Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sex, Drugs, and 'Commies' in the Heartland

Spring semester ’66 at Indiana University was surely a season of discontent for President Elvis Stahr. Of the four major speakers visiting campus, two were known personally and warmly welcomed by the president, a former Secretary of the Army, while the other two, far removed from mainstream America, were a source of woe.

 President Stahr welcomed two generals, both forceful supporters of the Vietnam War, at IU’s large auditorium. The two outliers, both strong opponents of America’s war in Vietnam, were shunted off to smaller venues. All the speakers were met by protests from one direction or another. During his short, turbulent tenure at IU, the president invoked the spirit of academic freedom to defend the more unorthodox speakers’ right to speak on campus, but when it came to the IU New Left, he grew increasingly critical and intolerant.

A more incongruous quartet of speakers could not have been imagined at a conservative university in the middle of America’s heartland. General Maxwell Taylor appeared first in late February ’66. He had served as JFK’s special military adviser on Vietnam, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as Ambassador to South Vietnam. Taylor was met by an orderly protest that included campus SDS activists, including my ex-Vietnam GI brother Jeff Sharlet.

Barely a week passed before Allen Ginsberg, poet of the Beat Generation famous for the poem Howl (1956) and a guru of then contemporary counter-culture, unexpectedly arrived at IU. Privately invited by a Sociology professor, word quickly got around, and the well-known poet was soon sought out for a public reading.  However, given Ginsberg’s free use of obscenities in his verse celebrating homosexuality and drug use, a hue and cry went up at the state legislature. The poet’s criticism of the war in another poem of more temperate language was of less interest to the legislators.

Two months later in early May, the second general marched onto campus. General Lewis B Hershey was not only pro-war, but Director of the Selective Service System from which draft calls issued forth, putting young men at risk. General Hershey’s appearance was met by a larger and more vigorous protest at which Jeff and others spoke – a peaceful demonstration confronted by a huge, unruly student counter-demonstration.

 Finally, just a day later, the theoretician of the American Communist Party, Herbert Aptheker, arrived to speak to a much smaller audience. Although a major academic specialist on the plight of the Negro in America, his talk focused on opposition to the Vietnam War. Objections by both town and gown to Aptheker’s presence on campus were so strong that Bloomington provided him with police protection enroute to the venue.

The story of the generals and IU’s New Left protests has been told†, but the tale of the hippie guru and the ‘notorious’ communist on campus is less well known. The two men came from the margins of American society – the hardline Old Left and the very provocative counter-cultural revolution. Although Herbert Aptheker was the furthest thing from a hippie and the poet Allen Ginsberg the antithesis of orthodoxy of any persuasion, the two had much in common.

Both were Columbia University graduates who became leading public intellectuals of their time. While Aptheker was a PhD as well as a Communist Party (CP) activist, Ginsberg was a leading poet as well as an essayist on public issues. Both poet and scholar were prolific writers, each producing dozens of books.

Allen Ginsberg reciting ‘Howl’ in Greenwich Village NY, 1966 

Ginsberg and Aptheker had come to the fore during the placid postwar decade, the ‘50s, described aptly by one writer as years that “seem to have taken place on a sunny afternoon that asked nothing of you ….”** For most people, those were years of great complacency and high conformism during which the poet and the communist each staked out his controversial public position. It was a period when anything other than heterosexual sex was considered perverse and hidden in the ‘closet’, and narcotic use was severely punishable. Ginsberg in his poem America (1956) boasted of his drug use and flaunted his homosexuality:

I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.  

Likewise, long before the Supreme Court’s Brown decision (1954) and during the lengthy case by case unwinding of segregation, Aptheker thundered his criticism of the difficult circumstances of the Negro, not just as the CP party line, but in his role as one of the country’s noted academic experts on the subject. In word and voluminous print, he was a veritable 20th century John Brown, albeit absent violence.

While a segment of the American public shared a concern about racism, although not from a Marxist perspective, Aptheker went completely off the rails of public discourse after the USSR’s bloody suppression of the anti-Soviet Hungarian Revolution (1956). With the US still in the grip of McCarthyism and anti-communist hysteria rife, Aptheker, a defender of Stalinism, rushed into print with The Truth about Hungary (1957), a book justifying the brutal Soviet crushing of the ‘Freedom Fighters’ even as the newly installed Hungarian government was carrying out its draconian campaign of trials, hangings, and the imprisonment of survivors.

