HISTORY IN THE STREETS: 1968 and the Counterculture

Wednesday, July 29, 1998

What happened in 1968 and why? From a bloody war in Vietnam to a bloody struggle for equality in our nation's streets, what is the legacy of '68? William F. Buckley Jr., Editor-at-large at the National Review, and Christopher Hitchens, Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair chose opposing sides that year and now take a look back, explaining the rights and wrongs of the Right and the Left and their personal triumphs and regrets.

Recorded on Wednesday, July 29, 1998

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: One decade. The sixties.

Let's begin with a little history quiz. What's three and a half inches by two and a quarter inches, and divided an entire generation of Americans? Here's a hint. Every American male between the ages of 18 and 35 was required by law to have one in his possession. A draft card. Hundreds of thousands of the young men who obeyed the law and honored this card found themselves shipped overseas and ended up carrying one of these. [Holding a gun] Hundreds of thousands of other young Americans disobeyed the law. Many burned their draft cards. They stayed home, or, in some cases, went north to Canada. And many of them ended up carrying one of these. ["Out of Vietnam" sign] The Vietnam War protest movement often turned violent. On college campuses across the country, administration buildings were occupied, trashed, even burned.

At the same time, though, there was another protest movement taking place, one that was generally peaceful--the civil rights movement. Two enormous protest movements, the after effects of which continue to shape American life even today.

Our guests: Christopher Hitchins, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine; and William F. Buckley, Jr., editor-at-large of National Review magazine. As young men during the sixties, Hitchins and Buckley took opposite sides. And today, 30 years later, they look back on the left and the right.


ROBINSON You were in Chicago during the Democratic Convention of 1968, and you wrote afterwards: "Chicago was seething with tension. What my wife and I had heard fourteen stories high in our hotel was, ‘F— L.B.J., F— Mayor Daly.'" Now, just fifteen years before, the Korean War had taken place without protest. What had changed?

BUCKLEY Well, there would have been a few... trip-wise, the assassination of Kennedy, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King, so that the atmosphere was certainly getting very tense. That exploded in conjunction with heightened hostilities on the whole Vietnam issue.

HITCHINS I'd add that perhaps beginning with the Warren Commission, which I agree was where the trip was, there had arisen--I suppose it happens in every generation, but I think it was very salient in this one--a belief that the government was lying, or rather the recognition, the shock of recognition that that was true, that the government would lie to you openly and blatantly and on a major thing. I think there was a big discovery of that.

ROBINSON In 1968, when Mr. Buckley was in a hotel room listening to chants, you were in Cuba as an agricultural volunteer helping to plant coffee. Now, what I want to excavate here is, what on earth were you thinking? By the time one Englishman had arrived in Cuba, a million Cubans had fled. What were you thinking?

BUCKLEY He was thinking to corner the coffee market.

HITCHINS Actually, it's true that—

ROBINSON Were you a dedicated Marxist?

HITCHINS It's true they needed some coffee. And they still do, as a matter of fact. It's still rationed there, in spite of my best efforts. I was a dedicated Marxist. I was a member of an organization that was actually Anti-Castro-ite? organization. If you were interested in my personal history, you'll have to get some sectarian minutiae in. It was a Luxemburgist-Trotskist organization, and we sent a delegation of people to see whether or not the Cuban Revolution was as advertised--a break with the Soviet model, a new start, and all of that. And this was, remember, shortly after the death of the much controverted Ernesto Che Guevara. And it was a very interesting time to be there, because I was there during the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was the point at which it became evident that Castroism was not going to live up to the advertised hopes.

ROBINSON You were how old, Christopher?

HITCHINS I was then nineteen.

ROBINSON Nineteen. And you were in Oxford at that time.

HITCHINS I was in the end of my first year in Oxford.

ROBINSON Right. Now, what I'm interested in is the extent to which your thinking was in some way representative of the thinking of your generation, that is to say, those protesters in Chicago, those people planting beans in Cuba. Were you an outlier? Were you especially ideological? Or was there a hard ideological core?

HITCHINS We felt, in our little corner of the left, that the great thing about 1968 was exactly that both of the Cold War camps were undergoing a convulsion, and our great hope--which was disappointed--was the convergence between those two things.

