Narrator: Paul Buhle
Interviewer: Troy Reeves, John Tortorice
Dates: 26 February 2014, 19 May 2014, 10 June 2014
Transcribed by: Teresa Bergen
Total Length: 3 hours, 8 minutes
Oral History Program Interview #1372
Paul Buhle biography:
Paul Buhle was a History Graduate Student at UW-Madison from 1967-1971.
Retired as a lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University, Paul Buhle is an honorary scholar at the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author, editor, or coeditor of more than forty books on popular culture, comic art, film, labor, and radical history, including The Art of Harvey Kurtzman (2009) which won a Harvey Award and an Eisner Award for comic art, and It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest (2012). A frequent collaborator with Harvey Pekar, he has written or edited nearly a dozen volumes of nonfiction comics, including “Radical Jesus”; Yiddishkeit, Jewish Vernacular, and the New Land (2011); histories of the Beat Generation, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Industrial Workers of the World; and Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation (2009). He edited the three-volume set, Jews and American Popular Culture (2006). He also founded and directed the New Left journal, Radical America, and the Oral History of the American Left project at New York University.
In his three 2014 interviews with Troy Reeves, Paul Buhle offered an overview of his early years, through 1973. He spoke of the time period of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and of the following topics: Champaign, IL; Madison, WI; UW-Madison History Department; Radical America; and the student protest movement on campus during the Vietnam War. He also furnished a bit of his family history and spoke of his memories of some of his fellow history graduate students. This interview was conducted for inclusion into the UW-Madison Oral History Program, specifically with the Sterling Hall Bombing series.
Champaign, IL; Madison, WI; UW-Madison History Department; Radical Studies; Dow Riot (October 1967); 1969 Black Students Strike; William Appleman Williams; 1970 TAA Strike; Leo Burt; Sterling Hall Bombing; Army Math Research Center (AMRC); Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); 1968 Democratic Convention; Studies on the Left; Radical America; David Maraniss’ They Marched into Sunlight (2004); Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D); History and the New Left.
You can jump to each section here: 26 February 2014, 19 May 2014, 10 June 2014.
**To access the OHMS oral history page for Paul Buhle, which allows listeners to search text or keywords and to listen to specific sections of this interview, click here.**
First Interview Session (26 February 2014):
Reeves: Okay. Today is February 26, 2014. This is the first interview with Paul Buhle. You know, Paul, I never asked how you pronounce your last name.
Buhle: You said it just right.
Reeves: Okay. And this is a phone interview. Paul’s at his home in Madison and I’m at my office at Steenbock Memorial Library. Paul, for sound quality purposes, could you say your name and spell your last name?
Buhle: Very good. Paul Buhle. Alternative, Paul Merlyn Buhle, to give you my middle name, which is my father’s first name. I was born September 27, 1944 in Urbana, Illinois.
Reeves: Thank you. And Paul, I have a copy of your book that you edited and then your article in it. So some of this, some of these straightforward questions I’m not necessarily going to ask, because they’ve been asked and answered in a certain way.
Buhle: Very good.
Reeves: But I do want to talk a little bit about your parents. At least in what I’m reading in Radical American Me, I don’t see a lot of discussion about your parents.
Buhle: That would be correct. My mother was born in Eliza, Illinois in 1905. A town so small it was sold, as they say, lock, stock and barrel for five hundred dollars. A fact which appeared as a curiosity in Ripley’s Believe it or Not comic strip in the newspapers of the 1940s. And she was the granddaughter of an abolitionist named Ezra Fuller who came from Maine to Missouri in the 1850s, and was chased across the border ahead of a mob, supposedly, to Illinois. And he later enlisted in the Union Army and marched with Sherman through Georgia. And lived to a ripe old age and spent some time in my mother’s parents’ home, reveling them in stories. His nephew was a drummer boy. More of a collateral relation to my mother. But that tradition was very much alive in my family, which had become Republicans in 1856 and remained ever since. Until myself.
My father’s lineage was German on one side, going back to the lower middle-class in Heidelberg, Germany, in the 1850s. and his mother’s side was from rural Indiana with the possible collateral relative named Belle Boyd (Isabella Maria Boyd, 1844-1900) who was a Confederate spy and bed-hopping activist who went on [00:03:00] the vaudeville stage after the Civil War. Much as Sojourner Truth (d. 1883) did. And happened to die in the Dells after a performance, I think in the 1880s. A very colorful character. And certainly the most colorful in my family if she really, according to claims, was in my family. At any rate, whereas my mother’s father was a short time, a schoolteacher, and later mowed lawns with a big machine for the city of Aledo, and was very poor, as my mother was very poor growing up, in the town that they removed to, Aledo, Illinois, small town.
My father’s father was a failed medical student and set up a little grocery store in Moline, Illinois, where he grew up. And according to legend, joined the Ku Klux Klan just long enough for Grandma to take his sheet away. Moline is the middle-class city between Moline, Davenport and Rock Island. And I’ve recently read a memoir of somebody from Moline, about twenty years younger, that the author notes that the Congregational Church was the evidence of middle-class respectability. And that would be my father’s family to the T. Ultimate middle-class respectability, although the husband, my father’s father, lost the grocery store, worked as the skill worker in the Rock Island Arsenal, and left the family as soon as the youngest child was six years old, and left my grandmother a grass widow, as they say, and went off to work in the war industry in California as a skilled worker.
So that’s sort of the family lineage wrapped up. And I can go a little further by saying my father was a geologist, a geophysicist, whose job for the state of Illinois was to find groundwater supplies for farmers in small towns. In central Illinois, I learned after his death, he was described as Mr. Resistivity, because of the method used to locate gravel deposits, which was the surest sign of there being a water supply. And he spent a great deal of time in the field with a machine and a number of locals finding, usually the ne’er-do-wells of a small town, putting copper and other stakes into the ground and thus sending electricity through the ground and finding if those gravel pits were there. Sort of like water witchery come true through science.
My mother wished to be a social worker. Took a degree in nursing in Chicago [00:06:00] in the 1920s. Met Jane Addams (1860-1935) and was stirred to go to Manhattan and become a settlement house worker in the 1930s after graduating from University of Iowa, where my father graduated. And as she worked in the Kelly Street Settlement House, she realized that if she were going to have a family and children, she would have to accept my father’s proposal of marriage and move with him to Champaign, Illinois where the Illinois State Geological Survey resided. This was very happy for him and very unhappy for her. In later years, she was a registered nurse. She tried to talk about unionization, even though she was a lifelong Republican. She was blacklisted, suffered various kinds of woe, physical and mental, and was unhappy in her situation, as I came to understand in later years. But determinedly feminist in the nineteenth-century sense of believing there would be no wars if only women could rule the world. But also that the repeal of Prohibition had been a terrible idea.
That more or less sums up my Congregational, lower-middle-class, civil service worker and nurse status in Champaign.
Reeves: Thank you, Paul. Did you have any siblings?
Buhle: Yes. I have a sister, blood sister, who was four years older than me. And because parents who gave up on having children and adopted then frequently had a child, have an adopted sister who’s also four years older than me. And one lives still in Champaign, the Evangelical sister. And the other lives in Winnetka as a retired librarian. And a liberal Republican, or perhaps even a quiet supporter of Obama, and a liberal Episcopalian.
Reeves: Not that it matters that much, but is the blood sister, so to speak, is she the Evangelical? Or is it the adopted—
Buhle: No. The other way around.
Reeves: Okay. All right.
Buhle: But you might say, and I have thought to myself often when I was writing Abraham Lincoln for Beginners, which is really a book for young people, that Lincoln’s milieu in Illinois after his family moved there, was not very different from my own. The central part of the state is full of people who came from Indiana and Kentucky. White, conservative, Republican, tending towards Evangelical religion. And Lincoln made it through those years by being a successful lawyer, but also by disguising his free thinking. And I suppose I found myself growing up in Champaign [00:09:00] feeling more or less the same way as they used to say in the nineteenth century, the village atheist.
Reeves: Hmm. Thank you for that, Paul. So, growing up in Champaign and going to school, were there teachers or cohorts that helped to nurture you? Even though you said it was sort of closeted free thinking, any teachers or students who helped to nurture?
