“It’s as if Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, and Doris Lessing had decided to collaborate on a true-life story,” says Todd Gitlin. That’s overrating A Bomb in Every Issue, but not by much. Peter Richardson’s book vies with Gitlin’s own The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage as one of the most vivid accounts of the antiwar and eventually anti-American New Left. Richardson tells the story in miniature—in little more than 200 pages—through the rise and fall of the radical magazine Ramparts, which blazoned on one cover in 1969, “Alienation is when your county is at war and you want the other side to win.”
After Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia, Fidel Castro chose Ramparts as the American outlet for excerpts from Che’s diary. Years earlier, the magazine had scored a coup against the CIA, and the mainstream press, by uncovering the agency’s hand in the National Student Association. Before he became minister of information for the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver was an editor for Ramparts, where many of the pieces that became Soul on Ice first appeared. Though the magazine survived just 13 years, it’s had a long legacy, with Rolling Stone and Mother Jones as direct descendants—both were begun by disgruntled Ramparts editors and based in part on its cutting-edge graphic design—and spiritual heirs as divergent as the Daily Kos and the neoconservative FrontPageMag, whose founder, David Horowitz, was as a young leftist one of the last editors of Ramparts.
No one could have foreseen that an austere literary publication launched in 1962 as “a forum for the mature American Catholic” would turn into the muckraking equivalent of a Molotov cocktail. Certainly California businessman Edward Keating, the passionate convert who created Ramparts, imagined no such thing. “Keating’s keen sense of justice attuned him to racial inequality and civil rights issues,” Richardson writes, “but his other views could be conservative, even reactionary.” At a party Keating announced that if he were president, “he would jail J.D. Salinger ‘because he’s dirty.’” Early issues of Ramparts—which “according to one designer … looked like the poetry annual of a midwestern girls school”—flailed Salinger and Tennessee Williams for their apparent nihilism. Williams’s characters, Keating thought, were “psychotic or merely wretched” and attested to a despairing view of mankind. As Richardson notes, the magazine’s take on the rather more right-wing Wyndham Lewis, on the other hand, was “more complimentary.”
But Keating was no rightist. He fired an associate editor thought to have ties to the John Birch Society after rumors of that connection frightened away liberal Jesuits. If the first incarnation of Ramparts had a philosophical lodestar, it was the serene but intensely reformist Trappist monk (and bestselling author of The Seven Storey Mountain) Thomas Merton, whose involvement “strengthened [the magazine’s] standing in the liberal Catholic and peace communities.” Merton counseled strong support for civil rights, but warned of “a serious possibility of an eventual civil war that might wreck the fabric of American society” and feared “there might be a danger of Marxist elements ‘capturing’ the revolution.”
One of Keating’s first recruits was a twenty-something journalist named Warren Hinckle, a lapsing Catholic, recent graduate of the Jesuit University of San Francisco, and monophthalmic since a childhood car accident. Hinckle had an outsized personality and a knack for publicity to match. Even before he became the magazine’s executive editor in its second year, he started taking Ramparts in a more confrontational direction. The October 1964 issue carried a cover story tagged as “An extraordinary account of the Harlem Riots—told by the people who were there—in words few white men have ever heard” and featured on its back cover “a large photo of a black man with a nasty head wound holding a bloody handkerchief; a helmeted white policeman loomed over him.” The next issue assailed Barry Goldwater and Cardinal James McIntyre, with an increasingly radical Keating declaring, “If both had their way, Church and State would be carried back to those tranquil days where six-guns and the Inquisition settled matters both quickly and unequivocally.”
The ’60s were breaking loose. But as Richardson documents in his brilliant description of the milieu that gave birth to Ramparts, the radicalism of the era didn’t begin with Kennedy’s assassination and President Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. Revolt against the complacent, corporatist liberalism of the early Cold War was already simmering when JFK visited the University of California, a Berkeley in 1962 to stump for Gov. Edmund Brown’s re-election. The university had become a “multiversity,” in the argot of UC president Clark Kerr; in the eyes of young critics, it had become an appendage of the military-industrial complex. The year of Kennedy’s visit, two Marxist graduate students, David Horowitz and Robert Scheer—both future editors of Ramparts—helped launch Root and Branch: A Radical Quarterly. A black activist they brought to campus declared, “I’m for Castro because Castro is for the black man.” The Left burned with moral fire, while establishment liberals like Kennedy—well, the president burned with something else. “After his remarks,” Richardson writes, “President Kennedy headed south for Palm Springs, where he stayed with Bing Crosby. The next day, he called on Dwight Eisenhower, his White House predecessor, and had sex with Marilyn Monroe, another Crosby houseguest. The following day, he attended mass.”
Hippies didn’t invent free love or hard drugs. The latter came courtesy of the U.S. Army, which promoted research into LSD. “I do not contend that driving people crazy—even for a few hours—is a pleasant prospect,” one officer wrote in defense of the practice, “But warfare is never pleasant. … Would you rather be temporarily deranged, blinded, or paralyzed by a chemical agent, or burned alive by a conventional fire bomb?” Ken Kesey, then a student at Stanford University, had an answer to that question. He took his first tabs as a volunteer in a clinical trial at a VA hospital. The CIA might not have trucked crack to the inner cities, but it was the Army that turned the original Merry Prankster on to acid. He introduced LSD to Jerry Garcia, who introduced it to millions.