In the ‘60s, Ginsberg and Aptheker were both early opponents of America’s involvement in Vietnam, well before the war came to wide public notice. Ginsberg had visited South Vietnam in ’63 during the low intensity phase of the war, Jeff’s first year in-country. Later, as the war grew in scale, Aptheker was invited to Hanoi by the North Vietnamese leadership and went there along with two non-communist peace activists.

Allen Ginsberg arrived at IU on March 1st ’66 as the private guest of a sociologist researching national drug legislation, a topic on which the poet was well informed. He was touring the Midwest and had driven up from Kansas. News soon spread that the famous poet was in town, and the English Department asked if he would give an impromptu reading of his work.

Ginsberg agreed, and hundreds of students and faculty crowded into a small auditorium to hear him, standing room only. He and his partner, Peter Orlovsky, alternated reciting their poetry. Their poems involved sex, religion, and the virtues of drug use, all in wildly off-color language. In spite of the presence of the Kinsey Institute at IU with its focus on deviant as well as straight sex, a number of people were shocked by the poets’ explicit sexual references, particularly one of Orlovsky’s poems, which, as one student – not a shrinking violet – later said, grossed him out.

With the Vietnam War raging halfway around the world and General Taylor’s encomiums to it a week earlier, for the politically-minded student activists, Ginsberg’s new poem Wichita Vortex Sutra was the big hit of the reading. He had recorded the poem via stream of consciousness and then transcribed it just a couple of weeks earlier while on the road in central Kansas. 

Wichita Vortex Sutra was a powerful antiwar poem of the Vietnam era, perhaps Ginsberg’s most emphatic poetic demonization of the American war in Southeast Asia. The structural technique was brilliant, juxtaposing the violent ‘Newspeak’ of war with scenes of bucolic Kansas – under the thematic aegis of “American Eagle beating its wings over Asia.” Three sets of contrasting images below from the long poem, including two that even feature Generals Taylor and Hershey, illustrate the poet’s technique: 

Omaha World Herald – Rusk Says Toughness
Essential for Peace
A black horse bends its head to the stubble
beside the silver stream winding thru the woods

General Taylor Limited Objectives
imagining Enclaves
Tactical bombing the magic formula
black cows browse in caked fields
ponds in the hollows lie frozen,
boys with sexual bellies aroused
chilled in the heart by the mailman
with a letter from an aging white haired General
Director of selection for service in Deathwar
in chill earthly mist
houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward

The poet’s recital had a dramatic effect on one student, a fellow political activist and good friend of brother Jeff’s at IU, who later wrote “inspired by Ginsberg, I decided to return my draft card to the Selective Service. I was turning in my membership card. I no longer belonged.”***

IU’s administration found the whole affair lurid, embarrassing, and offensive to the community’s sense of propriety. Repercussions began immediately. Up in Indianapolis, the Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives viewed much of what had been spoken as obscenity in violation of decency laws and threatened a legislative investigation of what was going on down there at the state university.

It took President Stahr nearly two weeks to quiet the furor by arguing academic freedom and the right of the campus to hear all points of view. Not content to leave it at that, however, in a left-handed swipe at Allen Ginsberg he added  that the students could “not be swept off their feet by fads, fancies, or phoneys.”****

Given public fears of domestic communist subversion, Herbert Aptheker’s appearance at IU in early May ’66 proved even more provocative than the storm of criticism over Ginsberg. While the poet, so to speak, had slipped onto campus ‘over the transom’ by private invitation, Aptheker had been formally invited by two radical campus groups. The Dubois Club, the youth affiliate of the Communist Party USA, and Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) were both duly registered as official student organizations, thereby indirectly implicating IU in the campus visit of a well-known American Communist.

As with all campus events, Aptheker’s lecture was announced in advance on the university’s event calendar, which was available to all residents of the small town of Bloomington. Although it was well before the age of the Internet, the gist of the speaker’s bio would have been accessible to anyone interested. He had joined the CP in ’39, earned a PhD in History from Columbia University, and served honorably in WWII. By the end of the war, Dr Aptheker had attained the rank of major in the Army, but in 1950 he was forced to resign his commission because of his CP membership.

