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 August 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It was two months after my twentieth birthday, and I traveled to the city as part of a loosely organized effort by SDS to persuade young people who had campaigned their hearts out for Senator Eugene McCarthy to abandon all faith in the Democratic Party. We planned to ask them, “How can you support a bunch of politicians who send Americans to fight and kill the courageous people of Vietnam, who just want to run their own country?” Once I got to Chicago, however, “McCarthy kids” were hard to find; the massive force of police officers and National Guard members that Mayor Richard Daley had assembled to protect the convention had frightened most of them off.

So instead of engaging in the not-so-gentle persuasion we radicals had planned, we sat around “movement centers” in high-school gyms and basement offices, talking politics and eating sandwiches. When it got dark, some of us took to the streets to engage in acts of petty destruction. Bands of protesters threw rocks at police cars (unoccupied ones; we weren’t idiots). One night, with a few hundred fellow SDSers, I ran through the Chicago Loop, hurling bottles and rocks at plate-glass windows, mostly of auto dealerships. There was a marvelous sensation in throwing a rock or some other hard object (old baseballs work just fine) at a sheet of glass taller than oneself and watching it shatter and fall to the ground.

Later that night or the next one, the police caught up with me. I had met a lovely young demonstrator, and we were walking to the apartment where she was staying near Lincoln Park, the site of the largest protest encampment. Suddenly, a police car drove onto the sidewalk, blocking our way. A beefy cop rushed out, saw my SDS button (an image of a clenched fist), and scowled that we were both under arrest. He frisked me with what seemed a bit too much care. As I walked, handcuffed, to the police van, I managed to throw my date a quick smile. We never saw each other again.

Every true revolutionary spends some time behind bars. So, sexual frustration notwithstanding, I was not unhappy to be locked in a cell at the Cook County Jail, where I would spend the next two days and nights. My two cellmates shared neither my acquiescence nor my political zeal. They were Black men about my age who had driven from Detroit to enact some kind of deal for either drugs or guns (understandably, they kept the details vague). They cursed often about the bologna sandwiches and weak apple juice the guards shoved at us three times a day. In response to hearing how I had landed in jail, they quickly reminded me how wide a gap of understanding existed in that crowded cage of concrete and steel: “You got yourself arrested because you hate the war? Who the fuck does that?” I was released on my own recognizance; my cellmates were clearly bound for a much longer stay.

Mayor Daley’s finest were not quite done with me, however. The evening of my release, I stumbled back to the third-floor apartment a friendly local activist had vacated for my group of friends to use. At about 3 a.m., police began pounding on the door, and we let them in. Five cops, armed with rifles and wearing no badges or nameplates, ordered us to sit in a circle.

To describe what happened next, I’ll use an excerpt from the story we told later to the police department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs. It got included in the book-length report on the events of that convention week, drafted by a commission headed by Daniel Walker, a former Democratic governor of Illinois. To quote from the Walker Report:

The armed officers kept the occupants at gunpoint, while the other two searched the apartment. . . . While the search went on . . . the guards threatened the group, saying: “We’re tired of demonstrators. In Chicago, the police have guns and use them. We can smash your head in and leave, or take you to the street and let the others finish you off.”

After about 15 minutes they left and the occupants found that a helmet, a pair of goggles, a camera and light meter and 50 dollars in cash were missing. . . . [One of the occupants] said the police “had purposefully rubbed dog defecation which was on the floor of the apartment” into a sleeping bag and had insulted the one girl present.

In retrospect, lodging a complaint with one group of Chicago police against another does not sound like the act of a committed radical. But Lenin himself returned to Petrograd in 1917 in a sealed train provided by the Kaiser’s government; clever revolutionaries make use of any tool the enemy provides.

Before coming to Chicago, I had never had a run-in of any kind with the police, though I knew they could be violent and corrupt. We were fortunate that, for that particular band in blue, the crooked trait triumphed over the homicidal one.

A month later, I was back in Cambridge to begin my junior year. The mission of the Harvard-Radcliffe chapter of SDS in the fall of 1968 was to stage a confrontation with the administrators of the oldest, most prestigious university in the nation—hopefully, over some issue connected to the Vietnam War. We borrowed our strategy (implicitly at least) from the nonviolent campaigns of the Black freedom movement in places like Birmingham, Alabama, earlier that decade. The aim was to take actions that provoked the authorities to reveal their true, repressive nature. The result, we hoped, would be to raise the consciousness of professors and fellow students. The ultimate goal was to build a larger, more aggressive movement to force the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. “The issue was not the issue,” Mark Rudd, a leader of a Columbia University uprising that had been sparked by SDS the previous spring, was fond of saying.

