The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest US peace organization during the Vietnam War. It began as the student department of the League for Industrial Democracy, an Old Left democratic socialist organization that, by the 1960s “was not much more than a letterhead and a budget” (Gitlin, p. 110). Al Haber took this relic’s barely existent student branch, methodically organized it into a breathing entity concerned with social justice, and attracted activists from a number of campuses. Though concerned with a number of issues, this group coalesced at a time when US interference in Vietnam’s civil war was escalating, making peace a central focus of the SDS program.
A swirl of activism, from peace and civil rights quarters, later magnified by feminist and LGBT organizers, combined with establishment reaction and the era’s zeitgeist. What resulted was a culture-wide tornado that eventually pulled the SDS apart, ended a war, and left greater freedom and cultural innovation on the newly-swept US landscape.
Todd Gitlin was elected president of the breakaway SDS in 1963. This book is not simply a chronology of a change-filled decade’s events. It is the author’s searching attempt to make sense of what happened to him, his generation and his nation. “This is part historical reconstruction, part analysis, part memoir, part criticism, part celebration, part meditation” (Gitlin, p.4). His conclusions about politics, human behavior or outcomes, are sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic; but most often ambiguous. Given the number of strong forces moving people at the time, ambiguity is frequently the most honest response. There is no blueprint to recreate what happened in the 60s. We cannot plan the next burst of freedom. The most we can control in this whirl of chaotic forces are our own actions; and as Gitlin’s chronology demonstrates, even those choices are mined with unintended consequences: The war ended, but the peace movement blew apart. Some organizers burned-out, some joined the Weather Underground and turned to violence, some did the slow work of continued organizing for peace. Also unintended and ambiguous: as the war steadily lost popularity in the late Sixties, so did the anti-war movement” (Gitlin, p. 262).
Gitlin spends a great deal of time portraying African American Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights, activists. But he admits that his experience is white, middle class, New Left and male. The journey of that demographic which he represents is common in the Western literary tradition; it most resembles the archetype of Comedy: They begin with college-age innocence and idealism. Privileged, scrubbed white kids advocating American ideals of freedom and fairness. They continue through disillusion as these young liberals face four innocence-shattering forces: 1) A managerial Liberal government who reneges on the peace and racial justice ideals of Liberalism; 2) Excessive, repeated police/FBI violence & surveillance; 3) Expected but still shocking reactionary conservative violence; 4) Immense socio-cultural dislocation with the breaking of 1950s behavioral taboos. As is common with Comedy, there is a renewal at the end of Gitlin’s journey. A now scarred, experienced generation of activists, along with younger inheritors of their legacy, are depicted in the final chapter entitled “Carrying On.” It is 1987. The author catalogs a multitude of peace, social justice and environmental organizations. But ever the honest skeptical observer (despite his romantic goals), Gitlin cannot resist one last ambiguity which defies comic renewal: “And still there are no guarantees that noble purposes will produce the best of all possible results.” He understands that the general public is not composed of activists, not enthusiastically following their lead, and is turned-off by the Movement’s attitude. But “those who deplore the mess and wildness of social movements should ask themselves whether the world’s managers, left to their own devices, can be trusted to cease torturing and invading peoples who are inconvenient to them…to sustain the planet Earth…On one side, there remains the perennial trap of thinking the old dilemmas can be outmuscled by the good luck of youth; on the other, the trap of thinking the future is doomed to be nothing more than the past; between them, possibly, the space to invent” (Gitlin, p. 438).
Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties. Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.