ROBINSON Your great hope as a member of this small, Trotskyite organization, your great hope or your generation's great hope?

HITCHINS Well, I think this was held in common by a lot of people who were completely new to politics and quite naive about it.

ROBINSON Well, Bill, you were . . . as you read the kids who were in the street protesting, how much of it was relatively sophisticated ideology? They weren't just rejecting the strait-laced lives of their parents, but their whole notion, their whole Cold War notion, that Communism was bad, we were good. And how much of it was just naivete, romanticization of the commies, and so on?

BUCKLEY Well, you've asked the hard questions. The fact is that there was kind of a listlessness in the sixties, and that listlessness called for a kind of masturbatory relief. People wanted to find if they could go ahead and get their kicks in some way that they hadn't been getting them, and the more so if they could wed them to some ideal. In fact, what it was was primarily self-concern and an attempt to cast a noble perspective on what it is that you were up to.

ROBINSON You were engaged in narcissism, Christopher?

HITCHINS I think I'll have to quarrel, literally as well as metaphorically, with Mr. Buckley's characterization of it as masturbatory. Actually, it was quite celebrated for going the distance. Perhaps one of the great things about it was that it was the first generation--or perhaps one of the last great things about it, but at any rate one of the true things about it--one of the first generations to take the separation of sex and procreation for granted, which I think led to a great deal of jealousy, incidentally, not to say envy among preceding generations.

ROBINSON The Pill came into wide use just about then.

HITCHINS I think it might be worth making a distinction between being, as it were, a sixty- eight or soixant-huitarde, as the more pretentious of us call ourselves, and a sixties person, because anyone born in the right boom bracket can claim to be the sixties person, and the way it's all represented now retrospectively, air-brushed and re-written, is beads, caftans, exactly as Mr. Buckley says, "make love, not war," "Woodstock Nation," all that. Now that was sort of common, generationally, as common as, say, James Dean had been a bit earlier. But what we're talking about, I believe, is the sixties left, in other words the attempt to block what we thought of, correct in my view still, as an imperialist, and aggressive, and unjust war . . . .

ROBINSON An imperialist, aggressive and unjust war. After a quarter of a century, Christopher Hitchins' view on the Vietnam War remains unchanged. Why?


ROBINSON The war in Vietnam. You oppose it on moral and ideological grounds as aggressive and imperialist.


ROBINSON Now, so my question is, you really believed that?

HITCHINS I believe it now.

ROBINSON You thought that the United States was the offending party?

HITCHINS I would affirm it now, in fact with greater knowledge and infinitely larger depth of evidence to draw upon. Yes.

ROBINSON That the Chinese, the Soviets supplying the North Vietnamese were the good guys in this one?

HITCHINS I think the hardest thing for you to get people to remember now--even though they must remember it at the time, or should--is that the official reason given for intervention in Vietnam--well, there were several and they kept changing--but one of them was that it was to stop Chinese expansionism into Indochinese peninsula. That's now considered so ridiculous, and it's so self-evidently untrue, that it's hard to remember that that was one of the official alibis.

BUCKLEY Are you saying that it was untrue and known to be untrue at the time?

HITCHINS Well, whether or not Mr. Rusk, say, believed that a South Vietnamese, post-French- colonial buffer state, guaranteed and underwritten by the U.S., was an insurance against Chinese expansionism or not, I don't know, but I do know that that's what he maintained. It seems fantastic, doesn't it?

BUCKLEY But the godfather of that impulse was containment, the Doctrine of Containment had been around since 1945-46. Czechoslovakia had provoked a reinvigoration of it, i.e. they must go no further, and behind that impulse is, to be sure, a perfectly raw colonialism which is everywhere displayed, but also the threat of China doing what they did in Korea ten years earlier.

HITCHINS On this containment question . . . .


HITCHINS As well as containment, in other words, the reaction to the Stalinization of eastern Europe, there was also something that had been going on during and after the Second World War, namely the--and unnoticed, because it could be assimilated under the rubric of containment or anti-Communism--which was the United States becoming, without a vote or really much of a debate on the subject, the successor state to the former European empires, okay, to the British in part of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, especially after Suez in ‘56, to the French in Indochina, which is my main point—

ROBINSON You're not going to let him get away with calling this an empire, are you?

