Our storied radical magazine did transform the nation—for the worse.
[This article is reprinted from City Journal]
In 1965, I was a Berkeley graduate student, on track to become a tenured radical. Instead, I dropped out and joined an obscure, liberal Catholic magazine called Ramparts, headquartered in the sleepy Bay Area suburb of Menlo Park. A little more than a year later, I wrote a story exposing the CIA’s secret penetration and financing of the National Student Association (NSA). The article helped catapult our now-radical, San Francisco–based monthly to national attention and to a catalytic role in the protest movements of the time. The mainstream press celebrated my leftist colleagues and me as heroes of American journalism. Ramparts’ rise to celebrity status seemed to herald a new era of the media’s speaking truth to power. The reality was far less luminous, and Ramparts’ legacy, which a new book celebrates, was not a positive one for the country.
I still remember the phone call I received one evening in February 1967 from an old classmate at the City College of New York. He had just picked up the next day’s New York Times at a Manhattan newsstand and noticed a front-page picture of me and fellow Ramparts editors Warren Hinckle and Robert Scheer. “It’s above the fold,” my friend exulted, and then read out the headline on the accompanying article: ramparts: gadfly to the establishment. The photograph, taken in Ramparts’ San Francisco office, was captioned planning the next expose.
There would be no more Ramparts exposés of CIA front groups. The media heavyweights now pursued the story far more effectively than our monthly magazine could have. Tom Wicker, the Times’s prizewinning D.C. bureau chief, assembled a team of experienced reporters to follow the money trail from the CIA-connected foundations named in my Ramparts article. The Washington Post jumped in with its own reporting team. Turning up new connections almost every day, the newspapers described how legitimate tax-exempt foundations laundered millions of dollars from the CIA and passed the funds to an agency-designated list of civic and cultural groups, labor unions, magazines, and book publishers.
It soon became clear that the CIA/NSA relationship was just one thread in an elaborate web of citizen front groups secretly supported, and sometimes even created, by the spy agency in the early days of the Cold War. Other beneficiaries of CIA largesse were highbrow magazines like The New Leader and Encounter; the international operations arm of the American Federation of Labor; and the American and European sections of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the anti-Communist organization founded in 1949 by public intellectuals such as Arthur Koestler, Sidney Hook, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The top-secret project had been approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Until the Ramparts story broke, the government could count on the mandarins of Washington journalism to protect national-security secrets. But as details of the front groups spilled out, editorials in the Times and the Post skewered the secret funding arrangement and compared it with the methods used by America’s Cold War enemies. CBS News broadcast a program narrated by Mike Wallace, “In the Pay of the CIA: An American Dilemma,” which described the maze of CIA-connected foundations and civic groups that had received agency money. Wallace interviewed apologetic American liberals who had been active in the funded organizations, including feminist stalwart Gloria Steinem and socialist leader Norman Thomas. According to one CIA operative, the Ramparts scoop led to “the biggest security leak of the Cold War.”
Ramparts won a prestigious George Polk Award in Journalism that year, and newsstand sales shot up to more than 200,000 per issue, unheard-of circulation for a leftist publication. Paid advertising picked up, and so did the number of wealthy liberals eager to invest in our exotic venture. For Ramparts, the mission continued to be part journalism, part radical activism. Student rebellions and antiwar protests were sweeping campuses, and the Black Panthers were stirring up inner-city ghettos. Ramparts reported on and advocated for these outbreaks with a flair for publicity that we leftists would otherwise have denounced as a malignancy of consumer capitalism.
The magazine’s resident marketing genius was our flamboyant editor in chief, Warren Hinckle. Still in his twenties, Hinckle was a third-generation San Franciscan with working-class roots, a former city reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and the only Ramparts editor with traditional journalism training. He wore a black eye patch (the result of a childhood injury), expensively tailored three-piece suits, and patent-leather dancing pumps. He looked like a dandy, yet hung out with cops in the city’s Irish bars.
