that incident, and the tribunal injustice of HUAC. This time, it wasn’t just old footage of unreal characters hiding in a Fifth Amendment subterfuge. You could see yourself in those people being hosed and beaten down the steps and you grimaced at catching another big lie about American justice. You saw pictures of people being stuck with cattle prods and beaten with clubs and heard the hypocrisy about freedom, justice and equality over and over again. Somebody was lying.
Students for a Democratic Society was formed in June, 1960, at a New York convention sponsored by the League for Industrial Democracy. Hayden later became one of the early members of SDS. In its first two years, though, the fledgling youth group amounted to little more than a handful of young people like Hayden struggling to reach an identity for themselves and a purpose for the future; at the time, it was still a child of the benevolent remnants of the old American Left. But in 1962, SDS made its differences with the old League clear. It broke off as a body, and more importantly as a generation, and declared itself independent in a permanent commitment for change in America. The Port Huron Statement that became a founding document for SDS was written in 1962 — ten years ago this summer. Its primary author was Tom Hayden.
It was written at a time that may now seem like an age of innocence, when the main emphasis of the founding document of SDS was on reform of American society within the limits of an almost religious belief that the structure and ideals on which the country was founded still served as the ultimate hope for human freedom. That belief changed dramatically in the next ten years, and SDS itself has since shattered into sectarian differences, but the statement was the basic document of the young New Left. It began with what was called an “Agenda for a Generation”:
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.
When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people — these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.
As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution …”
Ten years after that was written, Rolling Stone found Tom Hayden in Los Angeles preparing for a touring Indochina Peace Campaign that is currently taking him, Jane Fonda and others to seven states, stumping with speeches, slide shows and graphics to bring the horror of American aggression in Vietnam home before gatherings at county fairs, town halls, schools and anywhere people will listen.
With Hayden was Richard Flacks, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Flacks, older than Hayden, perhaps seeded more in the background of the Old Left, also participated in the early days of SDS. He has been a close friend of Hayden’s during the past ten years and a close observer of the development of American radicalism.
Not because Hayden or Flacks have the absolutely correct analysis of this generation and not merely because Hayden is a Movement “heavy,” but because they were both first-hand witnesses to some incredible moments that have affected us all, did we begin this search with them through the last ten years of unfulfilled concepts broached at Port Huron.
… In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is’ that there is no viable alternative to the present. —Port Huron Statement, June, 1962, T.F.
You were a reporter at the 1960 convention.
Right. I hitchhiked to Berkeley, then I went to Los Angeles. I was a college editor, very influenced by the Beat Generation. My thing was to hitchhike all over the country in different directions — the Latin Quarter of New Orleans and Miami and New York, Greenwich Village … and so that summer I went to North Beach, and my justification for it as an editor was that I was going to cover the Democratic convention. I was always very divided between being what now you would call a radical and what then didn’t have a name, because there was no politics …
You passed for a liberal.
No, there was no politics. It was unimaginable to me — politics was unimaginable to me. I’d never heard or seen a demonstration — there was no sense that there was something like a political form of protest, so whatever that was — it was mainly like trying to mimic the life of James Dean or something like that. It wasn’t political. And then the other half of me was in the Establishment — ambitious young reporter who wanted to be a famous correspondent and so on. I got to Berkeley and immediately went to the first person who was giving out leaflets, because I’d never seen anything like this before, and I told her who I was and what I was interested in, and being political, they took me home and gave me a room to stay in for a few weeks and tried to educate me politically, because I was a student editor, and they wanted me to form a campus political party back in Michigan, which I did when I went back in September. But anyway, come August I went to Los Angeles to cover the Democratic convention for the Michigan Daily.
This at a time when social protest was beginning?
The people I stayed with in Berkeley were very involved in that. You know what they were doing? They were organizing farm workers. This guy, Herb Mills, came up to me one day, and I had heard that he was a leftist, and I didn’t know what that was, but he drove me out to Livermore one day and showed me the nuclear reactor, where all the hydrogen bombs were made, with the fence around it, and he described the nuclear weapons and the arms race. And then another day, drove me out into the fields and valleys, and he told me about the Chicanos and the farm workers, and the conditions under which they labor. And I went with him and some others to the convention, where he was organizing a demonstration. I believe the demonstration was about civil rights, because that’s the first time I saw or met Martin Luther King. He was on the picket line, and that was the year, of course, that the sit-ins had started in February.
I spent the time during the convention half on the picket line and half inside covering that the thing, and by the end of the convention, the divisions in me had grown further. I was writing articles back to the Michigan Daily proclaiming the birth of an American student movement, given what I had seen in California, and the university officials were quite upset in Ann Arbor, because apparently they sensed the danger in this, even though I had no idea of it, and they immediately began a campaign to control me as editor of the newspaper. On the other hand, I was in part tied to the Kennedy image also, in the sense that he was younger, he seemed more in touch with reality than Nixon. Of course, now that I look back on it, it may have made him a more dangerous person, but the appeal of the New Frontier and the Peace Corps was pretty great.
There was a group in Ann Arbor called the Americans Committed to World Responsibility that now sounds like something that Rockefeller would set up. This group conceived of the idea of the Peace Corps, and I was a marginal member of it, and during Kennedy’s campaign in the primaries they took the idea to him, and he said he approved of it and would work it into his speeches and programs, and he did that, and he started speaking — I believe it was in the California primary — I don’t entirely recall, but what I do recall was the excitement of our group that the possibility for doing service for humanity was opening up because of Kennedy, and that was the difference between him and Nixon.
I remember meeting Kennedy one night in the middle of the night during the campaign. He came to Ann Arbor, and I was standing on the steps of the Michigan Union covering it. Two in the morning. It was very late. The streets were full of young people, just like today for McGovern and 1968 for McCarthy and going all the way back. This is the first time that, I think, the phenomena of so-called “new politics” with a candidate reaching out to new constituencies had appeared. This whole street in front of the Michigan Union was full and Kennedy gave an impromptu speech, which everyone was very excited by, in which he endorsed the idea of a Peace Corps. I rode upstairs in an elevator with him later, asking him questions like an idiot, journalists’ kind of questions. That was the only time I ever saw him, and it’s strange, because the last time I saw Robert Kennedy was in an elevator by accident also, going up, one week before he was shot.
It was a time when international events seemed to forecast change along with independent struggles over civil rights and so on here. Did that affect you?
It affected me very much. Well, first of all, there was a sit-in. I was sitting in my newspaper office in Ann Arbor, and Al Haber, who founded SDS came over, and he was the campus radical. He had a beard and a lot of books and he just knew a lot, and he was much older than anyone else, and he came over to talk to me about this sit-in movement that was starting. He explained to me that sit-ins had been used by the labor movement and how they were being used by the black students, that it was very important that we come to their defense and that we see that this cause was our cause, and he was very into organizing Northern conferences and Northern support demonstrations. Picket lines started in Ann Arbor that spring, I believe at Woolworth and Kresge stores that students were trying to boycott in the South.
Even then I felt uncomfortable, and I went on the picket line a couple of times, but I had to be talked into it, and I didn’t really have any contact with the South or with the black students until that fall, the fall of 1960. In October I went down to Atlanta one weekend as a student editor and I covered a South-wide conference of black students who were in SNCC, and it wasn’t until then that I was really moved by them, by the concept of direct action, by the concept of being able personally to make a difference. Before that, it was in the air. The other thing that was in the air was that the students were on the move all around the world, and being a student editor, made me kind of hyper-conscious of the role of students — and news was always coming in from around the world about uprisings in Turkey, Japan, and Latin American countries. It became suddenly a world-wide visible phenomenon, and when the students in the South, the blacks, started demonstrating, that was the beginning of the time of students becoming a social force around the world.
In June, there was a demonstration in San Francisco against HUAC.
Well, I didn’t understand that very well. The same person who told me about the farm workers was carrying around Operation Abolition and I must have seen it about four times, and as soon as I got back from Berkeley, I arranged for it to be shown on the Michigan campus. It’s very interesting — I don’t know why this took place, but, the room was packed. There were 300 people, which at that time was an unprecedented meeting about something, even though I don’t think people understood the formal issues involved very well, like contempt of a congressional committee.
Red-baiting was a new word. Witch-hunting was a new word. Nobody was tied into the tradition of the Thirties or the Fifties that would make those words have an emotional meaning, but what was really clear was that there were really outdated and irrational people on this congressional committee who were behaving in, you know, insane ways, and they were enlisting the San Francisco police as their allies, and these police were washing young people like ourselves down the stairs of the city hall in San Francisco, and people were falling down stairs, pregnant women tripping on the water-filled stairs and heads were being broken and … I never saw anything like it in my life. After all, the people on the stairs were like us.
Flacks: All right, this time that we’re talking about is early Sixties, ’60, ’61. What did you think American students could accomplish through direct action or other forms of action? Is it possible to think back to that?