We chose a campaign to abolish the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps chapter on campus. Harvard had started its ROTC chapter soon after Congress created the program, in 1916, to train students for military service, and it thrived during both world wars. By the late 1960s, however, there were fewer than twenty students enrolled in Harvard ROTC, and some of those cadets had signed up only to receive the full scholarship the government offered.

Although Harvard ROTC graduates went on, as required, to serve as officers, we didn’t know how many of that tiny cohort would actually end up in Vietnam. So our Abolish ROTC campaign was really just a symbolic swipe at the university’s complicity with the war machine. The influence on U.S. policy wielded by Henry Kissinger, who was then taking a leave from teaching at Harvard to serve as President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, was grander and far more malevolent than the presence of ROTC on campus. But every offensive requires an enemy outpost it can attack and conquer.

SDS announced the campaign to do away with ROTC early in the fall semester and pursued it relentlessly until the next spring. I was one of three co-chairs of our chapter that year and spent far more time doing politics than attending lectures, reading books, or writing papers. We drew on the familiar repertoire of left-wing organizing: a mass petition drive, a publicity campaign (aided by friendly editors at the Harvard Crimson), and a sit-in at a meeting the university held to discuss our demand.

At one point, three other SDS leaders and I met with John Dunlop, a professor with a long and successful record of mediating labor disputes. He wanted to find a compromise solution we might accept. Our discussion did not last long. Dunlop had no experience negotiating with a party that would consider any settlement a tactical defeat. Near the end of March, Nathan Pusey, Harvard’s president, announced that ROTC would remain on campus.

On the evening of April 8, I presided over an open SDS meeting of some 300 people, which launched the confrontation we had desired all along. Just before it began, I took a piece of chalk and scrawled the Maoist slogan “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win” in large block letters across the spacious blackboard. I was no follower of the Great Helmsman. In fact, our chapter had been divided all year between followers of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), which was the largest Maoist group in the nation, and my faction, the New Left caucus. Our idea of revolution brooked no fidelity to a one-party state with a deified chairman. But that night both factions were set on “taking a building”: University Hall, which housed the offices of the college deans.

Before we could march over to the elegant hall, however, we would have to find a way to surmount a nagging obstacle from inside the meeting itself. The majority of people who had come to talk and listen were not dedicated SDS activists, and they opposed an occupation they knew would inflame the university. To solve this democratic dilemma, I acted in a manifestly undemocratic way. I called a series of votes on whether to take the building. After each one failed, I kept the meeting open for yet more debate, which lasted until close to midnight. Finally, when it was clear that those voting “no” would prevail, I adjourned the mess.

But a determined revolutionary does not give up so easily. As the meeting ended, prominent figures from both factions of SDS took their anger and resolve into the narrow streets around Harvard Square. As we chanted past dark burger joints and preppy clothing stores, we agreed to turn our minority position into a fait accompli. At noon the following day, we would take the damn building, in the hope that the act would accomplish what the meeting had not.

To cap off the night, we marched toward President Pusey’s house, which sat on Quincy Street on the border of the Yard. The memory of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses floated into my mind from a high-school history textbook. “Anybody have any nails or tacks?” I shouted. Someone produced a jack-knife, and I stabbed our demands onto Pusey’s door with the same glee with which I had smashed a Cadillac dealership’s window in the Loop the summer before. Then a few of my comrades and I left to write and print up copies of a leaflet, which would be slipped under dorm-room doors all over Harvard and Radcliffe before the sun came up. “THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW!” it blared.

The next day, on April 9, about seventy of us barged up the steps of University Hall and announced to the deans and their secretaries that we were occupying the premises—and they should leave. When they balked at our order, a few of my PLP comrades picked up a recalcitrant dean and carried him out of the building on their shoulders.

For the rest of the day and into the evening, we held a virtually continuous meeting in a magnificent wooden hall, its walls lined with portraits of Harvard’s past presidents (all white and male) dressed in academic regalia. Topics included whether to rifle through the deans’ desks looking for incriminating documents, how to rally support from outside the Yard, who would supply us with food, where we would sleep, and, most important, whether to resist arrest or go quietly. I sided with the peaceful camp, but only because I thought it would result in fewer casualties.

That night, Pusey locked the gates to the Yard and warned us to leave the building. By the next morning, everyone inside University Hall seemed to be asking the same question, with the same anxious yet eager tone in their voices: “Are the cops coming?” Not wanting to sit, arms linked, with my fellow occupiers and take whatever blows the police might deliver, I volunteered to go outside and find out.

