It’s a strange feeling when your formative years are suddenly treated as part of History with a capital H. But it makes sense for Clara Bingham to collect oral histories of the tumultuous 1969/1970 when so much happened, including Woodstock, Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers, the shootings at Kent State University, the fatal bombing of a campus building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the My Lai massacre.. Reading this brought so many memories flooding back.
In the Vietnam war era, people watched the nightly news, usually with either Walter Cronkite on CBS or Huntley and Brinkley on NBC. Everyone was getting the same news, and the lead story just about every single night was the war. And although the civil rights movement was a source of plenty of political action, it was the Vietnam war, and the draft, that galvanized political rebellion across the country. The antiwar rebellion was related to many other movements, like feminism, earth consciousness, marijuana/LSD promotion, rock music.
Since these are recollections (with succinct commentaries and historical notes by Bingham), you will read different perspectives of the same events. A story from a demonstrator at the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago is followed by one from an FBI agent. Stories of activists who went underground are accompanied by recollections of those whose job it was to try to track them down. Recollections of the New York trial of the Black Panther 21 come from one of the defense lawyers and from the presiding judge’s son, who was just nine years old during the trial, but vividly remembers the firebombing of his family’s home and the rigid security measures his family lived under for the remaining months of the trial. Many of the recollections are self-justifying, but quite a few of the interviewees also express regret and a changed perspective.
There are famous names in this volume, like Jane Fonda, Oliver Stone, Joan Baez and Carl Bernstein, but many other less well-known figures who, in many cases, were even closer to the big events of the time, including student journalists at Kent State and Wisconsin, Kent State shooting victims, soldiers who served in Vietnam, veterans of numerous action groups, including several members of the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, musicians who played at Woodstock, government insiders, members of the FBI and local law enforcement. The cast of characters is huge, and you will get to know them as you go through the book, but there is also a helpful set of “Voices” endnotes with thumbnail biographies of each of them.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the story of how the SDS became the Weather Underground and moved so far into doctrinaire extremism that it forgot that a revolution needs to make a case to the people to succeed. Just as mainstream America was beginning to see real problems with the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s, some political actors moved into extremist theater and violence that pushed many Americans away. Bingham and some of the Voices suggest that an opportunity may have been lost to end the war much earlier. I used to watch the news with my WW2 veteran father, and he could see that something was very wrong about the way things worked in Vietnam, that it wasn’t his kind of war at all, but the style of young antiwar activists was offensive to most of his generation and made it difficult for them to speak openly in opposition to the war.
I’m impressed by Clara Bingham’s ability to organize these oral histories both chronologically and thematically. The use of these first-person recollections animates the history, but Bingham’s organization keeps the narrative moving and gives it coherence. It is only toward the very end that it loses focus a little.
Though this is a long book, it’s so immersive that I was always eager to return to it. It compares favorably to a recent book with a similar subject, Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage. Burrough’s presentation is disjointed and he goes into such excruciating detail that he drains the life out of the story. Bingham does a much better job of stitching the disparate stories into a cohesive narrative and conveying a lot of information without getting bogged down in detail.
I guess this book is okay if you want to learn more about pre-revolutionary Russia and the events that lead up to the two revolutions of 1917 (and to be honest with you, who wouldn't). Basically this book is about a period during the reign of Alexander and deals with the radical groups that were around at that time, in particular the Nihilists.
My first exposure to Nihilism was back in university and I thought it was cool because my understanding was that nihilists were so dark and bitter and that their major belief was that the universe was pretty much out to get them. I remember that my email tag (do people still use email tags, or is that just too nineties?) said 'I am coming to appreciate nihilism because life without God is totally sucks'. Maybe my appreciation of this also had something to do with the idea of the meaninglessness of life that it seemed to be outside of Christianity.
Okay, at that time my mind was being filled with a lot of dogmatic ideas about how one cannot exist without God, and in many ways I still accept that. It is not so much to do with a reward in the afterlife, but rather life having some meaning above and beyond the collection of material goods, or making a name for oneself. In a way, that is something that we can have little control over, and in some cases, the collection of material wealth can also be a bit like living like a flagellant, and that is denying oneself an enjoyable life for the possibility of a reward in the afterlife (or having a good retirement).
However, this whole Russia thing was somewhat different, and had much to do with the backward nature of the Tsarist regime. While much of Western Europe had moved ahead both politically and industrially, Russia was still an agrarian society with a class of peasants that were tied to the land. What many of these organisations were wanting was something better, however by looking at Western Europe, and in a way the failures of industrialisation, they were looking for a way beyond that. Which is why you had anarchists, which were not necessarily people who simply wanted to smash things, but people who believed that a big and central government was the root of evil and inequality, and believed that by getting rid of that and returning to a tribal life would make life for them at least better.
However, as we know, Russia's experiment with extreme socialism pretty much failed, and despite the wars against the West, and Lenin's experiment, by 1925, with Lenin's death, Russia had returned to a dictatorship ruled by a single man, and it remained that way until 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Even after that the so called democratic miracle never arose because the collapse of communism brought about the rise of the oligarchs, where were not necessarily unconnected with the previous regime (Yeltsin was president of the Russian Republic), and since then, with Putin in power, we see a return to the old soviet model with, guess what, an ex-KGB official as president.