Hayden: I think we should remember that at the time we’re talking about, the Kennedy administration was giving a certain amount of legitimacy to this world-wide student phenomenon, to the Peace Corps, and so forth, and to the National Student Association, which we now know was a CIA-run organization whose primary business was helping to infiltrate and shape the international student movement. Then they were supportive of the sit-ins, supportive of the idea of world-wide student movement, in other words, the very movement that turned out to be revolutionary in the form of the Panthers and SDS in the late Sixties. But then it had two sides, and it was very easy and legitimate to support, and we didn’t know, we didn’t have any idea what the CIA was. It was unimaginable that the National Student Association was a CIA front, but that’s really important, I think, to take into account when you say that Kennedy had something to do with legitimizing the student movement, because, in reality, what he was doing, or the forces around him were doing, were trying to take advantage of discontent of youth and channel it into certain directions that could be beneficial to the image of the US. We didn’t know that. We didn’t know that about the Peace Corps until bitter experiences within a couple of years proved that that was so.
At the same time, Kennedy was sending off to the jungles of Southeast Asia Green Berets, who were supposed to be in the service of humanity — a counter-insurgency force that could, through the building of roads, hospitals and schools, the learning of the language, the living with the people, accomplish very much the same ideals that young people here were talking about in the Peace Corps. Very much the same. But in reality he was involving the US in a direct combat capacity in Vietnam, and this was also exactly the period that the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam was formed, the 1959-61 period. While we were going through the Beat Generation and the apathy and so forth of the late Fifties, they were going through the massacres and roundups of the Diem administration, and they decided also to organize, to do something about it, and they founded a national front for liberation at the same time that the other demonstrations and movements started to arise around the world, but that one in Vietnam was temporarily beyond our gaze. That one was not legitimized by Kennedy. There was no talk of how wonderful it was that the Vietnamese were rising from their knees and starting to fight for their freedom. Nonviolence and reform were acceptable, violence and revolution were not.
There was talk about the morality of the black students in the South, the students in Turkey, the students around the world. That became campaign rhetoric by Kennedy, at least in the areas where student movements were of such a nature that while they were progressive, in favor of civil rights and peace and so forth, they also were very subject to control and manipulation, and we didn’t understand that we were being controlled and manipulated, not only directly by people being in our ranks from the CIA, but also in our minds, because the emergence of the National Liberation Front was immediately treated as the emergence of the “Viet Cong,” the terrorists, and they were not to be included within the framework of legitimate uprisings, nationalist movements and student movements that were the atmosphere of the early Sixties.
Now, when you look back, it’s really the National Liberation Front that has brought forward and exposed all of the problems of American society and these other movements and organizations have been exposed as CIA fronts, have gone into the McCarthy or McGovern campaigns or have dissolved in idealistic futility. Many progressive-minded people of today were swept up in this kind of movement. I was approached to go to the “Communist oriented” World Youth Festival in Helsinki in 1962 by an innocuous-enough group called International Student Travel, a branch of NSA which turned out later to be CIA-founded.
The point of this is that the civil rights and student movement energy of the early Sixties was not then considered a menace or a scourge by the American Establishment, although it was by HUAC and the ultra-conservatives. In fact, it was considered perhaps a positive thing that could embellish the image of the US, and the Establishment was into funding us to go to Helsinki Youth Festivals and other places to show how, with all our problems of racism and so forth, there were Americans who were aggressively trying to abolish discrimination and that sort of thing. We didn’t know that it was the CIA. We thought that the people who were the “liberal establishment” were really bad and probably couldn’t be revived, as we see it still is today very nearly in power through the McGovern campaign, but not the people who are the organizers of it. Not those people. We just didn’t know that they were CIA then, but we sensed that they were intransigent. An example is the fall of 1961 — I was the outgoing editor of the Michigan Daily, and I was at the NSA conference in Madison, Wisconsin. It was still unclear whether or not I would work in SDS as a field secretary. I was out of school two months trying to decide whether to help form SDS or whether to go in and be the “left wing” of NSA, and as events turned out, I went south and was a field secretary for SDS, worked there one year, came back, and we really formed SDS as a chapter-based organization the following spring of ’62 at Port Huron.
But in the fall of 1961, when only two or three of us were going around trying to form an organization, and seeking support — moral, financial — from liberal organizations, labor organizations, I was also a candidate for national affairs vice president of NSA, and other people who were there who later became actively the leadership of SDS were also either running for office or were very involved in the power politics of NSA — where you learned to be an American politician: delegations, bloc voting, hustling people, campaigning, becoming a monster — and the people that we were against we called the “foreign policy elite” of the NSA, because we noticed that they ran the international affairs section with a pretty heavy hand, and they were stationed all over Europe, and they seemed to fly in from European capitals for these congresses and regulate what would happen at the congress.
They were people in their 30s, they were older people, and it all became a little more chilling when one day we were in the office of the president of NSA just before the congress and found on his desk a chart written in his hand. His name was Richard Rettig. He was a CIA agent from the University of Wisconsin, and he had a chart of the congress. Me, Haber and other people, SDS people, were listed as being the Left on this chart, then there was a Right and there was a Center, in terms of power blocs. And at the top there was a group called the control group [laughter] called Control Group — capital C, capital G, and he was in it, and all the other people from abroad were in it and a couple of select people from the national office. Well, virtually every one of these people turned out to be CIA, and we ran against them, attacking them as an older elite that wasn’t really from the campuses and so forth and was into the Cold War too much.
We narrowly lost. Through all their string-pulling, they stopped a couple of our candidates by a narrow margin, but one of us won — Paul Potter was elected national affairs vice president, not knowing what he was getting into.
The point is that the people we thought were intransigent were the people who were the heads of our parent organization, proclaimed socialists, like Michael Harrington, and labor leaders, who in practice were frightened at the prospect of a student movement, thought that inevitably it would disrupt the tradition of the liberal left community (which it has), felt that it inevitably would take the side of revolutionary movements (which it has). They were quite perceptive at the time, but they also taught us. I mean, they were unbelievable. They locked us out of our office. They called us things we had never heard of before — Leninists …
No, the parent body of SDS, the League for Industrial Democracy, old socialists and trade unionists. When we published the Port Huron Statement they considered it too far left. Haber and I were in Senator Joseph Clark’s office a couple of weeks after Port Huron collecting literature on disarmament. We got a phone call from New York telling us to come back because we’d just been fired. We spent the summer after that fighting for the right to organize against people who said they were socialists and who were accusing us of being too radical. We didn’t know what they were talking about.
The best of them were part of the CIO tradition — the sit-ins in Flint and the other factories. For the most part, they supported the New Deal, and then in WW II they fought against Fascism. But the majority of them by this time had been heisted into government slots in the system. The labor unions had been legitimized by the Wagner Act in terms of their rights to collective bargaining. Others had gone into government positions, and they accepted the American system as being a viable system to work within and reform, and it was therefore very easy for them to purge the communists or so-called communists from the labor movement in 1948, and to take the side of the US fairly unswervingly in 1950 on, to be silent during the Korean War, to sell themselves to the CIA as cultural workers. They formed the Congress for Cultural Freedom. From that time until 1972 they represented the Humphrey-Meany wing of the Democratic Party.
In fact, they did think that working that way was the most progressive thing to do. By the late Fifties and Sixties, you can imagine what kind of people they were. They were utterly absorbed into the system. They retained a liberal or radical rhetoric, but their real job was to be the Left gatekeeper of American radicalism, on what was legitimate.
But I’m trying to get to how they were perceived by the early SDS people, other people in the early days of the student movement. It wasn’t quite so clear-cut at the time what the nature of this grouping was, obviously. Haber went to the League for Industrial Democracy to see whether a student organization could be developed out of it, right? I mean, there was an effort to get support from the labor unions, from the League of Industrial Democracy, because their rhetoric said they were for civil rights and that they were for domestic reform. We felt that the forces that these liberal leadership people represented could possibly be renewed — intellectuals, liberal professionals, parts of the labor movement, the church community … We thought, in fact, that the Democratic Party could be reorganized. It was called “realignment.” Now, a lot of these concepts were imported into SDS, as I look back, by people who were already ideological and joined SDS.
We accepted the theory for a while that there was a sort of sleeping liberal wing of the Democratic Party that could be energized by moral students taking moral actions, especially black students from the South. And our first experience, from ’62 to ’65 was mainly one in which any hopes of that sort of thing happening was really stripped from us, because it started with our being accused of being too radical and SDS almost wiped out at its inception and it went from there all the way to Atlantic City in 1964 when Hubert Humphrey and others who represented this tradition engineered a compromise which was no compromise that prevented the Mississippi sharecroppers and Freedom Democratic Party from being seated at Atlantic City. That group symbolized all of the work and all of the hopes of the whole student civil rights movement and southern civil rights movement, and the rejection of them, when their cause was so clear-cut, was really, I think, the final disillusionment with working with the liberal establishment.
What we’re talking about is the left wing of established American politics at that time. That’s what SDS was trying to relate to and thought it might be part of at that time.
ADA, like Hubert Humphrey, for example …
The distinction between the leadership and the rank and file of that. We were against the coopted leadership and so forth …
Flacks: The Democratic left community, and it had many differences within it, but we thought it existed and that SDS was part of it, and yet, when we started to take certain positions, a lot of those people tried to destroy it right at the outset. So, the positions had to do with ending the Cold War, seeing something positive, go on with that. I mean, it would be interesting what was regarded as anathema at that time.