In the sharp, early-morning light, the police were already invading the Yard. I think I turned back to University Hall and knocked wildly on the doors, yelling, “They’re here!” But I may not have made that responsible gesture at all. Given the racket the police were making, it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway.

I did join a swelling throng of students who, having managed to open the gates, were screaming at the police to get out of the Yard. Some shouted, “Sieg Heil! and made a mocking Nazi salute at the officers. Those images of storm troopers came easily—too easily—to anyone raised on pictures of the big war that had ended less than a quarter-century before.

Then I did a very stupid thing: I threw an empty soda bottle at a policeman, and it rattled off his helmet. He charged at me with his billy club, landing a blow on the top of my head before a crowd of irate students surrounded me and forced him to retreat. With blood trickling down my neck and onto my collar, I walked up the steps of the university library and gave an angry speech denouncing the bust and calling for a student strike. Later that morning, in an unruly mass meeting, the protesting students voted to shut down the university. A few days later, some 10,000 Harvardians met in the football stadium across the river to declare that the strike would last for a week.

I felt guilty that I did not get arrested along with my comrades that morning—which is probably why I had hurled that ineffectual missile at the cop. But I also felt exhilarated knowing that Pusey, by calling in the police, had instantly turned an act of civil disobedience by a few hundred radicals into an uprising of thousands of students and professors incensed that outside agitators in blue shirts and crash helmets had barged into an internal Harvard quarrel.

Did our actions help end the war in Vietnam any sooner? Did it matter that the issue that drove us to occupy University Hall was not really the issue, but instead a handy way to dramatize Harvard’s undeniable complicity with the military-political-intellectual machine that had engineered and was prosecuting an immoral war? I asked myself none of those questions at the time. For a twenty-year-old revolutionary, the morning of April 10 had been a thrilling time to be alive. We were making history, damn it—but, to paraphrase Marx, not quite as we pleased.

That fall, Harvard did get rid of its ROTC chapter. I was no longer on campus at the time, and I’m not sure I even heard the news.[1]

In June 1969, I returned to Chicago for another convention, which turned out to be just as contentious, absent the violence, as the one that had taken place in the city the summer before. This convention was the annual national gathering of SDS, which had about 100,000 members at the time. It ended with the organization split into two irreconcilable camps whose members utterly detested one another.

The strife arose from the same rancor between the Maoist PLP faction and its adversaries that had riddled the Harvard left. PLPers insisted that only those who adhered to their line were true revolutionaries; all others were guilty either of petty-bourgeois reformism or, worse, of abetting the ruling class. In a farcical imitation of Stalinists during the early years of the Great Depression, PLP preached that radicals should cut their hair, dress like culturally conservative factory workers, forswear marijuana and rock music, and denounce any leftists who had a kind word to say about radical versions of nationalism—Black or otherwise.

Just before the convention began, a group of figures close to the national office released a document whose politics clashed with the PLP line. Their title was taken from a Bob Dylan song: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” A showdown at the convention was inevitable.

A climax of sorts occurred close to midnight on the final day of the gathering. Surrounded by a group of menacing male comrades, nascent Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn hectored PLP for some twenty minutes for political sins that ranged from criticizing Ho Chi Minh and the Black Panther Party to failing to express solidarity with the People’s Republics of Korea and Albania (as a political nerd, I knew this wasn’t the official name of either country). Dohrn concluded by damning PLP with its own jargonistic brush, saying the Maoist party, “because of its positions and practices, is objectively racist, anti-communist, and reactionary. . . . It has no place in SDS, an organization of revolutionary youth.” Its adherents, she declared, should consider themselves expelled. As the PLPers shouted, “Shame, shame, shame,” she strode off the stage and led most of the delegates out of the hall. We reconvened in a nearby church to elect new national officers; the PLP rump did the same. Neither fragment of SDS lasted out the year.

I spent that summer out in Berkeley, taking something of a vacation from rebellion—of both the external and internecine varieties. On my way back East, I stopped in Chicago to visit Mark Rudd, with whom I had worked as a volunteer at the SDS regional office in New York two years before. The encounter turned out to be a lot more consequential than the routine political update I had expected.

In 1968, Rudd had become rather famous as a leader of the Columbia student uprising. More recently, he had co-written the Weatherman statement, and he was now busy setting up collectives in various cities to carry out the strategy of creating a “white fighting force” to “bring the war home”—a goal whose meaning would quickly evolve into ever more violent forms. It began with tactics reminiscent of those of a youth gang, without firearms. Weathermen and women marched into beaches and parks where white working-class kids gathered, challenged them to join the fight against U.S. imperialism, and then rumbled with their fists to demonstrate that revolutionaries were able and willing to brawl for their beliefs. Bill Ayers coined a slogan to describe this tactic: “Fight the people.” It ended with bombs being set at a police station and in the men’s room of the U.S. Capitol—and with those involved wasting several years in fugitive existences.