When we had learned from our source inside the NSA that the student group was about to preempt our story by announcing that it had severed the CIA relationship, it was Hinckle who came up with a brilliant maneuver to save our scoop. The full article, scheduled for the March 1967 issue, was tied up in the monthly production cycle. So Hinckle purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times that detailed most of the exposé. His counterstroke caught NSA and CIA officials off guard, as reporters for the Times and other papers began calling with questions about the secret funding.
Later that year, some of us were sitting around Hinckle’s office, discussing how to dramatize the story of the young protesters burning their draft cards at antiwar rallies. I proposed that we burn our own draft cards in solidarity. Hinckle agreed and then put his P. T. Barnum gloss on the idea. He collected the draft cards of the four editors listed at the top of the magazine’s masthead—Hinckle, Scheer, myself, and art director Dugald Stermer—and shipped them off to Carl Fischer, one of New York’s leading photographers. Fischer hired professional models and shot a studio photo of four raised hands holding our burning draft cards, with our names clearly visible. The image became the cover—no text—of the December 1967 issue. Hinckle then ran the photo as an ad on the sides of New York City buses.
I don’t know if burning our draft cards advanced the antiwar cause, but it surely added to Ramparts’ media luster. Time blasted our “publicity stunt,” giving us lots more free publicity. Then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York apparently concluded that we had violated the Selective Service Act. His inclination to pursue the matter in court was doubtless reinforced after FBI agents visited our photographer’s studio and were told that our partly burned cards had been conveniently preserved in a drawer.
The four of us soon had invitations to appear at a federal grand jury convened at the Foley Square courthouse in lower Manhattan. The government paid our round-trip airfare from San Francisco. On the way, we stopped in Washington to hire Edward Bennett Williams, a celebrity defense lawyer and D.C. power broker. In New York, we checked into the stylish Algonquin Hotel for a few fun-filled days in Gotham. The Algonquin was virtually our second headquarters; we stayed there whenever we were in town, no doubt because Hinckle liked the association with the legendary New Yorker writers of the Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s and 1930s.
Even before our grand-jury date, Ramparts received yet another publicity boost from the New York Times. The paper’s legal reporter, Sidney Zion, was friendly with several Ramparts editors, so we gave him the scoop on the government’s draft-card investigation. His story ran on the Times’s front page and quoted legal scholars speculating that prosecution of the Ramparts editors would be a landmark free-press case. After the Times made us look like incipient First Amendment heroes, we appeared before the grand jury, took the Fifth Amendment on advice of counsel, and flew back to San Francisco. We never heard from the government again.
But the press attention and the surging circulation couldn’t save Ramparts from a fall from grace—and it wasn’t government repression that brought us down (though CIA snoops did penetrate our office) but our own folly. The changing media climate could certainly have sustained a fiscally responsible mass-circulation New Left publication. But responsibility and restraint were alien words in the Ramparts offices. There were too many Algonquin Hotel junkets, flights around the world chasing stories that never panned out, and three-hour, booze-filled lunches at the priciest restaurants in our San Francisco neighborhood. Anyone who came to Ramparts with an “inside-the-establishment” exposé—like the Green Beret from Vietnam who wrote about why he had quit, or the ex–FBI agent who promised to prove that the CIA was behind President Kennedy’s assassination—not only wrote for the magazine but became a permanent staffer, adding to Ramparts’ ever-swelling payroll.
Ramparts’ final binge came in August 1968. Throughout that politically tumultuous year, we had sought to cover the street protests and the antiwar insurgencies roiling the Democratic Party. Now, with Ramparts running on fumes and the great American credit card, Hinckle decided that we had to be in Chicago to do a special issue on the Democratic National Convention. After all the ferment that Ramparts helped stir up, it seemed inconceivable that we would miss the ruling party’s Götterdämmerung. Hinckle not only sent at least ten Ramparts writers, editors, and photographers to the Windy City; he also invited a cadre of our media friends to join the festivities, including Zion, future Pulitzer Prize winner Sydney Schanberg, and an about-to-be-famous writer named Hunter Thompson.