Buhle: Well, I only mention two or three. In eighth grade, I had an African American US history teacher. And as I look back, I’m astounded at how much effect he had upon me thinking of myself becoming a historian. He had been, was a native Champaign person who had been educated at the Sorbonne. And then via a misunderstanding, perhaps, came back to Champaign to take more graduate courses, never finished a PhD and teach in a junior high school, which he did the rest of his career. And did a few brave things in terms of housing integration. But basically remained one of the very, very few African American teachers of any kind, the only one I ever encountered in junior high school or high school. But I was very struck by him. And I’m sure that it had to do with his personality, but also with the abolitionism that I recovered. But I remember he showed a film, a documentary film, that was supportive of unionization in the South. And that seemed stunning to me. As a young Republican, I couldn’t understand it.
Secondly, when I was about fifteen, moved to town, Ralph Keyes, same spelling as Keyes Avenue in Madison, whose father had worked on the Henry Wallace (1888-1965) campaign in 1948 and was blacklisted, essentially. Was a city planner in Puerto Rico for fifteen years. And then managed to get this job at University of Illinois. And Ralph’s father was a hard-bitten Quaker and his mother was a disciple of [Petyr] Kropotkin (1842-1921). But they both were Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) devotees. So Ralph was half Jewish, half Quaker. And in their household, we watched Viva Zapata! (1952) when it came on the television. We had discussions about civil rights and peace and so forth that I could not have had in the home of any other fellow student. And that was pretty extraordinary. And a way for me to grow into things.
I remember when the “Hands-Off Cuba” ad appeared in the daily newspaper. I signed it immediately and gave them my friend Ralph’s phone number. And they called me at his house, which was sort of discomfiting for his mother, understandably. But I was part of a very hidden leftwing milieu within Champaign. [00:12:00] And I suppose you could also say within the Democratic Party, which was very small in Champaign-Urbana, and limited to university people, more or less.
And a third, a saxophone-playing African American who was an intellectual, a very interesting guy a year older than me. He has been a gay doctor in Harlem for almost forty years. And was the person for whom I would drive into the ghetto in Champaign. Something I hadn’t done otherwise, though I surely would do so again when the Civil Rights Movement briefly came to town and I would drive to meetings. But rarely would white people drive into the ghetto. And at that point, it was one of the most segregated cities in Illinois. So that rarely would non-whites be in the 90% of town, except as servants and service workers.
Reeves: Paul, thank you for that. So, I grew up with, well, they still are, very Republican parents. And I always sort of felt myself that I was Republican just because of them—
Buhle: Of course.
Reeves: —until I realized I wasn’t. Did you have any sort of epiphany like that?
Buhle: You know, I think my revelatory events, even knowing one always recasts these things in memory, may have been seeing about the civil rights events on television. But also in the drugstore, local drugstore where I would go to the paperback rack and pick up new science fiction books. Of every good and terrible kind. Wonderful ones like The Space Merchants (1953), which was very caustic and written by people who’d been close to the Young Communist League in their youth in New York. But also some nonfiction books. And the two nonfiction books that stood out were Why We Can’t Wait (1964), by Martin Luther King, Jr. And Listen, Yankee (1960) by C. Wright Mills. And I can remember the days I bought those books, because I took them home and they became my Bibles, so to speak. They were very, very significant to me. Opened my eyes, so forth and so forth. And because the Civil Rights Movement came to town in 1960 and I had spontaneously joined a picket line, not knowing anything about it, on a dull summer afternoon. But walking downtown and seeing this picket line. Certainly the most exciting day in my life since I had thrown a no hitter in Little League. Those are the two peak days in my young life. And enrolled myself in it energetically. It didn’t last too long. [00:15:00] And in truth because there were no Democrats in town to speak of. Because elections were, certain principal Republicans would be elected, as they were in Champaign County every year in the twentieth century, except for 1936. And 1976, I think, because of the Nixon debacle.
At any rate, I don’t think it occurred to me that there was some meaningful alternative to the Republican Party that I could join and be part of. So that even being a quote unquote “liberal” hardly crossed my brow. We can get into this in a little bit later. But when I became a socialist at age eighteen, I seem to have gone from being a naive Republican to a beatnik cynic into being a socialist without much in between.
Reeves: Thank you again for that, Paul. There’s one thing I want to just touch on. And again, it comes from the piece that you wrote in the book that you edited. And it says, “Within a year I saw in Madrid, by pure chance,” so you were in Spain at some point growing up?
Buhle: Ah. Yes. Only for a few days. In the summer of 1960, my parents went on one of those ten dollar a day tours to Europe. We drove—that is to say, my father drove—all the way from the UK to Spain. And it was sort of eye-opening, the way it would be for an ordinary American teenager in the 1960s, exotic and different and so forth and so forth. But while we were in Madrid, I saw a man racing down the street pursued by these political police, as I came to know what they were. They had a very particular helmet. And then I saw people leaning over with clubs and beating this person. And then I saw a body covered, entirely covered and soaked with sheets soaked in blood. And I don’t think that my mother and father and my one sister, they didn’t know what to make of it, you know? It was just so far outside their experience, it was like some American exotic thing that you’d see that didn’t make any sense. And so it didn’t leave such a big lasting impression on you. But it left a very distinct impression on me. Presuming that I was ready for it. And maybe I’d been reading about Francisco Franco (1892-1975) or something or other. I couldn’t cast it in the light of anything left, right, or anything like that. But I guess I had a feeling for what fascism was.
Reeves: Thank you. So again, in this piece, you talk [00:18:00] about going to, I’m guessing Champaign for undergraduate. Why did you choose—
Buhle: Ah, I need to probably mention one more thing along the way. Which is, the Congregational Church was so locked into university life that it closed in the summer. And consequently, there was no youth group. So I look for, another youth group was sort of the only social outlet in Champaign. And a friend or someone I admired was part of the University Place Christian Church. Which happened to be, though I didn’t know it, the Disciples of Christ. A Southern-based denomination. Predominantly conservative, because of its Southern location. But sort of just bland in Champaign-Urbana among the other churches. But they had a very active youth group. They had above all things, a pool table. And I joined the Christian Youth Fellowship, CYF. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to evangelize about civil rights. And the leaders of this group, the two youth leaders, were a husband and wife in their thirties. Sort of encouraged anything. I couldn’t tell if they were sympathetic, what they thought of as good, or that that somebody was idealistic. So they made me an officer of some kind. I still don’t know what kind of officer I was. And on the basis of being an officer, I was appointed to the newly created Champaign-Urbana Youth Council, which was made up, I think, of church representatives.
And we met several times in the fall of 1962. And I realize that it was a do gooders group which intended to do nothing whatsoever about the crushing burden of racism. And it further alienated me. I have to go back and say that there had been a race riot in the public park very close to our high school. And I had stood in the middle of the high school and said, “Brothers, your enemy is elsewhere.” Something like that. And somebody picked up a brickbat and was going to hit me. And then happily the police came. But I was looked upon mostly in a hostile way as a civil rights evangelist of sorts, of a nonreligious sort. And I was happy to claim that identity. Maybe it was better than any other identity that I had.
But after this experience with the youth council, or for other reasons, I just wanted to get out of high school. So I graduated early in January of 1963 and came to the university. And inasmuch as I graduated in January, I didn’t really have any choice about where to go to school. Nor did I have any idea. [00:21:00]
One other footnote. When I was teaching at Brown, I was to meet as a freshman advisor several freshmen from Champaign-Urbana. And every single one of them had gone to University High School, which was the prep school in town. You had to make a decision when you were twelve years old to go there. And it was, you’re not predominantly Jewish, at least took away every Jewish kid I knew at age eleven. They all disappeared and went to University High School Why I didn’t go, I’m puzzled to this day. I don’t know. I was afraid of leaving my common milieu, although I probably would have been better if I had.
At any rate, those kids, they went off to the Ivy League. Whereas Champaign High, Urbana High was almost like Uni High. It was full of professors’ children, or had a lot of them. Champaign High was lower middle-class and the teaching level was very good. And it was a very natural thing to go to the U of I. In my case, actually saving money to live at home and go to the U of I. So I was still going to classes, but they were now across town.
