Reading "Ramparts" in the 21st Century: A Look Back at the 60's Major Left-wing Magazine

Do any of PJM’s readers recall or know about Ramparts Magazine? A writer for @Issue,  an Online Magazine of Business and Design, writes that “today Ramparts is little known, except by those over 55 and serious magazine history buffs, but in its day it rocked the editorial world with its explosive investigative reporting, entertaining style and sophisticated design. More than a fringe periodical put out by young radicals, it was a political force to be reckoned with and a launchpad for some of the top journalists working today.” Well said, but why the sudden attention and the sudden new hype?


The reason is the recent publication of a book by Peter Richardson, A Bomb In Every Issue: How the Short Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America. The title alone gives the magazine perhaps more clout than it really had. Despite the new attention paid to it, and the reviewer in The New York Times Book Review arguing that it was “a slick, muckraking magazine that was the most freewheeling thing on most American newsstands during the second half of the 1960s ,” the book does not appear to be on any best seller lists, it is not easily found in bookstores, and its number is quite high on Amazon, which indicates it probably is not selling that well.

Yet, it is certainly true that Ramparts was the only left-wing magazine of its day, and perhaps the only one to ever achieve such heights, that had a circulation in 1968 of 250,000. Reading about Vietnam on its pages, Martin Luther King Jr. was so upset that against the advice of his own advisors in the civil rights movement, he began to speak out publicly in opposition to the Vietnam War. That act alone was proof enough of the magazine’s reach and influence. 

Its other major scoop was the revelation that the CIA had, as Sol Stern recalls, secretly penetrated and financed the National Student Association. His story soon led to a virtual avalanche of mainstream reporting when Tom Wicker, the New York Times Washington DC bureau chief, assigned a team of top notch reporters who had both access and unlimited funds, to flesh out the story with how the Agency was funding scores of other front groups, labor unions, cultural journals and book publishers.

In San Francisco, the cheerleading crowd is doing its best to remember the magazine that was published in that city, and whose top resident journalist today, Robert Scheer, was once its co-editor. They have held forums and celebrations, remembering vividly those good old days when they dominated the mainstream culture and pushed others in their direction.

But the two most important articles about the real and very negative influence on our politics and culture that the magazine had comes from former editors. The first is the one by Stern,who took an editorial job with Ramparts in 1965, and along with Scheer and the San Franciso whirlwind character Warren Hinckle, became the triumverate that put the magazine on the map. The second is by Peter Collier, who along with David Horowitz, pulled off a palace coup that led to Scheer’s ouster in 1969-70 that put Collier and Horowitz on the top rung in place of Scheer and the already departed  Hinckle, who had left in1969.


Both former editors, who are now important conservative intellectuals, make a similar analysis about the very negative effects on our culture and polity that Ramparts had. The first is that the magazine tred a thin line between journalism and a vehicle for radical activism. One of the first Collier-Horowitz issues featured a front page photo of a Bank of America branch burning to the ground, after radical students in California had torched it. Their cover logo stated its destruction “may have done more for saving the environment than all the teach-ins put together.” Another cover featured four hands- those of the magazine’s editors-burning their draft cards. Both were a clear call for radical action and not reportage.  As Stern writes, “I don’t know if burning our draft cards advanced the antiwar cause, but it surely added to Ramparts’ media luster.”

It was quite early that the magazine’s cache in the radical movement got to the editors’ heads. Hinckle sent ten top writers and other friends to Chicago to cover the planned action at the 1968 Democratic convention. But instead of staying in Grant Park and the streets with the movement, they ensconsed themselves at the posh Ambassador East Hotel and held court in the expensive Pump Room restaurant, more fun than fleeing tear gas and billy clubs. When it came time to write their story, they moved to the equally famous Algonquin in New York. As Stern notes, they had no special inside scoops. The one they could have run with they chose to ignore. That was their inside knowledge that Tom Hayden, the guru of the New Left, planned in advance for a “violent confrontation with the ‘war machine,’” in order to in their eyes expose the fascist core of the supposed democratic American political structure.