Our close ties to the radical antiwar movement led us to believe that we would have an insider’s perspective on the street combat. But we spent little time on the streets. Instead, we took a dozen rooms at the luxurious Ambassador East Hotel on the Gold Coast and often took our meals at the hotel’s Pump Room, where a huge black man, dressed in the full regalia (including scimitar) of a palace guard for an Ottoman sultan, greeted guests. Not surprisingly, our radical friends out on the streets expressed outrage at our flagrantly decadent quarters. After a week of bloody riots, Hinckle moved the entire operation to the Algonquin in New York—our home away from home—to write the Chicago story.
The project was doomed from the start. Even if Ramparts had been financially solvent, our monthly magazine had little chance of adding any insight to one of the decade’s most thoroughly covered events. Moreover, many mainstream reporters, now feeling liberated by the CIA revelations and their own newspapers’ increasingly critical coverage of the Vietnam War, were as sympathetic to the protesters as we were. And for political reasons, Ramparts was unwilling to publish the one story we did have exclusively: how Tom Hayden and a small group of radicals had set up shop in Chicago four months earlier to plan a massive violent confrontation with the “war machine,” otherwise known as the Chicago Police Department. When our 20,000-word convention spread came out at the end of September, it was stale news. By then, the creditors were pounding on Ramparts’ doors, and our financial backers were asking pointed questions about how their money had disappeared down the drain at places like the Pump Room.
I never understood why Hinckle was so reckless with the magazine’s future. What I do know is that the miracle of the capitalist system’s bankruptcy laws insulated the editors from the consequences of that recklessness. Hinckle went off with Zion to start another muckraking magazine called Scanlans. The new monthly raised $1 million and published nine issues. The remaining Ramparts editors filed for protection and reorganization under Chapter 11. The court-ordered financial oversight allowed the magazine to continue publishing. But Ramparts soon found itself beset by internal strife—a common occurrence in the radical movements of the time. Scheer briefly became the new chief editor, but was ousted in a coup orchestrated by David Horowitz, Peter Collier, and other staffers, many of them former Berkeley graduate students whom Scheer himself had recruited.
I wasn’t around for the bloodletting. After the convention fiasco, Ramparts began to feel like a straitjacket, and I decided to try my hand at freelancing. I hadn’t yet broken with the Left, but it disturbed me that Ramparts would stretch or deny the truth to sell our counternarrative about America and the world. After all, we were keeping secrets for Tom Hayden as loyally as the mainstream-media barons had once kept them for the CIA. I winced when Scheer made a deal with the Cuban government for the rights to Che Guevara’s diaries that required us to publish a Fidel Castro rant, filled with Communist propaganda and denunciations of American “barbarism.” Other rosy articles we ran about the true socialism supposedly emerging in Castro’s Cuba also appalled me. Weren’t we supposed to be the New Left, as opposed to Communist tyranny as we were to U.S. imperialism?
I also felt partly responsible for creating the myth of the Black Panthers as righteous rebels fighting off brutal police oppression. In 1967, I wrote a hagiographic profile for Ramparts of Huey Newton, the Panthers’ “minister of defense,” and then published basically the same article in the New York Times Magazine—yet another indication of the changes in the mainstream media. It soon become clear to anyone who cared to look, however, that Newton and the Panthers were clever street thugs who used revolutionary slogans to avoid accountability for their crimes. As one of the New Left’s favorite black criminals, Soledad Prison inmate George Jackson, once put it, “Marxism is my hustle.” After my Newton article, Ramparts ran three more celebratory cover stories on Panther leaders—Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and (again) Newton.
When I learned that Horowitz and Collier had taken the Ramparts helm, I assumed that the magazine would become more intellectually serious, if somewhat duller. Unfortunately, Horowitz and Collier drank the Kool-Aid served by the Left’s most destructive elements. They published Hayden’s drivel calling the Black Panthers America’s “internal Viet Cong,” along with his exhortation for radical white youth to create “liberated zones” in cities and on campuses to serve as sanctuaries for their heroic Panther allies. Ramparts’ new editors then topped this foolishness with their own, proclaiming Hayden “one of the country’s most serious revolutionaries.” To me, the lasting image of Ramparts’ second incarnation was a cover depicting a burning Bank of America branch in Southern California. The radical students who firebombed it, said the accompanying text, “may have done more for saving the environment than all the teach-ins put together.”