After a dash of small talk, Rudd got to the point: Why haven’t you joined us? Don’t you agree with our politics? In Leninist lingo, I explained that the tactics of Weatherman seemed overly “adventurist”—risking a confrontation with the police and the government that the larger movement was not yet prepared to support and which could backfire on it. Rudd quickly countered with a response both moral and seemingly practical: “When have we ever been too ‘adventurist’? The Panthers and the Vietnamese are fighting and dying to smash imperialism. We’re just occupying buildings on campus and organizing peaceful demonstrations. None of that shit is helping them at all.”

I couldn’t think of a rebuttal. Rudd was right: it would be not just cowardly but racist to shrink from my political duty. A remark he had made to me back in the summer of 1967 seemed pertinent, too. “In the end,” Rudd had said, with characteristically arrogant aplomb, “everyone is going to be either a Stalinist or a social democrat.” While I had no love for Comrade Joe, I could not imagine taking the low road of sniveling compromise with the system, either.

So when I got back to Cambridge, I took a leave from Harvard and joined several SDS friends who were searching for an apartment where members of a collective could live and work. By Labor Day, we had found an inexpensive three-bedroom place on a quiet street in a working-class neighborhood not far from MIT. What followed were the oddest seven weeks of my life.

The dozen or so Weatherpeople (the gender-neutral term quickly became the norm) who either lived in the crowded apartment or engaged in nearly all our debates and actions came from two demographic clusters within the local white New Left. About half of us, including both women in the group, were renegades from Harvard or other fancy colleges, and all were decidedly secular Jews. Among this group was Eric Mann, the oldest and most powerful member of the collective, who had, in his pre-SDS days, been president of Cornell’s Interfraternity Council—an ironic datum he enjoyed dropping into conversation. The other half of our crew had dropped out of Northeastern, which at the time had a status one step up from a community college. With their Boston accents and Irish-Catholic names, they represented the young proletarian masses we hoped to recruit to join our “fighting force.”

Every day of “struggle” lasted at least fourteen hours, and every day was new. We read and debated articles published in the radical press, wrote leaflets, shoplifted our dinners, went to a park to run and practice karate, and tried to woo fellow SDSers to join our cause. Most important, every week or so, we planned and carried out an action in Cambridge or Boston. Each might have been designed to anger and alienate as many potential converts as possible. On the early September day when Ho Chi Minh died, we went to a park in Dorchester and harangued a group of white teenagers about the imperishable greatness of Vietnam’s revolutionary hero. We expected a battle and fared badly in the one that ensued. A week or so later, we showed up at a mixer at Boston University, where we gave students the unwelcome message that such events were noxious displays of male chauvinism and urged them to rise up against the administrators who planned them.

At every T stop from Cambridge to Boston University that evening, a different member of the collective was assigned the task of giving a one-minute speech to the other passengers before the doors closed again. Most of us confidently spat out a few slogans about victory for the Viet Cong or declared “Power to the People.” But when it was time for Jimmy, a member of the Northeastern contingent, to speak, he was struck dumb with anxiety. “Jimmy,” I implored him, “say anything.” Jimmy rose from his seat, his face crimson with effort, and shouted, “This country sucks!” That still strikes me as the most concise summary of Weatherman’s politics I have ever heard.

The collective’s most complex action happened to be one I initiated and largely planned. The Center for International Affairs at Harvard was a small institution that played a weighty role in nurturing some of the policy intellectuals of the Cold War era. Henry Kissinger, who co-founded the place in 1958, was just one of a series of CFIA stalwarts who became national security advisors to presidents. I had heard rumors that grad students and professors at the CFIA had plotted the removal of millions of peasants from villages friendly to the Viet Cong before B-52s reduced their homes to rubble and ashes. Clearly, it was a much worthier target for anti-imperialist wrath than ROTC had ever been.

Our objective was to trash the place. We would usher the staff out of the building, damage whatever objects we could get our hands on quickly, then leave and graffiti the building’s exterior walls. The action was planned for September 25, 1969. Two weeks before, I strolled innocently into the CFIA and made a mental map of the place: where the staff worked, the easiest paths to the front door, and so on. I also planned an escape route through the Peabody Museum, a short dash up the street. I assumed the sight of a dozen angry, physically fit young marauders would scare CFIA staff members enough that they would obey our commands. It was a nifty plan, and I was proud of it.

