Murray Polner: Review of "Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Parts 1 and 2," edited by Ken Wachsberger


Murray Polner is a book review editor for HNN

We can’t seem to shake the 1960s. It haunts our politics and presidential campaigns. It’s echoed in ideological battles in the Weekly Standard, National Review, New York Review of Books and The Nation, and in countless websites and blogs. The issues raised by the sixties always reappear when we engage in wars and then clash over the meaning of American exceptionalism and its imperial stretch.

We have always had underground papers, both legal and illegal. William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist “The Liberator,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s and Susan B. Anthony’s early feminist “The Revolution” and Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching “Free Speech” stand out but there were also anti-slavery, anarchist, trade union and a variety of socialist papers. And preceding the sixties presses there were the above-ground trouble-makers such as the Village Voice, Paul Krassner's The Realist, and Bobby Seale’s The Black Panther.

The sixties underground press was no less confrontational and uncompromising and found their voice in spur-of-the-moment and belligerent independent papers that openly challenged, mocked and alarmed our guardians of “law and order.” Nearly every city and college town had alternative presses. The oppositional papers they turned out, often communally, were sometimes amateurish but always passionate. They were Marxist, Maoist, libertarian, liberal, New Leftish, brash, and utterly disrespectful of traditional centers of power. “Question Authority” went one well known bumper sticker. Above all, if they had a common denominator it was hatred for the Vietnam War.

Many of the leading actors of that era, from J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan to Mario Savio and Abby Hoffman are gone, their legacies left to memoirists and historians. But thanks to Ken Wachsberger’s prodigious efforts we now have a treasured resource in the underground publications and reminiscences he has amassed. The writers in these volumes range from the countercultural, gay, feminist, Latino, Native American, black, left-wing, Southern, and New Age scenes. There is also a helpful bibliography appended. The virtue of this extraordinary collection is that they include contemporary accounts by ordinary people awakened by the war, the draft, and other causes meaningful to them.

Wachsberger is a veteran editor and writer who has also edited My Odyssey Through the Underground Press: Michael ‘Mica’ Kindman” and John Grant’s “Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off, an account of Prisoners’ Digest International. He is a former officer of the National Writers Union and once produced an underground paper in East Lansing, Michigan. The volumes he has assembled, he writes, is “about reclaiming our history.” His volumes are a first-rate companion for Lauren Kessler’s The Dissident Press, John McMillian’s Smoking Typewriters, and Rodger Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution.

When the war finally ended most antiwar movement veterans left to resume their lives. Wachsberger does them no kindness in saying that the older they became the more they hid their roles as activists, fearing “guilt by association.” As a result, many of their young had no idea of their parents’ past. “I know that because I was teaching at Eastern Michigan University,” he tells us. “Their children were my students. They didn’t have a clue.”

“Warts and all, the underground press was the dissident brave enough to see through the Empire’s New Clothes,” wrote Abe Peck, professor emeritus at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a close observer of the underground press. They might be excessive and ridiculous, he wrote, even at times wide of the mark. “None of their utopias came to fruition” but the best of them “also unveiled vistas of What Might Be, offered an honestly subjective record of life during wartime as an antidote to Official Reality” and “helped to stop a war and unseat two warrior presidents.”

Even the Deep South had them.

“Yes, there was an underground press in Mississippi in the sixties,” begins David Doggett, former editor of Kudzu, named after an annoying and prolific southern vine. In a state which Ole Miss professor James Silver once described as “a closed society,” it’s easy to forget the state’s repressiveness in the sixties. Mississippi was then a police state, as someone in Mississippi once told me while I was researching a book about the state. Phones were tapped. Mail opened. Faculty fired. Clergy warned. The KKK omnipresent. Yet the state also nurtured the genius of William Faulkner, Richard Wright and Eudora Welty. And in that storied bastion of white supremacy a group of white kids, “descended from rednecks, slave owners and Bible thumpers” as Doggett describes them, published Kudzu for four years in Jackson, the state capital and home of incredibly racist politicians and an unforgiving, thoroughly biased newspaper. Kudzu survived disdain and constant harassment, but also drew some whites to its side. After Cambodia was invaded and unarmed Kent State students murdered and wounded by National Guardsmen exempt from the draft, Mississippi cops then killed two defenseless black Jackson State students. To Doggett’s understandable pride, Kudzu was “the only paper in Jackson that presented the students’ accounts of the killings.” 200 white students joined Kudzu’s staff members in a protest march.

Many of the other essays are outstanding. JoNina M. Abron, the last editor of The Black Panther newspaper, writes persuasively about the impact of Huey P. Newton’s murder. Paul Krehbiel became disgusted working in a filthy, earsplitting upstate New York factory and decided to establish “New Age”, a progressive paper for his fellow workingmen and women. Harvey Wasserman contributed “The Joy of Liberation News Service,” which became a highly regarded news service for sixties readers and resisted suspected FBI stalking and infiltration.

One special target of the military and FBI was the proliferation of anti-military papers widely distributed in GI coffee houses and secretly on military bases, many written by draftees and short-term enlistees. Harry W. Haines’ exceptional “Soldiers Against the Vietnam War” recalls his role in Aboveground, printed for two years outside Fort Carson in Colorado. It had a large print run with pieces on the growing number of war casualties. One of its issues was partially paid for by a Vietnam War widow from her late husband’s military insurance policy. Haines and James Lewes claim that at its peak about 500 Vietnam-era GI underground papers were published.

Their formats ranging from mimeographed sheets to photo-offset papers, their subjects predictable: demonstrations, riots in army camps, lists of sympathetic lawyers and outside groups. Fun, Travel, Adventure, out of Fort Knox, once ran a two-part series on the Fort’s stockade after which one GI wondered, “Isn’t there one newspaper that cares enough about us to haunt the stockades and report what goes on?” Articles were usually anonymous for fear of punishment. I recall that a soldier-editor of Fatigue Press (Fort Hood) was picked up on a heroin charge and also that Roger Priest, who produced OM: The Liberation Newsletter in Washington, D.C., was court-martialed by the Navy. Much like their civilian counterparts, it was a way of antiwar soldiers getting back at the untouchables, embarrassing them, and making fun of the rigid military society in which they found themselves.

The underground press had to contend with three major TV networks and daily newspapers -- most supportive of the war until the late sixties -- whose coverage and opinions dominated the media and influenced public opinion. One problem the underground presses encountered was that too often they offended people they should have tried harder to reach and persuade. Like it or not, Americans were appalled by their dress and appearance, their use of four letter words, their more relaxed approach to sex and of course the Weathermen -- while ignoring police and military violence. But far more significantly, until Vietnam, most Americans believed “politics stopped at the water’s edge,” that once the shooting began wars were beyond debate. For proof we need only remember that Americans overwhelmingly elected and re-elected Richard Nixon who hated the rebels’ guts and once publicly called them “bums.”

The underground press is gone but a new generation now has the Internet, social media, cable and independent online investigative sites such as Pro Publica, once again inviting the children of the men and women who produced so many publications to take another crack at the powerful and unaccountable.

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