In his scholarly career Aptheker had become a distinguished historian of  the Negro in America, publishing numerous books on the subject. However, due to his CP affiliation, Aptheker was blacklisted in academe except for a brief stint as a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr College. By the ‘60s, he was widely known as the Communist Party’s intellectual star, tirelessly dedicated to opposing American racism, capitalism, and imperialism.

Prior to his IU lecture, Dr Aptheker’s notoriety as a top communist in Cold War America had caused problems at several campuses to which he had been invited to speak. He was hung in effigy at Ohio State University in the fall of ’65, while in March ‘66 he was escorted off campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under a state law banning communists from speaking. And then in late April, just a week before his IU appearance, Aptheker was again hung in effigy –  this time at the University of Miami, although 2500 students listened politely to his presentation on the American Negro.

As news of Aptheker’s upcoming visit got around Bloomington, local businessmen criticized IU for inviting an ‘avowed’ communist, while individual members of the Board of Trustees, –  political appointees at a public university –  began receiving outraged complaints from citizens around the state. Alarmed by the popular reaction, the board chairman, a banker, met with President Stahr.

Stahr argued that a speaker such as Aptheker espousing an unpopular cause fell under the rubric of academic freedom, the right of individuals to express their contentious views on campus freely. Persuaded that to un-invite Aptheker would bring IU into disrepute in academe, the chairman issued a statement providing political cover for the trustees and the university. Assuring the public that the state’s main institution of higher learning loathed communism, he announced:

                               We will not assist the communist conspiracy
                                by denying freedom of speech and thereby
                                martyring its mouthpiece.****

Although Elvis Stahr no doubt had a hand in drafting the board’s cover statement, by sleight of hand he still managed to occupy the high ground in the affair, taking credit before the faculty for a victory for diversity and tolerance.

Herbert Aptheker followed Selective Service director Lewis Hershey by a day at IU. General Hershey’s speech on Monday, May 2nd, had been met by protest and counter-protest demonstrations. Forewarned of Aptheker’s recent bruising encounters at other universities, Bloomington police escorted him to the auditorium given, as the chief put it to the local paper, the ‘high feeling’ in the community. At the door of the event, IU Security then checked IDs to ensure that only members of the campus community were admitted.

Herbert Aptheker speaking at IU, May, 1966 

A few months earlier, Aptheker had returned from a trip to Hanoi and soon thereafter had published a small book, Mission to Hanoi, dismissed by a scholar of Asia as mainly a propaganda tract. Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War was Aptheker’s topic before a packed house of 450 students and faculty. Predictably, he opposed America’s involvement in Vietnam’s civil war and advocated US withdrawal – positions most likely congenial to most of those who chose to hear him; thus, the evening in the hall passed with no untoward incidents.


Aptheker in Hanoi (see arrow), cover of his book, 1966 

Although the campus New Left, which by then had been actively opposing the war for over a year, welcomed Aptheker’s critical perspective as counterpoint to the two generals; the majority at IU, and for that matter throughout the country, still supported the Johnson Administration’s war policy. Most people either ignored or dismissed antiwar rhetoric, but a small group of conservative IU students vigorously objected both to Aptheker the communist as well as his remarks on Vietnam. Not to be outdone by fellow students elsewhere, they hung him in effigy at Indiana University. 

In these instances, the generally outraged public reactions to individuals expressing extremely unconventional and unpopular views happened to have taken place at Indiana University, but (certainly in Aptheker’s case) the same did and could have occurred at many other universities in politically and socially conservative sections of the country. It was the era of the Cold War, the divisive surrogate war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights struggle, and a time of essentially still traditional attitudes on sexuality – all emotionally-laden subjects giving rise to considerable passion by supporters and opponents.

In a more philosophical vein in the midst of that roller coaster spring semester at IU, one professor shrewdly remarked at a faculty meeting that the greater danger at the university was actually widespread student apathy, not student radicalism.
* A Ginsberg, Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995 (2000), 126
** E Hardwick, Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays (1984), 82
***D Worker, Escape, Adventure and Other Tales of Madness:
****T Clark, Indiana University: Years of Fulfillment, Vol. 3 (1977), 587

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