But not every person working at the institution when we arrived to carry out the action was as meek as we had expected. One older male official and a young female secretary resisted our claim that we were “liberating” their building. Both got punched and pushed down the stairs, suffering minor injuries. The sight and sound of us forcing twenty or so staffers out of the building quickly drew a midday crowd; we knew the police would soon follow. So we spray-painted such slogans as “Fuck U.S. Imperialism” on the walls, broke a few windows with rocks, and fled.

The design turned out not to be so clever after all. Some people in the crowd that had gathered to witness the “liberation” of the CFIA recognized a few of my comrades; later, they helped the two staffers identify their assailants. Eric Mann and another member of the collective ended up serving a few years in prison for assault. Although I had done nothing but shout and curse, I could easily have been arrested too. That day, I locked eyes for a moment with a former professor of mine, but he never reported my presence, perhaps because he was also a vehement opponent of the war, or just because he was fond of me.

In the days following the bungled action at the CFIA, I felt increasingly grim about remaining in the collective. My rage at the war and my guilt about not doing enough to aid the Vietnamese and others engaged in armed revolt against imperialism were as strong as ever. I did question, however, whether our tactics were equal to that ambition. They seemed not just adventurist but frightening. Plans were afoot for the collective to barge into a local high school and urge the students to break out of the “jail” in which they were confined. There was even talk of carrying out a final solution to the nuisance of PLP in the Boston area—with guns, if necessary. Meanwhile, we were busy preparing to travel to Chicago in early October for what Rudd and his fellow members of the Weather Bureau dubbed the “Days of Rage.”

A week or so before the riot planned for the Windy City, Rudd passed through Cambridge on a tour evaluating the Eastern collectives. His visit gave me the opportunity to get expelled. In its short existence, Weatherman had managed to acquire some of the elements of a political or religious cult. Our certainty in our righteousness was supposed to be so unshakeable that one could not leave the fold voluntarily; the collective had to cast you out as unfit to wage the urgent battle to liberate the world. So I had to convince my comrades to let me go, and I knew Rudd’s consent would do the trick.

The meeting to determine my fate began around 10 p.m. and continued until just before daybreak. I kept asserting that I was too ambivalent and cowardly to be counted on; my comrades insisted that I was not yet beyond saving. Finally, Rudd, who had said little during the long debate, sighed and concluded, “If Kazin really wants to go, let him.” I quickly moved my belongings out of the apartment before they could change their minds.

But the expulsion I had craved did not immediately end my service to the faith. The day after I left, Mann told me I was no better than a deserter from the Viet Cong, “and you know what the Viet Cong does to deserters.” He insisted that I donate a large chunk of my savings to the collective as penance, and I agreed. Then, during the Days of Rage—which consisted of about 250 Weatherpeople getting busted for rioting through the Loop—I wrote propaganda leaflets about the action and, with a handful of Weatherman supporters, passed them out in downtown Boston. I failed to keep any copies, but I do recall one of the headlines: “Red Army Marches on Chicago.” Even then, I knew the claim was absurd. My fidelity to the cult was beginning to wane.

Two months later, at the end of 1969, I embarked on my next revolutionary adventure, which would end up freeing me entirely from Weatherman’s appeal. With 215 other Americans, I joined the first contingent of the Venceremos (“We Shall Win”) Brigade to Cuba, organized mainly by people who had been members of SDS before the organization imploded. With great relish, we were breaking our government’s blockade of the island nation. A warning stamped prominently on our passports stated that they were “not valid for travel” to the “restricted countries and areas of Cuba, Mainland China, North Korea, and North Viet Nam.” But who the hell cared about passports? President Richard Nixon and his henchmen were not going to stop us from traveling to the land of Fidel Castro and the late Che Guevara—the citadel of anti-imperialism and socialism in the Americas. We did, however, have to fly into Havana from Mexico City, where people I assumed were FBI agents (but were probably Mexican federal police) snapped our photos before letting us board the plane.

My small group from Boston had to make a connection through Chicago. As we walked through the terminal at O’Hare on December 5, we saw newspaper headlines about a police raid the night before on an apartment where leaders of the local Black Panther Party lived. Among those killed in the unprovoked assault was Fred Hampton, the charismatic twenty-one-year-old chairman of the Panthers’ Illinois chapter. His murder enraged me, but it also convinced me that the trip I was taking was necessary. I would be spending the next two months learning from people who had waged their own revolution and were fighting to protect it against the same racist imperialists whose underlings had just gunned down “Chairman Fred.”