Hayden: In our views.
Flacks: What, in our views, were regarded as anathema by Michael Harrington.
Hayden: Well, I think a lot of it had to do with our refusal to respect the standing leadership of the labor movement or, you know, the old guard of all the liberal and socialist sect groups.
I think that they had a very elite view of the so-called masses and this feeling that when people are inspired to do things, large numbers of people are liable to take to the streets unless they have proper control …
Flacks: Proper control! [Laughter]
Hayden: Proper control. “Those people can go anywhere. They can overthrow the government. They can cause total disorder, bring on repression” — and here we were, young and ready to go. We didn’t understand how what we were doing was going to bring on repression or a Communist dictatorship [laughter] … We were — we wanted to do something about the arms race, Cold War, racism, and so on, and it was like two different frames of reference.
We were actually something new, which to them was called, you know, the youth culture — many names since the Beat Generation, but whatever we are, we didn’t know what to call ourselves then, and they much less so. We were a new phenomenon in the history of the US — the first really massive movement, the first massive dropout phenomenon, and we didn’t have any language for that. We couldn’t explain that. We just were that. And they couldn’t understand that any more than they could understand why we easily identified with people taking to the streets demanding their rights because … they couldn’t understand either.
It was natural for us at first to think that the people who seemed to be the closest to us — liberal groups and so forth — would be the ones that we would approach for support, because all of us were, like I described myself, very divided. One part of me was an insane beatnik, who would go off on strange tangents and not know what to call that, but I knew that other people were the same way. Another part of me was this rising, ambitious member of the Establishment, at that time the establishment of college newspapers and so on, and so it was quite normal to try to get the support of the people in that second group — the liberal establishment and to believe that it could be done, because, in part, we were like them.
We didn’t really realize that we were not like them until some experience had passed by. I think that what was concluded by the mid-Sixties was that the potential of a recharged liberal movement to win some reforms was a real possibility, but those reforms would never be enough to deal with our underlying alienation or the root causes of racism and poverty and people feeling like they have no power. So we began to become radicals after the failure of the civil rights movement in the South and with the escalation of the Vietnam war. It was about that time.
Today, looking at McGovern, the same thing could be said, especially now that the issue of the war has ripened to a point where it can probably be solved if McGovern were elected. You can say that that reform energy is capable of making some progress or implementing certain reforms, but it will never be enough. It will, in itself, never go far enough to satisfy the real needs of most of the people in the country.
It was something that no one even imagined was possible. It was just taken for granted that this was a stable society which dealt with its problems for better or worse through orderly parliamentary means. I was on my way to some meeting in Minnesota, and the plane landed and the pilot announced Kennedy had been shot and killed, and this guy with a Goldwater button jumped up and cheered behind me, and I was really disoriented. I could only say for myself, but it may not have been so much the killing of Kennedy that was radicalizing as the way they covered up the assassination through the Warren Commission.
Two days later, we watched Oswald — the “patsy” — shot to death … 15-20 times on the TV set, and just the way he was treated made no sense, and I think made me more suspicious of the system than the killing of Kennedy itself would have. The suppression of the evidence, the hysterical insistence that it was only one man who could have done this, that he was a loner, made us invent the category of a “lurking class,” and in all bureaucratic societies, millions of people must be alienated and willing to be hired to carry out tasks like this, and to call them individual assassins or loners is to miss the point that their social type is created by the kind of society that we live in.
And it started to become clear that the people investigating the assassination were the people who should have been investigated, and that’s what really, I think, had the more long lasting effect. The reason that I wasn’t so shattered by the killing of Kennedy himself, except in the sense that you’re upset by anybody being killed like that, is that a certain distance had set in between a lot of us and Kennedy that came from the experience from 1960 to 1963. For one thing, he was enlarging our involvement in Vietnam, and by this time we knew, at least in a beginning sense, what that was about. That was about sending these tall, blue-eyed, blond Special Forces in to manipulate and sabotage a legitimate independence movement.
More direct than Vietnam was the Southern civil rights situation, which, for those of us who were there, was quite an embittering experience. It was really obvious that the Kennedys felt that they were on the side of civil rights, but that meant for them a — the legalization, or the extension of certain legal rights. It didn’t mean dealing with the question of poverty. It didn’t mean dealing with all the economic problems that blacks in the South have, it meant channeling blacks through registration drives into the Democratic Party, which we can see had some resulting success — people like Julian Bond, who were in SNCC then are now major figures in the Democratic Party and so forth.
But the other side of it was that the government was never there when the tension was on. You’d find the Justice Department agents working out of the local FBI office because they didn’t want to go around the FBI. You’d find that they were very slow to investigate anything. They didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. They didn’t want to offend any Southern officials unnecessarily. When Kennedy started appointing conservative judges to the Southern bench to rule in cases like this, and when you found that the Justice Department officials of the North were cooperating with the FBI, you started to wonder what’s going on. At first you thought, well, the Southern system is some kind of historical vestige that somehow has continued for the last 100 years without our noticing it. And now that we’re bringing the spotlight to it, it will fall away like a vestigial organ in any other healthy body, and instead we found out that the structure of power in the South was very tied into the structure of power in the whole US. You’d find that Harvard was investing in Mississippi Power and Light, which was a company that economically dominated Mississippi. You’d find that the Southern wing of the Democratic Party held all the seniority positions in Congress, ruling on all the fundamental questions that affected the whole society, not simply the South, and so on, and so on.
One story would make it clear. The first time I was in Mississippi was in fall, 1961. I was with Paul Potter, and the voter registration drive was just being put together by Bob Moses and Chuck McDoo and some other people. We went in to Paul to investigate for NSA so as to get the word out through NSA about what was happening in the South, and I also went for SDS to do. some writing for the same purpose, and no sooner had we arrived than we started to realize what later became a very radical point of view.
This was the day of nonviolent civil rights, supposedly. Like, that’s how history now records it. Well, we had to separate ourselves from Bob at the airport. The whites go in separately, and we had to stay in a motel and arrange, by clandestine means, to meet a car in a darkened section of the black ghetto in a Southern town in Mississippi. We had to be let out of a rented car, and lie on the back floor of a parked car in a parking lot. Somebody then picked it up and drove us — because it would have been too dangerous for whites and blacks to be in the same vehicle, even at night. They drove us to a house where all of the shutters were down, the windows were reinforced, and we had a meeting in the cellar with Bob and some other people to talk about the voter registration campaign. In other words, we were having to use, at that point, clandestine means to discuss the most conventional kind of tactic, namely the registration of voters, because what we were up against was a whole organized system that was out to kill us.
And that was a very devastating thing to discover. We couldn’t even believe it as we experienced it. The next day Paul and I were dragged out of the car while we were observing a nonviolent civil rights demonstration. We were beaten into the streets one at a time in a premeditated way by the people that the sheriff had put on us. Then we were taken to the police station, where somebody from the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission arrived immediately — a very, very influential guy who walked straight in. He interrogated us very much the way a congressional committee looking for Communists would, and he told us that we had a choice of going to jail or leaving town.
We decided that our job was done. We wanted to get this article out, so we decided that we would leave town and go immediately to Washington to bring attention to what was going on here. As we were leaving, the photographer who had taken pictures of the whole incident came up to me and said, “They’re planning to get you tonight if you stay at the motel.” So we decided it was probably fortunate that we leave town. They had destroyed his camera and he had slipped the negatives into his pocket, and the papers carried the pictures the next day. In fact, it was carried all over the world that we’d been beaten up. I was wearing a suit and tie, short hair, and I didn’t know what had hit me.
Paul and I, thinking we were very respectable, flew to Washington, straight to the Justice Department, because Paul, after all, was an official of NSA, and we met with John Doar, who was a Kennedy person over the whole last decade, and he was in charge of civil rights in the Justice Department. He was very kind to us, very polite, but told us, first of all, that there was nothing that he could do about the case because of jurisdictional questions — questions of the law — and secondly, he really advised us not to go back there any more and to do what we could to persuade Bob Moses and these other people, whom he liked very much, not to stay there. In other words, this Justice Department official, top law enforcement officer of the US, was encouraging us to not register people to vote in one area of the US that was supposedly under his control, because we would be getting into trouble of the kind that he could do nothing about. From that time on, it was clear.
There was also a Cold War awareness among the generation of the 1961 Cuban missile crisis that came along that was very much the kind of situation that was — that must have had a good deal of effect in terms of introducing people to what Cold War politics were.
That alienated us from the Kennedys also — the idea that we should all die, people all over the world should be killed over this kind of question. It was very interesting — Dan Ellsberg was in the Cuban missile crisis discussions, and we started to realize that we had nothing in common with the kind of person who could traffic in human life this way over a question of international image or prestige or something like that. We were in Washington and had a very strange experience. We thought that the crisis had peaked, and that the US was going to attack the Russian ship and that the missiles would probably be fired at the US from Cuba anyway and that a World War had been provoked. I.F. Stone told us this in a church in Washington. Everyone was in utterly stunned silence and I — it’s a very interesting feeling — at that point I felt my body detach itself from my mind as if I had already given up everything but the spirit. I was marked for death, and what I wanted was to be together with my closest friends who were there. These other people — we went out to a restaurant upon hearing the news that the Third World War had been provoked …
Flacks: Well, what Stone said — I remember he said, “Six thousand years of human history is about to come to an end.” [Laughter] Everyone believed it in that church.