Reeves: Okay. Thank you for that. So, one more thing about the transition, it sounds like you, so you graduated early. As you were making that transition from high school to college, did you have an idea of what you wanted to major in or what you wanted to be?
Buhle: I had the idea, I’d already been drinking as much beer as I could get my hands on. I had the idea that being a high school teacher was a great thing because you could spend the summer drinking beer. But where otherwise I got the idea of being a history teacher, I feel sure came from this African American teacher of eighth grade.
Reeves: Okay. And so one thing, one of those touchstone moments of American history. So it’s around this time as we’re sort of going chronologically here in 1963 that President Kennedy (1917-1963) was assassinated. I’m wondering if you could speak to your memories of that event.
Buhle: Indeed. Indeed. A little more fill-in here. In the summer of 1963, and no, no, I’ve got my chronology wrong, because I actually began college in January of 1962. Sorry. In the summer of 1963, a young beatnik girl who I’d met in the Folk Song Club of University of Illinois, sort of a center for dissenting everything. It included people who took marijuana and the available other drugs, sort of beatnik women from New York who wore leotards, and very much closeted gay and lesbians and so forth. [00:24:00] So it was that sort of cultural milieu in a big fraternity/sorority campus. Anyway, this young woman and I left Champaign on a bus for San Francisco, thinking that we would have a big cultural experience. And we did. And we went on living together and we’ve been married for fifty years.
At any rate, in the summer of 1963, I found a socialist newspaper, the only socialist newspaper that could be found in San Francisco. And by September, joined the Socialist Labor Party of a small, largely blue-collar group that had been in existence since the 1890s and held what were called Impossibilist positions. That is to say, nothing was worthwhile doing, except getting rid of capitalism. It was a very interesting group, because it believed in the disintegration of the state, the dissolution of the state, and its replacement by workers’ councils, which were entirely functional and not political in the normal sense of political. It was a remnant of the era of the Industrial Workers of the World. And only in a time when there was so little ability, opportunity to plug into things would I have been part of it. But it was an intellectual experience valuable to me.
Meanwhile, things were heating up politically in the early free speech movement across the bay. But it didn’t really reach so much into San Francisco until about the time we were leaving in December of 1963. And in the meantime, I went to San Francisco State. And the very day that Kennedy was assassinated, I had a handful, a large handful of socialist leaflets I was going to pass out on campus. But my roommate, soon to be my wife, Mari Jo, said, “This is not a good day for handing out socialist leaflets.” And I thought about it for a bit and I thought “yeah, that’s probably right.”
So it was shocking. People were crying on campus. It might be remembered, San Francisco State had many, many returnee students who were working at various jobs in San Francisco. And it was far more leftwing, as San Francisco was far more leftwing, than the normal student population. And much less Catholic than many schools where the death of Kennedy was a huge trauma as the first Catholic president. But there was enormous anxiety, even in liberal San Francisco, about this change. And also just people wondering what in the world is going to happen now.
Reeves: So, you and Mari Jo decided to return to Champaign?
Buhle: We had no choice. The opportunity to get into Berkeley was almost impossible if you were from out of state, and also [00:27:00] very expensive. So very reluctantly, we returned to University of Illinois.
Reeves: So once back, were you still thinking about education, or high school teacher as—
Buhle: Here I got puzzled. And I was thinking of myself as a professional revolutionary. A very strange notion, which appeared and disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s. But of course had a long and honorable tradition in the later nineteenth century and earlier twentieth century. So that I was reading everything I could get my hands on and thinking about how I could get to New York. And how someday there would be a new socialist movement and I could work in or even direct an academy of socialists in the true European fashion. And I wanted to educate, to be an educator. But I didn’t have any idea of how I could be an educator. And being in public school, or private school, for that matter, in a normal college or university was something that was disappearing from my mind.
Meanwhile, the draft, the war was picking up. The Vietnam War was picking up by 1965. And it was clear that people like myself were highly subject to the draft. So that when Mari Jo and I graduated in January of 1966, we’d already made plans for me to continue my education by going to graduate school in pretty much the first place that asked me to, accepted me for graduate study. And that was University of Connecticut in Storrs.
Reeves: Okay. So I asked the question about possible teachers of note or cohorts of note in high school. What about in college?
Buhle: Ah. Good ask. Yes. There were a number of interesting professors. But that was the one who connected me to go to University of Connecticut, and really in the long run directed me to come to University of Wisconsin, was a guy named Rudolph Vecoli (1927-2008), who would become the founder of the Center of Immigration History at Minneapolis/Saint Paul. A real, real important institution for the history of the, especially European immigrant working class coming to the US. He was a young history teacher then at University of Illinois before he went to Minnesota and did that. And then he also was, he also sent me to another UW graduate who was a Finnish-American with communist parents at the University of Connecticut. A[rthur] William Hogeland (1926-2008). Quietly gay, [00:30:00] quietly left-leaning character who was a real scholar of immigration as well. Both had been students of [Merle] Curti (1897-1996), which is an interesting connection for my life. But there were other, very few other professors, who were antiwar. I didn’t even necessarily have them as professors. But they sponsored antiwar activities. And one of them sponsored the Students for Democratic Society chapter. And that I joined as soon as I found out it existed on campus, in September 1965. I had gone to the SDS-led, or SDS-called, demonstration against the war in April 1965 in Washington, because suddenly a place appeared on a private plane, or chartered plane, that went from Champaign to DC in April 1965. A big thrill for me, and probably due to the same professor.
I mention her without being able to remember her name because she had been a young Communist League colonizer of Gary Steel Mills in 1950, as a few thousand other young communists were. And then dropped out of that activity and went back to school, got a PhD, became a professor. And sort of conveniently put that past away because it was dangerous to her career, but had strong leftwing sentiments. And was part of a very small and mostly hidden group of professors who would never reveal themselves in Champaign as having any kind of Marxist affiliations, but were encouraging when some young person would affiliate with them or show an interest.
And when the SDS chapter reformed, I found myself almost immediately the spokesperson, notably at the October, the first fall campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War. When I say spokesperson, I mean emcee at the rally, the person that spoke on local education television, station WILL and appeared to do these public things, very surprisingly to myself then, and for some years later, until a former fellow SDS member in Champaign-Urbana reminded me that almost the entire chapter was Jewish and from Chicago. And they were very eager to have a gentile from downstate be their face to the crowd.
Reeves: Hmm. Right.
Buhle: And I believe I paid them back by learning Yiddish and becoming a scholar of the Jewish left. But we’ll get to that on another day.
Reeves: Right. There’s a question I want to ask. It’s not on the list. [00:33:00] But you mention the idea of meeting people who were gay or lesbian. The world’s changed a lot in fifty years, and really has changed a lot just recently.
Reeves: Would these people come out to you as gay and lesbian?
Buhle: Oh, to me? Very, very hesitantly. It was more as if one would be at parties and somebody would say something. Or like a woman three or four years older, that is to say, could buy alcohol, who was from Mari Jo’s hometown of North Chicago, Illinois. That’s just next to Waukegan, across the border. One of those industrial towns that lost its industry in the last thirty years. And she was a dynamic, magnetic personality for three or four young men, including me. But sexually unavailable, unattainable. And quote unquote “spent the summer in Greenwich Village.” And later it became clear that she was quietly in the closet. And whether she was sexually active or not, that, I don’t know.
And likewise, in the folk song group, club, I don’t think it’s that there was anything physically or in terms of behavior identifiable. People were pretty cautious about that. And yet, stories would sort of come out. You know, they were affable, progressive. But it didn’t appear as if there would ever be any kind of a breakthrough. It was as if there was this very, very special university milieu in which all kinds of things could be hidden. And most of the things that could be hidden happened in the same milieu. Which put it very much under the watchful eye of the local FBI, as we were to find out.
Reeves: Yeah, you mention that in the chapter you wrote for your book, the idea that the chief of security was also in the FBI. It sounds like that’s something you found out, that connection, later?