For six weeks after arriving in Cuba, we expressed our solidarity by cutting sugar cane at a camp in a rural area of Havana Province. Seventy Young Communists, most of whom spoke pretty good English, lived and worked with us. That year, most Cubans were mobilized in an economic enterprise one could call Promethean or just plain foolish: harvesting 10 million metric tons of cane—double the output of any previous year—in order to reimburse loans the government had received from Soviet bloc countries and begin to move Cuba’s economy toward self-sufficiency. Billboards declaring ¡Los Diez Millones Van! were plastered all over the island. The government had pulled hundreds of thousands of otherwise productive workers out of their mines, factories, and offices to toil in the fields.

None of us Yanqui radicals had ever wielded a machete, let alone attempted to chop down ten-foot-high cane stalks covered with sharp leaves without damaging the sugar deposits that lay near the ground. We must have been the least efficient macheteros in history. But, of course, our real reason for being there was to make a political point, as the almost daily coverage we received in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party organ, made clear: the same young Americans who fought for Black freedom and protested against the Vietnam War were compañeros of the Cuban revolution.

The practice of solidarity also turned out to be a good deal of fun. The Cubans woke us with music every morning, using either a rhythmic tune of their own or a familiar rock song. One day, we were surprised to hear the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” blasting from the loudspeakers. Our hosts treated us to a regimen far more luxurious than that endured by native macheteros. They broke up the workday by bringing us jars of frozen Bulgarian fruit yogurt at mid-morning and serving us a three-course meal at lunch.

In the evenings, after an excellent dinner (and all the cigars we could smoke), we listened to speeches from party intellectuals and an occasional Afro-Cuban band. One day, Fidel himself cut cane with us and then gave an hour-long speech, using no notes. All I remember from his talk was his profound doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald was a good enough marksman to have assassinated John F. Kennedy.

One evening, a group of uniformed soldiers from the Viet Cong came to dinner at the camp. Through a French interpreter, I had a halting but pleasant discussion with one of them—a young man about my age. Then I asked him what the large tricolor medal on his chest signified. The soldier beamed and responded, in accented English, “Twenty Yankees killed!” I ended the conversation as quickly as I could. My revolutionary solidarity had come up against a forbidding emotional wall.

During our final two weeks in Cuba, we left the cane fields and took a grand tour, by bus, around the island. I filled notebook after notebook with details about health clinics, pineapple plantations, secondary schools, the Moncada Barracks in Santiago (where Castro and his men staged the unsuccessful attack in 1953 that became the symbolic beginning of their rebellion), and the Isle of Youth, where the Batista regime had jailed its political prisoners. Everywhere, we were treated as heroes and urged to transform our own benighted nation.

When I returned to the states, I gave talks about the glories of the Cuban Revolution to audiences at Boston-area colleges and a high school or two. I also wrote an embarrassing piece in the same vein for the Crimson.[2] 

As time passed, however, I became more critical. The big harvest yielded only about 7.5 million tons of sugar, and the severe economic dislocation it caused made the Cubans even more dependent on the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe than they had been before. I also learned that the Cuban government, which I had deemed a paragon of genuine freedom, routinely locked up its opponents, jailed gay and lesbian people (many on the Isle of Youth, until the prison there was closed in 1967), and had no intention of allowing its people to decide for themselves if they wanted the Communist Party to remain indefinitely in power.

Gradually, I also began to recall things I had seen or heard during my time on the island that contradicted the unqualified admiration I expressed at the time. Fierce-looking policemen and soldiers were ubiquitous, particularly in the cities and near big fields and sugar mills. Several of the young Communists who worked and traveled with us confessed their doubts about Fidel’s support for the Warsaw Pact force’s crushing of the Czech attempt to create “socialism with a human face” in 1968. Some also mocked the stilted rhetoric in their party textbooks as “too Soviet.”

Back in Cambridge, I had nothing better to do than return to school. I managed to slip into a few classes even though the spring semester had already started. I recall hardly anything about them or much about the November Action Committee (NAC), the post-SDS group of campus activists I joined. But in mid-April, I did manage to help pull off an impressive action—again targeting the CFIA. This time, we had a specific event around which to mobilize: the annual visit of a committee charged with evaluating the work of the institution.

Unlike the last action, this one was publicized in advance, and the authorities were ready for us. Just after noon, about 200 NAC demonstrators entered the CFIA building and were met by a handful of Harvard administrators guarding the stairs to the room where the visiting committee was scheduled to have lunch. If we did not leave the building immediately, one deanish figure announced, we would be subject to punishment under new rules meant to prevent another building occupation. This caused a few dozen students to slink away. But I led a large group upstairs, where we found a substantial meal, including several bottles of French wine, ready to be served. We gleefully swept everything off the table, grabbed any documents within view, and rushed outside.

