Blasts From the Past

Hanoi Journal 1967

Carol Cohen McEldowney, Edited by Suzanne Kelley McCormack and Elizabeth R. Mock

Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007, 151 pp., $22.95, paperback

Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman

By Cathy Wilkerson

New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007, 432 pp., $25.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Alice Echols

No decade in recent memory looms so large in our time as the 1960s. All those sit-ins, protest marches, boycotts, and white-heat rhetoric decisively reshaped America’s political landscape in ways that have kept the liberal-left on the defensive for decades. Every presidential campaign involves a replaying of what were once largely generational battles about freedom, responsibility, individuality, and, ah, yes, democracy. Indeed, for many voters, the appeal of Barack Obama lies in his uncanny ability to conjure up a Kennedy-esque freshness while apparently rejecting the polarizing debates of that era. Culturally the era also continues to resonate, with each year bringing masses of new “sixties” books and CD reissues of the decade’s most popular music. This preoccupation with the sixties is not driven solely by boomer nostalgia. Many of my students are as keen on the Doors as they are on Kanye West. And then there’s the strange comeback of the peace sign. Suddenly it is everywhere—on sorority sweatshirts, designer jeans and on all variety of airport merchandise—though not, it seems, as an antiwar symbol but rather as a free-floating signifier of the freedom and overall good vibes of the 1960s.

Curiously, women have figured more in novels about the sixties, particularly in what I call “fugitive fiction,” which concerns radicals who went underground, than they have in the memoirs and autobiographies of radical activists. Carol McEldowney’s Hanoi Journal 1967 and Cathy Wilkerson’s Flying Close to the Sun help to right the balance. That said, these are decidedly different texts—one an impressionistic journal of a young New Leftist’s 1967 journey behind enemy lines to North Vietnam, the other a full-blown new autobiography by a onetime political fugitive whose exploits figure prominently in the annals of the New Left.

McEldowney never imagined that her journal would see the light of day, and, as a consequence it has an appealing off-the-cuff quality. Hanoi Journal 1967 is informative in all sorts of ways, and when she is not meticulously cataloguing the finer details of North Vietnamese society—the organization of its factories, neighborhoods, schools, and women’s organizations—and gathering evidence of American bombing and the resulting atrocities, it is entertaining as well.

By contrast, Wilkerson, best known as a member of the radical Weatherman collective—which managed to blow up most of itself during an effort to assemble an antipersonnel bomb intended for an army officer’s dance—has produced a strangely bloodless and enervating narrative that creaks under the weight of that disastrous misadventure. From Wilkerson’s opening paragraph until her final page, the infamous bombing, which occurred in her father’s Greenwich Village townhouse, haunts the narrative. Along the way, she gives both explanations and excuses as to why she and her comrades believed that radical change required political violence.

Both McEldowney, who traveled to Hanoi, and Wilkerson, who eventually traveled underground, were committed members of America’s leading New Left organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Wilkerson, whose background might be characterized as tenuously middle class (she was raised for a time by her schoolteacher mother), grew up with a keen sense of emotional apartness, even deprivation. McEldowney’s parents were working class, but they provided both economic and emotional sustenance to their daughter, at least until she became embroiled in radical politics at the University of Michigan—the birthplace, for all practical purposes, of SDS. Although neither woman mentions the other, their paths likely crossed during the middle years of the sixties when both were working in SDS projects and participating in the organization’s national conferences. By 1969 they would have found themselves on opposing sides of a divide that proved the death of SDS, and, many would say, doomed the American New Left as well.

Carol McEldowney was not an obvious person to travel to Hanoi. By the summer of 1967 she had spent almost three years working in an SDS project to organize and empower the urban poor of Cleveland. While she opposed the war, she was not an antiwar activist per se. However, at the invitation of SDS cofounder Tom Hayden, whom she had known at Michigan, she attended an international conference of radicals in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, where approximately forty American radicals met with twenty Vietnamese—some representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the DRV that ruled the North) and others of the National Liberation Front (the NLF guerilla army of the South). At the conclusion of the conference, the Vietnamese invited seven Americans to visit Hanoi, the capital of the DRV. Although McEldowney entertained considerable doubts about traveling to Vietnam, she decided that the trip offered rich educational opportunities for her to learn about the American bombing and the Vietnamese people upon whom it was inflicting such misery. Seeing the devastation firsthand, she believed, might put her in a position to tell the American people something more about the realties of the war than the “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” rhetoric employed by Lyndon Johnson’s presidential administration.