Hayden: And, we went out and had dinner. I thought — I felt like I was utterly detached from my body. It was gone. And after dinner we turned on the radio and discovered that a crisis hadn’t happened.
Flacks: One of the ways that I think the changing consciousness of this period was reflected was in the idea which grew in SDS that we should not just restrict ourselves to campus educational activity and normal political activity, but move off the campus into community organizing. That began to develop by 1963. And I’ve always felt that that represented in part a disillusionment with that coalition idea. What led you — can you remember? — to think that the role of the student was not so much in campus politics and intellectual activity per se, but in a more direct kind of kinship with poor people and so forth?
Hayden: I think it was a mistake. I think it was a misapplication of the lesson of the South, where black students dropped out of college and became the organizers of people in the communities through SNCC. And they established a line, or a mood, even in the North that students had no business being in school, that they should be the revolutionary inspiration and catalyst to community movements. I think that that was the case. Of course, the mistake that was made had to do with race and racism, because a black middle-class student could relate to a black sharecropper, because of sharing the same racial oppression, whereas it wasn’t so clear why a white student could organize in Appalachia or in white working-class areas and industrial areas — much less organizing a black community, which is what I did for three years. Not that the work was irrelevant, the work actually produced some results. But I think it came more from trying to follow the SNCC motto than from disillusionment with campus activities.
There were really two camps that came back together at that time. One was to leave the campus and go organize in the community, around rats and roaches and high rents. Another approach was to take the experience of organizing the civil rights movement in the South and bring it back to the campus, which is what triggered the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, and both happened simultaneously. Between the ’64-’65 period, and …
I would like to talk a little about the summer of ’64, because that was probably the high point of feeling that students could leave the campus, white students, and move out in the South and in the North as catalytic forces, and of course Mississippi was the big moment of that. In a way, it’s still — to pick up on something you said before — there was a sense in which that whole drive was endorsed by or approved by certain elements of the liberal establishment. What do you remember about that particular phase? I think that you already alluded to the Democratic convention in the summer of ’64 as being a central experience but — did you go to Mississippi that summer?
No. Mississippi came to me in a certain way. I was in the South from the fall of ’61 to the spring of ’62. I was intermittently there throughout ’63, ’64. I did a lot of writing on Mississippi, and I was very close to some of the organizers in Mississippi, and our idea in summer of ’64, to go into communities like Newark, leave the campus and become organizers in these communities, was inspired by the SNCC decision to go into communities in the South. It was virtually a Northern counterpart of the summer project in Mississippi.
Flacks: You said Mississippi came to you …
Hayden: Well, what happened is that right at the beginning of that summer three people were killed — Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, although their bodies were not found till weeks later. That created a ripple of tension throughout the entire movement. The tremendous tension growing between the black communities, ourselves, and the police all that summer, made the fact that people were shot in Mississippi not seem very foreign or very removed.
Then came an experience that was traumatic for that whole generation of activists, and that was Atlantic City, 1964. We drove down from Newark for just a day and a night and watched the rest of it on TV. But essentially what it was was the Democratic Party under Hubert Humphrey’s management, primarily, trying to manipulate, as I say, the removal of the Mississippi black delegation from its legitimate claim to the seats, and seat in their place the regular Democratic Party from Mississippi, which wasn’t even going to support Johnson. It was more or less pledged to Goldwater, and it excluded blacks from participation in its structure. This black delegation was the result of several years of civil rights work in the South, the summer project, the loss of all these lives and here were these people utterly resistant to it. And nothing could have been more perfectly structured in terms of working within the system. The Democratic delegation of blacks supported the national ticket and met all of the qualifications for seating and simply wasn’t allowed to because of power.
The other thing that was really tied into that was that the bombing of North Vietnam began at the same time. It began August 4th of that year, which I think was the same day that a funeral was held in Neshoba County, Mississippi, for Chaney, Schemer and Goodman, and it was immediately before the Democratic convention. Bob Moses tied the killings in Vietnam to the killings in Mississippi to the universal use of brute force by American policemen and generals against people who were simply trying to have a share in making decisions and people who wanted to decide their own fate. And that was the beginning of the growth of the young radical or new left movement into the anti-war movement. That was the height of disillusionment with liberalism as such, because, as you know, the same Humphrey who kept the blacks out of their seats in Atlantic City, partly as a way to demonstrate that he was a reliable politician, became vice president at that convention, on a platform committed to rhetoric of peace in Southeast Asia and then escalated the war.
And we now know from the pentagon Papers that at the same time they were stamping on people’s rights in Mississippi, they had already laid out plans for the escalation of the war. They were not going to integrate people of color in one place while bombing them in another, and besides they needed Stennis and those other Mississippi regular politicians to support the war.
Flacks: At the period that we’re talking about you were in Newark. Why don’t you talk about that experience — what you learned from those years and also how these external events like the escalation of the war and Berkeley affected you in Newark.
Hayden: Well, the escalation of the war and the growth of the student movement that was aimed at the administration and the complicity with the war, rather than just off campus, impinged a lot on Newark, because it made it real clear that there was a whole new role opening up for people like ourselves, who thought that there wasn’t a foreign policy question around which to organize. We hadn’t really felt that there was a mass base in ’63 for on-campus demonstrations or action or anything like that. But, at the same time, the Newark experience was impinged on also by the rapid growth towards a situation where Black Power became politically correct, where self-determination as a program became politically correct, and the feeling in the black community from ’64 to ’68 switched — that was just the period that we were in — and that was always looming and making it necessary for us to leave or else it would have meant that we didn’t really agree with those principles.
But the whole Newark experience was immeasurably valuable for understanding how community work is done and how consciousness grows and how cooptation takes place, and above all, in just teaching me what the ordinary problems of day-to-day people are, and what the problems are of getting out and organizing people. We went in there, and our numbers would rise and fall. During the summers there might have been 30 or 40 of us, but at all times there was at least ten, and we would live in one or two apartments in an absolutely spartan way. We had not heard of collectives, but we lived in that way. We lived on a few cents for each meal, and we cooked collectively and had a — everybody slept in the same houses and personal relationships were always at the center of discussions. This was among the organizers.
Flacks: Mostly white students.
Hayden: Mostly white, and there we were in the center of a black community and the overwhelming need was, of course, to prove that what we were doing was worth something by creating an organization that we would gradually phase out of. I think the important ego and political experience involved in that is that usually you find, at least among middle-class people, that there’s a vying for power and control and you want to be at the center of things, but that whole concept of organizing the community — especially when, in a certain way, you were separate and strange to it — was that you had to organize your way out of it, organize away from having a traditional kind of power. And also you’d have to become accustomed to making new friends all the time in the course of organizing instead of surrounding yourself with the same old faces, which — well, those two lessons are just really vital, and they were driven home.
It taught me a lot about the problems of how to create an organization in which people really participated, in which the original leaders were not always depended upon — something that we had tried in SDS and now we were trying in a community, where it was even more necessary. The problem of always reaching out and being among new people, I think, taught me a lot about sectarianism and how to avoid it — taught me a lot about not getting cloistered in small groups of people who just reinforce each other.
The political lessons that came from that were that people are just amazing — people who are seemingly on the surface lifeless — there can be no city in America that more derogatory things have been said about than Newark, especially in those days. It was seen as a dumping grounds situated next to New York, stewardesses on planes would joke about its smell when you would arrive there at the airport, anybody with talent raised in New Jersey would always think of themselves as going to Harlem if they were black or the Village if they were white and never stay in Newark, ’cause supposedly nothing was happening in Newark, and yet … in addition to that, the people there, most of the people there are black and poor, people who are supposed to be able to make no contribution to society, except give their body for manual labor and that sort of thing, people who are considered to have no political potential at that time.
As you pointed out, we would go to the labor leaders, political leaders, and they would tell us, in the early Sixties, that the people outside of the organized industrial working class could not be drawn into a social movement. They said that first about the farm workers in California, because they were migratory. They said that about the welfare people and the permanently unemployed and the youth populations of the ghettos, because they had no solid tie to the means of production that grouped them, like in a factory, where they could be organized and so on. We found that all those social claims, all those concepts by organizers, all those stereotypes about Newark were false, and if they were false in Newark, they would have to be false everywhere.
We went out — it was very much related in some ways to Vietnam, in this concept of slow patient organizing and the cadre going out among the people, ideas that we didn’t know existed in Vietnam, because it wasn’t until shortly afterwards that we began to understand that. We’d break down into groups of two and take a block — a block meant a street — both sides of a street, seven or eight or ten blocks long, hundreds of houses on it, many of them apartment houses with 20 or 30 families, and we would equip ourselves with a list of the property owners on the streets and the tenants and the outside landlords, the absentee landlords, and then we would go door-to-door, knocking on the door and here we were, young, white students in a town that people said no one could organize, where everybody is supposed to have an inferiority complex. We would invite ourselves into homes and tell people that we wanted to help create an organization in the community, that we believed that people can solve their own problems by themselves, that we see ourselves as a resource or a help in getting people together, but that we want to organize a meeting on the block in which everyone would find out — everyone would talk about what their immediate problems were and some organized form would be created that would maybe allow for the dealing with those problems.