Buhle: Not greatly later. Because his personality, him as a figure, that was known on campus. And when we would sit in bars and an older man with a trench coat would be at the next table, it wasn’t very hard to figure out this is what they had in mind. But what I had learned, I think at the time, or shortly after, was that my sister, who’s in Champaign as an evangelical, she and her husband were part of Civil Air Patrol. Which is sort of a social group, of a kind, who liked airplanes. [00:36:00] Another member of the group was a local FBI agent. Not the top agent on campus. But it was normal to have an FBI agent. It’s just like another hobby of a military-minded person. And my sister had broached the subject of my being in the Socialist Labor Party. So I think a small investigation opened when I was nineteen. And then I became a spokesman for SDS on campus, and things sort of grew after that.
Reeves: Okay. So you’ve said you went to Connecticut. You and Mari Jo went to Connecticut specifically to try to get into graduate school as quickly as possible.
Reeves: So how did the, and I think you alluded to this in the book, or you might say it directly, how does the transition then go between Storrs, Connecticut and Madison, Wisconsin?
Buhle: Well, Storrs was a very beautiful place in those days. But it was very much of a lower middle class commuter campus. And consequently, very, very difficult to organize politically. I was the leader of a very weak SDS chapter. We were able to have an occasional lecturer to come in. And dozens of people would come into that lecture and pass out leaflets at various times. But it really wasn’t very much. And it probably was the weakness of the SDS chapter that prompted me to try to have some other useful role in a relationship to SDS at large. And that more than anything else caused me to have the idea of starting this magazine to educate SDSers fundamentally. Because the Radical Education Project set up in Ann Arbor, Michigan had as its aim to reach these undergraduates who were in the SDS milieu, in dozens of chapters, finally hundreds, and give them some kind of basis of knowledge in politics. My chosen area was the history of the American left. I had written an honors thesis on Daniel De Leon (1852-1914), who’d been the great figure in the Socialist Labor Party, way back before he’d died in 1914. And had a developing interest in other kinds of things related to the history of the left.
And then I should add, for a summer, summer of 1966, Mari Jo and I lived in New York City because I worked at the National Guardian. Which was then a solid leftwing newspaper that had been very close to the milieu around Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate of 1948. And was very good on civil rights, very good against the war. And was quietly supportive of, if not really the Soviet Union, at least the idea that the Cold War was a bad idea. And so was the most attractive opposition paper. All I did was to collect ads and to do other kinds of menial [00:39:00] tasks in that summer of 66. But we lived there and I took a class at what was called Free University of New York with James Weinstein (1926-2005), the foremost historian of American Socialism, who had been part of the founding and editing of the journal Studies on the Left. Okay, by 1966, Studies on the Left folded. It had moved from Madison to New York and then hit some kind of political obstacle and couldn’t go ahead. And therefore, there was a vacuum of some kind. And on that basis, and with almost no money, and with the most primitive mechanical means, I managed to publish one issue of Radical America in Storrs, circulated mainly through the contacts in SDS, through the radical education project.
And by the time I came to Madison, SDS activist and a creator of pamphlets from the SDS chapter on various subjects, a really wonderful organizer, Jim O’Brien, had already volunteered over the summer in correspondence to join with me and encourage me to publish Radical America in Madison on a better, more solid basis. And it was to be printed one page at a time by Henry Haslach. Who was not only a long-time math graduate student/teacher, but also the head of SDS and the leading figure in the negotiations over founding a teaching assistants association.
So by sleeping at Henry Haslach’s the first couple of nights in August, 1967, before we found an apartment on Spaight Street on the East Side, we had sort of met everybody. And walking from Henry Haslach’s house, now a vanished area next to the railroad tracks, to the campus, passing a softball game that included a dozen leftwing personalities, including Evan Stark, I remember them shouting, “Come and join us!”
And I said, “I don’t have time. I’m a Marxist.”
And I think it was either Evan Stark or Bob Cohen who shouted back at me, “We have all the Marxists we need already. What we need is a second baseman.” (Reeves laughs) So there I was, plunged into something which I recognized as the Midwest that I’d always wanted to be in. Not Champaign or not Bloomington. Not Columbus, Ohio. But Madison, or I suppose Ann Arbor or Minneapolis might have been in the same category. But a Midwest that [00:42:00] felt like home to me, but a home I hadn’t had. And had a radical tradition of its own, and plenty of vibrant intellectual life. And leftwing people didn’t have to disguise themselves as they had in Champaign-Urbana.
Reeves: Thank you, Paul. Before I forget, I don’t think this is actually on our list. I wonder if you could speak to the physical nature of publishing, whether it was the issue in Storrs or the issues in Madison. Because publishing, obviously, is completely different in 2014 than it was then.
Buhle: I’m trying to remember how the first issue was even published. Probably at a xerox shop if they existed in 1966, but I’m not certain they did. If not, it may have been mimeographed. At any rate, as soon as we got to Madison, we got that one issue out, as soon as we got to Madison, and stapled with individual staples as if it were a pamphlet and not a magazine. When we got to Madison Jim O’Brien and Hank Haslach introduced me to the saddle stitch stapler. Which is to say, copies, pages would be printed on both sides, 8 ½ by 11. They would be collated, put onto this saddle stitch so that they could be stapled on the edge, so that they look, three staples, they look sort of magazine-like. And then put into mailing envelopes to send to SDS chapters or to individuals, and taken to the post office. There was one on University Avenue now where the Chazen is now, and another post office on Winnebago. And one place or the other, I would load up everything in my VW and make a couple of trips and send them all out.
But I’d forgotten about a stage. There was a kind of green, semi-plastic covering to a newspaper. We would type out the finished article on those. Correct it with some kind of green Correcto material. And then that’s what Henry Haslach used to create a photographic, reversible photographic image, and then print it. So it was more cumbersome than one could imagine. But on the other hand, the entire thing was incredibly cheap. And postal rates were, by even the standards of the mid 70s, unbelievably low. And if Radical America lost money with virtually every issue, it didn’t lose very much money.
Reeves: Thank you. So you said you and Mari Jo found an apartment on Spaight Street, right?
Buhle: Right. That’s correct.
Reeves: Sometimes we get Spaight and State [00:45:00], and I wanted to make sure that we really hit that “p.”
Buhle: Well, this is of great moment to me because I’m working with the mayor on his memoirs. So I’m recalling or drafting recollections of the East Side as the old industrial center where Gisholt Tool had not yet closed down. It was in the process of closing down, where the blue collar working class had not yet moved out. Which is to say, moved west along Atwood out to Monona. And where the two-family houses that are basically the neighborhood, much of the neighborhood, were not yet occupied by graduate students. And where to put the point a little more strongly, the city administrations until 1968 had been inclined to take urban renewal or urban removal funds to essentially make the East Side into a sacrifice zone and run a highway over the last two blocks of Williamson, with the idea that nothing could happen in the East Side because now with industry gone, it was just going to collapse, more or less.
Thanks to Paul Soglin and a number of others, none of those plans took place. And meanwhile, the very year that I moved there, dozens of undergraduate students moved within just a few blocks of me. the apartments were 75 dollars a month plus heat. And a very, very accommodating, in many ways, the bars changed over their populations very quickly and very successfully. And the neighborhood revived in a remarkable fashion. Even by the time we left in 1971, it was very largely transformed. And it was certainly the center of the meetings of the Teaching Assistants Association. And a variety, wide variety, of leftwing and cooperative movements.
Reeves: So it sounds like you not only found a place that you considered to be home, a neighborhood sort of built around you and others.
Buhle: Uh huh.
Reeves: So, September of 1967, the next month is the Dow Riot, which—
Buhle: Or the Dow Police Riot, as we like to call it.