HITCHINS But also to the Portuguese, to the French and the Belgians in the Congo, to the French and Portuguese, and even to the Dutch, in Indonesia, remember the coup in Indonesia in ‘65. Now, the origin of the . . . what somebody's called the Morasseau Quagmire there now, this is the decision by Eisenhower and Dulles to inherit French colonial rule in Vietnam. That's really the situation. The United States put itself in the position of being a classical colonial imperial power. I don't myself believe that they had a prayer of reversing that verdict by continuing to bomb and destroy more of Vietnam than they actually did, and remember they covered it pretty much from end to end. I don't think you would really say there wasn't enough violence used on the Vietnamese, can you?

BUCKLEY It was suggested to President Eisenhower that we intervene to prevent Dien Bien Thu, and he resisted. He said no. So in that sense, he said French colonialism has to look after itself. But looking after itself is different from being colonized by another entity to wit, a Soviet entity, against which we were globally engaged. And it mattered enormously when looking down on the old Vietnam, it appeared that Vietnam, the North, was to be the aggressor to the South, threatening all that lay in the West--Cambodia . . . .

ROBINSON What does William F. Buckley believe we should have done in Vietnam?


ROBINSON Closing questions on Vietnam. Do you wish from this vantage point that we had simply never gone in?


ROBINSON You do. Christopher, let me ask you what you wish. Between the fall of Vietnam and the fall of the Berlin wall, I counted them up and there are at least nine countries, at least nine, that fell under Soviet domination. Do you feel, as a coffee planter in Cuba and a Trotskyite, any responsibility for the period of misery the people of those countries endured?

HITCHINS Any personal responsibility?

ROBINSON Yes, actually, any personal responsibility. You and the generation of ‘68, the protesters.

HITCHINS I really think it would be grandiose of me to accept any.

ROBINSON All right, symbolic. Symbolic.

HITCHINS Morally, no, of course I don't because I always was a vocal opponent of that. And I consider the revolution of 1989—

ROBINSON Vocal opponent of what? Of the Soviet Union?


ROBINSON What do you regret that you did? Let me ask that. What do you regret that you did in the sixties?

HITCHINS I think that I regret the . . . there was a slogan that was painted on the walls of Paris at one point in the great upheaval of May ‘68, which said, "Take your desires for reality." I think there was a certain hedonistic utopianism around, which, though I tried to—

ROBINSON You grant Bill's point about the self-indulgence.

HITCHINS Oh, I though I did so, except by substituting fornication for masturbation. Thought I'd already clarified that.

ROBINSON All right, fine.

HITCHINS So, no, it was "going all the way," it wasn't ononism.

ROBINSON And what do you regret that you did?

BUCKLEY Well, I regret that I didn't, sooner than we did, come forward with a countdown on the Vietnam War. We were always being told in 1960, ‘69, ‘70, "victory is around the corner," and they tend to say that persuasively, and a lot of people were persuaded. I went to Vietnam three times, and wrote back that it looked good, I was told, it looked good.

ROBINSON You regret trusting the government of the United States.

BUCKLEY Well, it's not so much the government that I trusted; it is individual people working their own perspectives. Now you can call that a government if indeed you say, well, he works for the government, but I saw them, and I thought I saw them making individual . . . . I spent a night in the bunker with General Abrams, and he wasn't giving me two and a half hours' talk for the sake of confusing me. This is what he thought. And I haven't seen an awful lot of people-- MacNamara's the great exception--who, can I say, during that whole time we were simply feeding American journalists and American surveyors, stuff we knew wasn't true.

HITCHINS I think it's really to the credit of the United States that the government though it had to lie to the people about this war from the beginning. My main regret is I didn't do more than I did, to help the actual movement. What little I did do is still a great cause of pride to me, but I think--and I'm not searching for common ground in saying this, believe me--but I actually thought that one thing we do perhaps share is feeling that widespread distrust in the government isn't a bad thing, the fact that there was great disillusionment at that point may have struck me then as being a defeat, but surely from a conservative point of view there must have been something salutory about . . . .

