Repressed memory syndrome

The legendary year 1968 stills hold the baby-boom generation in thrall -- but it was actually the pinnacle of anti-democratic narcissism.

Published August 31, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Nostalgia is in the air. A generation of balding boomers is busy remembering the 30th anniversary of the year 1968. It is a time in their imaginations of lost innocence, a moment when impossible dreams were brutally cut short by assassinations and repressions that have left them stranded ever since on the shores of a conservative landscape.

A summary expression of such utopian regrets appeared recently in Salon by Stephen Talbot, who is also the producer of the recent PBS documentary "1968: The Year That Shaped a Generation." The narrative line of this film was shaped by radicals of the era like Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden. This choice of authorities was predictable for the veteran of a movement that promotes itself as an avatar of "participatory democracy" but also closes off debate within its ranks with a regularity worthy of the Communist regimes it once admired. Thus Talbot excludes from his cinematic paean to his revolutionary youth any dissenters from inside the ranks of those who were there.

Me, for instance. For I am one of those who does not share Talbot's enthusiasm for 1968, nor his view of it as a fable of Innocents at Home. One explanation may be the fact that I am 10 years older than Talbot, and therefore know first-hand the state of our "innocence" then. Yet Gitlin and Hayden are also pre-boomers. An age gap cannot really explain the different views we have of what took place. Oh sure, like Gitlin and Hayden I would prefer to recall the glory days of my youth in a golden light, but for me the era has been irreparably tarnished by actions and attitudes I vividly remember, while they prefer to forget.

The myth of innocence begins with President Lyndon Johnson's announcement in March 1968 that he would not run for reelection. Talbot was 19 years old and draft-eligible: "We were all like Yossarian in Catch-22," he recalls. "We took this very personally. They were trying to kill us. But now Johnson had abdicated. We were free. It felt, quite simply, like a miracle." The miracle, of course, was the democratic system that we had declared war on. Contrary to what Hayden, Gitlin, Talbot and all the rest of us were saying at the time, the system worked -- and we should have defended it instead of trying to tear it down. Talbot does not notice or reflect on this contradiction.

And of course "they" were not trying to kill "us." (Even in retrospect, the narcissism of the boomer generation is still wondrous to behold.) The attention of Johnson (and Nixon after him) was actually on the fate of Indochina, where they were committing American forces to prevent the blood bath and oppression that (we now know) were in store for the Vietnamese should the Communists win the war. Subsequently, more people -- more poor Indo-Chinese peasants -- were killed by the Marxist victors in the first three years of the Communist peace than had been killed on all sides in the 13 years of the anti-Communist war. This is a fact that has caused many veterans of those years to reconsider our "innocence" then. But not Talbot, or the other nostalgists he cites.

For them, our innocence (in the moral sense of culpability for what happened) remains intact to this day. In their memory, our innocence (in the sense of idealistic possibility) was brutally ambushed in 1968, when forces inherent in the System we hated conspired to murder the agents of our hope: Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

"I experienced King's assassination as the murder of hope," writes Talbot, speaking for them all. Gitlin, whose history of the '60s first announced this theme, remembers his thoughts at the time: "America tried to redeem itself and now they've killed the man who was taking us to the mountaintop." There is something extremely distasteful in this false memory of Gitlin's. For, as Gitlin well knows, in 1968 neither he nor Hayden nor Talbot nor any serious New Left radicals were following King. Here's one indicator: Not a single white student activist leader or anti-war spokesman was in Memphis demonstrating alongside King at the time that he was killed. In fact, no one in the New Left (at least no one who mattered) was following King at all when he was killed. Two years earlier, while King was still very much alive, he had been unceremoniously toppled from the leadership of the civil rights struggle by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee radicals, led by Stokeley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, whose slogans of black power, and whose agendas of racial separatism and violent struggle, had replaced King's nonviolent integrationism in the political imaginations of the left.

Gitlin was far from the idealistic liberal he portrays himself in his book or in Talbot's film. Like everyone else in Students for a Democratic Society, he had stopped voting in national elections as early as 1964 because, as the SDS slogan put it, "The revolution is in the streets." The two parties were the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the corporate ruling class. Activists who saw themselves as revolutionaries against a "sham" democracy, dominated by multinational corporations, were not going to invest hope in a man whose political agenda was integration into the System, and who refused to join their war on the Johnson administration and its cooptive "tokenism."

Hayden's attempt to formulate a doctrine of original innocence involves fewer flat untruths than Gitlin's. He relies more on the manipulations of truth that were for him a kind of political signature: "At that point," Hayden says of the King assassination, "I had been so knocked out of my middle-class assumptions that I didn't know what would happen. Perhaps the country could be reformed and Robert Kennedy elected president. Perhaps we would be plunged into a civil war and I'd be imprisoned or killed."

