What I Saw at the Revolution That Didn’t Happen

What I Saw at the Revolution That Didn’t Happen

Memoirs of a Weatherman.

The Days of Rage demonstration organized by the Weathermen in Chicago on October 11, 1969 (David Fenton/Getty Images)

I spent two years of my life as a revolutionary in a country where most people loathed the very idea of social upheaval. I don’t regret what I did from 1968 to 1970, although I realize I may have played a small, if unintentional, part in speeding the right’s path to national power. My experiences did, however, inoculate me against the bacillus of one virulent species of political fervor. They also helped make me a historian who considers an empathetic understanding of the decisions people made in the past to be fundamental to my work.

To call a tendency “extremist” implies that one should condemn it. But going to extremes and coming back from them can be both a thrilling experience and a sobering one. At least, it was for me.

I grew up in a political environment shared by many academics from the baby-boom generation—particularly secular Jewish ones. As young adults in the 1930s, both my parents sympathized with the Marxian left: my mother took a trip to the Soviet Union during one of her college vacations; my father cast his first presidential vote for Earl Browder, the Communist candidate in 1936, and briefly worked as the book editor of the New Republic when its positions matched those of the Popular Front. But by the time they met, during the Second World War, their ideological horizons stretched no farther than FDR. They divorced when I was just two, but both remained staunch liberals until their deaths many decades later.

I began devouring political news before I got out of elementary school. Banner headlines from the New York Times about national elections, presidential inaugurations, and the like occupied an entire wall in my childhood bedroom. I heard John Kennedy speak during the 1960 presidential race and wore one of his campaign buttons to school every day that fall.

But by the time I entered college, six years later, my liberal faith was wavering. The inspiring activists of the Black freedom movement, fear of a nuclear holocaust, and disgust at Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War had all pushed me leftward. During my first year at Harvard, I was elected to the executive boards of both the campus Young Democrats and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). By the end of final exams, I had resigned from the former and was devoting all my spare time to the latter.

But I didn’t start describing my views as “revolutionary” until a year later. By then, the Democratic administration’s betrayal of its stated liberal ideals, both in Indochina and in Black communities around the nation, made destroying the entire imperialist system seem the only moral and rational course to take. My comrades in SDS were also the most passionate and intellectually persuasive people I knew.

My short career as an aspiring revolutionary—thrilling, anxious, at times ridiculous—began in ...

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