McEldowney was skeptical about the Johnson Administration’s prowar line, but she was not ready to fall, hook, line, and sinker, for the North Vietnamese propaganda machine either. Before arriving in Hanoi, she admits that something about Vietnamese revolutionaries “touches the most romantic string in me—the feeling that makes me wish to be Vietnamese (and, at other times, black).” This sort of transracial identification verges on the parodic (indeed filmmaker John Waters offers an affectionate send-up of it in Hairspray), but it was not unusual among white youth of the sixties, even if it is considered so politically retrograde today that it’s rarely mentioned in memoirs of the period. However, when McEldowney arrives in Hanoi and keeps coming up against the Vietnamese “line,” her admiration for these revolutionaries begins to wear thin. Exasperated, she decries the “formal, hack presentations” to which her group is subjected, and worries that the Vietnamese expect them, too, to engage in “bullshit or empty rhetoric.” Nonetheless, she writes with obvious admiration for several of the Vietnamese whom she meets. And on her way back to the US she begins to question her suspiciousness of her Vietnamese hosts and wonders if it is not attributable to their “alien culture.” After all, the DRV officials were more recognizably individualistic and politically less obedient of the party line when off duty and accompanied by family. Though she does not hesitate to label the DRV’s boasting of women’s political equality “a lot of bullshit,” she certainly is impressed by women’s increased role in economic production.

Within days of McEldowney’s arrival back in the States, Cathy Wilkerson was herself Hanoi-bound on yet another New Left peace mission. However, Wilkerson and the others found themselves stuck in Cambodia when the resumption of American bombing of Hanoi made their visit unfeasible. Up until 1966, Wilkerson’s political choices, which included working as an aide to a US congressman, had been, if anything, a shade more conventional than McEldowney’s. However, from 1967 onward, Wilkerson’s politics began to shift, as she became the editor of the SDS paper, New Left Notes, and later active in the group’s Washington chapter. By 1967, many young radicals had given up on “working within the system,” but what set Wilkerson apart from many of her compatriots was her growing attraction to a messianic, absolutist politics that condemned all those unwilling to make extreme sacrifice the touchstone of their politics.

By 1967, this version of radical politics was beginning to make itself at home in SDS, particularly among those younger members who chafed at the frustrations of gradualist politics—the tedious win-some-lose-some organizing of the poor and all those orderly peace marches—and hankered for dramatic showdowns against the powers-that-be. The move from “protest to resistance” was motivated both by the growing conviction that if the ill-equipped Vietnamese could defeat the American Goliath so, perhaps, could homegrown American revolutionaries, and by the desire to support the black movement, which, in its turn to black power, found itself increasingly under siege. The first such major showdown was staged by the charismatic Mark Rudd and the “action-faction” of SDS, which led the famous strike at Columbia University in the spring of 1968. At Columbia, where the police revealed their readiness to bash the heads of protesting students, the idea that confrontation is in itself transformative—that it heightens the system’s internal contradictions and emboldens in ways that create revolutionaries—began to take hold. Within days, the headline in New Left Notes read, “Two, Three, Many Columbias,” a riff on Che Guevara’s slogan, “Two, Three, Many Vietnams.” As student radicals tried to make themselves over into what novelist Marge Piercy calls “men of steel,” they adopted a tough, macho style and denounced other approaches to change as “wimpy” and rooted in “white skin privilege.”

By the summer of 1969, the action-faction had taken hold of a significant segment in SDS—the segment that would shortly go by the name of Weatherman, in reference to the line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that went “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” As Weatherman and other equally dogmatic factions, particularly Progressive Labor Party (PLP), duked it out for the control of SDS, many veteran SDSers, such as McEldowney, pulled back. That summer, she wrote a manifesto that asked, “Do we build the American revolution rooted in the common people of America, where they are? Or do we assume that students are the revolution, and others will fall in line?” For her, the choice was obvious. “If the revolution we want is one that will create a democratic, anti-elitist, anti-manipulative society, we must build it, from the grass roots up.”

One reason McEldowney opposed vanguardist politics was that she had come to appreciate the intimacy and openness that she found in the fledgling women’s movement. After participating in a New Left protest that fall, she wrote, “to be heard, to make a dent on the politics of the thing, I had to be tough, superarticulate (and just as militant as thou!), aggressive, angry, competitive.” She felt alarmed that all the relational “stuff” that she had learned from feminism was being “sucked out” of her as she protested. Yet, very much against her better judgment, she felt the pull of uncompromisingly militant politics. “ I felt what was happening, knew it was bad, yet couldn’t bring myself to say fuck it and leave.” However, increasingly her political priorities lay with feminism, particularly the Boston feminist movement, in which she remained active until her untimely death in a 1973 automobile accident.

By contrast, Cathy Wilkerson found much about the emerging women’s movement that rankled. Although she was not entirely unsympathetic to the feminist movement, its indictment of men rather than capitalism, its “bourgeois” determination to organize women for their liberation rather than for the annihilation of American imperialism, and its purported emphasis on women’s victimization troubled her. What did appeal to her was Weatherman’s enthusiasm for putting its collective body on the line. Although she says that even at the time she found these younger radical men bullying and arrogant, she emphasizes how much their moral certitude impressed her. She presents herself as a sucker for Weatherman’s legendary eagerness to put itself in harm’s way (so much so that the Black Panthers’ denounced it as “Custeristic”) because it spoke to that part of her that had been socialized into the habit of feminine sacrifice. Yet she was also drawn to the group’s promotion of co-ed “macho posturing,” which encouraged women to occupy the territory of guysville, with its tough-talking swagger, shit-stomping boots, and cool leather jackets. Ditto the group’s self-righteous contempt for virtually everyone else, so extreme that as Harold Jacobs reveals in Weatherman (1970), the group’s line by the end of 1969 was “Fight the People.”