Despite the mild, rather silly nature of the action, Harvard officials needed to find someone to blame, and I was an obvious culprit. A month later, on May 17, 1970, I did my best to turn my disciplinary hearing before the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities (CRR) into another display of contempt for the university. NAC organized a picket line to stop the committee members from getting to the office in Harvard Square where the hearing was to be held. After that tactic failed, I showed up with three friends, whom I brought as my advisors, and was presented with materials that made clear I had purposely transgressed the rules of the CRR.

We were amused to discover that the nature of the evidence fit precisely a line sung by Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant”: “eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, explaining what each one was, to be used as evidence against us.” I said something about the hearing being illegitimate, began to tear up the photos, and urged my advisors to do the same. A few days later, the CRR informed me that I was suspended. It tacked on an additional academic year for my conduct at the hearing.

Given the big events occurring that month in 1970, I spent little time worrying about the consequences of being suspended from Harvard. At the beginning of May, the largest student strike in U.S. history had exploded to protest Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Demonstrators were killed in Ohio and Mississippi, and hundreds of colleges and high schools—including Harvard—were shut down. I dashed around the area organizing demonstrations and holding meetings. In the middle of the tumult, I took a bus to the Boston Army base for my draft physical.

Several erstwhile SDS comrades happened to have physicals scheduled for the same day. On the bus from Cambridge, like good organizers, we worked out a plan. Having trained as a draft counselor (although I counseled hardly anyone), I knew we would be funneled through a series of tests, mental as well as physical. Why not resist by exerting our democratic rights as American citizens? Before each test, we would demand a discussion and a vote on whether to proceed. In so doing, we hoped to foul up the process—and get ourselves deferred as well.

We began with the mental exam, which anyone with a decent elementary-school education could pass. “Who’s in favor of taking this test?” I shouted out to my fellow potential inductees. The vote was negative, of course, but the sergeant in charge insisted we fill out the answers anyway. One of my clan then asked, “Who knows the answer to question number four? Wrong answers only.” This went on for about twenty minutes before an officer came in and whispered something to the sergeant, who picked up our unfinished work and shunted us off to the next station. We kept up our resistance through the blood-drawing and urine-sampling, until, eventually, a combination of boredom and threats from the officers persuaded us to stop.

In truth, I was never in any real danger of passing the physical anyway. For Americans, the Vietnam War was, as historian Christian Appy has put it, a “working-class war.” In the middle of a massive student strike, the authorities were not eager to sign up scruffy Harvard types who detested Nixon’s bloody mission. And young men like me, who had options and knew how to exploit them, could rather easily fail the examination and avoid induction.

I had arrived at the base carrying a letter from a psychiatrist, who said I suffered from debilitating flashbacks caused by excessive use of LSD. Then, at the end of my physical, I lied to the military physician, telling him that I was gay and might try to kill my officers. For good measure, I revealed all this in a painful stutter. Believing I was sincere, the medical officer leaned over and placed a consoling hand on my shoulder. “You need some help, son,” he said. “I really hope you get it.” He then jotted down the code that signaled my deferment from service, “except in case of national emergency.”

Trying to hide a smirk, I strolled away from the testing area and noticed an anxious young man about my age waiting to start his physical. “Hey, man, don’t be afraid,” I told him. “I can give you some advice on getting out of this thing. Where are you from?” In a thick Boston accent, he responded, pleadingly, “I’m from Southie, and if I don’t pass this fuckin’ test, my father will kill me. He fought in the Second World War, and his father fought in that other war. And I got nothing else going on. So I better fuckin’ pass!” The Viet Cong soldier I met in Cuba had pierced my illusion about the virtue of guerilla warriors. This fretful guy from South Boston made me realize that, for men like him, the military could be the best of bad options.

Having been liberated from both the draft and Harvard in the same month, I had to consider my own options. Some friends from SDS had settled in working-class towns outside Boston to try to win young residents to the anti-imperialist cause. I thought briefly about joining one of their new collectives but shrank from the idea of throwing myself into another fraught adventure in organizing. Instead, I looked around for “political work” I would actually enjoy. Journalism had appealed to me ever since I was a teenager, when I wrote a regular column for my hometown newspaper about doings at my high school. So I called up an editor at Liberation News Service in New York City and talked my way into a job.

