Theodore Roszak, William Seraile, Michael Kazin: Historians say where they were during the summer of love, 40 years ago

Historians in the News

Theodore Roszak, emeritus professor of history, California State University-East Bay: Maybe it was an advantage that I was 5,000 miles away when the Summer of Love happened. I had taken a leave from my teaching job and was living in London, editing a small pacifist journal and working on a series of articles for The Nation dealing with campus protest. The articles would eventually become a book titled The Making of a Counter Culture. That title emerged in large measure from the reports that were arriving in England from the streets of San Francisco, a bemused journalistic chronicle of young Americans experimenting with a zany lifestyle that might not outlast the summer, but which certainly made a blazing statement of dissent. From that distance, I had little to work from except sardonic commentary in the British press and sensational images of blissed-out youth cavorting in Golden Gate Park.

The coverage that came my way typified the European fascination with wild and wacky California. But by then I was convinced there was more to these matters than sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Not that sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll didn't matter. They were the most forceful expression of the statement. But could that statement be given a more accessible philosophical translation? That was the task I set myself, giving my attention mainly to a group of influential thinkers (among them Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, Norman Brown, Paul Goodman, and Alan Watts) who were raising significant questions about the dominant reality principle of the modern world.

Remember, this was the era when, on both sides of the cold war, science and technology had signed on with the military-industrial complex, leaving the world to wonder how soon the missiles would fly and the sky catch fire; "mad rationality," as Lewis Mumford so aptly put it.

What I sensed beneath the surface of youthful dissent was the spontaneous emergence of a subterranean tradition that reached back to the early days of industrial revolution, a "cry of the heart" first voiced by romantic poets and artists against the "dark, Satanic mills" that were desiccating the human spirit and the natural world. A counter culture. That's what I saw in the ebullience of Haight-Ashbury for that one brief interval in 1967. It didn't last long, but it didn't have to. The lines had been drawn and the issue joined.


William Seraile, professor of African-American history, Herbert H. Lehman College, City University of New York: I went to Vietnam in 1967, not as a soldier but as a volunteer English teacher with International Voluntary Service, an organization similar to the Peace Corps. I couldn't teach because my school was converted into a refugee center. I volunteered as a scrubber in the operating ward of the local hospital, where wounded civilian victims of the war received surgery — everything from brain surgery to amputations.

I also did volunteer work at an orphanage, where I discovered that children who looked like me (African-American) would never amount to anything more than a prostitute (for girls) or pimp or street hustler (for boys). My distaste for the war and for the lies that I witnessed while the American military predicted victory disillusioned me. I left Vietnam after only seven months' service because my personal safety was at stake and a friend had been kidnapped. (He would spend five years in North Vietnam.)

I returned to New York but did not participate in any antiwar marches because the protesters were concerned about the loss of American lives — no one seemed to care about the loss of Vietnamese lives or the destruction of their culture. I protested in my own way by sending Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a peace candidate for the presidency, antiwar poetry written by Vietnamese dissenters and by sharing my views in a radio interview.

There was no love for me to celebrate during the Summer of Love. I remember the amputations, the gangrened limbs, and the anguished cries of so-called stoic Vietnamese who gazed upon the lifeless eyes of children, dead before they had entered school. My experience in Vietnam taught me never to trust the U.S. government's spin on events. Government lies are as common and persistent as raindrops.


Michael Kazin, professor of history, Georgetown University: Having completed my first year in college, I imagined I was living in the springtime of the revolution. So naturally I spent the summer of 67 trying to nurture its buds. I attended my first convention of Students for a Democratic Society, in Ann Arbor, where network TV filmed our debates about how to stop the draft — and the national leaders all dropped LSD. Then I took a job in the SDS regional office in New York City, soaking up what passed for wisdom from people like Mark Rudd and Dave Gilbert, who, two years later, would be founders of Weatherman. We sponsored a talk by the SNCC firebrand H. Rap Brown and a conference of student radicals from Europe. Everyone I knew seemed to be reading Regis Debray's Revolution in the Revolution?, which proclaimed guerilla war as the salvation of the third world.

But politics didn't take up all that many evenings. I went to smoke-ins in Tompkins Square Park, heard the Fugs play at a tiny theater nearby where my girlfriend sold tickets. Sometime in August, she and I spent a long, tense day at Jones Beach, quarreled that evening, and broke up the next morning. But I was just 19, healthy, and headed back to Harvard. Everything mattered, which was fine by me.

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