Of course, many people regarded us as strange, many people couldn’t be reached, but we were surprised that there was not a great deal of hostility to it, and in case after case, we found that many people had expressed a feeling that they had been waiting for years for something like this to happen, and they knew what their problems were, especially their immediate grievances. They usually had to do with rats and roaches and streetlights and police brutality that they had witnessed. We found that there was always a sufficient number of people who were willing to come to at least a first meeting and somebody who was always willing to have it in their home, and from there we would try to, in the meeting, get the people to select a person to chair the meeting and have a discussion of what were all the problems that everybody has in common, and then start with simple steps, like the redress of grievances. Let’s see the landlord collectively, let’s go to city hall and see the building inspector collectively, let’s go to the police station, and when those channels of redress didn’t work, which they often didn’t, then it was time for a demonstration or publicity, and out of that grew a community organization of the leaders from the different block groups who operated the same way and a political program.
After a year, we had an office in the community. We had a group of 30 or 40 people who were well versed in all the problems of the community. They were also becoming familiar with the hang-ups of students or the lifestyles of students. They were becoming familiar with the anti-war movement. They were seeing themselves as part of a larger movement around the whole country. In fact, we had a poor people’s national conference in Newark, at one point. I believe it was ’64, and people from Mississippi came up — Mrs. Hamer, who is now a delegate from Mississippi at Miami Beach and who was the principal spokeswoman for the black Democratic delegation at Atlantic City in ’64. She became kind of a heroine for a lot of people, and she related how what we were doing in Newark was similar to what was happening in the South.
The whole organization, which actually gained quite a bit of notoriety and controversy and was identified by the police as the principal enemy in the city, grew. In the end if became very difficult, because we took over the poverty program. It was the only poverty program in the country that had community elections, and we were the only organized group of poor people, so it was fairly easy to use the electoral process to take over the poverty program in a certain area. But then what happened was they changed the poverty program. They eliminated the democratic structure, and eventually people were faced with the problem of whether to stay outside the poverty program and go on in a situation where they did not have an economic base and were bound to lose their welfare checks, lose their jobs in factories or lose their unemployment checks, or stay in the poverty program and try to work from within as a progressive force, which they decided to do more or less after we left in ’67 and ’68.
Some of us went to the white section of Newark and those people are there now. This is eight years after the project began. There is now a freedom high school in the white working-class section of Newark, organized by people who came there in ’64 and ’65. The blacks who were organized in ’64 and ’65 are still in the poverty program, still fighting for social change, but broken down into individuals.
The rebellion in Newark that happened in ’67 was a situation in which all the problems that we had been talking about came to a head. The police actually tried to blame the rebellion on not only the blacks in our group, but on me in particular, and I think that rebellion released so much national consciousness and so much energy that it laid the foundation for the election of a black mayor and the creation of what we now have in Newark.
Anyway, the important thing about all that, I’ve found out was how, if it was possible for them to keep body and soul alive, people at the bottom, ordinary people who have no qualifications as judged by society, are capable of running their own affairs. This is a big secret that is kept from most white Americans, most college students, and as long as the secret is kept, you can always think of yourself as having to look out for others and do for them and wind up thinking that you should play a beneficent role in relation to them and never be able to understand people’s war — never being able to understand any of the revolutionary movements in this century where people have come to power, because you have to get this experience.
It was the same time that students were discovering their own powerlessness — oppression, if you like.
Plus seeing yourself. The same time that students were saying in Berkeley, “Do not bend, fold, staple, or mutilate me,” realizing that they were part of a whole punch-card process, then we discovered that it was the official policy of the selective service system to view us as elements in a manpower channeling system that channeled some people into war and channeled other people into vocations that were good for the national interest. Then, people who were drafted started discovering that their life meant nothing to their commanders, and that feeling gave rise to the GI movement. In many ways, I suppose the women’s movement came out of the same recognition that the life of being a housewife or an appendage or a sex object really meant that you wasted all of your energy and creativity for fifty years, and all of these things, I think, were being simultaneously discovered by different people in different places. Yes, for sure.
Did all this mean young people were seeing themselves as a generation oppressed?
Uh, I’m not sure, ’cause you can have several identities, some more fundamental than others. I don’t think black youth or black young people are oppressed the same way that white young people are. I don’t think they think of themselves as young in the same way, and that’s basically ’cause they’re black. They’re more unemployed because they’re black. They’re more subject to police violence because they’re black. But at the same time, I think that young blacks have an easier time understanding rock & roll culture or student demonstrations or the GI movement than maybe the oldest generation of blacks because of the youth tie.
I don’t think that we felt too badly about the ideal of integration, either, for that matter. It was just that — it just became clear that it was a myth. What really hurt — not so much myself, I didn’t get it so much personally, but a lot of people did — what really hurt was this feeling of being rejected by your black friends. When you discover that that wasn’t personal, but that it was political, that it had to do with a different view of America and what America was and how it was going to be changed, I think people fairly readily agreed to that. Even though it’s not altogether true, I mean, the myth of integration lives on. It lives in Miami Beach at the Democratic Party convention, although even there quotas were being used to insure representation. It lived in Berkeley during the community control of police campaign. We found a lot of white liberals and many students who had a hard time agreeing with the principle that the black section of the community should have its own police, that the youth-section whites should have their own police, that the middle class in the hill should have their own.
Even though we said, “No, no, no, it’ll be coordinated, it won’t be separatism, it will just be that the people living in their own neighborhood, which happen to be racial and generational and class neighborhoods, will have control of their own affairs for the first time — select the people who will patrol them and so forth” — that got a lot of resistance, even though the principle passed the white youth ghetto overwhelmingly, it wasn’t as supportable as the candidates for office that we put up, and the concept was completely trashed in the hills — they voted 90 percent against self-determination on that question. And many blacks, because of the way it was worded, and because they thought with a black-white coalition they could take power in an integrated Berkeley, chose the latter route of running candidates for office to take political power in a black and white coalition as against going through the community control of police route.
So even today significant numbers of blacks and whites, I guess, who have very, very progressive views, who I really identify with very much, feel there is a longevity to integration. I think what gradually happened, or rapidly happened, is that, as we got experience through the civil rights struggle, we started to realize the full scale of our own oppression and started to find the language for it. Some people did it through, you know, the act of wearing their hair long and doing all sorts of cultural things, but not in the way of the beatniks, of personal withdrawal. This was mass disaffection. This was everybody being very visibly out front in their repudiation of the code of ethics and lifestyle of society, and other people did it in more political ways, especially around resistance to the draft and resistance to the war.
Flacks: Part of what was learned in the Sixties was how intransigent, intractable, fundamentally difficult these problems were. I mean, I’m sure that in 1962 the people at Port Huron did not think that the kind of struggle that lay ahead was going to happen, partly because we were too simple-minded, because we’d accepted a liberal ideal. Does that make sense?
Hayden: Mmhm. Then we became branded as radicals because we did not accept the concept that a progressive extension of the welfare state was good, but when you were organizing tenants in these prisons called public housing and that kind of thing, and you were organizing people on welfare and saw the abuse at the hands of administrators — people breaking into houses in the middle of the night and pushing people around — you realized that this went far beyond extending these services. These services were really new forms of servitude, and the fact that they kept people from starving didn’t make the servitude any different. So we started having a critique of what we called corporate liberalism, welfare liberalism. A critique that in some ways is shared, I guess, by George Wallace, but he begins with the standpoint of racism.
Flacks: I guess the other thing that was learned in Newark and by people in other ghetto communities was something about the nature of power in America, which you’ve already touched on, but maybe you want to expand on that.
Hayden: Well, only that what the revolutionary textbooks say about the cycle of redress and petitioning, leading to confrontation, leading to repression, proved itself to be classically true by the time that we were being blamed for causing the riot. The repression, the use of military force, in this kind of society comes when efforts to pacify or channel or manipulate or satisfy people materially have failed, and one look at that, just the five days of looking at the streets of violence, was really radicalizing. It was one thing for most Americans to read about ghetto rebellions in the papers. It’s another thing to live in a black community and observe it take place — and observe the papers.
It was so similar to Vietnam. It was supposed to have been provoked by some kind of incident that was fanned into a big social cause. Well, in fact, the Newark police beat up a cab driver in front of a lot of other people who thought he was killed because his whole body and face was streaming with blood, and there were demonstrations called, and the police suppressed the demonstrations, and the looting and burning broke out. It was not addressed to white neighborhoods, it was not addressed to downtown, it was not addressed to policemen, at first. God, the whole thing was nothing like the power structure said. They said “they” were going to attack the suburbs, they were gonna attack downtown, that terrorists were standing on the rooftops shooting, even though months later the state commission looking into it could not find the alleged terrorists, and in the meantime, the police did a whole crackdown on the whole community. Before my own eyes they stopped innumerable people. Twenty-four black people were shot and killed. None of them, according to later investigations, were even doing anything which would qualify them as a target in US Army terms — unarmed people shot in the back in broad daylight.