LNS was the sort of institution that could thrive only during a period of radical optimism—and cheap Manhattan rents. By the time I joined the staff, it had grown from a tiny operation into the modest equivalent of an Associated Press for the New Left. Twice a week, from a spacious basement a few blocks north of Columbia University, we edited, printed, and mailed out thick packets of articles, photos, and cartoons taken from hundreds, if not thousands, of sources—mostly “underground papers” from all over the United States and a sprinkling of left periodicals from other countries. We were adept at culling reports and analytical pieces from the cornucopia of material that flooded into our office each day.

I found time to write a few articles myself that summer. One was a three-part series about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—the tyrannical state then ruled by Kim Il Sung. Depending solely on books and pamphlets produced by the North Korean government, I wrote several thousand words, full of thoughtless falsehoods, about the glories of the regime. A week or so after the flattering series appeared in several papers, I received a letter from a North Korean official inviting me to visit his nation—an invitation that was quickly rescinded when he learned that I was unmarried. Fortunately, when I decided to write about events in my own country, I relied only on what I could see and hear for myself.

On July 4, 1970, a group of prominent Nixon supporters, including Billy Graham and Bob Hope, arranged an “Honor America Day” rally on the National Mall, with speeches and a talent show featuring a variety of conservative actors and musicians. The occasion instantly became a magnet for protest. I drove down from New York with the photographer David Fenton to witness the inevitable confrontation.

It turned out to be quite a show. As Graham declared from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that “instead of an Iron Curtain, we in this country have a picture window,” several thousand lefty “freaks” crowded into the Reflecting Pool. They passed around joints and shouted slogans, obscene and otherwise. I interviewed a white Vietnam veteran who vowed to spend his “whole life fighting the revolution until we win” and a Black man who was there with his eight-year-old son, selling buttons that said “Love It or Leave It”—a sentiment he clearly did not support. I took notes at a furious pace and dashed off a draft of the piece before we arrived back in New York the next morning. It was delightful to report on how a non-violent riot had marred a day of pro-Nixon patriotism. But I also wondered if this kind of disorganized revolt did anything to weaken the president’s popularity or advance the lofty goals of the movement.

I had hoped to join the LNS collective as a way of advancing those goals. But due to a feminist uprising, “Grass, Gas, and Billy Graham” was the last major article I wrote while working in the New York office. Before I came to LNS, it had been decided that no man could join the organization’s inner core until at least one more woman had done so. Since none had been added to the collective that summer, I was politely, and a tad regretfully, asked to accept my lower status among the “Comrades” listed on the masthead of every packet—or leave.

The day before that decision came down, I was browsing through a stack of the underground papers we received and got engrossed in a weekly from Portland, Oregon. Much of the content in the Willamette Bridge, whether lifted from LNS packets or not, echoed what could be found in any New Left periodical. But I was drawn to the paper’s coverage of local activism, which suggested a quieter sensibility more attuned to the concerns of people who lived and worked in the city. The Bridge reported on a long-running strike by projectionists at local movie theaters and on attempts by environmentalists to stop the Weyerhaeuser Company from rapidly cutting down a swath of nearby forest.

The staff of the Portland paper seemed grounded in struggles relevant to a particular place and didn’t seem to care whether they appeared reformist or liberal to leftists elsewhere. They reminded me of a line by SDS leaders Paul Booth and Lee Webb I had once admired: “We understand democracy to be that system of rule in which the people make the decisions that affect their lives.” As a revolutionary, I had mostly stopped thinking of democracy as my goal. Reading the Bridge revived my hunger for it.

After learning that I would not be joining the LNS collective, I dialed up the Bridge and learned, from an editor whose actual surname was Moscow, that they would be glad to have another staffer with some journalistic experience. He offered me a salary of $25 a week plus 25 percent of the proceeds from any papers I managed to sell on the streets of the city. For a twenty-two-year-old revolutionary (who knew he could get cash from his mother, if needed), it sounded like an excellent job.

In the middle of August, 1970, I stuffed a large backpack with clothes I thought I would need in the rainy Pacific Northwest and took off with my girlfriend for a short stay at her family’s vacation home in southern Michigan. A week later, she dropped me off next to the on-ramp of an interstate highway. I strapped on my heavy pack, put a smile on my face, and stuck out my thumb at the drivers headed west. I had not quite woken up from the dream of revolution. But it was no longer the sole name of my desire.

Michael Kazin is a former co-editor of Dissent and teaches history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.

[1]  The preceding description of the bust that took place on the morning of April 10 is adapted from a short piece I wrote for Harvard Magazine’s Spring 2019 issue.

[2]  Bizarrely, the Crimson on its website lists the author of my piece as Che Guevara, the iconic communist guerilla fighter killed by Bolivian soldiers more than two years before.