Reeves: The Dow Police Riot. I wonder if you could, I know you’ve talked about this in other places, but I wonder if you could speak to your memory—
Buhle: Well, I’ll make it brief, because I have talked to it in other places. Mari Jo was working on the history of Wisconsin series at the Historical Society from the first day we got to campus, she got that job. And retained it, even when she was a teaching assistant for, I think a year and a half. I was just going to graduate school. [00:48:00] And when the plans were announced for the sit-in, I didn’t have even a second thought about going. I just automatically went without thinking about it. But I feel sure, and Paul Soglin says as well, that we really did not expect the police to come in and bash us. But we thought simply being there was, you know, we were making witness in the almost Quakerish sense. And we were stunned by the level of violence of the police. Contrary to everything David Maraniss has written in his account. They were overwhelmingly hostile. Slugging women as well as men with their clubs. And they were people influenced by and directed by Chief Inspector Herman Thomas, who as everybody knew, although Maraniss would never say so, had Birch Society materials in his outer office. And regarded SDS and the student movement as a whole as dangerous revolutionaries, as any Birch Society sympathizer was. His police department, all white and all male, was very hostile toward nonwhites, of course. Towards Jews from New York were regarded as the source of all the problems on campus. Very prowar. But also as became clear within a year or so, very, very eager to get the overtime that came with supposedly keeping the students at bay. And sending in infiltrators to do all kinds of things. Not long after, to be throwing rocks through windows. And so forth, and so forth. Because overtime was great. And I know this from many places, but mainly from the former chief of the fire department, the earlier chief of the firemen’s union, firefighter’s union, who watched all of it up close and testified to the level of moral corruption in the police force. But you could say financial corruption, too, because riots are good for them.
So, I didn’t learn about this stuff until much later. But I could tell that a decisive moment and decisive change had taken place on campus. And as the issue of Connections, the underground newspaper, appeared shortly after. And it was just great. It was fabulously informative in ways that even the Capital Times was not whatsoever in relation to the war, or the campus scene, I probably took fifty copies into the dorms. I gave speeches in the dorms and sat with students and so forth. But mostly marveled at how students had taken things on themselves. Undergraduates, mainly, also graduate students, in creating their own classes. And then as classes returned, [00:51:00] they were more serious about the meaning of history than I’d ever known them to be. And in truth, that I’ve ever known them to be again. It was a marvelous, engaged student population of young people who thought young people could change the world. And that they had to, because they, the male ones, were being drafted to go to this monstrous war.
Reeves: Thank you for that, Paul. I think you mention this is your article. But did you know the people who were in charge of Connections?
Buhle: I must have met them very, very shortly. Because we did the printing of Radical America was in the backroom of the Connections office. That’s exactly how I knew them. Little one-sheet printing press. But Robert Gabriner (b. 1941) was a great presence on campus, and I remember going to a party at his house. He was the central figure in Connections. And his poetry editor was a fellow named Dave Wagner, whose wife worked on the history of Wisconsin series with Mari Jo. That is Grace Wagner. And Dave Wagner and I became instant, really good friends and roommates. So, ever since. He taught me about poetry and I taught him about Marxism. So we probably were equal to each other. So I was meeting people and understanding what organizing is very, very quickly in the fall of 1967, and immensely appreciative of the opportunity to do so.
Reeves: Paul, I want to shift gears slightly, although I think it relates. You talk about students being engaged and your history classes being as rich as they ever were, or ever would be. But specifically, when you came here, who did you come here to study under? Or did you know?
Buhle: Well, there’s the problem. My, our, I should say, Professor A. William Hogeland, as Mari Jo and I were completing our MAs, said to us, “Now it’s time for you to go home.” “Home” always meant UW-Madison. So we did. Would we have thought of it otherwise? Maybe not so clearly. But everyone was accepted, there was no difficulty getting into school. I didn’t have a TA the first semester. No, I had an RA. That is to say, I worked in the historical society archives processing the papers of a union. Which was just great. Wonderful meeting the people in there and learning more about how to process archival material, etcetera, etcetera.
But what we thought of as the great professors, with one exception, had [00:54:00] already fled, which is to say retired. Curti and a handful of others, they were no longer professors, although they mostly stayed in town. But the one exception was William Appleman Williams (1921-1990). Now, and I was able to take one course with him before he departed. But that made an immense impression on me, as he did on everybody else.
And I really was talking about US history. Because European history meant Mosse, George Mosse, and Harvey Goldberg (1922-1987). I didn’t actually take a class from Goldberg, but I met with him off and on. And George Mosse had as much impact on me as on thousands of other people.
At any rate, I was in a seminar led by Paul Glad (1926-2018), who was a sort of milk and water liberal. An okay fellow. But in the seminar was Frank Emspak and a number of other people who I would know most of the rest of my life. So that, this is the important point. And I’m sorry I didn’t get to it directly. Our association, collectively speaking, with professors, especially on the American side, was rather weak. But our presence as graduate students in an enormous graduate student class, the largest it would ever be at UW, was intense and rich. Instead of competing with each other as I suppose graduate students are expected to be, we were a very large, very rich, very left-leaning community. So that within that community, we had all the resources that we wanted. And if we picketed buildings and had little respect for professors across the picket lines, in general, there weren’t too many. In history, at any rate. In general, we were a world of graduate students unto ourselves.
Reeves: Okay. So, just to make sure I’m hearing you right. So it’s really your cohort, your graduate students, more than the professors, the graduates students were—
Buhle: Far more. Far more. With Williams the exception in US history, Mosse and Goldberg the exceptions—there were some other outstanding professors. But I just was focused on, mainly on US history. And working on my chosen subject and engaged in publishing a magazine. And all those picket lines and TAA meetings and all the other things that were going on.
Reeves: So what did you choose to—well, first off, I think I read that you came here with an MA. Is that correct?
Buhle: I came with an MA. My MA was on Louis C. Fraina (1892-1953), F-R-A-I-N-A, slash, Lewis Corry, the name he later took. He was the most avant garde [00:57:00] character in the Socialist Labor Party milieu of Daniel De Leon to crossover into the proto-communist left of the later 1910s. He’d also edited the modern dance magazine and was a working-class Italian American who was sui generis in many ways. And rushed to the Soviet Union in the early 20s. And then various bad things happened to him. and he reemerged as Lewis Corry in the 30s, a prominent economist. But he was on his way to being a fanatical anti-communist. And in many ways the huge promise of his youth, ending up being disappointing to himself and everyone else, was the story of the decline of the American left from it’s pre-1920 status, which remains my sentimental favorite, to the deadness of the 1950s that I grew up in. With interesting things happening in many stages in between. But with that sense of decline as a melancholy note in the MA thesis that I wrote. But my intent had always been to have something broader and to write a history of Marxism in the United States. And that was what I was thinking about from the first moment I got to the campus in 1967.
Reeves: So, I should know this. But how did the Marxism in the US, how did that then turn into the dissertation?
Buhle: Well, I, uh—well, as I said, a very good question, but a complex question. Mari Jo Buhle wrote a dissertation more or less about women in American socialism. And then looking at it with an eye toward writing a monograph, started over again. Not with the research. But because the dissertation form is displeasing, or not what we had in mind.
Much the same with me. I completed the dissertation in 1975. But at that time, many US historians were realizing the limitations of the English language. And I was realizing, although I was late to realize, that most of the members of the socialist and communist parties had been immigrants, European immigrants. And that most of the newspapers published for those parties had been published in non-English languages. There were real limitations. I was never going to learn Finnish or Hungarian or Russian. But I could take a dive at German. I had been a C student in high school and college, never outstanding. And from German, [01:00:00] I could migrate toward Yiddish. Which is high middle German written in a Hebrew script, or Aramaic script, and reading right to left. And as a youngish social historian, the idea of discovering these new things and reading newspapers that nobody had read for sixty years seemed very exciting.
So that’s how I concluded my time with my dissertation, thinking this just isn’t good enough, even as I do it. And then moved on to a wider sense, which darn it, took me another ten years to work on. But out of which all of the excess knowledge that I acquired in the meantime by founding the Oral History of the American Left in 1976 at New York University. Out of that came the Encyclopedia of the American Left, published in 1990. Which is sort of like the grand version of my dissertation, only it’s a thousand pages and has sixty authors.
Reeves: Paul, thank you for that. And I think for a couple of reasons, this may be a good point to wrap up for the day.
Reeves: So I want to thank you for your time. I want to chat briefly after I turn off the recorder.
Buhle: Very good.
Reeves: Paul, thank you for your time today. And this concludes the first oral history interview with Paul Buhle.
End 26 February 2014 session
Begin Second Session (29 May 2014):
Reeves: Today is May 19, 2014. This is the follow-up interview with Paul Buhle. Again, this is a phone interview. We are both in Madison at two separate locations. That’s why it’s called a phone interview. And Paul, for sound quality purposes, could you say your name and spell your last name?
Buhle: Sure. Paul Buhle. Last name is spelled B-U-H-L-E.
