Transcript: Richard Vinen on 1968 and Radical Protest
Richard Vinen is author of “1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies”
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation, we’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter, @nixonfoundation, or at nixonfoundation.org.
On August 8th, we launched a new exciting exhibit about the 1968 election to mark the 50th anniversary of that tumultuous year, when Richard Nixon was elected president United States. It’s called “Vote Like Your Whole Life Depended On It.”
Marking the 50th anniversary, there have been a series of books released among them is Richard Vinen’s “1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies,” which explores how the events of 1968, from anti-war marches, worker strikes, to violence on the streets, and how much of today’s culture was shaped by that year.
Richard Vinen is professor of history at King’s College, London, and the author of a number of major books on the 20th century Europe. He won the Wolfson Prize for history for his previous book, “National Service.” Professor Vinen, welcome.
Richard Vinen: Thank you very much.
Jonathan Movroydis: As I mentioned earlier, this is the 50th anniversary of the year 1968, that tumultuous year. A great reason, obviously, for this book to come out, but when and how did you come to write this book?
Richard Vinen: Well, I wrote it, partly, as you say, to mark an anniversary, and partly because I wanted to kind of widen the perspective a bit on 1968. So partly, I wanted a book, write a book, but not simply about 1968 as a year, but 1968 as a kind of longer period. The French talk about the 68 years, so to put it in the kind of context of things going on in the run-up to and the aftermath of 1968. And also, I wanted to broaden the spectrum a bit in the sense that I wanted to put radical protests in its context, which means partly looking at who opposed radical protests, but also sometimes, looking at the more blurred lines, which, I think, particularly become apparent. If you go back before 1968, the blurred lines between radical protests and could have more mainstream politics.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you define, what does radical protest mean?
Richard Vinen: Well, I think, in the context of 1968, it means a protest that’s against established politics, but that means quite often established politics, or comes to mean established politics to the left as well as established politics of the right. So that, it’s a protest that breaks with what had previously been the kind of conventional pattern. So a protest in America is very largely directed towards a Democrat government that in Britain is very largely directed against a government by the Labour Party. And a protest which, you know, swings much more sharply to the left, particularly in this moment of kind of high radicalism.
Jonathan Movroydis: That conventional pattern, just to touch upon that up a little bit. The tumultuous politics of the 1960s is often characterized by the generational gap, would you would you say that is accurate?
Richard Vinen: Yeah, I think, it is. I think, it varies a bit from country to country. So there’s a big baby boom in America, United States, Britain, and France. There’s not a baby boom all over the world, so for example, West Germany actually has a quite low birth rates immediately after Second World War, but in certainly those three countries because there’s a baby boom, there’s then, by 1968, a very large proportion of people of kind of student-aged, about 20. So, I think, there’s partly just the kind of demographic driver for 1968.
And then a generational conflict linked to other things. Linked to the sense that, you know, the older generation is a kind of generation that’s often been marked and molded by the Second World War, which I think, in fact, is especially important to the United States. But I wouldn’t say it’s all about generational conflict. And one of the funny things is that I think ’68 radicals themselves would often not want to see themselves as simply representatives of the youth culture, or would argue that, you know, a generation was tied up with a revolt against other things as Well.
And you do, sometimes, get quite old people involved in protest in 1968, of whom my favorite is an aristocratic conservative lady or lady from a conservative family in Britain who turns up to heckle her son at the Oxford Union when he makes right-wing speeches.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned this as a bit of a comparative study mainly from countries of the West: United States, Great Britain, France, and West Germany. How did the radical protest movement manifest itself, I guess, generally, in each of these countries?
Richard Vinen: Well, partly, obviously, in terms of protest against the Vietnam War, which is very, very important. Clearly, particularly important to the United States, although slightly paradoxically important in these other countries as well although Britain is not involved in the Vietnam War, France is not only not involved in the Vietnam War, but Charles de Gaulle is really pretty openly an opponent of American policy in Vietnam. But in spite of that, Vietnam does become a radicalizing force for young people, and obviously, a certain kind of anti-Americanism pervades a lot of what’s going on in 1968.