Before Stern left, Scheer and Hinckle, and later  Collier and Horowitz,  devoted many issues to praise of the Black Panthers and Huey Newton, running a Hayden article in which he extolled the Panthers as America’s “internal Viet Cong,” and his now famous call for creation by white youth of “liberated zones” from which the Revolution would spread, “liberated” areas similar to Ann Arbor,Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin; Berkeley,California and New York City’s Upper West Side.


In his article, Peter Collier vividly portrays the magazine’s accomplishments in one paragraph:

 The magazine had stumbled into a historical sweet spot. Vietnam had pried the lid off of America’s long postwar consensus and Ramparts, often confusing wish fulfillment with for fact-checking, was there to publish what came out of Pandora’s Box. Conspiracy theories? We had the assassination franchise and made the country drink the witches’ brew Jim Garrison had whipped up down in New Orleans. Black liberation? The magazine made the Black Panthers into a national phenomenon, a locked and loaded makeover of the civil rights movement. The romance of Third Worldism? Ramparts was an open mic for Castroism and helped author the myth of Saint Che by secretly obtaining and publishing the Guevara diaries. The war itself? In one of those pictures that actually is worth a thousand words, Ramparts made a stipulation when it produced one of its classic covers showing Ho Chi Minh in a sampan posed as George Washington crossing the Delaware.

It is clear enough, thinking about this, that what the magazine did is in fact to popularize so many of the destructive myths that now many who never saw the magazine or even heard of it assume is pure factual truth. Was Ho Chi Minh Vietnam’s  George Washington, rather than its Mao and Stalin? Of course not. But today, Ramparts’ claims are Oliver Stone’s  and Howard Zinn’s true history of the 1960’s. Was Cuba and Fidel the island’s liberator rather than its Lenin? No, but it is the truth if you ask Danny Glover or Harry Belafonte or Steven Speilberg, etc etc. Scheer, Hinckle, Stern, Collier and Horowitz made these views commonplace. 

Of course, some today admit that Cuba is indeed rather repressive. But they always have a “good” explanation. Ramparts came up with it first. As Collier puts it, Scheer wrote that “the Castroites had initially ‘instilled by example and precept a respect for dissent’ in their revolution,  but had been forced to shut down that openness as a result of an American hostility so implacable that it drove them reluctantly into the arms of the USSR.” If something negative was happening there, the blame lay upon the United States, not the Leninist-Stalinist ideology of the Cuban (or the Vietnamese) Communists. Look around, and you will find this mindset over and over again from so many of our contemporary leftist journalists and intellectuals. Or pick up any copy of The Nation.


So the value of both the Stern and Collier article is that admiring how Richardson tells much of the magazine’s story, they nevertheless effectively challenge his implicit belief that Ramparts not only changed America and American journalism, but changed both for the better. Collier puts it this way: “My quarrel is that the soft spot Richardson admits having for Ramparts and the era it chronicles (an era that glows with a particular nostalgia because because it coincided with his own growing up in Berkeley) sometimes involves soft-headedness as well. When he claims, for instance, that the New Left was “centrally concerned with American ideals and the nation’s collective failure to live up to them,” I want to tell him to get a grip, we’ve heard all this before in all the other pious retrospective airbrushings of the 1960s. Almost from its beginning, the New Left attacked these ideals with a rancorous, root-and-branch revisionism, and it was addicted to national failures because they made its own thought and action, however scurvy, seem morally justified by comparison. In fact, New Leftists always regarded America’s failures the way Voltaire regarded God—as something necessary to be created if they didn’t really exist.”

Then there was the fable that the real enemy of the Movement was not the conservatives, but the hated Cold-War Liberals. These were the likes of Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, and of course, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the Senator from the state of  Washington. These leaders may have been liberals, but they hated the Communist tyrannies that allowed the editors, as Stern writes, “to publish a Fidel Castro rant, filled with Communist propaganda,” as well as many stories about how “true socialism” was emerging in Cuba and Vietnam.

