Put Your Bodies Upon The Wheels: Student Revolt in the 1960s

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Heineman begins his short 226 page history of the student movement of the 1960s with the statement that the book is “not a celebration of the 1960s New Left and the violent confrontation written by a participant turned scholar–nor is it an attack on every social reform movement that arose in the sixties.” Instead, he says that he has “tried to be evenhanded but cleareyed,” although it does not take long to realize that Heineman is quite biased against the student movement (xi).

This bias is not necessarily a problem, as there is much to criticize in the politics of the student movement’s adoption of Leninist ideology, a lack of work to develop a strong base of support outside the student and counter-cultural ghettos, and a late embrace of women’s liberation–just to name a few. However, Heineman is not particularly interested in criticizing the student movement for its political and tactical mistakes, rather he is intent on portraying the movement as one made of upper-class “radicals” who were out of touch with the opinions of most in the United States, and more damning, were against the “working class” and using their class status to avoid fighting the Vietnam War. In other words, he presents a typical right-wing argument.

Heineman has an interesting thesis, and there may indeed be something to it, but he never really moves to the level of analysis, instead choosing to state the thesis at a number of different points in his text without establishing the necessary level of support. Moreover, the book does not feature a single footnote–quite the feat for a professor of history writing a history of the student movement with a rather controversial thesis! While I realize that oftentimes works of historical synthesis forego the use of footnotes, I believe a failure to use footnotes is inexcusable, especially when Heineman makes a number of questionable statements:

  • He quotes Robert Timberg, a reporter from the Washington Post, who relates the media myth that student activists spit on returning veterans (18). This myth has been refuted in detail in Jerry Lembcke’s The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.
  • He argues that professors were more enthusiastic than students in supporting the New Left, a statement “supported” by some undocumented statistics about radical faculty in the university while stating that “barely a quarter of [students] participated in antiwar demonstrations on a regular basis,” a point that Heineman never tires of making (20). Almost every time he discusses a protest, he cites statistics stating that most students either supported the war or were indifferent–a fact that may be true, but sources are never provided.
  • Malcom X, whom Heineman dubs “a secular saint of the New Left,” A-frequently called Jews parasites, slum lords, and leaders of the pre-Civil War slave trade,” while he also “dismissed the Nazi Holocaust, arguing that the Jews had it coming (42).” Perhaps this is true–I have not read much by Malcom X, but it is a statement one needs a footnote to verify.
  • When discussing the Black Panthers, Heineman says that “nearly all the Panthers were habitual criminals” and that “their two-thousand well-armed members included killers, drug dealers, rapists, and extortionists” and that their criminal histories was one of the main motivation for wanting white police out of black communities (46). Again, this is a statement that raises a flag and needs a footnote for clarification, but of course, there is not one.
  • According to Heineman, “[University of] Wisconsin SDS members believed that anyone who show up at their meetings wearing a wedding ring had to be a police spy in needs of a beating (151).”

The problem with the preceding statements is that they cannot be verified easily, and when history cannot be verified, it is easy to manipulate it to fit one’s own interpretation, something Heineman should certainly know as a professor of history.

In addition to statements that seem questionable, there are also inaccuracies in his book, which renders the aforementioned statements even more suspect. He claims that SDS liberated Timothy Leary, but SDS had nothing to do with that action, it was the Weather Underground that participated in Leary’s escape from prison–SDS was no longer a group at the time (181). Such sloppy history is always inexcusable, but with a rather bitter conflict still raging between partisans of “the Left” and “the Right” over the legacy of the Vietnam War and the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it is even more important to provide accurate and well-documented history.

Kenneth J. Heineman, Put Your Bodies Upon The Wheels: Student Revolt in the 1960s, (Ivan R. Dee, 2001).

Author: mediamouse

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