As Broad and Powerful as Possible

Mark Rudd, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (William Morrow, 2010)

If a white person wants to help our cause, ask him what he thinks of John Brown. Do you know what Brown did? He went to war.

Malcolm X

 

Underground is an often engaging book, thanks to Mark Rudd’s honesty, maturity, and sense of humor. He was a privileged middle-class Jewish baby-boomer who went to Columbia University, got radicalized, became committed to ending the U.S. war on Indochina, and escalated his commitment, so he thought, to the faction of the movement that resorted to armed violence. What if, in 1970, Dan Berrigan had been able to sit down (when he was underground) and had a heart to heart with Rudd?

As it was, Rudd went and stayed underground and survived by doing odd jobs (construction) and moving from place to place. He eventually turned himself in (1977), and the story to that point takes up 95% of the book. At the end, he talks about how he remains committed to a radical analysis of U.S. power. He works at a community college and and gives presentations on the Sixties. He is apologetic about the violence he advocated, which, obviously, was infinitesimal compared to what Johnson and Nixon wrought, but not apologetic about the fact that “we” were right about the war.

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“I wanted to place myself on the side of freedom, not empire.” 23

“I never once heard Vietnam mentioned in a class, while outside of class Vietnam was everything.” 22

“Our goal was to disrupt people’s normal lives in order to compel them to consider the war. What they were probably considering was how much they despised us for inconveniencing their commute, but that thought didn’t occur to me until years later.” 36

“The weeks right after the bust were a fluoresce of energy and imagination such as Columbia had never seen.” 94

“Had I to do it over again, I would not have cooperated with the draft even to the level of accepting a deferment on the grounds that Vietnam was an illegal and immoral war. I would have urged others to do likewise, rather than accept our class-based deferments.” 130

“But as I postured and gave speeches on the necessity for violence, I was terrified. I and most of my comrades were middle-class white kids trying to prove ourselves in the world of black, working-class, and international revolution.” 132

“To participate in these actions was to prove yourself a hardened ‘revolutionary cadre.’” 158

“We should have tried to use SDS to build as broad and powerful a movement to end the war as possible.” 190

“The violence of the era—in Vietnam and on the streets of this country—and the tragic consequences have to be looked at clearly and rationally. We need a truth and reconciliation process, such as happened in South Africa, to finally put an end to the suffering.” 309

“I’ve also reclaimed what I can be proud of: Along with millions of other people, I was part of a movement of history—that’s what a ‘movement’ is, after all, a shift of history caused by millions—that helped end the war in Vietnam.” x

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“We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, or course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, sis total – but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the velleities of peace. In every national war since the founding of the republic we have taken for granted that war shall exact the most rigorous cost, and that the cost shall be paid with a cheerful heart. We take it for granted that in wartime families will be separated for long periods, that men will be imprisoned, wounded, driven insane, killed on foreign shores. In favor of such wars, we declare a moratorium on every normal human hope – for marriage, for community, for friendship, for moral conduct toward strangers and the innocent. We are instructed that deprivation and discipline, private grief and public obedience are to be our lot. And we obey. And we bear with it – because bear we must – because war is war, and good war or bad, we are stuck with it and its cost.

But what of the price of peace? I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as they declare for peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of their loved ones, in the direction of their comforts, their homes, their security, their incomes, their futures, their plans — that five year plan of studies, the ten-year plan of professional status, that twenty-year plan of family growth and unity, that fifty-year plan of decent life and honorable natural demise. ‘Of course, let us have the peace,’ we cry, ‘but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.’ And because we must encompass this and protect that and because at all costs — at all costs — our hopes must march on schedule, and because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall, disjoining that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven, because it is unheard of that good men and women should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost — because of this we cry peace, and cry peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war – as least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.”

Daniel Berrigan, 1968

 

Mark Rudd, Columbia University, 1968

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