Richardson doesn’t waste words moralizing. He draws a picture and leaves the reader to draw conclusions—one of which might be that you could hardly blame a young man for wanting to take a blowtorch to the entire puking establishment. That was how many of the youthful writers at Ramparts felt. Its circulation was growing—Hinckle almost doubled it, to 4,000 subscribers, in his first year—and thanks to the addition of a brilliant graphic designer named Dugald Stermer, it was on its way to revolutionizing the look of magazines. Soon circulation was more than doubling—rocketing to 149,000 by January 1967, then 229,000 two months later. But it was a financial disaster. Like almost all political magazines, Ramparts never turned a profit, and expenses proved proportional to growth.
Hinckle spent extravagantly—he told a journalist from the New York Times that, contrary to reports, he had not flown from Chicago to Paris to New York to circumvent an airline strike. He had flown from San Francisco to Paris to New York—if he had been in Chicago, he said, he would have taken a taxi. Keating quickly exhausted his own fortune and his wife’s, but Hinckle’s fundraising almost kept pace with his burn rate. “I like the way you spend my money,” one millionaire donor reportedly told him. Hinckle covered the budget’s shortfalls by making cuts—not to his expense account but to funds earmarked for paying the printers. Ramparts’ publishing schedule, notionally monthly, could be erratic.
Ramparts rose in part because it didn’t flinch from damning the bloody business in Vietnam. Robert Scheer made his mark with a 1965 cover story debunking Thomas Dooley’s Deliver Us From Evil, an almost decade-old book that Scheer argued had “served to greatly confuse the American public on the true situation in Vietnam. It gave the delusion that we were simply helping a whole people along the path to their freedom when for better or worse they wanted to travel the other way.” “We had come too late to Vietnam,” Dooley had written, “but we had come. And we brought not bombs and guns, but help and love.” Ramparts put the lie to that, as much by the photographs it ran illustrating the “collateral damage” of the war—civilian men, women, and children dead, mutilated, and burned—as by essays like Scheer’s. The magazine’s coverage was instrumental in driving Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the war in the year before his assassination.
Scheer went to Vietnam as an independent journalist; soon he was Ramparts’ foreign editor. He became as important to the magazine as Hinckle—“Hink/Scheer” was Jessica Mitford’s term for the evolving editorial duumvirate. In 1966, Scheer mounted a quixotic—but almost successful—challenge to an incumbent Democratic congressman. His objective was to pressure Rep. Jeffrey Cohelan into opposing the war. Scheer also appeared on William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” to debate the question, “Is Ramparts Magazine Un-American?” He didn’t give an inch to Buckley—either on the substance of the question or in the style of the debate, which devolved, says Richardson, “into an intellectual food fight at a time when such spectacles were rare on broadcast television.” Ramparts more than flirted with Fidel Castro—indeed, Scheer would shatter his marriage by having an affair with another pro-Castro journalist, Michèle Ray, in Havana—and Scheer had broken with Democratic Party precedent by inviting Communists to support his primary challenge. But neither he nor the magazine accepted the anti-American label in 1966. “Scheer’s main point,” Richardson writes,
was that other countries, including Cuba and Vietnam, should be allowed to make their own histories without interference from the United States. In the context of the cold war, that position was widely regarded as procommunist, but it outlasted that conflict and eventually extended to nations like Iran, where, Scheer later wrote, U.S. mischief beginning in the 1950s had produced ‘a sorry history.’
“Hinckle and Stermer were rebels, not leftists, and they tempered Scheer’s radical tendencies,” says Richardson. Ramparts walked a narrow line between an all-American anarchism—akin to what the arch-individualist Benjamin Tucker had called “unterrified Jeffersonianism”—and Third World revolutionary communism. The year of Martin Luther King’s murder (and Robert Kennedy’s) and the police riot at the Democratic National Convention, 1968, would be the tipping point. Already the antiwar movement and the civil-rights struggle were becoming more violent and revolutionary. King’s assassination kick-started a new, more intense round of confrontations between police and the Black Panthers (to which Ramparts was connected through Eldridge Cleaver), while the radical Students for a Democratic Society morphed into incompetently terrorist Weatherman. The Tom Hayden Left was explicitly anti-American and pro-Communist. Ramparts was sucked into the vortex—though to be sure, it had contributed to the currents that created maelstrom in the first place.
Keating had been thrown overboard years before. Hinckle jumped ship in 1969, leaving first Scheer, then Horowitz in charge. “Forged in the violence and despair of 1968, the magazine’s new line rejected anything short of revolution and explicitly conceded the symbols of patriotism to the right wing,” Richardson writes, and a little more than halfway through, his book becomes exceedingly depressing, a chronicle of murder, misogyny, Maoist self-criticism sessions, collectivization of the Ramparts staff—except for Dugald Stermer, who was offered a cozy “separate and unequal” deal by Horowitz if he would stay on staff; Stermer told him to get stuffed—and eventually, inevitably, the rise of neoconservatism. The New Left, Richardson observes, “had exposed the weakness of American liberalism but hadn’t replaced it with anything stronger. Moreover, its attacks had alienated mainstream America and made a successful new coalition unlikely.” A successful new coalition on the Left, that is—instead, Richard Nixon built a successful coalition on the new Right.
We’ve all had to live with the consequences for 40 years. Weatherman self-destructed, blown up by its own bombs. Horowitz found a new, post-Marxist faith in a nationalist right-wing creed that looks a lot like the old Cold War liberalism. Huey Newton, the thug hailed by his admirers as the black Lenin, was shot and killed in 1989 by 24-year-old hoodlum in West Oakland. But the myth of a revolutionary, Marxist, America-hating Left survives and continues to push ordinary Americans into supporting new Vietnams and the nation-building, social-engineering projects of former revolutionary, Marxist, America-hating leftists. Somebody should have listened to Thomas Merton.
Daniel McCarthy is senior editor of The American Conservative.
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