There are specific national issues. Obviously, Civil Rights in the United States is a very important part of the kind of lead up to the events of 1968, and, I think, also a kind of rejection of the Cold War. So a rejection of American influence, but also a rejection of sort of conventional Soviet Communism, and a rejection of what is seen as authoritarianism on both sides.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talked a little bit about the sort of the ideological influences of radical protest, in particular, the New Left, what were the sort of…who were the ideological forefathers? And what, you know, what did they believe? And how did that, you know, how did that manifest itself into the politics of the 1960s, particularly the politics of the New Left?
Richard Vinen: There’s …with a whole group of people, I suppose, who would be influences on the New Left. Again, I think, it varies slightly from country to country. So that although there are particular influence in the United States, C. Wright Mills especially. I suppose, kind of non-Soviet Marxism is very important particularly in Europe, particularly in France. So quite a lot of French radicals would have thought of themselves as Maoist or Trotskyists, although a particular variety of Maoism you get in Western Europe usually doesn’t, in fact, know very much about what’s going on in Cultural Revolution China.
You get a reference to Sartre and Camus, who are both important writers, I think, for ’68ers looking back, although, again, with very sharp national differences. So it’s striking that in France, I think, Sartre is a great figure of 1968. Sartre, of course, is still around, and Sartre, who has been slightly eclipsed in the early 1960s becomes…comes back to kind of prominence in 1968 very much.
Whereas Camus, in fact, is very much admired, I think, in the United States, and sometimes what has been actually quite a sharp conflict between Sartre and Camus in France is rather elided over when he crosses the Atlantic. So Camus has a more kind of abstract and detached kind of presence in America which tends to remove him from the specifically French context he was involved in.
Jonathan Movroydis: You mentioned a particular American who was a catalyst, Tom Hayden. Who was Tom Hayden?
Richard Vinen: Tom Hayden’s a student leader from the early 1960s, a very key figure in Students for a Democratic Society. I think he’s very characteristic of lots of people in ’68, in that, very similar to Cohn-Bendit in France, he’s very charismatic, I think. He’s not really tremendously ideological, so I don’t think he’s a person of sort of great preoccupation with political theory or anything like that, but he’s someone who is a very effective kind of magnet for, you know, attracting interest from other people. He’s someone, in some ways, I think, he epitomizes a certain kind of innocence about the student movement in the United States in the early ’60s.
So he’s someone who’s very much mobilized by Civil Rights in the early ’60s, very much mobilized by distaste for the Cold War. He’s not, in any way pro-soviet, but, I think, he’s anti anti-Soviet feeling if you see what I mean. He’s anti the kind of McCarthyism of an earlier period. And he’s someone who is slightly disillusioned with what he sees as the kind of easy affluent world of the United States left over from the 1950s. But he then, in some ways, becomes, himself, a bit disillusioned, I think, with some of the directions that the late 1960s takes in the United States. So the kind of turn towards increasing violence, the turn to what he sees of this more kind of sharp division, are all things that, at least, in retrospect, he comes to regard with some kind of melancholy.
Jonathan Movroydis: One of the particularly notable groups that you mentioned is the Students for a Democratic Society. Who were they, and what were their origins?
Richard Vinen: Well, they originate in the early ’60s. They originate, initially, out of the American Labor Movement. A kind of spin-off from a faction of them, but, I think, become very much separate from that, I mean, they’re really kind of a middle-class movement. Obviously, the student body in the United States is very large compared to the kind of student body even during the expansion of the 1960s that you’ve got in Western Europe so that either students become almost like a kind of class in themselves. And Students for a Democratic Society, again, begins with a very heavily influenced in terms of being in favor of Civil Rights. It begins with a distaste, I think, for the established kind of Democratic Party left, if you want to call it that, in the United States. =
It grows quite fast. It has peculiar relationships with President Johnson so that things like Civil Rights and some of the kind of great society programs, I think, they find quite attractive. There’s almost a moment when it looks as if the SDS is working kind of in parallel with Johnson, and that’s that moment where you get a blurring between mainstream politics and the radical left. So that the SDS, I believe, have this wonderful kind of slogan in the mid ’60s, “Half the way with LBJ,” implying this kind of rather wary collaboration. And then, of course, the thing that radicalizes them a lot is the escalation of the Vietnam War, which, I think, pushes the SDS a long way to the Left.