That was not surprising; they did not favor Cuba’s revolution because they wanted Cuba to make its own history “without interference from the United States,” as author Richardson claims. Rather, as Stern points out, they favored Castro and the revolution because “we were not liberals. We were socialists and anti-imperialists,” and they believed that “the revolution was a great leap forward for the socialist cause.” In Vietnam, Stern acknowledges, they opposed the war not because it was fought with immoral means-the argument of many liberals- but because “we wanted the Communists to win and were sure that they would.” They believed Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were “Vietnam’s rightful rulers.”


That is why, Stern points out, “Above all, we hated the ‘Cold War liberals’-at times, even more than we did the political Right.” Before long, their constant screeds succeeded in convincing so many that American power could never “be used for good.” Sound familiar? Note the opposition to humanitarian intervention in places like Kosovo by so many liberals during the Clinton years. NATO bombing destroying Yugoslav dictators? No way. The dictators had to be supported.  As for exposing the CIA’s establishment of fronts during the cultural Cold War of the 50’s, Stern now realizes that their actions were an important part of the Truman era “containment” policy developed by George F. Kennan, and a necessary step given the KGB’s funding of pro-Communist outlets through Western Europe in the same period. The CIA funding helped “defeat Soviet Communism,” Stern points out, “without risking nuclear confrontation.”

What does the book’s author, Peter Richardson think of these arguments? Fortunately, he has just chosen to answer Stern’s article, and  has also commented on the article by Collier. Here is Richard’s major defense: “Ramparts magazine changed America by reviving the muckraking tradition, by triggering the first attempts to rein in the CIA, and by promoting the civil rights, anti-war, and Black Power movements.”  He adds that the scale “tilts toward a positive effect on the nation’s media, governance, and society.”

He uses as evidence for his retort that the magazine printed Martin Luther King’s Vietnam speech presented at New York’s Riverside Church, when he argues, no one else would ever have run it. Second, until the CIA expose that Stern wrote, no one knew the dark side of the Agency. Therefore, on all these key issues, he concludes that “Ramparts was on the right side of history.”

Really? Richardson does not answer Stern’s main argument: the CIA funding of anti-communist front groups helped win the Cold War. This is documented in a book I reviewed when it appeared a few years ago, historian Hugh Wilford’s important book, The Mighty Wurlitzer. It might do Richardson some good to read it. As I pointed out, “The Soviet propaganda apparatus was going full steam in Europe, and the United States needed public activities to counter their effective propaganda. The Agency funded publications, conferences, musical events, and other cultural programs to push communism back in Europe.” This was both necessary, moral and good.  Of course, much of the Left thinks the US was guilty of what it calls “triumphalism,” and thinks that the US should not have won the Cold War, because the Soviets supported the Third World and opposed American imperialism.  The Ramparts editors believed that then, as both Stern and Collier acknowledge. Does Richardson still think the same way?


Richardson also writes the magazine stood with King when he favored legislation guaranteeing fair housing laws. Would we rather live in a country, he asks that “allows landlords to rent only to whites?” This is nothing but ridiculous. Who fought the good fight in the Congress for civil rights? It was led by the man the Left at the time hated, Hubert Humphrey. Remember the critical walkout of the Dixiecrats in 1948, or Humphrey’s demands through the various conventions for a strong civil rights plank in the Democratic platform?   It was the Cold War liberals who accomplished this, the very men Ramparts hated. And as for King, the magazine stood against all he stood for, heralding and supporting his black nationalist and black revolutionary enemies, who used to ridicule him as “Martin Luther Coon.” As for King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, it soon became the majority view of the anti-war movement, and King would in fact not have had trouble printing his article in scores of other outlets, such as The New York Review of Books, for which both George McGovern and Tom Hayden wrote articles. (That publication, of course, became famous for a cover photo of how to make a Molotov cocktail, that accompanied a Hayden article.)

So remember Ramparts. But let us learn the real lessons of its heyday and demise, as told by Sol Stern and Peter Collier. And if you’re in the San Franciso area, go to their next celebration coming up at City Light Books, where Scheer, Richardson and Hinckle will hold forth. Let them know what you think. After all, they all respect free speech, don’t they?


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