Blogs > HNN > Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Gerard J. DeGroot's The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade (Harvard 2008) and David Barber's A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed (University Press of Mississippi, 2008)

Apr 18, 2008 6:48 pm

Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Gerard J. DeGroot's The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade (Harvard 2008) and David Barber's A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed (University Press of Mississippi, 2008)

[Jeremy Kuzmarov is Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Bucknell University.]

No period in American history has evoked as much nostalgia, praise and vituperation as the decade of the 1960s. This is still true, with comparisons of the Iraq War to Vietnam, the revival of Students for a Democratic Society by a new generation of disaffected students, and with a conservative movement continuing to base its ideology on repudiating everything that the decade represented.

Two new books seek to provide a reassessment of the 1960s social movements and the implications of their failure. In The Sixties Unplugged, Gerard DeGroot, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, argues that the 1960s movements imploded because of the egotism of their leaders and inability to build a mass social base among the working class. He writes that a series of myths prevail surrounding the decade, which was in reality marred by greed, violence, genocide and international neocolonialism on the part of the United States. Meanwhile, David Barber, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Martin has produced A Hard Rain Fell, a sophisticated work that addresses the failure of SDS to transcend its “whiteness” and forge a broader coalition with the black left. He depicts this as being particularly catastrophic in light of the triumph of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism and its attendant disasters, which an effective multi-racial coalition in the 1960s might have been able to prevent.

DeGroot’s book is less analytical and provides a breezy overview of the Age of Aquarius. It is well written and includes a nice assortment of catchy quotes. It is novel in including discussion of European student activism, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and other significant international events like the Nigerian civil war and Biafran crisis, assassination of Patrice Lumumba and 1965 CIA backed genocide in Indonesia. DeGroot highlights how these international calamities highlight the dark side of the 1960s, which mainstream portrayals usually neglect. For this he deserves credit. On domestic issues, DeGroot generally goes too far in his criticisms, lamenting all of the worst excesses of the social movements, while failing to give activists enough credit for sparking growing public consciousness about social inequalities, racism, sexism and the environment, and mobilizing significant numbers in protest against the moral outrage of the Vietnam War.

Whether consciously or not, DeGroot echoes much conservative analysis in demonizing leftist movements, including the revolutions in Cuba and Vietnam, whose roots in anti-dictatorial and colonial struggle he ignores. With regards to Cuba, there is no mention of the role of America’s Bay of Pigs invasion or Operation Mongoose assassination plots in shaping the course that the revolution took, or of the previous record of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. Readers not familiar with the events will thus have little context with which to judge Castro, nor members of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee whom DeGroot simply portrays as knaves for blindly romanticizing the revolution, when many called for an end to American manipulation of the island’s political affairs regardless of Castro’s policies or praised his health and literacy programs, which go unmentioned. DeGroot develops similar stereotypes of the “Vietcong” as being slavishly devoted to a fanatical communist ideology, when many were nationalists who fought for the preservation of their land from U.S.-South Vietnamese relocation programs or for the betterment of their people, as published personal accounts like Truong Nhu Tang’s A Vietcong Memoir, demonstrate. DeGroot attributes the most barbaric killings during the war to the National Liberation Front, obscuring that the most conservative estimates show that U.S. forces and their proxies committed 80 percent of civilian atrocities.

DeGroot’s cynical perspective applies to his discussion of the more radical faction of the civil rights movement. He harshly criticizes Malcolm X. and refers to Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul and Ice as a work of misogynistic “hate literature,” echoing conservative denunciations of the time. DeGroot generally devotes very little effort towards understanding the roots of the Black Power movement and its significant role in championing economic justice, black pride and an end to police abuses and skyrocketing black imprisonment rates, which would only worsen with time. He also fails to acknowledge the radicalization of Martin Luther King Jr. in the years prior to his assassination, including his critique of the Vietnam War, solidarity with striking garbage workers and the poor, and his rapprochement with the more militant leaders of the black left. On the whole, DeGroot adopts a “good sixties, bad sixties” dichotomy that is synonymous with much of the early participant histories. He places superficial blame on the downfall of the movement to “bad apples” like the Black Panther Party, hippies and yippies, and gives short shrift to the impact of governmental repression and media misrepresentations. DeGroot’s negativity also leads him to underplay the impact of the teach-in and antiwar movements in raising public awareness about the destructiveness of the Vietnam War, and exaggerates their elitism. He fails to recognize, for example, the alliance that they forged with disillusioned Vietnam veterans who were predominantly of the working-class, and gave substance to many of their original claims about the war’s fundamental immorality.

