Books · Politics

Book Review: Clara Bingham Captures Complexity of ‘the Sixties’

WITNESS TO THE REVOLUTION: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul

By Clara Bingham
656 pages. Random House.

How can anyone adequately explain the rare incendiary mix of the anti-war movement, student rebellion, drug culture, civil rights activism, and women’s liberation that created the culture we call “the Sixties”? It was a moment in time that now seems evanescent yet left an indelible mark on almost every aspect of our lives. Author Clara Bingham achieves this by means of an oral history. She interviewed dozens of the primary players in the various movements that coalesced into what amounted to fundamental changes in the way we viewed almost all facets of our lives. Witness to the Revolution is a great book. It is also an important one, a book that I predict will be a reference point for years to come in the effort to understand one of the most complex periods in our nation’s history.

The central catalyst that pulled all these factions together was the Vietnam War, though many of the roots of activism and protest sprung from the Civil Rights movement. Bingham chooses to focus on a single year, August 1969 – September 1970, when many pivotal events that help define the moment took place. Beginning with Woodstock in August 1969 and ending with the escape of Timothy Leary from prison in September 1970, she interviews eyewitnesses and key players in a year that was marked by some of the most polarizing events our citizens have ever lived through.

These events also “awakened” an entire generation to the idea that their parents’ world, dominated by the stultifying values of the 1950s, did not have to be theirs. It seemed like overnight everything was open to question and, in the words of second-wave feminist Robin Morgan, it was “like in The Wizard of Oz when it goes from black and white to color. Everything suddenly was Technicolor and there was hope.” Beginning with one of the most optimistic and magical moments, the music festival, in rural Bethel, N.Y., known as Woodstock, Bingham’s history is rich with specific details that give us a “full color” portrait of what happened. How did this festival, which had all the makings of an epic disaster, become one of the seminal moments in the counterculture revolution? And how did its youthful spirit of friendship, tolerance, and brotherly love get overshadowed and derailed by subsequent events marked by violence and anger?

Bingham presents the events, adding brief but incisive commentaries at the beginning of each chapter, in the witnesses’ own voices. I was skeptical at first if this would make for a compelling narrative, but I was completely wrong. It is edited in a way that gives each chapter flow with all the drama that is inherent in the remarkable events detailed here. It is difficult to convey how quickly and relentlessly some of this history unfolded. By focusing on the participants’ voices, Bingham manages to capture this moment in time vividly but without reducing any of its byzantine complexity.

“The war overshadowed everything,” she writes, and it is probably true that the vastly unpopular war, and the draft that was calling up young men to serve in it, was the catalyst that set many of the elements of the “Revolution” in place. Bingham does a particularly good job of communicating the depth and passion that took hold of her subjects. Things felt really important. With the revelation of the My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers were revealed to have wantonly slaughtered an entire village of Vietnamese civilians, to the carnage at Kent State, just two of the events that occurred in the year 1969-70, people saw just how deadly serious things really were. Kent State University, where four students were killed by the National Guard and several others were seriously wounded, also served to awaken the entire generation to the idea that the movement was not being seen as peaceful protest but as a dangerous threat that must be eradicated.

The Nixon administration responded to the protests with anger, fear, and paranoia, and instead of de-escalating the war, initiated a secret bombing and subsequent invasion of Cambodia, Vietnam’s neighbor. Anger and resentment was fueled on both sides by the president’s famous “Silent Majority” speech in which he claimed that “honest and patriotic Americans” were opposed to the protesters. Activist David Mixner says, “Nixon went for a scare . . . That was when it shifted, and it really polarized the country, and they were successful.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way it details how Women’s Liberation was born out of the Peace movement — out of urgent necessity. Women in the movement were being treated much as they were in the culture at large: as secondary to the male leaders, when in fact, many women, like Bernadine Dohrn, were central figures from the beginning. I was shocked to learn that during the search for the bodies of the “Mississippi Burning” victims (three young Civil Rights activists who disappeared in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964), the mutilated remains of close to 17 women were dredged up from a local river. Robin Morgan recalls that when she brought this up to others in her group “the guys all looked at me incredulously as if I’d landed from Mars and said, ‘Those were probably sex murders, those weren’t political.’” Crimes against women were not seen in a political light; “That was just the mindset at the time,” says Morgan.

Things began to unravel somewhat when some factions of the movement turned to violence. It had begun with the idea that peaceful protest for peace would be effective. Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties, says, “The revolutionary mood had been fueled by the blindingly bright illusion that human history was beginning afresh because a graced generation had willed it so. Now there wasn’t enough life left to mobilize against all the death that was raining down.”  Unable to make an impression on the Nixon administration, recognizing that protesters were a maligned group, targeted as a dangerous element, they became more dangerous. In March 1970, three “Weathermen”  (a radical anti-war group that had splintered off from SDS, Students for a Democratic Society), were killed while making bombs in a Greenwich Village townhouse that belonged to a member’s parents. Movement radicals were going “underground” in increasing numbers, living on the run with assumed identities. Thousands of draft resisters fled to Canada with no hope of ever being able to return (President Jimmy Carter eventually pardoned them.) Many were discouraged and defeated, and the initial spark of optimism faded as things grew increasingly ugly.

After the invasion of Cambodia, a strike on college campuses across the nation was called in May 1970. Many institutions had to end classes for the academic year, canceling exams and even graduations as unrest broke out everywhere. Tom Hayden, one of the founders of SDS, remembers, “It was larger than any other student strike . . . ’70 was so big that I think it was the turning point for the establishment. They knew that if they continue the war, there would be some kind of permanent rupture in American society.”

Still, it took more than five years for the war to end, and the seeds of rupture that were planted have evolved into major divisions as the culture wars continued and expanded into Women’s Liberation, Abortion Rights, and Gay Rights, to name just a few. But the feeling that together young people could be a force for good was dealt a fatal blow by the events of the turbulent year described in this remarkable book. Movement photographer David Fenton says, “Culturally, it was a revolution. And it was an instant. It was as fast as it took for a tablet of LSD to dissolve. People were never the same again.” It was a moment in history as powerful as it was brief, and Clara Bingham has captured it like a photograph of lightning just as it strikes.

[First published June 2, 2016]

 

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