The reality is that any "middle-class assumptions" held by Hayden -- or other SDS activists -- had already been chucked in the garbage bin years before. Three out of four drafters of the 1962 SDS charter, the Port Huron Statement, were red-diaper babies (the offspring of Communist Party members) and Marxists. The fourth was Hayden himself, who by his own account had learned his politics in Berkeley in 1960 at the feet of "red-diaper babies and Marxists" (he names Michael Tigar in particular). By 1965, Carl Oglesby was proclaiming publicly, in a famous speech, that it was time to "name the System" that we all wanted to destroy. The name of the System was, of course, "corporate capitalism," analyzed in pretty much the same terms as in the party texts read by the Communist cadres in Moscow, Havana and Hanoi.

Hayden was already calling the Black Panthers "America's Vietcong," and planning the riot he was going to stage at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in August. (This is described conveniently, but unhistorically, as a "police riot" in Talbot's film, Gitlin's book and Hayden's own disingenuous memoir of the events.) Civil war in America was not something that might be imposed on the SDS revolutionaries from the outside or above, as Hayden insinuates. Civil war was something that they were trying to launch themselves.

Talbot's mythology continues: "Out of the ashes of the riots in the wake of King's murder, new hope came in the form of Bobby Kennedy, who [in less than four years, and after reading Camus] had undergone a profound transformation from Vietnam hawk and aide to Sen. Joe McCarthy to dove and spokesman for the dispossessed." Sure, and President Clinton is a virgin.

It is true that Bobby Kennedy made a feint in the direction of the anti-war crowd and a gesture or two for Cesar Chavez. It is also true that Hayden attended Kennedy's funeral and even wept a tear or two. But those tears had little to do with Hayden's political agendas at the time, which were more accurately summed up in Che Guevara's call to create "two, three, many Vietnams" inside America's borders. Hayden's tears for Kennedy were personal, and he paid a huge political price for them. After the funeral, SDS activists wondered out loud (and in print) whether he had "sold out" by mourning for a figure whom they saw not as a great white hope in the political struggle that consumed their lives, but as a Trojan horse for the other side.

With Kennedy and King dead, the stage was set for what Talbot calls "the inevitable showdown" in Chicago. And here a glimmer of the truth enters his narrative. "Both sides, rebels and rulers, were spoiling for a confrontation." But then, almost as quickly, he reverts to political correctness: "Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley made it possible. He denied permits for protesters at the Democratic Convention." The denied permits made confrontation inevitable.

In fact, the epigram from '68 that Talbot employs for his text -- "Demand the Impossible" -- explains far more accurately why it was Hayden, not Daley, who set the agenda for Chicago, and was therefore ultimately responsible for the riot that ensued. The police behaved badly, it is true -- and they have been justly and roundly condemned for their reactions. But those reactions were entirely predictable (after all, it was Daley who, only months before, had ordered his police to "shoot looters on sight" during the rioting after King's murder). In fact, the predictable reaction of the Chicago police was an essential part of Hayden's calculation in choosing to demonstrate in Chicago in the first place.

In a year when any national demonstration would attract 100,000 protesters, only about 10,000 (and probably closer to 3,000) actually showed up for the Chicago bloodfest. That was because most of us realized there was going to be bloodshed and didn't see the point. (Our ideology was clear on this -- the two-party system was a sham; the revolution was in the streets.) In retrospect, Hayden was more cynical and shrewder than we were. By destroying the presidential aspirations of Hubert Humphrey and, with that, the power of the anti-Communist liberals, he paved the way for a takeover of the Democratic Party apparatus by forces of the political left, a trauma from which it has not recovered.

One reason these historical facts have been obscured by the left is that the nostalgists don't really want to take credit for electing Richard Nixon. As a matter of political discretion, they are also willing to let their greatest coup -- the capture of the Democratic Party -- go unmemorialized. Instead, they prefer to ascribe this remarkable political realignment to impersonal forces that, apparently, had nothing to do with their own agendas and actions. Talbot summarizes: "'While the whole world (was) watching,' [Daley's] police rioted, clubbing demonstrators, reporters and bystanders indiscriminately. The Democratic Party self-destructed." Well, actually, it was destroyed.

When the fires of Watergate consumed the Nixon presidency in 1974, the left's newly won control of the Democratic Party produced the exact result that Hayden and his comrades had worked so hard to achieve. In 1974, a new class of Democrats was elected to Congress, which included anti-war activists like Ron Dellums, Pat Schroeder, David Bonior and Bella Abzug. Their politics were left as opposed to the anti-Communist liberalism of the Daleys and the Humphreys, and their first act was to cut off economic aid and military supplies to the regimes in Cambodia and South Vietnam. Though it is conveniently forgotten now, this cut-off occurred two years after the United States signed a truce with Hanoi and American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam.

