Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul

  • By Clara Bingham
  • Random House
  • 656 pp.

Players in 1960s social movements share their stories of triumph and regret

The Summer of Love. That 1967 flicker of Flower Power — overhyped by the media then, and certainly overhyped by revisionist historians now — gave way quickly to America’s most violent year since the Civil War wound down. Richard Nixon got elected in 1968, the Vietnam War dragged on, and riots roiled campuses and cities for years to come.

Clara Bingham’s excellent oral history, Witness to the Revolution, brings us to what at times feels like a somber high-school reunion. Student organizers, FBI agents, Nixon officials, and others treat the interviews as confessionals. Many express regret, anger, and oftentimes an unshakeable feeling that most of what they did was wrong. Student organizers still agonize over bombs they set off, killing innocent civilians; FBI officials admit to being uncomfortable with over-the-top surveillance tactics.  

Some of this ground has been covered in other recent works, such as Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, reviewed here last summer. However, Bingham, as an oral historian, takes a different tack by giving short, context-providing introductions at the opening of each chapter. She then steps aside, hands her participants a microphone, and listens.

Her work is far from passive, though. She’s done a masterful job of guiding her subjects and no doubt winnowing down what must have been long, emotional interviews into readable, understandable reports from the front lines of a chaotic America difficult to imagine today. Personalities come through.

A reflective Daniel Ellsberg, convinced the protest movement kept the Vietnam War from spreading into a wider Asian conflict, shares his average-guy’s fears as he became one of America’s great whistleblowers. Actor Peter Coyote, with a thoughtful sense of perspective, recognizes how the revolution failed in many of its aims but did help spark a cultural revolution in gay rights and other important social causes.

One of the few female leaders in the movement, Bernardine Dohrn, now decades removed, admits to a mixed sense of pride and regret. “I feel now that the language of war, even revolutionary war, made us harsh, made me harsh; and made me speak about war without doing everything to avoid it without recognizing the horror and the harm; and how it turns people, even people who are fighting for freedom, into something else.”

One of the most shocking aspects of this revolutionary time was the staggeringly chauvinistic attitude of many protest groups, including the Weather Underground, SNCC, SDS, Black Panthers, and the like. Female activists would be pelted with tomatoes by male leadership when they tried to speak at meetings. Recalls feminist activist Robin Morgan, “Stokeley Carmichael…said the only position for women in the SNCC was prone.”  

Weather collectives mandated that every woman who joined the group had to sleep with every man in the group to break the bourgeois concept of monogamy. The women weren’t given a choice. Rapes were sometimes administered as “punishments.” While a nascent feminist movement did finally emerge from the rubble, the overt male sexism remains a terrible blot on a tsunami of male activists who were often naïve, sanctimonious, and disgustingly cruel to those around them.

Coyote, who enjoyed doing drugs with Janis Joplin and was something of a morally healthy ladies’ man, has a great time, even as he fights the good fight. Most of the other players Bingham speaks with come across as more serious and strident. Emma Goldman, an activist of an earlier era, famously said something to the effect that she didn’t want to be part of a revolution that didn’t include dancing. She meant that there needed to be some balance between a serious commitment to a serious cause and not always taking life itself so damn seriously. Coyote got that memo. Others, not so much.

With hindsight, many of the voices in Witness recognize that political and social movements are ultimately about individuals, not just an abstract idea that fits onto a handmade poster.

Finally, it’s Morgan who best conveys the unsettled spirit sparked by these remembrances of things past. “People who get misty-eyed about that period drive me nuts because I then trot out all the things that were wrong with that period,” she says. “But it was also a visionary period in the life of this country, and I’m glad I was part of it.”

It’s no newsflash that we’re all a contradictory mix of reflexes — well-meaning, but often misguided. In Witness to the Revolution, we’re reminded, sometimes wistfully, sometimes viscerally, that each of us flawed human beings so often simultaneously plays the part of both problem and solution.

Michael Causey is a past president of Washington Independent Writers.

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