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.