Jonathan Movroydis: So they were with President Johnson, against him on the Vietnam War, and more so, maybe on Civil Rights?
Richard Vinen: But more, I think, sort of partially sympathetic to him on issues like Civil Rights and Great Society, but then really very, very hostile over Vietnam, And Vietnam becomes obviously, a hugely dominant kind of issue which begins to eclipse everything else.
Jonathan Movroydis: Right. I want to ask you, how did the Civil Rights Movement affect the radical protests of the 1960s? Did it have any sort of effect on it?
Richard Vinen: Yeah, I think, it does. So, I think, obviously, it’s something hugely important in the early part of the decade of the ’60s. I think it goes with a sense of, you know, the need to stand up for different kinds of things. It provides, sometimes just a tactics of protest, so things like passive resistance, you know, going limp when the police try to pick you up, things like that. Sometimes techniques that people acquired during participation in Civil Rights campaigns in the South. I think, it changes people’s views of the United States, so that, you know, these are often people who come from the north of the United States, usually from, you know, one of the coasts, the North East or California.
So in some ways, discovering what’s going on in the American South is a kind of, you know, a revelation to them, and indeed, sometimes a revelation to Europeans who’ve had relations with the United States before about 1960, for whom relations with the United States almost invariably meant relations with the Eastern seaboard of the United States. So, I think, in that way, the kind of vision of America changes. Although, I think, that ties in with a peculiar thing, which is that quite often American radicals in the early 1960s, at least, think of themselves as patriots. They think of themselves as defending a true America and they’re affronted by the denial of Civil Rights because they think that’s, you know, something that is not a reflection of the true America.
So they’re quite kind of sentimental about what they think America has been and what they think America ought to be in the future. And, I think, one of the effects of the Vietnam War is sometimes to push them away from that, so that kind of early sense of being true Americans begins to leave the radical movement.
Jonathan Movroydis: Through the power of television, the American people really saw, up close, the carnage of the Vietnam War. In general, this is during a time where, you know, the mass media really started to grow. How much of media played a role as sort of a catalyst in the in radical protest movements?
Richard Vinen: I think, it’s very important. I mean, it’s important in Vietnam. It’s important in the coverage of the Chicago Democratic Convention, where you see violence being put on television screens in big way. You see it important in the way in which urban riots of the late 1960s are televised. So I think, you know, there’s a sense of the, the kind of immediacy of conflict which comes into people’s living rooms through television.
I think, quite often, radicals are quite conscious of how they can play up to a kind of television image. So sometimes they’re aware of how they can kind of get their message across through television. I think, that they’re, you know, that there’s a kind of multimedia approach on the part of student radicals, so that on the one hand you have this huge kind of underground press of small-scale production of radical new sheets and so on and so forth, which in some ways is quite kind of old fashion, very much a print culture.
And then you have things being portrayed on television very much dramatized student radicalism and violent political division generally. And, I think, in the long term, some of that television reproductions, that actually probably plays out in ways that benefit the political right more than the political left. You obviously have Vietnam being brought into people’s living rooms by television, although one should say that is something that, you know, the Left had other means of finding out about what they thought was going on in Vietnam in any case. And also, of course, you have mass culture in the sense of rock music, which partly ties in with, I suppose, the culture of the late 1960s, and intermittently with radical culture in the late 1960s.
Jonathan Movroydis: Going back to this idea of the generational gap, religion often played a role or ideas about religion. If you look at Europe, religion, especially the Catholic Church, was often a bulwark against more radical ideas, especially on the Left, but you say this is different in America. How did this play out in the American experience?