I was living and reporting in Israel in 1975 when I learned that Ramparts had finally closed its doors. I breathed a sigh of relief. By then, I no longer considered myself a leftist—in no small measure because of the Left’s growing hostility to Israel. In the early 1980s, Horowitz and Collier also had their much-publicized Second Thoughts, as they titled their book, and became prominent movement conservatives. In his powerful 1997 memoir, Radical Son, Horowitz devoted several chapters to his years at Ramparts. With brutal honesty, he explored the catastrophic consequences for the possibility of a decent Left that resulted from Ramparts’ misalliance with the Panthers and Hayden.
The more romantic assessment of Ramparts—that its spectacular rise in the 1960s represented a great leap forward for American democracy—runs through a new book by California writer and historian Peter Richardson. A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America has stirred renewed interest in the magazine’s legacy, particularly in California, and has been reviewed favorably (twice) in the New York Times. To publicize the book, the author organized several public forums featuring Hinckle, Scheer, and other Ramparts alumni.
Collier, Horowitz, and I weren’t part of the conversation. Too bad, since we might have forced a reality check on the celebrations. At one recent session on the Berkeley campus, Scheer (who became the resident leftist columnist for the Los Angeles Times after leaving Ramparts) assured the audience that Ramparts not only smashed retrograde national taboos but “had very high standards. No question we were putting out as good a journal as anyone in the country. . . . We were edited by professionals, it had to be well written, fact-checked. And the fact is that we did not screw up. I can’t think of a major error.”
Richardson nodded approvingly as Scheer spoke. Yet as I watched the forum online, I wondered what he was really thinking. I knew Richardson only through a long telephone interview he did with me in March 2008. My impression then was that he was a California “progressive” and that his book would reflect the judgments of the vast majority of the magazine’s former staffers who remained on the left. Nevertheless, I shared everything I could remember with Richardson, gave him my view of Ramparts’ legacy, and hoped for the best.
When I read his book a few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised. Richardson gets most of the facts right about the major developments in the magazine’s 13-year history. He quotes at length my comments on the Chicago convention fiasco, which stand in the book without refutation. Perhaps unwittingly, Richardson also provides sufficient material to make a mockery of Scheer’s claims of rigorous fact-checking and no major errors. Readers can learn from the book, for example, that Hinckle indulged every crackpot conspiracy theorist on the JFK assassination. Early in 1967, Ramparts published staff member David Welsh’s claim that there were three assassins in Dallas in 1963. Our resident ex–FBI agent, Bill Turner, then wrote two articles supporting New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was a CIA agent controlled by conspirators deep within the U.S. government. “Very high standards,” indeed.
But more important than Ramparts’ accuracy or lack of it is the historical claim in Richardson’s subtitle—that Ramparts “changed America.” Richardson argues that it was Scheer’s arrival at Ramparts in 1965 that “would change the magazine’s trajectory and the nation’s.” But when Richardson tries to specify what national changes Scheer and Ramparts actually stood for, the best he can offer is that for Scheer, “the main point of Ramparts was to apply what he had learned at City College about the American system, including the first amendment, limited government and checks and balances. . . . As for foreign policy Scheer’s main point was that other countries, including Cuba and Vietnam, should be allowed to make their own histories without interference from the United States.”
This is either naive or deliberately misleading. I speak with some expertise here, since Scheer and I were friends at City College in the late 1950s. We worked together in campus political groups in what was, for us, a prelude to the next decade’s New Left. We also took the same classes in the college’s government department, which did teach us about the Republic’s founding principles of checks and balances and limited government. But the passions that moved us were not those that moved the Founders. We were not liberals. We were socialists and anti-imperialists—though we distinguished our brand of socialism from that of the pro-Stalinist Left, which was still well represented at City College.
