The history of the postwar period is the history of the struggle against Communism. What’s sometimes forgotten — conveniently forgotten — is that our victory in that struggle was far from assured, and that a substantial swath of the Western intelligentsia and much of its celebrity culture was on the other side. It wasn’t just Jane Fonda and Noam Chomsky, Walter Duranty and Lincoln Steffens. (“I have been to the future,” Steffens wrote after a visit to the Soviet Union, “and it works.”) Eventually, 100 million people would die under Communism as part of the longest and widest campaign of mass murder in recorded human history. As a phenomenon of specifically nuclear terror, the Cold War lasted from 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb thanks to the help of the American leftists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, until 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down.
Precisely in the middle of that period came the strange career of Charles Milles Manson, who has just died in a California hospital at the age of 83.
Manson’s death, like his life, was wrapped up in the radical politics of the 1960s. He died of natural causes, his execution having been set aside as part of the temporarily successful progressive campaign against the death penalty in the 1970s.
Just as it is easy to forget how pro-Soviet the American Left was at times, it is easy to forget how pro-Manson American radicals were. “First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!” That was the assessment of Bernardine Dohrn, the champagne radical who, with her husband, Bill Ayers, participated in a campaign of domestic terrorism, including bombings, and later became cozy with Barack Obama, hosting events for the aspiring politician in her home. The “pigs” she referred to included Sharon Tate, an actress who was eight months pregnant at the time. She was murdered and mutilated. The word “PIG” was scrawled on the wall in her blood, and the father of her child, filmmaker Roman Polanski (to this day still on the run for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl), posed in front of that scene for a Life magazine photographer. Dohrn would later join a very prestigious Chicago law firm, Sidley Austin, and later worked as a professor of law at Northwestern University — remarkable accomplishments for a woman without a law license. She passed the bar, and Illinois was willing to overlook her criminal conviction, but she refused to apologize for her role in the terrorist campaign that resulted in several deaths. She and her husband became legal guardians of the child of two of their colleagues, who went to prison on murder charges for their role in a homicidal armored-car robbery carried out by the May the 19th Communist Organization, a clique of New York leftists who named their organization in honor of Ho Chi Minh’s birthday.
Dohrn wasn’t the only Manson admirer of her time. Other Weathermen hoisted a “Manson Power” banner in 1969 when they issued their declaration of war on the United States, and Rolling Stone’s coverage of the man and his crimes — it dedicated a special issue to him — was at times fawning. The magazine depicted him on its cover as the thing he’d always wanted to be: a rock star. A radical newspaper named him “Man of the Year.” Jerry Rubin, the celebrated anti-war activist, said: “I fell in love with Charlie Manson the first time I saw his cherub face and sparkling eyes on TV.” That cherub face later had a swastika carved into it. “His words and courage inspired us,” Rubin said.
Manson believed he was sent to inspire an apocalyptic race war. The radicals of the period wanted a race war, too, and they sometimes got a little bit of one: There were 159 race riots in 1967. In Detroit alone, 43 people died in those riots. Lyndon Johnson was so spooked he sent in the 82nd Airborne to put a lid on it.
Riots and snipers. Assassinations. Lyndon Johnson. Dohrn and Ayers and “Days of Rage.” Rubin and his anti-Vietnam marches. Rolling Stone’s batty insistence that Charles Manson was a principled social critic. Manson’s cult-messiah shtick. It was all of a piece: The 1960s were an almost entirely joyless period. Go back and look at those Woodstock pictures: Nobody was having any fun. What you see in those pictures is the desperation of people trying to convince themselves they are having a good time. Even the music was joyless, Jimi Hendrix letting his virtuosity go to rot while plonking out a honking flatted fifth, the ugliest chord in music (“diabolus in musica,” they call it) to open “Purple Haze,” the great anthem of the era, a song about confusion. “Nowadays people don’t want you to sing good,” Hendrix wrote in a letter to his father. “They want you to sing sloppy and have a good beat to your songs. That’s what angle I’m going to shoot for. That’s where the money is. So just in case about three or four months from now you might hear a record by me which sounds terrible, don’t feel ashamed, just wait until the money rolls in because every day people are singing worse and worse on purpose and the public buys more and more records.” The Sex Pistols were right about rock ’n’ roll being a swindle.
There were exceptions, of course. As the cities burned and the war raged and the trains to Siberia were packed full of dissidents, the Beach Boys released 20/20, an album in which they attempted to recapture some of their early magic. But it was hard going: Brian Wilson, the genius behind the group, was in a psychiatric hospital at the time. The first single was “Do It Again,” a surf-y revisitation of their early sound, followed by “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” a pop song from the 1950s recorded by, among others, Ritchie Valens.
John Lennon, who ought to have known a cynical operator when he saw one, described Manson as a man who ‘took children in when nobody else would.’
The B-side to that single was “Never Learn Not to Love,” written by Charles Manson. He’d wormed his way into Brian Wilson’s social circle by organizing orgies for him. He wasn’t much of a songwriter, but his songs are still occasionally performed and recorded. The impeccably progressive Henry Rollins produced an album of songs performed by Manson, though it never was released. The two were pen pals for a while. Neil Young had pitched Manson’s music to Warner Bros. John Lennon, who ought to have known a cynical operator when he saw one, described Manson as a man who “took children in when nobody else would.” Not that he was a fan of publicity-stunt mass murders: “I just think a lot of the things he says are true.”
Of course they fell for it. The idealist con is one of the oldest and most lucrative hustles going. The idiot children of the 1960s talked up Charles Manson for the same reason Langston Hughes wrote paeans to Joseph Stalin, for the same reason American progressives still take the side of the Rosenbergs and still think Alger Hiss was framed. Langston Hughes wasn’t a “liberal in a hurry” — he signed a letter of support for Stalin’s purges. Noam Chomsky spent years denying the holocaust in Cambodia, insisting it was the invention of American propagandists. After Fidel Castro was done murdering and pillaging his way through Cuban history, Barack Obama could only find it in his heart to say: “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”
Pass the crumpets, Bernardine.
Bernardine Dohrn recently gave a speech in Chicago in which she proposed turning the Cook County jail into a park as part of “a city — a world — without jails.” It didn’t quite have the poetry of her earlier work: “Offing those rich pigs with their own forks and knives, and then eating a meal in the same room, far out! The Weathermen dig Charles Manson.” Of what possible use could a jail be in the world imagined by such a mind?
Pigs, she called the dead woman and her dead baby. The Weathermen dig it, and what’s another skeleton or two, or another 100 million, beneath the foundations of Utopia? Lenin had a few thoughts on how to go about making an omelet.
“These children that come at you with knives — you taught them,” Manson said. “I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up.”
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.