Witness To Revolution
By Dan Lavery (reviewer)
Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost its Mind and Found Its Soul
by Clara Bingham
(Random House, 2016)
"Witness" explores how the killing of four Kent State Students, maiming of nine more, by Ohio National Guardsmen, President Nixon's invading neutral Cambodia, widespread anti-Vietnam War protesting, and Seymour Hersh's explosive reporting on the My Lai Massacre, shattered an enormous number of American's support for prosecuting the Vietnam War. Clara Bingham's unique enlightening interviews of 100 activists, vets, and officials, who pushed our country towards what Mario Savio called a revolution against "The Machine" referring to Henry David Thoreau's essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." "There's a time when the operation of the Machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop!"
David Harris, one of many activists interviewed, explains everything "grew out of the Mississippi taproot, when white college students went south to help voter registration and witnessed the heroism of the black people of Mississippi." Other interview topics included drug use, Woodstock, the Black Panthers, SDS, feminism, and Nixon's lies. These issues stabbed most every thoughtful person's conscience by the time Daniel Ellsberg published the "Pentagon Papers." These policies caused the largest student strike ever with 2.5 million refusing classes and 700 colleges shut down, including Kent State. While an historian might question whether this massive civil disobedience constituted a revolution, this powerful book shows that a major shift in thinking occurred when so many resisted the draft. It would have been unthinkable to the servicemen or public during World War II, however, that resisting the draft would be the favored choice of many of their children.
This disconnect is present today with the Trump supporters living in an alternative universe from that of Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. For example everyone in the Madison Police Department near Kent State when they heard of the shootings, assumed the students were at fault from statements Spiro Agnew and the Ohio Governor made that vilified the protesters and urged the Guard to deal with them as scum. But the evidence was clear that the Guardsmen had violated their obligations to never fire on peaceful protesters even if someone threw a rock or shouted obscenities. Allison Krause was killed by a bullet fired 343 feet away and while she took 45 minutes to bleed to death the medics that were reserved for the Guardsmen ignored her! Although no Weatherman were present, elsewhere they had developed a strategy that included symbolic destruction of property like a Capitol bathroom with no one present. But it escalated into more serious bombings, hiding on the lam, and violence at demonstrations. Bingham says, "The sixties crested in 1968, with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, the Tet Offensive and Nixon's victory."
Nothing is more chilling nor remarkable than Seymour Hersh's ferreting out the truth about the My Lai massacre by tracking down eye witnesses to that horrendous war crime. Vietnam Vets like Nick Turse submitted proof of at least 300 similar massacres. Many occurred in "free fire zones" where they killed anything that moved. "The Village of Ben Suc" by Jonathan Schell told of another massacre that made Jane Fonda say, "I was one person before I read it, and another person after I finished...that was the beginning of my outrage." Hersh visited Calley's attorney in Salt Lake City who called it a mistake as he was told defending Calley accused of killing 109 "Oriental human beings." Over a few beers Calley called My Lai a "setup, just a firefight." Ernie Medina, a Captain, refused to agree with Calley "how I had nothing to do with it!" Barry Romo explained the body count was "close to 500" with American casualties only one self-inflicted." Hersh learned of a photographer, Paul Medlo who told him of three pits containing "hundreds of people," and that Calley brutally killed a small child. Medlo admits he and Calley "Shot and shot" at the unarmed people. Medlo, one of "McNamara's Folly," who would have never qualified in the past because of tests he could not pass, the next morning had his foot blown off by a mine! He felt God punished him and would punish Calley. His mother said, "I sent them a good boy and they returned him a murderer." Hersh found photographer Ron Haeberle who saved photos of the massacre reported by Ron Ridenhour who broke the story a year before. His graphic photos have been circulated worldwide.
At Calley's court martial he was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. The next day Nixon ordered him transferred to house arrest at officer's barracks pending appeal! His habeas corpus petition was granted by Judge J. Robert Elliot because of pre-trial publicity prejudice, refusal of the House of Representatives to release testimony taken in executive session, and inadequate notice of charges. Bingham's focus is 1969-70 the "crescendo of the sixties, when years of civil disobedience and mass resistance erupted into anarchic violence." Government sabotage as well as surveillance, theatrics in courtroom trials, massive police misconduct, and President Nixon's late-night Lincoln Memorial meeting with protesters as he, while under the influence of alcohol, tried to make them understand he wanted to end the Vietnam War. However, when he created the plumbers his days were numbered and brought his rapid much deserved downfall with Watergate.
Dan Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a jet, then a ship to Vietnam. He resigned, joined VVAW, and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW, the ACLU and in private civil rights practice. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his change from a pawn in the military to crusader for justice. http://www.danielclavery.com (author website)