We went afterwards to the victims’ homes, trudging through the rubble, asking their families what happened, getting eyewitness accounts, working with lawyers on affidavits. It was just unbelievable. We used to go sit out on a rooftop at night and watch these guys. It was straight out of Vietnam. They’d come down the street with bayonets, with automatic guns, pushing people around, shooting, and they couldn’t subdue the people for five days. But that introduction of violence as the final form of power couldn’t have been made clearer. And that liberals would do it was very clear now, in my mind, not only in Vietnam, but in Newark, because in the middle of the night, on the fifth night, some of the governor’s staff, who were progressive-minded people, turned out to be looking for me to bring me and another person who was black before the governor and his aides to make a presentation about what he should do. They wanted a critical presentation, just as I suppose was done at the White House, the Hawks and Doves vying to get various points of view brought before the President, you know.
I was at the poverty program office, and I was picked up in the middle of the night in a state trooper’s car. State troopers in New Jersey, like most states, are virtually all white, and they have to be he-men to qualify for their job. They’re all about 6’2″- 6’3″, and they weigh 180-200 lbs. Five of them in the car and me, and we drove 80 miles an hour around this cordoned-off city to the darkened side of the Federal Building. All the time, you know, it was just like we were in enemy territory. They had their guns at the windows as if, if anything flashed by their eyes, they would fire back. We got to a street where it was perfectly quiet. It’s right by the Federal Building. Nothing there. They jumped out of the car at full attention, guns pointed at the rooftops, pointed at the trees and ushered me into the building as if at any moment the guerrillas would come crashing down on the car.
In we go to a giant room that’s been converted to the command central. By this time, approximately 26 people have been killed. It’s four o’clock in the morning, and here is kind, Irish, liberal Richard Hughes, Governor of the State of New Jersey, raised in a prison-and-police-oriented family, coming over smiling to shake my hand and this other guy’s hand as if we were at a political convention or he was welcoming us to a round table discussion about the New Left. Flanked around him were his liberal advisers, who included a person from the Ford Foundation who was obviously the Dove — Paul Yivsaker — and the Hawks ranged over on the other side of the table, including the National Guard, the state police, and so on.
Here’s Hughes, this man who’s a liberal Democrat, part of the populist left wing of the party, part of the progressive wing, the New Deal, the welfare-state man. He just had given orders which resulted in the death of 25 or 26 people in the last four days, the city is burning, there are several thousand troops occupying it, and he is surrounded by — his only protection really is the police. They’re everywhere. There’s state troopers at the doors and everything like this, and here we are in this room with his Hawk and Dove advisers.
He asked for our opinions, and we gave them very strongly, and it was exactly like Vietnam. We said, “You are the outside aggressor. There is no justice in your position. There is nothing for you to do but get out. This would not have happened if you had not taken the initial incident and escalated the violence, made the community resist that violence, which they had every reason to do, poured more violence onto them and now killed 25 people, and you are now in a situation where it appears that you have the stronger hand, because you have the entire city occupied, but actually the violence against your officers that you predict from the people really hasn’t begun, nor against anything except stores in their own community.
“And instead of people submitting, what is obviously going to happen is they’re going to start getting violent against the troops, and then the troops are gonna massacre more people, and you’re going to go down in history as one of the biggest killers of all time, and you’ll still not be able to withdraw the troops if you demand that the community surrender first. Surrender means go in their homes, stop demonstrations, do nothing to resist oppression and that sort of thing. Your repression will breed resistance, which you will then have to repress, which will create more resistance, and you will be destroyed in this process. You have to withdraw troops unconditionally.”
He listened and turned to the state commander of police and asked him what he thought, and the commander’s advice was that it was too dangerous. It would be a blood bath if the troops were withdrawn. [Laughter] ‘Cause then, if the violence, if the riot hadn’t stopped, obviously if you withdrew the troops, that would be an incentive for people to kill all the store owners, all the white people, all the bosses, wherever they could find them, right? The Dove advisers were saying that some intermediate position should be found, short of total withdrawal. And the Governor said, “Well, what about withdrawing from certain areas where it can be assured that there will be no violence when we withdraw.” [Laughter]
I said, “I don’t know who you could get assurance from. You just killed 25 people. But my personal opinion is that if you withdraw all the troops tomorrow morning, the violence will subside, because blacks haven’t killed any whites. But the killing of whites will start if the white troops stay, and if you want to protect the ghetto stores — forget it. They’ve all been destroyed. And if you want to protect the downtown businesses, then you can withdraw troops to the downtown area and occupy it for the shoppers. If you want to protect the suburbs, you could withdraw the troops to the suburbs and occupy the suburbs. All roads lead into the suburbs. Just get out of the ghetto.” And this went on for it seemed like hours.
At the end of this time, he made no commitments, thanked us very much like a good Irish politician, took a card with his name on it out of his wallet — it said Richard Hughes, Governor of the State of New Jersey — wrote “Good Luck, Tom” on it [laughter] — said he really hoped to see me again sometime, and we left. The next morning the troops were withdrawn. I have no idea what happened. But to see a person concerned about his image in the press — you gotta be tough, and being tough meant that he could not risk a withdrawal if there was going to be further property destruction. Being tough meant punishing them with their lives for what they did to white property and getting immediately into the cycle of Vietnam. It was so parallel that it just, that kind of thing just fixes patterns in your mind about the way decision makers will behave. That’s exactly how — I’m sure that’s the way John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson found themselves deliberately, consciously backing into Vietnam by thinking that it was out of control when, in fact, they were consciously doing it.
Flacks: So, sometime — when was it? Winter, ’65? Christmas, ’65? You got invited to go to North Vietnam.
Uh, I can’t recall. The North Vietnamese representatives were at some European meeting where they encountered an American communist historian, Herbert Aptheker, and they asked him if he would see if he could find some people in the American New Left movement, anti-war movement, who would like to visit Vietnam, which then had been bombed for seven or eight months. He said he would, and he returned, and he asked Staughton Lynd, who had been one of the main speakers at our SDS April, 1965, demonstration, the first national demonstration against the war in Washington. About 20,000 people were there, and Staughton had been probably the most effective, and was by then the most well-known figure organizing resistance for the war among intellectuals, students and so on. Staughton said that he would consider going if he could pick the third person.
And I think that there was some consultation with some groups, including some black groups. I don’t remember the details of that, but the point finally was that Staughton asked me if I wanted to go, and this was probably because we had known each other when he was in Atlanta, and he, like myself, was involved first in the Southern civil rights movement, and secondly, he thought that there was a connection between the Vietnam war, the anti-war movement, and the young radicals in SDS who were working in areas of poverty, and these were world-wide issues.
Flacks: In order to sort of set the stage, do you remember much about your attitude toward the war before you went to Vietnam? You were not particularly involved in the anti-war movement up to that time. You were primarily based in Newark.
Hayden: I was aware of Vietnam as early as ’62-’63, and we used to discuss how neither the Soviet Union nor the US really posed any solutions, although they might contribute some aid or something, but they never posed any solutions to the Third World countries, who were then emerging as the new force — China, Cuba, and there was this country of Vietnam. And I remember reading Burchett’s book on guerrilla war in South Vietnam.
In ’64 there was the connection made by Moses that everyone shared. In the winter of ’64, there was a national council meeting of SDS, where people came in with the proposal for the first national action on the war, a march on Washington. I was very active in that national meeting, although I was mainly working in Newark, and I took part in the decision, in the planning. But then I went back to Newark and only was marginally involved in the organizing for it. We came to the demonstration with a delegation of community people from Newark, actually. But I remember being very excited about the developments.
Flacks: Well, SDS, when it formed, had some good relations with the established peace organizations — pacifist groups, liberal peace organizations. There was a group called Turn Toward Peace and so forth, and all of those were very reluctant to deal with the war issue, the Vietnam war.
Hayden: They were basically ban-the-bomb groups, and they were reluctant to, I think, be involved with the war, partly because they couldn’t see the connection directly with nuclear war and also because it implied support for revolution and communist-led movements. SDS made a decision to go ahead with a national march on the war prior to the full escalation of the war by Johnson. So, this march was planned, organized by SDS without the co-sponsorship of the establishment organizations. For the first time since the Thirties, a national peace demonstration was being organized which permitted Marxist groups to participate in their own name. We did not see how you could exclude any groups from an antiwar demonstration and we did not share the elder group’s paranoia about being used by tightknit cadre organizations. And this combination of things led to a news attack on SDS by a lot of the leadership of the established peace organizations. We were red-baited.
We had Senator Gruening to speak, and I. F. Stone, they tried to intervene with that, but at that time the bombing of North Vietnam really began full scale, so we marched with a new significance. By the time the march was held there were 25,000 people, which made it the largest anti-war demonstration that had occurred in the US since the Thirties — far beyond what anybody had expected. But there still wasn’t …
Flacks: Wouldn’t you say here was a tension between working on the war issue and the local community organizing as a prime direction for people’s energy?