Reeves: Great. Thank you. So, as I said before we turned the recorder on, I have like six or seven questions over the next fifty minutes. We’ll see how far we get.
Buhle: Very good.
Reeves: So the first one is, what was Professor Williams like to work with?
Buhle: Well, my actual work with him was limited in the sense that I was able to take one course. It was an undergraduate survey course in modern diplomatic history. But it also had a section for graduate students. And the way that we were differentiated from undergraduates was that we needed to do a longer research paper. And that meant coming into his office and chatting with him. This was significant in several ways for me. The first one was that he was really affable and kindly. And with me, not grouchy at all, as he could be sometimes. Maybe when he was hungover. But also that I, we don’t talk about my research paper, whatever kinds of research I was doing. But I also asked him about a grant for my magazine, Radical America. And the place that I knew was giving grants to the leftwing activities, socially critical activities and publications. That is to say, the Rabinowitz Foundation. And he said he would write a letter to them. And indeed, I had this very small and financially hard-pressed publication got a thousand dollars from them, which meant a whole lot in 1968 or 69, whatever year that came through. So in many ways, it was wonderful listening to him in class. The class was huge and he was a wonderful lecturer and all those things.
And secondly, he welcomed me as the publisher of a magazine succeeding Studies on the Left, you might say. But also as a young person that was politically serious and also scholarly about the task of researching and writing history.
Reeves: Great. Thank you, Paul.
Buhle: Are you bothered at all by this, by any background noise?
Reeves: No. To me, I—
Buhle: Very good. I can hear it, but I think it’s only temporary.
Reeves: Okay. To me, all I can hear is—
Buhle: A couple of closed doors away.
Reeves: To me, I can only hear you.
Buhle: Very good.
Reeves: And I think in a subsequent interview, probably our last interview, we’ll talk more about your book [00:03:00] about Williams. But I think we’ll leave that for a next, a subsequent interview. Well maybe we’ll start this way, then. We want to talk a little about your teaching and research experience. Maybe well start by asking, do you recall the paper that you had to write for that class?
Buhle: Boy I wish I did. It may have been finding a document in diplomatic history and then analyzing it. Reprinting such as we did. Probably typing it out or making a xerox or something, and then reprinting it. Then writing a 500-word commentary. That’s probably the only thing that I can think of that it might have been.
Reeves: Okay. So let’s talk a little bit about your teaching, if any, that you did in graduate school.
Buhle: Sure. Well, maybe it’s easier to start with the historical society stuff. Because that was my first semester, I believe–
Buhle: -at the UW in the fall of 1967. And that would have been working in the fourth floor of the historical society of Wisconsin, state historical society then. Researching, not researching, processing papers of a union that was seeking to organize successfully in the South in the 1940s. That would be one of the textile unions. And it was a great job, because the other archivists were serious about history. There was a former victim of the blacklist who’d been able to, a local leftwing guy who was able to get a job at the historical society, which he wouldn’t have been able to otherwise in many parts of the state or private employment. Not that I spoke with him, but people talked about him. And my supervisors were very kindly. And I learned some important details of processing papers, constructing dates, trying to figure out what the last names of writers of letters were, when we didn’t have the last names. All the sort of stuff of how do you work with documentation, paper documentation, and make it usable by future patrons. So that was just great.
By the second semester, but more likely by the second year, by the fall of 1968, I was cheerfully plunged into the classroom as a teaching assistant. And it was perfectly fine. It was a fascinating time to be a teaching assistant because there was still so much ferment on campus from the previous year, the Dow demonstration and police riot and the subsequent strike and so forth. [00:06:00] And I tried to blend twentieth century history US into the present in the sense of asking the students to respond to the question, what did they know historically or later about the Dow incident? How did they understand some part of current history? And they had all kinds of different views and opinions. And also they had a sense of their own participation in a historical event, which is quite an unusual sort of thing for an eighteen-year-old to take on. But it made history seem a great deal more interesting and intimate than it would normally. And then they could project backward in a better or more interested fashion as to how one might understand historical events and personalities of the past. That’s my largest memory of that class. But it was as through all my teaching in Madison in 1968 to 71 the students were just excellent. Better than I’ve ever known since. And they felt that they were changing history or might change history. And so history meant more to them than history would mean subsequently in my teaching career.
Reeves: So, a couple of questions about your teaching, then. So, was it primarily twentieth century US history?
Buhle: It was entirely twentieth century US history.
Reeves: Okay. So you TAed, did you—
Buhle: Oh, I should amend that by saying that it might have been post-Civil War to the present. So a bit, thirty years of nineteenth century history. And who did I TA for? At least once, it was for William O’Neill (1935-2016). But once, I’ll need to consult my wife. Asks Mari Jo Buhle: Who was Paul Richards, the professor, the economic historian? Morton Rothstein (1926-2013).
Reeves: Okay. Thank you.
Buhle: A bit of an economic historian and, well, he was, yes, he was entirely an economic historian, I’m corrected to say. And I would say he enjoyed being gruff. He was a former longshoreman. So he liked being difficult. But actually, he was pretty much okay. And William O’Neill was surrounded by young radical students in his classes and eager not to offend them. So all in all, I had a very pleasant time.
Reeves: Okay. And do you recall any undergraduates that you taught that you ended up finding out more about later on, becoming friends with?
Buhle: Of all those, I would say Leo Burt would be the only exception. (laughs) Leo Burt being the only person from the Army Math Research Center bombing that [00:09:00] never turned up and we presume is dead. Other than that, did I later find out anything about my undergraduates? Yes. I’m quite incorrect. There’s a labor historian in Pennsylvania whose name does not occur to me and I might not be able to find it. But he’s worked on environmental effects in the workplace. And he most definitely was an undergraduate student of mine.
Reeves: Okay. And so are you saying that you taught Leo Burt, but really it was after the fact that you—
Buhle: Of course. Of course. No, my recollection as I’ve often said since then is that in the spring of 1970, it was William O’Neill had a course on radicalism, which was quite a chaotic course because it was so huge. And his knowledge of the subject was comprehensive. But we were very energetic teaching assistants, including Mari Jo. It was probably the best group of undergraduates, because they wanted to learn about women’s history. It was very exciting and new. Leo Burt was the columnist for The Cardinal in sports. And he seemed to be politically sympathetic but not deeply political. And probably wasn’t involved in any kind of student organization or anything. He was just sort of average young enthusiast who was capable of doing the wrong, or at least the very foolish thing. Because the war was grinding on and tens and hundreds of thousands were being killed for no reason. Did I know anything about his involvement with these other people? No. Nothing whatsoever. He just appeared in class and he spoke up sometimes. Not a lot. But he seemed like an affable kid, and that’s my entire Leo Burt experience.
Reeves: Okay. Thank you for that. And so you talked last time about it was really your cohort, your graduate students, that you had the closest bonds with. And I’m not sure we got, I asked you specifically which ones influenced your life the most. So I wonder if you would talk a little bit about some of your cohort.
Buhle: Happy to do so. Well, before Mari Jo and I moved to Madison in late August 1967, Jim O’Brien, the real central figure in SDS and still a leading figure in Historians against War to this very day, had been in touch with me. I think he also was involved in this project of internal education in SDS. And consequently, when he heard that I was seeking to launch a magazine that would be directed mostly to SDSers, he was quite interested. He met with me at a summer conference of some kind. So we were already [00:12:00] in touch. And as I got there, he arranged for a place for Mari Jo and I to stay a couple of nights until we got an apartment. Which was in fact the rented house next to the railroad tracks where Henry Haslach and his wife—oh, of course. Oh, of course. Frances Court. Really falling apart shacks next to the railroad tracks. But quite accommodating in some ways. The screens weren’t very comprehensive against flies or mosquitos. But leaving that detail aside, I was instantly—Mari Jo, too—welcomed into this graduate student world. Henry Haslach, a leading figure in the TAA effort, was a math graduate student. So I didn’t really know him very well except that he was around and had been a leading figure in SDS. He was sort of easing out of that into the TAA work.