In 1962, Scheer and I reunited as Berkeley graduate students and, together with David Horowitz, started one of the first campus New Left journals, Root and Branch. Our signature issue was support for the Cuban Revolution, but it wasn’t because we thought Cubans “should be allowed to make their own history.” Rather, we believed that the revolution was a great leap forward for the socialist cause. We followed the lead of one of our intellectual heroes, Columbia University sociologist C. Wright Mills, in arguing that Fidel Castro was a new breed of revolutionary leader—more humanist, more open, even more hip than old-style bureaucratic Communists. In fact, we imagined Fidel and Che as fellow New Leftists.
Long before American liberals took up the cause, Scheer argued eloquently in Ramparts for getting out of Vietnam. I suppose you might say that such a withdrawal would have let the Vietnamese people “make their own history.” But the real reason that Ramparts was for total withdrawal of American troops was that we wanted the Communists to win and were sure that they would. In the view of most of the editors, the Communists were Vietnam’s rightful rulers. One of the most effective Ramparts covers was an illustration of Ho Chi Minh as George Washington crossing the Delaware.
The magazine’s liberal Catholic founder, Edward Keating, had chosen the name “Ramparts” in 1962 because it evoked the national anthem’s patriotic themes. Just so, Richardson argues, “Ramparts in its heyday was centrally concerned with American ideals—and especially the nation’s collective failure to live up to them.” I wish that were true. But like so much else about Ramparts, this claim is posthumous spin. Instead of urging Americans to take pride in the founding ideals of the Republic, Ramparts’ editors and writers were preoccupied with attacking America’s liberal institutions.
Above all, we hated the “Cold War liberals”—at times, even more than we did the political Right. Under assault from Ramparts and the rest of the youthful New Left, these liberals lost their nerve. The CIA revelations and the Vietnam debacle left them chagrined and repentant. Soon, many lost faith that American power could ever be used for good. That liberal failure of nerve has been harmful to the country. Worse, it rests on a faulty reading of history. Contrary to the Ramparts line, Cold War liberalism deserves credit for the greatest American achievement since World War II—winning the Cold War.
Philip Graham’s oft-quoted observation that journalism is the first draft of history applies with particular emphasis to the story of the CIA front groups. In the second draft of the story, historians plumbing the archives are learning that the American government’s secret decision to mobilize and fund anti-Communist groups was an indispensable part of the Truman administration’s policy of “containment” against the Soviet threat. George F. Kennan, the foreign-service officer who famously authored the policy, assigned to the CIA-funded groups the most crucial role in the strategy.
To understand why Kennan (with President Truman’s support) initiated the secret CIA program, recall that in 1949, Communist regimes, most of them closely allied with Moscow, ruled a third of the world’s people. The Soviets could count on a vast network of its own front groups, well organized from Moscow and already hard at work trying to undermine the fragile postwar democracies of Western Europe. The theory of containment assumed that America would block any Soviet military encroachments while carrying on the anti-Communist struggle in the political, economic, and cultural spheres. If the U.S. succeeded, we could defeat Soviet Communism without risking nuclear confrontation.
And that’s exactly what happened. One can argue about the ethics of the secrecy used to carry out the operation, but not about the results. It’s not a stretch to say that the full success of the containment policy, with its front-group component, was symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall two decades ago.
But this wasn’t yet clear in 1967. In an early iteration of the moral-equivalency syndrome that many liberals today still embrace, Ramparts could pitch the CIA/NSA story as a morality tale exposing the perfidy of Cold War liberals. The CIA was no better than the KGB. They spy, we spy. They manipulate their students and intellectuals for national advantage, and we do, too. Logically, then, it’s the Cold War itself that’s the threat to American values, not our Cold War enemies.
The updated version of that syndrome maintains that the War on Terror, not the Islamist movement that seeks to bring down our civilization, is the greatest threat to our values. So I concede that Richardson is right in saying that Ramparts changed America, particularly the nation’s political and media culture. But the influence was mostly baleful. The liberal failure of nerve that Ramparts helped engender lives on, hampering the country at a time when our leaders must consider courageous policies, including the possible use of force, to prevent catastrophic threats to our nation and the West in far-off places like Iran.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.