Title: Witness to the Revolution
Rating: 4 Stars
Witness to the Revolution covers a period of time spanning from August 1969 to September 1970. This was a tumultuous time in American history, spanning everything from the Vietnam War to the Pentagon Papers to the Weather Underground to the Black Panther Party to Woodstock.
The story is told as an oral history. People who were actually there are at the events tell the story in their own voices. I’m somewhat partial to this format because hearing it from a first hand participant seems to lend the event an immediacy.
The chapters are broken up by events during that time. These events are not trivial. They each are themselves history making occasions worthy of a book all by itself. The fact that there are nearly two dozen chapters tells you what an intense period of time this was.
Several of the chapters were particular affecting. The events around the Kent State shooting especially resonated. You hear the stories of students that were just kind of wandering around experiencing the state of unrest on the campus. Essentially without warning, the National Guardsmen turned and started firing. You hear the story of a student that was shot and was left permanently paralyzed. You hear the story of the young college student working for the university paper that got the iconic shot of the shooting. You’re left with a sense of disbelief that Americans could fire on other Americans in such a manner. You’re left understanding how this shooting in turn created a tsunami storm of campus protests.
Another important chapter was the bombing of the Army Math building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Madison was a hotbed of conflict between students and the police. After learning of the Kent State shooting, a couple of students decided to blow up the Army Math Research building, which given its connection to the Defense Department, was a particularly egregious irritant to the student protesters. They constructed a bomb and set it off in the wee hours of the morning. They thought that they’d taken precautions to make sure that the building was empty but it turned out that a post-doc student was still in it. The resultant explosion destroyed the building and killed the student. To this point, the anti-war movement had been purposefully not targeting people. With the death of an innocent, the anti-war movement lost much of its legitimacy.
The chapters that were less effective to me were the ones concerning the Weather Underground. I’d already read about them in Burrough’s Days of Rage. Beyond that, I can’t just get past the pseudo-radicalism of these spoiled children of upper-middle class parents. Using your parent’s townhouse while they are on vacation in the Caribbean to make a bomb and then instead blowing up said townhouse has a certain Wiley E Coyote aspect to it that keeps me from taking them seriously. Actually thinking that you could overthrow the country with well placed bombs in government building restrooms is ludicrous on its face. Except for Mark Rudd, who freely admits that they failed, even in the current day, they are unapologetic, if not proud of the role that they played.
There are a couple of reasons why, although I really did enjoy reading this, it did not get 5 stars. One is that the same voices are heard throughout the book. In many cases, it’s the leaders that you hear from (like Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn of the Weathermen). Their voice is important, but I would have liked to hear more from the actual rank and file members. Some were represented, but the accounts seemed very leader heavy.
Secondly is that quite often only one side was represented. There were some accounts from policemen or Nixon officials, but they were sparse in comparison to the voice of the radicals. It’s important to keep in mind, that even though Nixon is rightly seen as a sinister force, that at the time he had tens of millions of supporters and he had huge approval ratings. The chapters would have had much more meaning if the actual conflict that was playing out in America during that time could have been drawn out in more detail.
Lastly, there were probably too many events of interest. The book is over 500 pages, but there just wasn’t enough pages devoted to really flesh out some of the topics.
Possibly, a less ambitious book that focused on fewer events but provided more depth to each event would have really been a more informative read. I like to think of these oral histories as a mosaic, where all of the voices together form into an intricate mesh that provides a richer meaning to the subject.
In this particular mosaic, it seemed as if it was predominantly of one color and it seemed threadbare in some places.