The Statement

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Personal Statement: Fifty years later, still making a statement


Published October 25, 2012

In 1961, the eminent professor Robert Angell told me soothingly over breakfast that I could trust Kennedy's new defense secretary, Robert McNamara – he called him Bob – because he was “one of us,” a liberal intellectual who lived just off Geddes Avenue and drove into his Ford Motor office in Detroit every day. On June 9, just as the Port Huron convention was opening, McNamara gave a speech in Ann Arbor defending what he called a “centrally-controlled campaign against all of the enemy's vital nuclear capabilities” in the event of a crisis. It foreshadowed our greatest fears, which almost came true in the Cuban Missile Crisis just months later.

Tragically, the Cold War led liberal intellectuals like McNamara, along with our key allies in the UAW, into the bloody quagmire of Vietnam. McNamara channeled his personal brilliance into propaganda when he asserted in August 1964 that the bombing of North Vietnam was due to “naked aggression” by Hanoi, a claim he privately knew to be false. When LBJ pledged “no wider war,” only two Democratic senators opposed the Gulf of Tonkin war authorization. After promising not to send American ground troops during his presidential campaign, there were 184,000 Americans deployed to Vietnam by late 1965.

Nothing turned out as I once imagined. There was one constant: the tides of movements and counter-movements kept churning. Movements based on participatory democracy eventually gained some meaningful reforms: voting rights for southern black people and 18-year olds, the fall of two presidents, amnesty for 50,000 war resisters in Canada, the Freedom of Information Act, democratic reforms of the presidential primary systems, collective bargaining rights for public employees and farmworkers, the Roe v. Wade decision, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts, a long list of reforms gained in less than a decade.

Social change did occur, precious inch by bloody inch, becoming sacred ground that had to be protected, decade after decade, from both reaction and oblivion.

Underlying all of this tumultuous history lay the rocky river of participatory democracy – “the river of my people” – which kept flowing.

Now, to paraphrase Port Huron, we are the elders of this generation looking uncomfortably to the world we leave behind as inheritance. The reforms we achieved are under constant assault from the right and stagnating with the passage of time.

We are in the process of a new beginning, signaled by the deep American discontent with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threat of more wars to come and the immense diversion of trillions of tax dollars from our needs at home for health care and affordable education. Like the '60s, another imperial presidency is on the rise, unleashing covert military operations in multiple countries without serious congressional oversight or civic awareness. Like the '60s, the long war leaves greater economic inequality and environmental depletion in its wake.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, “The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock,” just as we wrote at Port Huron. That unchanged economic inequality threatens political democracy at the core.

What can one say in the face of these terrible challenges, so reminiscent of yesteryear? Perhaps, just perhaps, the ripples of today’s student protest movements foreshadow a coming revolt of those who will not settle. Or perhaps today’s generation will accommodate and live the rest of their lives in a defensive crouch. Who can be sure? We know that movements begin unexpectedly. Rebellion begins anew, like a first flower forcing winter’s passing, as it happened in Ann Arbor in that springtime long ago. The Port Huron Statement is a message sent in a bottle, and participatory democracy a tradition for future rebels to drink from.

Tom Hayden is a founding member of the student activist group Students for a Democratic Society and a former Daily editor.