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.