I do not doubt that Wilkerson has tried to the best of her ability to narrate her story. However, there is much that is misleading in Flying Close to the Sun, beginning with her effort to posit a different, more sympathetic rendering of Weatherman than most historians and onetime activists have advanced. For one, Wilkerson claims that the same writers who have blamed Weatherman for the New Left’s demise have condemned feminism on those grounds, too. Yet some of the most trenchant criticisms of Weather politics came from feminists, including Piercy, in her Sisterhood is Powerful essay “Grand Coolie Damn” (1970), who observed that the macho turn was not producing a “more efficient revolutionary but only a more efficient son of a bitch.” Wilkerson also maintains that Weatherman hardly provided the decisive knockout to the Left. It’s true that other factions, such as PLP, helped to destroy the movement as well. But Weatherman was spectacularly wrong-headed, and its opposition to feminism exacerbated the split between women’s liberationists and the New Left. Wilkerson also gives the impression that there were no real alternatives to Weatherman politics for serious radicals, but even at the time other radicals wrote compellingly about why Weatherman-style left adventurism was ill conceived.

More disturbing is the way that Wilkerson figures herself in this story. If we are to believe her, at critical junctures she was dismayed by the decisions taken by Weatherman’s leadership, but nonetheless silently complied, trusting that they knew better than she the proper course of action. And yet after the group’s disastrous November 1969 “Days of Rage” rampage through the streets of Chicago, it should have been obvious—as it was to the vast majority of those involved in the movement—that, as movement insiders joked, “You don’t need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are.” And if she had her misgivings, as she claims, why did she allow herself to become involved in such a cruel bomb-building scheme? How could the same person who supposedly doubted the efficacy of those street riots could, within a matter of weeks, be in such denial that she could not comprehend that the nails in that antipersonnel bomb would likely kill people? How could she imagine, as she says she did, that the wounds caused by their bomb might bring about greater empathy for the bombed Vietnamese and “set limits on the willingness of GIs to violently interfere with others lives”?

In the book’s final pages Wilkerson writes that she came to resemble the “implacable, myopic, and selfish” people she had opposed—the Nixons and Kissingers. She could not resist the seductiveness of power, the giddy feeling she derived from being part of the Weather elite, which she almost was by virtue of her newly acquired boyfriend, Terry Robbins. This damning admission is perhaps meant to be the payoff for those who patiently slogged through three-hundred-plus pages sandblasted of emotionality but not, sad to say, of the self-justifying excuses that have always characterized Weatherman. But, for me, Wilkerson’s self-indictment rings hollow, not the least because of the book’s strangely detached opening paragraphs, in which she recounts the bombing in such a way as to obscure the centrality of human agency. In her account, “a piece of ordinary water pipe, filled with dynamite, nails, and an electric blasting cap, ignited by mistake” in a Greenwich Village townhouse where she and “some friends” had been staying. She writes that the explosion destroyed the townhouse, which “had been the home of [her] father and stepmother,” and killed three of her friends. She goes on to describe the book that follows as “an investigation of how my friends and I came to be there at that moment and what I believe we were trying to do.”

Perhaps Wilkerson was trying to avoid the melodrama and the breast-beating that one might expect from someone who erred so tragically, but what she conveys is her inability to face this wreckage. In a particularly self-deluded moment, she argues that the townhouse bombing was not a total failure because it provided a wake-up call to the country about the anger of its young and aggrieved. This is one of many instances where she betrays a deep incomprehension of the tragic folly that was Weatherman. It boggles the mind that she tries to excuse Weatherman leader Bernardine Dohrn’s public praise of the Charles Manson gang’s Hollywood slayings (“Dig it: first they killed those pigs, then ate dinner in the room with them, then even shoved a fork into pig Tate’s stomach. Wild!”) as possibly “satirizing the public’s prurient interest in the murders.” Readers looking to understand what went wrong, how people such as Wilkerson “blew it,” would be well advised to read Neil Gordon’s The Company You Keep (2004), Susan Stern’s With the Weathermen (2007) or Jane Alpert’s Growing Up Underground (1981), all of which grapple with the damage done.

 

Alice Echols teaches in the English Department and Gender Studies Program at the University of Southern California. The author of Shaky Ground: The Sixties and Its Aftermath (2002), Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967 – 1975 (1989), and Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin (2000), she is currently writing a cultural history of disco to be published by W.W. Norton

 

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