David Barber’s book is much less cynical than DeGroot’s and provides a more grounded analysis of the movement’s strengths and shortcomings. He has an excellent chapter on the New Left and empire, in which he explores the writings of leading movement intellectuals, including Carl Oglesby, whose 1967 book Containment and Change helped to develop a comprehensive theory about the economic underpinnings of America’s relationship with the so-called Third World, and the covert manipulations of the CIA, which was at the root of the catastrophe in Vietnam. Barber laments the inability of the New Left to connect Oglesby’s analysis on the perils of “corporate liberalism” and the military industrial complex, with the writings of black intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X. and Martin Luther King Jr., who had each pointed to a connection between the evils of racism, unbridled capitalism and imperialism. In failing to recognize their substantial intellectual contributions, SDS neglected an opportunity to establish a greater solidarity with the incipient anti-imperialism of the black left and its support for independence struggles in Africa and across the Third World.

Barber generally spins the argument around that it was black extremism and the decision to expel whites from SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) that destroyed the black-white alliance, which had been so effective in the early civil rights movement. He argues that white student activists possessed an underlying paternalism in their attitudes towards African-Americans, which was not dissimilar to that of the culture at large, and impeded the development of any genuine unity of purpose. He criticizes the assumption among white student leaders that they should be the natural leaders. He also castigates their failure to link their anti-poverty campaigns to the perpetuation of institutionalized racism after 1965, and their dismissal of the Black Power Movement as reverse racism, which further hastened the social and political divide. White feminists were little better and alienated many of their black counterparts by ignoring class issues.

Barber ends the book with a discussion of the destructive nihilism of the Weathermen, whose attitude towards race was exemplified in a desire to “school the black movement in the meaning of revolutionary politics,” even after the notorious assassination of Fred Hampton by the Chicago police. This approach appears to epitomize the lack of respect given by SDS to African-Americans, especially at the most radical fringes of the movement. The implications of this trend were ultimately profound in preventing the formation of an inter-racial coalition capable of challenging the political status quo. Barber’s book on the whole provides for a reinterpretation of the mid to late 1960s as a lost period of hope for the creation of genuine racial unity in America, and greater social equality and justice. This was attributable not to black extremism or hate, but largely the endurance of a deep-rooted racial paternalism even among the most progressive sectors of the dominant white culture. His analysis is on the whole quite compelling, and allows us to think critically not only about the lost opportunities of the past, but also about the possibilities for the future, and of the importance of racial equality and harmony in the movements for social justice and peace that are slowly awakening.

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Susan M Reverby - 4/21/2008

I wondered if these books deal with the gender issues/theoretical orientation of much of SDS, especially at the national level. My memory of trying to get SDS members (who were preparing to write position papers for the National conference) to help with picketing while I worked for SCLC in Chicago in the summer of 1966 is a more complex tale than just racial paternalism and white privilege. It was also about what was seen as "radical" and what was not, even MLK at that point as he was focused on housing and food in Chicago's south side. My sense then was that there was also a real difference between those of us who were working in the streets and those who wanted to make theory about it. Those lines also broke somewhat on gender.
Returning to Cornell the next fall, I remember strongly the gender differences in our SDS chapter as the women organized (cringe) a "women say yes to men who say no" campaign around draft resistance.

But then this is one woman's experience and memory. This is not history, at least as this review suggests these books chronicle.