"Bring the Troops Home" may have been the slogan of the so-called anti-war movement, but it was never its ultimate goal. The ultimate goal was a liberated Vietnam. Within three months of the cut-off, the anti-Communist regimes in Saigon and Phnom Penh fell, and the killing fields began. The mass slaughters in Cambodia and South Vietnam, from 1975 to 1978, which took place as a result of the withdrawal of aid, was the real achievement of the New Left and could not have been achieved without Hayden's sabotage of the anti-Communist liberals like Humphrey and Daley.

While Talbot forgets the denouement, he does get the significance of the war correctly: "The war in Vietnam and the draft were absolutely central. I remember a cover of Ramparts magazine that captured how I felt: 'Alienation is when your country is at war and you hope the other side wins.'" This is a softened version of what we actually felt. As the author of that cover line, let me correct Talbot's memory and add a detail. The Ramparts cover featured a picture of a Huck Finn-like 7-year-old (it was art director Dugald Stermer's son) who was holding the Vietcong flag -- the flag of America's enemy in Vietnam. The cover line said: 'Alienation is when your country is at war and you want the other side to win.' That represented what we believed -- Hayden, Gitlin, Steve Talbot and me. It is not that important to me what lessons my former comrades draw from our service to the wrong side in the Cold War. I just wish they would remember it as it happened.

I also wish they wouldn't project on themselves retrospective sympathies for the latter-day struggle against Communism, whose true warriors and champions -- however distasteful, embarrassing and uncomfortable this must be for them -- were Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, leaders they hated and despised. Go over the 50 years of the Cold War against the Soviet empire and you will find that every single political and military program to contain the spread of this cancer and ultimately to destroy it was opposed by those who now invoke the "spirit of '68" as their own.

"Assassinations, repression and exhaustion extinguished the spirit of '68," Talbot concludes his story. "But like a subterranean fire, it resurfaces at historic moments." Citing socialist writer Paul Berman, the originator of this particular myth, Talbot argues that "the embers of '68" helped ignite the revolution of 1989 that brought liberal democracy to Eastern Europe and ended the Cold War." The distortion of memory is one thing for Berman, who belongs to a minuscule faction of the left that was indeed anti-Communist, while hating American capitalism almost as much. (How much? In Berman's case, enough to support the Black Panthers -- "Americas Vietcong" -- and to regard the secret police chief of the Sandinista dictatorship as a "quintessential New Leftist.") But it is particularly unappetizing in Talbot, who made films into the '80s celebrating Communist insurgents who were busily extending the Soviet sphere in Africa. America, bless its generous heart, has already forgiven Steve Talbot for that. So why lie about it now?

Of course, the New Left was critical of the Soviet Union (and so, at various times were Khrushchev, Castro and Ho Chi Minh). But its true enemy was always democratic America -- a misguided hatred that was never merely reactive, never truly innocent and that remains remarkably intact to this day. The worldview of this left was aptly summarized by I.F. Stone's adoring biographer, who reported approvingly Stone's belief that "in spite of the brutal collectivization campaign, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the latest quashing of the Czech democracy and the Stalinist takeover of Eastern Europe ... communism was a progressive force, lined up on the correct side of historical events."

Berman, Gitlin and now Talbot have mounted this preposterous last ditch effort to save the left from the embarrassments of its deeds by attempting to appropriate moral credit for helping to end a Communist system that in spite of everything the left aided and abetted throughout its career. The New Left disparaged the threat from the Communist enemy as a paranoid fantasy of the Cold War right. The unseemly attempt to retrieve an honorable past from such dishonorable occasions might be more convincing if any of these memorialists (including Berman) were able to recall a single left-wing demonstration against Communist oppression in Vietnam, the Cambodian genocide, the rape of Afghanistan or the dictatorships in Cuba and Nicaragua. Or if one veteran leader of the New Left had once publicly called on the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall, as Ronald Reagan actually did. Support for the anti-Communist freedom fighters in Afghanistan and Africa and Central America during the 1980s came from Goldwater and Reagan activists on the right, like Grover Norquist, Oliver North and (now) Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, whom progressives -- for this very reason -- despise.

It would be nice if we could use this 30th anniversary of the events of 1968 to end the cold war over our past, and start restoring a sense of the tragic to both sides. But to do that, the nostalgists of the left will first have to be persuaded to give up their futile attempt to rewrite what happened and start telling it like it is.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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