Richard Vinen: Well, I feel very professorial because I keep saying things are very complicated. I’m just the kind of person that ’68ers would disapprove of. But it’s complicated in the sense that, of course, the Catholic Church itself is changing, so the Vatican to counsel the reforms of the Catholic Church in the early 1960s. I think, it excite great hope that the Catholic Church, itself is out going to undergo a great radical transformation. \
Now, on the whole, that doesn’t happen, but, I think, it makes some Catholics kind of radicalized in the anticipation that it might happen. So you do, curiously enough, get some people coming into radicalism through the Catholic Church. That’s especially true, I think, for example in Italy, one Italian Archbishop complains that his flock have become divided by…into people who are supporters of Vatican I, meaning people who are opponents of Vatican II because their reactionaries, and people who are supported of Vatican III, by which he means people have now gone beyond Vatican II, and are beginning to talk about things like the abolition of clerical celibacy, and so on and so forth.
So you get a radicalism within the Catholic Church, which then also sometimes ties in with social radicalism. I think the American Catholic Church is probably more molded by social conservatism by ministering to an emigrant flock, by Cold War considerations, quite often. But having said that, there are, of course, Catholics who become very prominent in radical movements in the United States.
Catholics, of course, famously, who protest against the Vietnam War and a group of people like Tom Hayden who are quite often lapsed Catholics but, I think, take a kind of religious enthusiasm into their radical politics. So, I think, they become important figures in, you know, in how a new kind of political language is used. I think, often the sense of the spiritual, the sense of, you know, not being interested in purely material things becomes very important to the radical movement, and that sometimes is something that people take from what had originally been religious backgrounds.
Sometimes there’s a kind of link-up later on, so Hayden having, I think, in his youth, thought of himself as a rebel against his Catholic background. Later in life, you know, he begins to talk to people like radical nuns and to think, “Well, actually, maybe there are people within the Catholic Church who moved in the same direction as me.”
And then there are obviously, other religious dimensions, so a certain kind of rather earnest Protestantism is very important in the United States. So people like Hayden’s wife, Casey Hayden, is very important figure who, you know, was a very devout but, I think, rather unconventional religious figure in her youth, and that leads her into support for the Civil Rights Movement. There’s a whole group, I think, of people, particularly, around the universities in Texas who see a certain kind of unconventional Protestantism as mobile, as moving into radicalism. Quakerism is obviously, very important, very important for the anti-war movement, although, I think, also very important for a certain sense of kind of protest and independent thought, although not every Quakerism or not everybody brought up a Quaker necessarily a social radical.
And the third strand, I suppose, is Judaism, in which context, I think, most importantly, there’s a kind of secularized Judaism that’s often very important behind radicalism, which would be true while especially in the United States and in France where a lot of student radicals are from Jewish origins.
Jonathan Movroydis: Moving on, back to the Vietnam War, for a moment, you point out a very staggering fact that kind of bucks the conventional wisdom about both the generational gap, and the Vietnam War. You write that it wasn’t necessarily generational as there was a moment in the mid-1960s when support for the war was higher among the younger than the older. How are we to make sense of this?
Richard Vinen: Well, I think, partly to do with the general radicalism, they did the general radicalization, so increasing distaste for the Vietnam War goes with a more general radicalization of the young. I think, partly to do obviously, with the increasing perception that they themselves might be sent to Vietnam, and partly with a more general kind of drift away from our acceptance of patriotism associated with the Vietnam War, so that you see this in all sorts of very incongruous contexts. You see it with early American examples of what you’d now call gay liberation. So early on, some gay rights groups campaigned to be drafted, you know, they campaign on the grounds, they won’t have the right to fight in Vietnam like everybody else, and then later on increasingly they define themselves as part of an anti-war movement.
So, I think, its part of a general transformation of the student movements move the Left partly driven by Vietnam, but also partly changing their perceptions of Vietnam as time goes on. And, I think, that it’s probably just partly to do with actually finding out more about Vietnam as time goes on, people returning from Vietnam, increasing awareness of Vietnam casualties. I think, all those things feed into it.
Jonathan Movroydis: You would mention the, you know, the power of media and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When did, I guess, when did the sort of the violence reach a precipice, you know, for violence between the New Left, and law enforcement? When did that really start to culminate that year?
