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