It was 41 years ago today, on April 23, 1968, that Mark Rudd led the most famous 1960s college riot of them all. Hundreds of Columbia University students, protesting the Vietnam War and assorted other things, assembled chaotically, occupied half a dozen university buildings, and ended up shutting down the campus for a month. Rudd soon moved on to more ambitious and violent activities, which eventually made it necessary for him to go into hiding.
In his new memoir, Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen, Rudd describes his encounter with an old revolutionary buddy in 1976, when Rudd had been hiding from the law for six years and was thinking about going straight:
“What will you do aboveground — if you’re not in jail? Join the Democratic Party?”
“Any form of organizing is better than this,” I replied. “At least we’ll be accomplishing something.”
JJ just shook his head, disgusted. I had become a right-winger on the order of William F. Buckley.
Along with demonstrating that WFB always had the best of enemies, this passage, which appears on page 280, shows that I actually read the whole book. Anytime you see a review in which all the quotations are from the preface, it’s a good bet that the reviewer didn’t go any farther — which is, in fact, the best way to read many books.
Including this one, because Rudd’s preface tells you everything you need to know. The Iraq War, “despite some significant differences, was Vietnam all over again”; today’s students “seem genuinely amazed to learn that once there was a group of young white kids from privileged backgrounds who risked everything for our antiwar, antiracist, and revolutionary beliefs”; “Weatherman’s failures are less important than the simple astonishing fact that we existed”; the 1960s were “American democracy’s finest hour.”
After that, you know exactly what he’s going to say in the rest of the book. By heroically passing out flyers, carrying signs, and occupying buildings, these brave souls brought the Vietnam War to a close in a mere seven years. Emulating the holy trinity of Mao, Castro, and Che, they won the American public’s firm allegiance through the unshakeable righteousness of their cause. Halfway around the world, sturdy Vietnamese peasants were fighting out of pure ideological zeal to expel the imperialist aggressors and their local puppet army, but the American government was too stupid and corrupt to figure this out. And so on, and so on, and so on.
If the guy at the food co-op with the long white beard rattled on like this while weighing out the lentils, you would smile indulgently and glance at your watch. If a Distinguished Professor of Education said it during a speech, you would wearily shake your head. But when a forgettable 1960s relic goes on in the same vein for 300 pages plus, it’s like a four-CD box set of Iron Butterfly’s Greatest Hit.
THINGS LEFT UNSAID
Yet while there are no surprises to be found in what Rudd says, it’s revealing to look at what he doesn’t say. For instance, he makes only a few brief mentions of an issue that held overwhelming importance at the time: the draft. The main reason campus opposition to the war was so widespread was that students did not want themselves or their friends to get killed — a legitimate objection, to be sure.
Rudd scorns this concern. When his fellow Columbia students vote to bar the college from cooperating with the Selective Service, he sniffs that many were “driven more by self-interest — staying out of the army — rather than a principled opposition to the government’s policies in Vietnam.” Even worse were the faculty members, “all liberal men,” who were “nominally against the war, but only because the United States was losing, which was the worst reason, in my opinion.” Rudd’s objection to the war was that America was impeding the spread of Communism. Yet a large fraction of his fellow protesters based their opposition on individual rights and a concern for America — two principles directly antithetical to the ones Rudd was preaching.
Similarly, Rudd hardly ever uses the terms “North Vietnam” or “South Vietnam” — once every few dozen pages at most, and only when absolutely necessary. The rest of the time it’s just “Vietnam,” in keeping with the party line that it was a single country with a foreign-occupied south. He speaks with admiration of Vietcong guerrillas “who were willing to sacrifice so much for their independence,” ignoring the fact that they were actually fighting to subjugate an independent South Vietnam. And he describes the day in 1975 when the Communists sacked Saigon (strangely uncelebrated by Rudd’s old student allies) as “the final victory by the Vietnamese.” Even now, two decades after the rest of the world got the news, Rudd can’t bring himself to admit that the Vietnamese people he professes to love had powerful reasons to fear living under a Communist dictatorship.