BUCKLEY The presumption is that the state is in the business of aggrandizing its power and ought to be watched, but the presumption taken to a certain point blinds you, if in fact you simply refuse to listen to what is being said and then make your own evaluation. Barry Goldwater went over there. I saw him the day he came back. He's a pretty experienced fellow, and he thought-- this was 1967--he thought that the enemy couldn't continue to sustain the casualties they did. That's a reasonable thing to say. You might have been saying, "Don't be silly" there will never be any lack of people who will rise up and volunteer to commit suicide on behalf of a free Vietnam, you'd have been right. But it would have been romantic for me to assume that you were right.

ROBINSON: Let's move from Vietnam to the other great protest movement of the 1960s, civil rights.


ROBINSON: The image of the anti-war protesters is the calf dance, the self-indulgence of fornication and so forth, but civil rights . . . quite different: the march on Montgomery, Martin Luther King modeling himself on Ghandi, thrown in jail he says unearned suffering is redemptive. Now the civil rights movement was concretized in the civil rights acts, and the big civil rights acts of both ‘64 and ‘68--'65 actually is when it was enacted in ‘68--the big hullabaloo was over the act as it was coming to a vote in ‘64. Barry Goldwater opposed it. I flipped through old copies of the magazine you edited at the time, National Review, and National Review speaks of the act in language that is in places just dripping with disdain. Why did you oppose that act?

BUCKLEY Well, we opposed that act on the grounds that it asked for constitutional liberties, in an age in which constitutional liberties were being mobilized for this cause and that, rather with abandon. And we saw them addressing a situation which we doubted could be addressed in that way, but I have a very full perspective on life in the South in those days, and it was life that simply assumed that whatever headway blacks made would be made within their own culture and that federal interposition would be simply a renewal of the Civil War. That was wrong. But that deception was very, very engaging.

ROBINSON And at what stage did you decide that it was wrong? What I'm interested in--did the movement itself change your thinking and that of your family?

BUCKLEY No, what changed it was 10 or 15 years after he had passed. I said to myself, "I don't think those constitutional arguments on which we relied were misspoken, nor do I think them opportunistic, but we've got here a situation in which a better thing happens and would have happened by orderly pursuit of a constitutional decorum. I feel the same way about getting to the war against Hitler. I think it was full of deception, hypocrisy. I think that Roosevelt did things entirely different from what he intended and I'm glad he did.

ROBINSON You look with clear distaste on the protest that you saw from the fourteenth floor of your hotel in Chicago in 1968, but you grant that the civil rights movement, that aspect of the 1960s represents an achievement and a noble moment in American history.

BUCKLEY No, I don't think so.

ROBINSON You don't.

BUCKLEY Because I think the nature of what they did was anti-thought, anti-rational. The kind of thing that caused Socrates to leave Seminars, the demagogy.

ROBINSON All right. What did you make of the civil rights movement?

HITCHINS Well, I couldn't phrase it better than you did. I mean, it seemed to me that it was the summa really, especially Dr. King's leadership of what it was to take part in the movement that we call in the sixties, and I think probably the crucial moment for me, and I remember very well, was when Dr. King and his address at Riverside Church said that despite enormous lectures from the black establishment and the white liberal establishment too, he was no longer going to remain silent about the Vietnam War because--and here's my third point about that war, as well as about the movement--all the energy that should have gone to the repair of legal racism and poverty in the South--legally enforceable poverty and racism in the South--was going on the war, that Johnson immolated his great society for that war. And the connection between the two seemed so strong and self-evident as to be, well, with me still.

ROBINSON Lyndon Johnson broke his hump getting the civil rights bill through Congress.

HITCHINS Exactly, it did break his hump doing that, precisely, and broke his heart and other bits of his anatomy and other people's as well in Indochina, and destroyed what had been going to be the advertised great society. Now we talk about lawlessness and the rest of it in the sixties, and the contempt for war. What we only suspected then has been amply demonstrated since, and there was really quite high level collusion with crime and disorder and subversion and provocation by those who were sworn to uphold it . . . . Yes, absolutely, but by planting agents provacateurs, by stirring up incidents of violence, by circulating false and racist propaganda, and in Mississippi all the files have now just been published of how the state authorities themselves colluded in murder and kidnapping and lynching . . . .

