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`I Thought the Movement Was Going to Be My Life.'

Interview: Todd Gitlin '63


One question is all it takes.

Todd Gitlin '63, former president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), professor of sociology at UC/Berkeley and author of The '60s: Days of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), launched into a nostalgic journey back to his days at Harvard, remembering his involvement with Tocsin, a student anti-nuclear group founded in the winter of 1962, and the way in which it affected the rest of his life

The 1960s still live in the hearts and minds of the generation of students who were politically active then and who have gone on to leave their mark, says Gitlin, who finds that the SDS movement may have died, but that the activists of his generation remain involved with the issues that first inspired them.

Q: What was it like to be a student activist in the early 1960s?

I had not been political in high school, nor in my freshman year. In the fall of '60 I was initiated into Tocsin. There was a real tidal shift in that fall. I had a group of about seven or eight friends and none were interested in politics.

Over the summer [of 1960] I fell in love. My girlfriend was very political. One of the first days after I got back [to school], I was talking with someone and they told me about a rally being held to protest sane nuclear policy. Erich Fromm and Joan Baez were going to be there.

I said to myself, `of course I'm going.' I didn't know why. It was very weird. But everyone assumed they were going. We weren't political though. We weren't great Kennedy fans.

The next day in Quincy dining hall I was wearing a pin from the rally. It had a mushroom cloud on it, and Robert Weil ['61], a leading member of Tocsin, came up to me and asked me to come to a meeting. The group didn't sound too collectivistic, so I went.

Before long I was going up to Vermont to campaign for a pacifist congressman. The next thing I knew I was on the executive committee [of Tocsin]. It all happened in a month. Tocsin became the center of my life for the next two years...

The whole period was thrilling, even though we felt desperate and scared a lot of the time. We organized a rally after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The rally was crammed with people. There were right-wing Cuban beating on the doors.

Barrington Moore [a social scholar known for his classic work, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy]... gave a speech which changed my life. He said protest was nice, but, let's face it, it's not going to accomplish what we need to accomplish. America was a `bastion of reaction the world over.'

He said; `don't waste your time on concrete proposals.' We believed in sweet reason. `[Secretary of State McGeorge] Bundy wants to survive as much as you do,' he said. `What we really need to do is have simultaneous revolutions in the United States and the Soviet Union...We have to create destructive criticism of a destructive system.'..

Suddenly everything crystallized. What his speech told us was that Tocsin's politics of amiable persuasion were not enough. The effort of changing their minds by proving how well-read we were was valiant but fruitless. I resigned as chair of Tocsin soon thereafter. I knew that I had to do something else, though I didn't quite know what it was.

I had gotten to know some of the SDS people nationally. I got to know Tom Hayden. We had the back room at Cronin's. It began to seem to me that the issues were interrelated and something more had to be transformed. I got involved with the Civil Rights Movement. I was very impressed with SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. This was also the spring of the Birmingham violence.

After graduating, I went to Ann Arbor. I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I loved the energy of SDS, whose center was there. I did not want to be a professional politico. I went from graduation straight to an SDS convention in New York. I was elected president of SDS right there.

SDS was in the process of becoming a huge organization. At that time there were only about 1000 members on paper, which means de facto a few hundred. Within two years it had greatly grown, largely thanks to the Vietnam War.

In '64 and '65 we organized the Peace Resurgence Education Project. We organized a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank over the issue of loans to South Africa. There were 40 or so people arrested. A month later we organized the first national march on Washington. There were about 25,000 students.

Most of the crowd in SDS from '64 to '65 decided we needed to leave the campuses and focus on the interracial movement of the poor. In the summer of '65 when we were working with organizing Blacks and the Civil Rights Movement, I realized I wasn't a very good organizer. I wasn't patient enough.

I decided to write and be a mediator for the movement. I was inspired by James Agee's book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I had won the Harvard Detur prize in my freshman year and that had been the prize.

Eventually, I ended up in California. The organizing projects were not working out that well. I felt a need to get back in the movement. I was working for an undergraduate paper. I was a free-lance agitator for two years.

I stopped going to conventions in 1967. I had become increasingly disgruntled with SDS. It had become an arena of various factions. There were the Leninist and the ultra-militant. It had become fratricidal. Comrades were trashing each other.