But Jim O’Brien was, from that moment, and would continue to be through our lives in Madison, and our early time in Somerville, a real central figure. He was willing and eager to do anything in terms of the footwork that needed to be done. Eager for a conversation about what might be done in internal education. And I believe not only did he run a couple of study classes, one notable one on labor within SDS or among graduate students that included SDS sympathizers, more graduates than undergraduates. But if I’m not wrong, he’d actually arranged the publication of a couple of pamphlets by Madison SDS the year previous. So he was the energetic center of graduate self-education through real reding and discussing existing and scholarly works, and trying to make radical sense of them of some kind. There are a host of other radical-minded history graduate students. Most, not all, in US history that we were closely in touch with. A larger number were European history—Goldberg, Mosse students and so forth. But the ones we knew best, were likely to know best, were in US history.
And at least at that moment, the one that appeared immediately to me also went to SDS meetings, was Ann D. Gordon. Who later would play a prominent role in the papers of women’s suffrage leaders. But was a very skillful, determined activist who was wonderful to talk with about these serious subjects. And for a while was editor of the newspaper, the Connections after Robert [00:15:00] Gabriner and its other founders left town. So she was a real central person in many ways. And I can’t think of anyone else besides herself and Jim O’Brien who were SDSers, graduate students who were so much on top of what was going on.
Reeves: Well, since you’ve mentioned SDS a couple of times, Paul, I wonder if you could talk about your involvement with SDS here.
Buhle: Well, it’s an interesting question, because back in Madison, back in Champaign, as I think we covered in an earlier conversation, SDS chapter was so new and so relatively small that I plunged into it in the fall of 1965 and became a spokesman for it very shortly. The SDS chapter at University of Connecticut in Storrs was so limited, unsuccessful, in a campus of commuter students, that if I could create an event with a popular speaker, that would be a big deal. But the chapter didn’t really function very well. It was one of those very weak chapters.
By contrast to that, the chapter in Madison was very, very large and vital from the moment I stepped in. And I was happy to be there and happy to speak and around, and discuss things with these students. But I didn’t find myself particularly necessary. There were plenty of people who were much better speakers than I who would stay late for these very long meetings discussing antiwar strategies in the ballroom of the Union. And my role was sort of, seemed to be to take a step back and publish the magazine Radical America while being active with everybody else in more or less important limited ways in the TAA effort and all the other things that were going on on campus.
So you know, I would describe myself at this stage in Madison as a fairly average graduate student within SDS. Because in a successful campus, SDS was overwhelmingly undergraduate students. And the graduate students were these older people who came around but didn’t want to impose themselves or nominate the activity of what was going on.
And the other crucial factor is, that on some campuses, there’d been almost no political activity on the leftward side until SDS. That certainly was true at Illinois and it certainly was true at Connecticut. But at Madison, the antiwar peacenik activity directed toward campus and directed toward the community was longstanding. Pretty significantly popular. And so [00:18:00] SDS was a latecomer. And its role was valuable, but only within this very much larger mix of events on campus.
Reeves: Thank you, Paul. I’m just jotting down a note here. So, you mentioned earlier about discussions you would have with Henry Haslach or Jim O’Brien or some of your other cohort. Where would these discussions take place?
Buhle: I have one more footnote on that last question.
Buhle: Because it just occurs to me.
Buhle: In later years, I happened to be on a train with Evan Stark, between New York and New Haven. And he remarked to me that SDS had been “created,” created in quotes, on the campus at Madison because the Committee to end the War in Vietnam was at loggerheads with itself. It had been divided between people who thought it was necessary to work within the Democratic Party locally and people who thought it was terrible to work within the Democratic Party locally. And that would be people who were sympathetic toward the broad sort of popular front descended from the Communist Party a long time earlier, and the people who were close to the Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyists, who were opposed to anything within the Democratic Party. But these people had been sort of arguing with each other, mostly in a friendly way, for at least five years on campus. And they were directed outward toward the community more than campus itself. Someone perceived the need for a group of undergraduates who were free of this older set of arguments, and were directed specifically toward campus. And according to his account, other people had encouraged the creation, or, you might say, the re-creation of an SDS chapter. Because SDS had existed intermittently on the UW campus from its founding in 1961. But had never been central in any way whatsoever. And now it was going to be very important, if not necessarily central, between 1967 and 1969. But it may be important in the way that mainly it transcended the limitations of earlier antiwar activities. That’s my footnote.
Buhle: Now what was the next question?
Reeves: The question was, you referenced earlier in the graduate student question about having discussions with some of your cohorts. And I’m wondering where these discussions took place.
Buhle: Oh, well, before and after the SDS meetings at the Union, most definitely at discussions groups that Jim O’Brien convened on labor history and other subjects, corporate liberalism would have been another example of [00:21:00] people discussing something. And there was another study circle on Marx and Marxism that I wasn’t part of. But mainly I think people ran into each other in the Historical Society.
Reeves: Okay. So like the reading room in the Historical Society?
Buhle: I think so. In other words, not to disturb anybody else, walking outside if the weather was okay and having a chat. Or stepping over into the Memorial Union.
Reeves: Okay. Thank you. So since we’re talking about Memorial Union and you mentioned, you mentioned Memorial Union. So I want to talk about, a little bit more about the Rathskeller and what you might see as its importance in terms of student activism on campus?
Buhle: Well, since many a young person came to Madison from out of state, or at least as far as Illinois would be concerned, like myself, although I wasn’t an undergraduate, the appeal of beer at the ratskeller seems to have been a historical factor. But I think that the ratskeller in chilly weather and the terrace in warm weather were places that young antiwar people would not only mix with each other, but also mix with their professors. I always had this impression that Harvey Goldberg would gather a group of students around, let’s say on the terrace, and would hold court. And that he wasn’t the only one. That this was a place outside of the classroom. Anywhere in the union, any of those three places in the union, where professors who were popular and charismatic and so forth would sort of carry on the Socratic dialog. And be enjoyed greatly. And the student loved to respond to them, etcetera, etcetera. I didn’t happen to be part of any of those circles, perhaps because we graduate students were a world unto ourselves. But I knew that they existed.
Reeves: Okay. Another place that the book Rads [Tom] Bates and the book Rads mentions a lot as a place where people would get together and talk about things was the Nitty Gritty. And I’m wondering if you have any, if you personally ever hung out there.
Buhle: No, no. You know, there’s a wonderful anecdote somebody sent me about the Madison left in the 1950s, around Studies on the Left, was Michael Lebowitz was still around and was part of the study circle. And he said, “James Weinstein (1926-2005) was unique among us because he lived away from campus and had a car.” [00:24:00] Which is to say in the period just before Mari Jo and I arrived, everybody lived near campus and nobody had a car. Madison had just reached the stage where people were living on the East Side. Where the East Side came to be seen as a viable place to live. I don’t think anybody lived anywhere else. Someone occasionally would hear about renting a house west of the city. But in Middleton, somebody, one fellow graduate student actually did. But that was considered bizarre. Nobody had actually been to Middleton. And likewise Verona and all these other places. One other graduate student, Peter Wiley, lived in Sun Prairie, which was a very small town. Because he owned a dog and wanted to have a house with a yard. But these were unique circumstances.
By the time we moved to Spaight Street, other graduate students had just moved to the East Side. And so consequently the world that had existed was very small and the Nitty Gritty and before it, Glen’n’Ann’s, I think maybe Glen’n’Ann’s closed in 1966 and changed to the Nitty Gritty.
Mari Jo and I heard Muddy Waters (1913-1983) sing at the Nitty Gritty to an afternoon crowd of under thirty, which was terribly embarrassing to all concerned. But we didn’t hang out on campus or in campus areas. We tended to go back home and continue our work from there. And people lived closer in, which would include Jim O’Brien and his friends very definitely went to the Nitty Gritty when they didn’t go to the 602.
Buhle: Which tended to be as important as the Nitty Gritty, maybe more so. And likewise the Green Lantern, which showed old movies and leftwing students worked meal jobs there. But it had some kind of cultural events in the evenings. So as in all other circumstances, I would look with some skepticism about generalizations in Rads. Because factually speaking, the author was often wrong.
Reeves: Thank you. So Paul, I want to hit on your memories, if any, of a couple of other major pre-Sterling Hall events.
Buhle: Uh huh.
Reeves: Well first is the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 68?
Buhle: Uh huh.