ROBINSON Was Malcolm X justified in . . . . ?

ROBINSON All right, Christopher, you abhor the use of violence by the state in the 1960s. What about the use of violence by groups such as the Black Panthers?


ROBINSON Were the Black Panthers justified in engaging in violence?

HITCHINS Well here's another self-criticism. At the time, I certainly would have said yes, and did say so, because I thought it was very stirring--and I don't take all of this back, either. There were blacks who didn't ask for anybody's permission anymore. They didn't wait until the moment was right. They didn't wait until there was a liberal consensus. They said, "We want to do it on our own; we have a perfect right to do that." That struck me as a good thing, though it led to awful consequences in the case of the Black Panthers, to gangsterism and so forth . . . . I remember being more impressed by it now than I think I probably should have been to the extent even of saying—

BUCKLEY More impressed by what? By what?

HITCHINS By that kind of black style, by its courage. And also, to make a full self-criticism, not recognizing that King was the real revolutionary. I was thinking of him as really the moderate in the thing, whereas when you look back on it, he was the one who really took it on the chin, as well as, still in his thirties, risking his life almost every day and refusing to threaten anybody else's, for the rights of his own people, so to speak, but also saying that moral statements had to be made about the world and about nuclear weaponry . . . .

ROBINSON You saw even the civil rights movement through the prism of Vietnam, and this Trotskyite vision of global . . . .

HITCHINS It is very, very difficult not to see it that way, because I certainly think, and Mr. Buckley, in a way, confirms it, that those who were on the other side saw the two things as somewhat linked as well, as a challenge to a certain ruling order, yeah.

ROBINSON Your statement is that they were seen by those on the other side--we have a representative of those on the other side right here--as a conjoined challenge to the established order.

HITCHINS Yeah, the George Wallace-Curtis LeMay joint candidacy was, in other words, absolutely perfect. The man who had said we'll level every working man in Vietnam, ahead of the......, and the man who said he would stand in the schoolhouse door.

BUCKLEY We'll have coming up with the placenta that fed the two movements and suggested they were the same I think it's true of the same people, the two phenomena, as, in a sense, linked, i.e., they were the causes of that time, and they drew the sympathies of the same kind of people. Meanwhile, the conservatives were saying there are understandable strategic reasons for doing something about Vietnam and in respect of the civil rights question, we have to recognize that progress goes slowly, that progress has to build on the good nature of the community.

ROBINSON The final question on each of these issues. Civil rights, you view that as a noble moment in American history. And you, Bill, what would your formulation . . . ?

HITCHINS Yes, I am impressed by how conventional a view that now is in some ways, yes . . . .

ROBINSON Well, Bill's about to be conventional.

HITCHINS . . . . Its baptism may have masked from people how noble it really was.

ROBINSON What would your formulation be?

BUCKLEY My formulation was that the civil rights programs were a formulaic response to a real need and not by any means one that has proved as successful as an alternative means might have been.

ROBINSON And on Vietnam, Bill, a century hence, will the American involvement in Vietnam be seen to have done any good at all?

BUCKLEY I think it might be viewed historically as an act of constancy. We had said that we were going to live by the Doctrine of Containment and we did our best. We prevailed in Korea, we prevailed in Berlin, we prevailed in Greece, and we didn't prevail there but we gave the right signal. That they might say.

ROBINSON And your view? A century hence, how will that war be seen?

HITCHINS Much more as a crime than a mistake or a blunder. Much more consciously committed, and as having done much more damage to American democracy than was recognized at the time, as well as having betrayed even the Vietnamese in whose name the American--allied Vietnamese, in other words--in whose name, the war was conducted, as a complete, all-around textbook disaster and crime.

ROBINSON Christopher Hitchins, William F. Buckley, Jr., thank you very much.

ROBINSON Thirty years after the 1960s, the United States is at peace abroad, and at home. But as Hitchins and Buckley demonstrated, there's still something about that decade that won't quite let us go. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.