Hayden: Yes, it just became something that you did double time on. It was the same problem for Rennie Davis later. He was doing community organizing work in Chicago. I think he saw involvement with Vietnam as posing a very deep, you know, personal crisis for him. I wanted him to share the crisis that I was in. I tried several times to get him to go see the Vietnamese, and finally he agreed in fall of ’67 and left Chicago and went to Bratislava with us, and then he went to North Vietnam with me and five other people, and from that time on both he and I were full-time activists in the anti-war movement.
This was like a month after the Newark rebellion, and it was clear that now was a good time for me to leave Newark, and it was a good time for him to leave Chicago. I had stayed in Newark from ’65 through the summer of ’67. I had written a book on the war in the spring of ’66 with Staughton, and I did a lot of speaking at a lot of teach-ins as that developed, but I stayed in Newark partly on the grounds that I thought people had to be rooted in the community and partly on the grounds that I thought it was important that the different wings of SDS, the community organizing and the anti-war, be bridged, and partly, I think, because I was personally unresolved about what to do. I had made a commitment to Newark, a long-term commitment. I didn’t want to leave, but by the time of the rebellion in ’67, the conditions were such that it was wise for me to leave, good for me to leave.
Flacks: Supposing in ’65 when you went to Vietnam, someone had prophetically said to you, this war is going to go on for seven more years at least, the majority of American people will come to oppose it, the key media in the US will feel the immorality and injustice of the war, the majority of the US Congress will be opposed to it, and yet the war will go on for seven years. Think you would have believed such a prediction at that time?
Hayden: Ah, you have to help me recall. I think that I thought it was fundamental, but that didn’t mean that I had any projection of where it was going or what would be revealed by it or anything of that sort. See, the anti-war movement was in such a state of infancy that long-term questions were not as easy to answer, because we had no foundation, no experience, no ideological grasp of what this kind of war could lead to in terms of the structure of our own society, because the last one like this happened when we were five or ten years old, the Korean War. There was no anti-war movement against Korea. But I was so fundamentally affected that — I think that’s the main point. I don’t know — the immediate thing to do was to come back and explain to people how changed I was by it, and that involved teach-ins, and that involved …
Flacks: OK, what specific changes?
Hayden: Organizing draft resistance, but the tactics — you couldn’t see very far ahead.
Flacks: What changes did you mostly feel?
Hayden: Well, I was a native American boy from the Midwest, and my furthest travel and contact with other peoples had been a year in the South and in the Newark ghetto, and, well, I didn’t accept any Cold War rhetoric. I had no idea of what was going on, and in the space of one month, I was in China for five days and I was in Vietnam for two weeks, and it was the other side of the world. It was socialist societies — I’d never been in a socialist society, where people actually are producing for themselves, building for themselves, educating themselves. And these were nonwhite societies — the only time as a white person I had ever been in a country that was entirely of another nationality, and this would just take us into a very, very long discussion of the Vietnamese people. We wrote later about our feelings. Staughton at that time was a pacifist. As for myself, we wrote: “Tom feels, perhaps, a more direct identification with the National Liberation Front, especially the young organizers, who build while they fight, without whom he fears the revolution would be crushed and Vietnam made into an American colony.”
Flacks: Was there anything that you experienced in Vietnam that you found hard to explain even to anti-war people back home?
Hayden: Yes, that the US was being defeated, that the Vietnamese people could preserve their freedom and independence and that the Vietnamese people had special qualities, which I’m still trying to understand, that made them the most extraordinary people now living in the world, setting a standard of morality and sacrifice for the whole world. And I’m still convinced that that’s true, but in order to explain that you have to go through a lot of complicated arguments that you don’t even realize are within yourself. First of all, all of the anti-communist conditioning like in The God That Failed: that communists commit terror, that communist states and communist parties and organizations are dictatorial, authoritarian, heavy-handed, call it what you want, repressive, that culturally they’re bleak. All of that I’m prepared to believe has been true in some places at some times, for instance in Eastern Europe. But here I was confronted with people who sang us songs, who knew a great deal more about our history and culture than we knew about theirs, who were and still are the gentlest people that you would ever hope to meet. Even though they were fighting against other Americans, they were gentle towards us and gentle among themselves.
And it’s hard not to feel that you’re being naive, that you’re being romantic. You’re told by the media when you come back that you’re being naive. You’re told by other people that it’s simply your petty bourgeois romanticism that makes you say this and your lack of sophisticated understanding of communism and so forth, and those arguments have a telling effect on you to a point where you wonder whether you’re in your right mind or whether you actually did see and experience. what you know you saw and experienced. There may be a tendency on the part of some people to close off their experience with the Vietnamese for exactly that reason, because it’s unexplainable.
Now, however, I feel more confident about it. because the understandings are there. I just didn’t realize them at the time. After all, Vietnam is unique of all the countries in the world, I believe, in having the longest continuous struggle against foreign aggression of any country that has retained its national identity. Therefore, it’s understandable that they would be amazingly able to withstand suffering, that they would have a very, very rich solidarity among themselves, but they have gathered an infinitely complex set of experiences about how to fight wars and how to organize a resistance, far beyond what other peoples of the world have, and that, being a small country, they would certainly not be in a position where they were thinking of themselves as potential conquerors of anyone or conquerors of other races or countries, but rather they would think of themselves, more likely, in the way that you do in any contest between the small and the large, whether it’s the martial arts or whatever.
You would try to isolate the problem rather than attack the whole set of problems behind it. You would try to fight against those who are invading you, but you wouldn’t fight against those who stayed home in the other countries. You would evolve a distinction between the aggressor attacking you and the people in the country that the aggressor comes from. They are not very susceptible to racial appeals for unity, because they’ve been invaded by Asians as well as Westerners. They’ve been invaded by the Chinese and the Japanese in the name of racial solidarity. There are many concrete reasons why you come to the conclusions that are considered to be romantic about the Vietnamese and, yet, at the time, that was the hardest thing to explain, and I think for most people today it’s still the hardest thing to explain.
Flacks: On one of your trips, didn’t you go directly from Vietnam to meet Averell Harriman? Was there anything in that contrast that you would know of and could talk about?
Hayden: Well, the time that it was really interesting was the second time I saw Harriman. I was with Dave Dellinger, and we were trying to discuss his attitude towards a prisoner release. We wanted the Pentagon to keep their hands off any prisoners the Vietnamese might release, and what was very interesting was that it was Harriman’s 73rd birthday, and he was receiving messages from all of his friends about what a wonderful life he had led, this architect of the Cold War, and his young assistant, who had been one of the people from NSA who went into the State Department, was scurrying around, bringing him coffee and bits of cake, and out the window you could see that Washington was on fire.
We had a hard time getting into the building, because the blacks were burning down the center of the city. This was in, I guess, 1968. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, and the city was burning, and here in the State Department you could observe the birthday party of Averell Harriman, talk calmly with him about the state of affairs regarding American prisoners, and not detect the slightest hysteria in him about the fact that the capital of the US behind him was on fire. Luminous red flames coming up from the business district. The only people who seemed hysterical were the secretaries, who were wondering whether the children would be all right, how they were going to get home — you know, ordinary people who had to go out there and get in cars and buses and face reality.
My experience with American officials has always been like that. The most frightening thing is that they do not easily learn any of these lessons. The other time was during the Tet offensive. We met Harriman’s assistant because, at his request, he wanted to ask us questions about prisoners, and Dan Berrigan was there and Howard Zinn was there and Dave Dellinger was there and myself. The Saigon Embassy had just been destroyed by the NLF, and this was like the second week of an offensive that hit 150 district capitals. We asked the official something — some question about his cabling Saigon and telling them in the American Embassy to leave American prisoners alone.
Again, the same question — do not interfere with the release of American prisoners and do not make any propaganda about it. And he said, “I won’t be able to cable the embassy, because our communications system has been destroyed.” “You mean the American government doesn’t have any contact with the American officials in Vietnam? It’s come to that? Is the embassy surrounded? What’s happening?” He said, “I don’t, the State Department doesn’t, we don’t have any way to get through.”
In other words, not only are they constantly unaware of who the Vietnamese are, but they are unaware that their own defeat is near, and I don’t know how you deal with people who are unable to be defeated because they’re able even to ignore it. The Pentagon Papers show that every time the US escalated in Vietnam, it was because they’d been defeated. The Saigon government had collapsed. The National Liberation Front guerrillas were everywhere. The economy was in total chaos. The Buddhists were in the streets. Everything was falling apart. The CIA reports come in and explain that everything is a catastrophe. In the face of the catastrophe they say, “Well, let’s continue. Let’s call someone and escalate the involvement.”
Flacks: These are people who think they have the ultimate weapon and also the ultimate shelter.
Hayden: That’s right.
Flacks: In total contrast to the Vietnamese leadership whose families are dispersed in the countryside, whose very lives are in danger at all times.
