A 1960s British student leftist did not expect to find himself on a tour inside the Pentagon, or briefed by a US Army Colonel on his role there, tracking US radicals, with a distorted Cold War model of who they were – but, well, it happened.
In 1968 – that annus mirabilis of student revolt and more, whose 50th anniversary is upon us – it did not seem a matter of choice to challenge the establishment, but an obligation. In the midst of the Cold War between the twin behemoths of the United States (deeply mired in the Vietnam War) and the Soviet Union (giving no quarter in the authoritarian communist rule of Eastern Europe), a third way seemed morally and politically essential. A British vice-chancellor warned that there were activists around who were less interested in student rights than in bigger political demands, and I was happy to count myself among those.
But that summer I travelled away from ineffective subversion in Britain to help in teaching a scientific field course on a rural US campus. When the course ended, I accepted a student’s offer of a lift back east to Washington DC when her father came to collect us. There were two impressive aspects to this trip. Firstly, his large car had air conditioning: something I had heard of but never encountered in a vehicle. Secondly, while I listened quietly, he used the trip to give me his insights into the leftist threats to America.
He was a Lieutenant Colonel in Army Intelligence, based in the Pentagon. He had joined the army in 1944 and had a US representative role at Spandau. After working in military administration, he now had a senior role in a special unit. This was monitoring and reporting on internal radical groups in the United States and what he saw as their common identity with communist movements abroad: a binary classification of them and us which I knew then, and all know now, was quite fallacious.
His was so interesting a summary of the US Cold War view that I made sure to write it all down that evening. So here is what he told his passenger.
“All the radical left in the United States is run by the Communists in effect – they support SDS [the New Left Students for a Democratic Society], they were behind the protests and movements in Berkeley and Columbia [the campuses where the largest student protests had been seen]; Mario Savio [the 1964 SDS leader in Berkeley] was a communist.
“All the different left groups are basically the same – with the same methods and the same ideology. The splits are merely over who is to be the leadership. They all serve one purpose, namely as agents of foreign governments within the United States.
“Anyone may say what they believe in the USA, but once they act in a subversive way they are to be acted against, otherwise left alone.
“Schoenman is lying low [Ralph Schoenman was an anti-Vietnam War activist who had worked in Britain with Bertrand Russell]. If he said anything in the US that he has said abroad he would be up on a charge. It was the same with Rap Brown [the African American activist then involved with black power movements]; they were waiting for him to do something: speech and subsequent riot is not enough to charge him.
“It would be impossible for a foreign radical to be an immigrant to the US because surveillance is kept. Temporary visas or student visas may be allowed but a close watch kept on them in the US for signs of subversion.
“The negroes, he said, are being organised by the left for subversion. The Washington fires [these accompanied the riots in April that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination] were started by 15 individuals. The people likely to act were known but cannot be charged until they do so.”
And that was the narrative from the Colonel that I recorded. From an ordinary concerned conservative American in 1968 such views might have been unexceptional, if ill-informed. In the mouth of a professional specialist in communism and domestic subversion they gave an alarming summary of Cold War perceptions.
I thanked the Colonel for his lift and conversation. The next day his daughter offered me a visit to Dad’s workplace. She had a pass so we entered the Pentagon building from a side door, and I found myself inside one of the two buildings – the Pentagon and the Kremlin – which symbolised evil to the 1960s New Left. But I doubt the Kremlin had the informal touches of the Pentagon. Right at its core was a courtyard garden, where coffee and soft drinks could be taken under the shade of umbrellas, rather like a beachside hotel, and an alternative to the coin operated soft drink machines in the corridor. Here were retail offerings and a post office, so I took the opportunity to buy a Pentagon picture postcard and mail it from the Pentagon post office to one of the senior London figures on the left. I hope he found it amusing; maybe he thought I had flipped.
Five years earlier writer Hannah Arendt had coined the phrase “The Banality of Evil”. This seemed an appropriate description as Pentagon officers took a break for refreshments under the coloured parasols of the Pentagon inner courtyard, before returning to plan the next stage of the Vietnam War. The sustained aerial bombardment of Operation Rolling Thunder was reducing reliance on US land forces whose commander, General Westmoreland, had recently been replaced. 1968 saw the height of US presence in Vietnam (568,000) and casualties (nearly 17,000 deaths). The carpet bombing of Cambodia would await the new incoming administration of Richard Nixon.
I left Washington for New York where I made contact with SDS leaders and others on the New Left. Civil rights and the Vietnam War were the dominant issues, and far from being victims of Communist Party influences, I found most US radicals quite distant from European ideologies. I headed off for a conference in Michigan with Black Panthers; and arrived in Chicago just as the infamous Democratic National Convention was starting, with Mayor Daley’s police being confronted by a huge crowd of demonstrators. Back in New York I found myself as the British speaker at an international conference of New Left student activists at Columbia University. (The person they had expected from Britain could not come. Was he a victim of the visa ban my Colonel mentioned? These days he is a member of the House of Lords.)
The Cold War and the US perception of the communist threat continued for another two decades. I found that meanwhile the Colonel retired to New Mexico where he died and is buried. It seems that the US Army unit in which he operated (the U.S. Army Intelligence Command) had been set up only in 1965 to monitor civil rights and activist groups within the United States, growing to 300 staff. But in 1970 the American Civil Liberties Union sued the army for spying on civilians and the program was gradually brought to an end. By then it had gathered massive amounts of “intelligence” but how intelligent were its models and understanding, my meeting with the Colonel led me to doubt.
The Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the defeat of the South Vietnam government. The Cold War is generally seen as having ended with the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, claimed as a victory for western democracy and capitalism. The diverse radical lefts in the United States fragmented. And now new and different enemies of the state have emerged, unimagined both by my Colonel and by the student generation of 1968.
Robin Derricourt is a writer and publisher, historian and archaeologist, and an honorary associate professor at UNSW.