It was like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. Road Runner suddenly veers off right before a cliff as Wile E. Coyote is chasing after him. Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff and keeps running until suddenly he looks down and the moment of truth arrives. He runs in place, suspended in the air for a few seconds and then he crashes. This is the feeling I was getting from SDS in its later stages.

It was a wonderful place to roost. I never thought about a career because I thought the movement was going to be my life. When it crashed and burned, I was devastated. By '69 there were close to 100,000 members. The more unpopular the war became, the more unpopular the movement became. The movement was losing content and skidding...

It was the loss of many of my oldest connections. The willing forces were getting stupider. There was no spirit of the movement. There was no place for any intellectualism in the movement. Many were becoming very spiritual. Many were going straight in a sense [going back to traditional jobs].

From '70 to '73 I did part-time teaching at San Jose State. SDS broke apart in '73. One part wanted to blow up somebody and did blow up themselves and then there was the Progressive Labor faction, which was riddled with class guilt. I thought this was nonsense. So I treaded water for a few years.

I had never thought of getting a PhD, though in '74 I did. After '71, I couldn't even have fantasies of a post-student, savvy New Left. I met some people at Berkeley who suggested that I get a PhD. But I didn't want to be narrow.

I started getting interested in the media and the part that the media was playing in reflecting the movement. The seed for my dissertation was in an article that I wrote in '69 on the movement and the media, the dance they performed.

I became a professor through the back door and Berkeley made me director of its mass communications program. I have been fitfully active in politics, but I do most of my political work as a writer. My dissertation became a book [The Whole World is Watching]. My latest book is much more personal, and also part is memoir.

I was involved in UCal's divestment in '85. [Gitlin also serves on the board of Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA)]...

My teaching is another way in which I carry on what I was doing in the '60s. I teach about the nature of things in such a way as to clarify the conditions and possibilities for change.

Starting in '75, I got re-interested in the Bomb, which had been my original issue. I became re-engaged when India set off their bomb for nuclear testing in '74 or '75. I became interested in why the Cold War was returning. I began looking into how the media treat the bomb and how they restrict what is possible.

I have come back to the Bomb and fused to it my more recent interest in the media, taking it one step farther. I think the Reagan counterreformation is receding. A lot of what we did in the '60s was stupid, tactically unbalanced, and I didn't think that should be repeated.

Everyone thinks the '60s was glorious, non-stop politics. But the '60s took 10 years to happen. Often we felt that we were in the margins. The movement was a constant search, we were looking for some way to act with integrity and effect. It was not all bigtime jamborees.

The conditions were so unique; we were in the midst of an economic boom, America had a very strong position in the world economically and we thought we could drop out, do our thing and then come back any time. I've decided that serious radicalism thrives best when liberalism is in power because liberalism makes promises which it can't always keep and then disillusionment follows.

I wouldn't want to repeat the '60s. Students today feel burdened by the '60s, that they have something to live up to. The Baby Boomers are like the pig in the python, they'll be a big lump at every stage.

Q: How did Harvard differ from other campuses at the time?

Tocsin was a huge success. The hard-core beginning of 10 to 40 members grew. With our first walk, to protest nuclear weapons, everyone wore blue armbands. It was moving because it showed people were listening. Very few campuses if any had more technocratic rationalists.

There were people in Washington who listened to us, or so we liked to believe. We were more conservative than all of the other campus groups. We were respected but suspect.

There was a Tocsin reunion on Sunday night...People [who returned] were very diverse, but we all felt some deep linkage to Tocsin and that spirit. Politics is something that implicates you as a whole.

The great thing about Tocsin was that the leadership understood the Harvard state of mind, a cultivation of idiosyncrasies. Harvard was a space within to work, to cultivate yourself. Your personal energies were respected. It would have died if they had been heavy-handed.

In general there was the feeling that we are living out the extensions of the '60s, the better part. There is a definite root that can be traced. We were all engaged in the present moment. The Big Chill was nothing more than a Hollywood disgrace. There is no way that a group of friends who had been engaged in the politics of the '60s would have gotten back together and [made] no mention of today's politics. --Interview by Jennifer Griffin

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