Richard Vinen: Well, I think, really after the Democratic Convention. So you then beget a split of the SDS, the fractions of the SDS going off increasingly into violence, and in some cases, going underground, forming the Weather Underground as it eventually becomes, so kind of move towards a kind of urban guerrilla movement on the part of bits of the Left now. I think, there’s a really, as in most of Democratic Europe, as well, it’s really only a very small fraction of the New Left that goes off into that kind of armed insurrection-type fantasy. But obviously, that has quite a dramatic effect in terms of how the Left is perceived and tied up with, you know, other forms of conflict with racial conflict in cities, with the Black Panthers, with things like that.
So, I think, that partly produces a radicalization of conflict between the state and the New Left, but also divides the New Left very sharply, and lots of figures from the New Left pulled back from that precipice and feel, this is the moment where things have gone too far, and feel disillusioned, and uncomfortable with the state that that the New Left has got into.
Of whom, I mean, a very obvious example in United States be Tom Hayden, who, I think, feels very awkward with that kind of turn to violence. In France, the Gauche prolétarienne, which is a kind of Maoist group actually dissolves itself because its leaders become fearful of a turn to violence. In Italy, similarly, A luta continua, another kind of Maoist group eventually really breaks up partly, I think, again in response to the what they see as a threat of turning into a terrorist movement.
Jonathan Movroydis: And the final question, in 2018, we’re a considerably moderated country than we were in 1968, at least, optically, you know, in terms of radical protests, violent clashes, sort of the rapid change, the rapid social changes, but what, I guess, what are the residual effects of 1968 that we that we live within 2018?
Richard Vinen: Now, that’s a really good question. I mean, you know, in some ways, of course, there are, 1968 has become ubiquitous in the sense that the ’68 has grown up. I’ve had a moment when they’ve held a lot of power, I suppose. In lots of ways, Clinton was a ’68er, obviously, attitudes to sexual morality, attitudes to women’s liberation, attitudes to women liberation, attitudes to gay liberation, attitudes to race, all hugely influenced by 1968. So there are lots of ways in which now bits of the mainstream left in the United States, I mean, the Democratic Party in the United States or the mainstream, you know, socialist parties in Western Europe have adopted a lot of the values of 1968. So, I think, that’s one dimension of it.
I think, in the United States, there’s a particularly important dimension, in that, ’68 helps to reform the political right, in fact, rather than the left so that things like distaste between bits of the working classes, particularly the white working class, and student radicals, facilitates a move bits of the white working class to the political right, towards voting for the Republicans. I think that’s very important for Nixon, and then, of course, very important indeed for the figure who almost defines himself in opposition to the kind of Californian ’68 of Berkeley, which is Ronald Reagan.
So in some ways Reagan’s election in 1980, you could say as, you know, the final revenge against ’68 as far as the political establishment in the United States is concerned. But like everything about the world, and the United States, I feel Donald Trump calls it all into question. Everything I thought I was sure about seems less sure now that Donald Trump is in power, so that the world of the kind of Cold War establishment now seems so badly shaken. I mean, it seems extraordinary that Jonathan McCain is now being celebrated as a [inaudible 00:27:50], you know, [inaudible 00:27:51], retard left-wing hero because he’s an opponent of Donald Trump or was an opponent of Donald Trump.
And the strange thing is that in lots of ways, of course, Trump himself is the last survivor of ’68 in the United States. So Trump is, I suppose, the last major politician who’s was himself of ’68-ish age. He was, you know, of student age in 1968. And there are ways in which Trump’s politics is radicalism of a certain sort, although hardly radicalism of the left. His kind of distaste for the establishment, his…well, it’s hard to say anything else other than childishness, you know. It’s remarkably reminiscent of bits of the student left in 1968.
Jonathan Movroydis: The book is “1968: Radical Protest and its Enemies.” Richard Vinen, thank you so much for your time.
Richard Vinen: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you for joining us, please check us back for a future podcast at nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Spotify. This is Jonathan Movroydis, signing off.