Hayden: Well, speaking of dispersal, that day in 1968 we met also with Sargent Shriver, who was about to become the ambassador to France, and it was again about the Paris peace talks, which were about to open. This was in the War on Poverty office while Washington’s ghetto was burning to the ground. The only way Shriver could talk with us was during his own dispersal, which took place in a limousine, which dispersed him from the basement of the poverty program out through a tunnel into suburban Virginia, where we were driven all the way to his mansion — 25-30 miles from the ghetto, a gigantic house hidden among the pines, and as we rode in the limousine, he was in the back seat and I was in a jump seat that I could use to talk directly to him.
So behind his head I could watch Washington burning. We drove off to his home, and he never expressed an opinion about it. He wasn’t embarrassed. I would be embarrassed to be in front of my enemies, my critics, with them observing the whole city that I’m supposed to be pacifying being burned to the ground. Nothing. Nothing. It was talk about dinner. It was talk about what the Paris weather was going to be like and the matters that we wanted to discuss with him about his attitude toward the prisoners and toward the talks. He got out of the car at his house and ordered the chauffeur to drive us to the airport or wherever we were going and that was it.
These people have negative freedom of some kind. There’s nothing positive or good about it. They simply are free of any results of their policies. As Ellsberg pointed out, 5000-6000 pages of Pentagon Papers — he read all the way through it and never found a reference to casualties, morality, to destruction. There’s nothing in the death prose. Nothing. Just bureaucratic options — this option, that option.
Probably the most painful thing that ever happened to any of them was Johnson having to retire. Other than that I can think of nothing. McNamara, for having participated in plotting the death of tens of thousands of people, was moved to the World Bank where he can participate in the plotting on a larger scale. I know of not a single official who failed in office and was removed or publicly condemned. I believe — and this may be paranoid — but I believe that a great number of these people who started the Vietnam war and then became Doves because it wasn’t working will be in the State Department of President McGovern if he’s elected — unscratched by their experience. Their souls, if they have any, never touched by what they did to the Vietnamese people. It’s all in their view a mistake — an unwise allocation of resources, and they’ll be back in the government on some new frontier.
Well, I think what happened, as you said, the realization came about — some significant realization came about in 1967-68.
It’s important to see what was happening internationally. Not only was there guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, but there was a cultural revolution in China that people misapplied to America, thinking that new men and new women could be created here without state power, just as they were being created in China with state power. Regis Debray, a young intellectual very much like ourselves, we suppose, was writing new books about guerrilla warfare which implied that you could start the revolution with a gun, rather than finish it with a gun, and that you could create popular support by militant action rather than militant action being seen as the last stage after popular support has become really massive. Che Guevara was calling for the creation of “two, three, many Vietnams.” Young people like ourselves were going into the hills in Latin America. The Black Panther Party was formed inside the US around the question of the gun. Universities were being closed, disrupted. Speakers were being prevented from speaking. Buildings were being occupied. In other words, actual things were happening. It was not a fantasy.
Then it was climaxed in 1968: one, Columbia; two, the student-worker uprising in France; three, Chicago. This whole period actually happened …
Czechoslovakia. It’s hard for people to now believe that it happened. And people now think, “Well, you were living through a fantasy.” But it actually was not a fantasy at the time. The only fantasy part of it, which could only be proven afterward, was that it wasn’t permanent. It was an upsurge, an international upsurge. I think people drew the conclusion from it that it was the final decisive upsurge.
No, that whole period. Chicago was simply part of a decisive upsurge which, we thought, faster than any of us could predict, was going to bring down the American government.
Well, that period, ’67-’68, all those events happening at once.
Why did they happen at once?
It happened largely because of Vietnam. Vietnam was the revolutionary model that the Chinese leadership used as the example, in Lin Piao’s phrase, of the war of the countryside that would encircle the cities. Vietnam created the upsurge in Europe, which led to an anti-Vietnam war movement there, which swiftly led into a student movement and uprisings against conditions in Europe. Vietnam was the immediate cause of the radicalizing of the student movement in the US from ’65 on. Vietnam was the inspiration to Che, and I wish I could say it — I think it’s true, but I’m not sure of it — Vietnam at least contributed to the consciousness of the black militants as they participated in the urban insurrections and then when they formed the Black Panther Party. I think they were acutely aware of guerrilla warfare and revolution, primarily through reading Fanon.
But, of course, their uprisings came mainly from the experience of the civil rights movement, the police repression and then the Party — but I think you’ll have to ask Huey. I don’t know, but I think that even there Vietnam had a lot to do with shaping black consciousness. I mean, Stokely went to the 1967 OLAS conference and was greeted as a hero there. The OLAS conference was inspired not simply by Che’s message, but by the presence of Vietnamese, by the “two, three, many Vietnams” concept and then Stokely brought that concept back into the US. I don’t want to make everything seem to come from Vietnam, but basically it did.
People went to Chicago …
Basically Vietnam triggered all that.
People went to Chicago that summer with what seems to be an assortment of reasons.
But our reasons were shaped very much by Vietnam. They’ve never been …
But the people going to Chicago were a phenomenon, or at least turned into a phenomenon — out of this wild assortment of purposes.
Yeah, I don’t know. There was a national focusing of the contradiction between two kinds of energy, the energy of dinosaur imperialism and the energy of resistance and opposition of all kinds that had been going on and brewing in the US for eight years, that had intensified from one year to the next and finally came to a kind of showdown there. And that’s why it became epic, because it was a total showdown of all the forces that had been facing each other off and skirmishing and testing each other and exploring each other and had finally come to a deadlock — that there really wasn’t any going forward with this Democratic Party and these New Deal liberals, who had tied themselves to the military-industrial complex, and they in their way were making the same judgment about us — that we might be middle-class but we were not going to be integrated into their world. We were not going to be acceptable. We were not just temporarily radicals who could be brought back into the American dream, therefore we had to be punished and made an example of.
So both sides really intended it as a conclusion and came away from it as a disastrous beginning.
Not premeditated so much, although there was some premeditation, but more it was like a ritual confrontation that brought everyone’s recognition to the highest emotional focus that they had ever experienced. Pretty much like a ceremonial confrontation, an encounter in which people finally have stripped away all pretense and show themselves to each other for what they are — and fight. [Laughter]
Flacks: There were several phases in leading up to Chicago, what the people thought Chicago would mean before it happened, right? First the idea that here was Johnson, who had no legitimacy. Then there became the possibility that in fact it wouldn’t be Johnson. There was sort of slim hope that the alternative to Johnson was Bobby Kennedy or McCarthy or something would emerge, which I guess might have been a period where people thought there would be just millions of people coming to Chicago to reinforce that possibility.
Hayden: And again, SDS, as usual, would have nothing to do with it. It was another case of the original early SDS leadership coming back to carry out something that our experience told us was the right thing to do, while the SDS national office fought against the action all the way, in any form it was put forward. If it was going to be Johnson nominated, then there would be a repression. We couldn’t survive repression. If it was going to be Kennedy nominated, then … Rennie and I were running dogs for Kennedy, preparing to lead all of the radicals that SDS had radicalized into a demonstration that would result in everyone cheering Kennedy. It was just the early versus the older SDS, the different styles again emerging.
Were you close to Robert Kennedy?
No. I met Kennedy twice. Once was in — I don’t remember when it was — early …
Before he was a candidate?
Yeah, it was like spring of 1966 — we’ll have to check this. It seems like it was ’67, but it was not long after Staughton and I returned from Vietnam, and a journalist friend of mine, who was writing a book on Kennedy, suggested to Kennedy that it would be good for him to hear out views on Vietnam. And so Staughton and myself and Staughton’s son met with Kennedy in New York one day to talk for a couple of hours. For some reason I think it was ’67, but I don’t know why I think that. It was after Kennedy made that trip to Paris and while Kennedy was deciding to take an anti-war position. So I think ’66 was too early for him to be a candidate, so it must have been spring of ’67.
I was impressed by his willingness to have these arguments and willingness to consider opposing the war, which after all he had had a lot to do with starting. By now it’s quite normal to have among your friends many people who started the war, but then it was quite unusual to meet somebody who started the war and who was preparing to oppose it.
But he was — he seemed very isolated by his wealth and power and not sure of what was really going on and still thinking in terms of Cold War categories about the Communists taking over the coalition, and Communists didn’t believe in free elections. He told us that somebody in France had told him that Communists don’t believe in free elections. “This is the great problem,” he said, “how can we resolve this conflict in Vietnam when we don’t agree on the means of solving it? Since we believe in free elections” — he was telling me this when, on the other hand, he would have called Lyndon Johnson an election rigger from way back — but we were for free elections. That was our proposed solution, and they’re not for free elections. So he wasn’t entirely up to date on what was going on in Vietnam. That was really the only conversation I had with him.
I had one other accidental meeting with him the week before he was killed, because I was doing some articles on the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns. I was talking to some journalists in the hotel where he and McCarthy were staying the week of their debate in the California primary. I was going up to the floor where Kennedy’s staff had all their apartments because I wanted to see some people, and quite by accident he came in exhausted from a day of campaigning looking gray and the skin on his cheeks and hands all worn out from that and said hello. He was with Fred Dutton and John Glenn, and we got on the elevator and went upstairs. I was going several floors above where he got off, and in the elevator he asked me if I was campaigning for him with kind of a hopeful look because he was so exhausted and the election was so close.