Reeves: Did you attend?
Buhle: Tom Hayden (1939-2016), this is a curious memory, and I toss around now and then. In the spring, maybe April or May, he came to campus in order to try to get people to come [00:27:00] to plan to come for the Democratic Convention. Might even have been June. And he seemed to be saying to some people that it was possible to get a peacenik nominee, and therefore it would be a great idea to come. And he seemed to be saying to other people that it was impossible to get a peacenik nominee and therefore we should come to demonstrate. (laughs) Between the two of those, I think Mari Jo and I felt that this was going to be a heavy action scene with a lot of potential violence. And we happened to be vacationing in New England. Wondering why we weren’t in Chicago, I suppose. But we weren’t on the scene. And quite a few people from Madison did go down for it, but I wasn’t one of them.
Reeves: Okay. So that was the summer of 68.
Buhle: Uh uh.
Reeves: So fall, or academic year 69-69 then had the Black strike.
Buhle: That’s right.
Reeves: In early 69, with the seeds of it sort of in late 68.
Buhle: Uh huh.
Reeves: Did you have any involvement in that?
Buhle: I, of course, I and every other TA went on strike. But we felt, as everyone felt, that tactically, strategically, that it was a terrible mistake. It was badly planned. It was rather announced suddenly. It could have been conducted with far more success. And it wasn’t quite a debacle. But it was the first step backwards following one success after another in terms of mobilization. What it meant to have a strike, what it meant to have effective picket signs, what it meant to win over semi-sympathetic faculty members, or at least make them feel as if they shouldn’t cross the picket line, etcetera. The mobilization of the students was much more problematic than a war issue, of course. But it wasn’t all that, in my recollection, all that successful. And like everyone I knew, we honored it. But we felt that it wasn’t a success.
Reeves: Okay. And so we’ll jump ahead then to the next year, the TAA strike in the spring of 1970. I’m assuming you’re TAing at that point.
Buhle: Indeed. Indeed. And in that case, it was in one sense one of the most dramatic events that I ever experienced on campus. In fact, in every sense the most dramatic event I ever experienced on the campus. For several reasons. One was that students in some ways took over their own lives in dormitories and they took on the responsibility of educating themselves as well as [00:30:00] forming their own undergraduate committees to do all sorts of things related to the strike, but were extremely sympathetic to the strike in very large numbers. And more than that were energetic and interesting and humorous. And for me it foreshadowed the events of the uprising, the spring 2011, because of the mass character of the participation and the good-humoredness of the participants. But it’s also true that it was extremely well-planned, that TAA was very, very effective. Right up to the point to what do we do when the university has made clear that they were willing to give in on questions of conditions for teaching assistants. But they were absolutely unwilling to give a single inch in terms of educational reform. Which meant that the graduate students would get what we wanted, and the undergraduates would not get what they were seeking. It was quite a tense moment. One question was whether teaching assistants should now sit in or take some other kind of nonviolent direct action. Which would get a lot of people thrown out of the university. And could very well, if we had stepped into a trap, destroyed the TAA. Or was it time to make a tactical decision to take what we could get and hope for better next time around. There’s several ironies here. And that is that several universities, but most notably Brown University, avoided some of the worst of the conflicts by giving in to educational reform. And it turned out to be vastly successful. It was a calling card for education for students to go to Brown within two or three years. But the faculty and the administration at UW were foolishly obdurate. And many professors felt their dignity had been insulted in the previous three years in the way that professors can be terribly foolish and egotistic in this respect. And the administration also was unable to respond in a flexible and intelligent way. No doubt pushed by the Board of Regents.
So the TAA strike was very effective in terms of student support, in terms of the TAs ourselves, at least within liberal arts and math and some other places. And a union was successfully created, the first one in the nation, which was quite an accomplishment, indeed. And a degree of labor sympathy and support [00:33:00] with the larger community was created, despite the absolute hostility of the leaders of the Madison Central Labor Council. That is to say, the very reactionary and racist building trades. Some of this is recounted in the SDS comic, and also in the book that Mari Jo Buhle and I put together, called It Started in Wisconsin. There’s a reflection on that strike back there and what it meant in labor terms with the Teamsters coming to support the teaching assistants, a crucial development. So in many, many ways it was quite successful and remarkable. And it was as fabulous in a positive way as the bombing of the Army Math Research Center would be fabulous in an utterly negative way six months later.
Reeves: Thank you for that, Paul. Could you maybe, not that there was probably a typical day during the strike, but what sort of things would you do during the course of that TAA strike?
Buhle: Well mostly, it was very cold most of the days. But since I wasn’t in the leadership of the Teaching Assistants Association, we were putting out Radical America and all the other activities of the time, I think that Madison Kaleidoscope, that Dave Wagner was editing, was just about to appear, or had appeared. And I was a lead writer for it under various names. There were lots and lots and lots of other things to do. But what I did is I walked the picket lines. And in the course of doing that and keeping our hands warm and so forth, I spent a lot of time talking to other people. And I just did my duty as a union member and wouldn’t claim more than that. Except that I would take every opportunity I could to go in the dorms and talk. And again, as in the aftermath of the police riot at Dow, it was a great moment for students to educate themselves and invite graduate students in to chat with them about what the situation was, what this had to do with the Vietnam War, and a whole series of other issues that were of concern to them.
Reeves: Thank you. So, the TAA strike ended almost on the heels of Nixon’s press conference about bringing the war, well, announcing that the war was in Cambodia, already was in Cambodia. But he made a formal announcement of it.
Reeves: And then on the heels of the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State. Do you recall—do you have memories or anecdotes about those?
Buhle: I think the most interesting thing is this. When we demonstrated [00:36:00] at Dow, the police came in with, quite brutally, with clubs. As the degree of antisemitism and a whole bunch of ways in which they considered themselves to be so much in control of the situation. Or perhaps psychologically threatened that they overreacted to a huge degree. By way of contrast, at the time of the Kent State massacre, or in the aftermath of it, the National Guard was called to campus. And there were young men in uniforms with heavy duty weapons. But they were the opposite of the Madison police in 1967. They didn’t want to be there. They were more friendly than they were supposed to be. And they were in no danger of using those weapons. Nobody was teargassed and nobody was shot, etcetera. So that in a way, the rules had been established. At least, within that world. At the same time as the Madison Police Department was still controlled by essentially a Bircher, was involved in cracking down on the marijuana trade while ignoring the heroin trade, putting Madison police into hippie garb. And they would go out and break windows at State Street. And then they would stand around for hours collecting, the uniformed police would stand around for hours collecting overtime pay. Etcetera, etcetera. A real degree of political corruption.
By contrast to that, the National Guardsmen were an unthreatening presence for a few days. But all this was in the wake of Kent State, or in relation to Kent State. And I think the horror of the war having come home became more vivid than it had ever been before.
Reeves: So Paul, during your time here, did you, and I don’t recall whether you talked about this during Dow, but did you ever end up being confronted by either Madison police or the National Guard?
Buhle: Well, I was at Dow. So I ducked when the club came at me. And Paul Soglin didn’t duck as far down as I did, so he got hit on the head. And somebody who’d become one of my closest friends in Providence in the 1970s and 1980s, a guy named Charles Schwartz, had tried to pull a policeman off, hitting a coed, had been really beaten badly. And word was put out for his arrest. He left town in disguise. Never came back to undergraduate school. And so forth and so forth. There’s a lot of very bitter memories about that. And by contrast to that, my presence was [00:39:00] and so forth.
But I want to say one more thing about the earlier question. And that is that by 1970, a large part of blue-collar America was against the war. And that marks a serious contrast to 1967. And we could feel that change on campus.
Reeves: Is there a way you can sort of verbalize—
Buhle: Oh, I would say again, if there was an excuse or rationale for the behavior of the police in 1967. Instead, they thought of students as these privileged people who were a bunch of New York Jews and weren’t going to have to go to Vietnam and so forth and so forth. In 1970, those National Guardsmen were from blue collar homes. And they didn’t want to be sent to Vietnam, either. And they didn’t regard themselves, they regarded, the rise of youth culture had continued, too, with music and all kinds of things. So they didn’t consider themselves separate and apart from the students. They were just sent there to do something they didn’t want to do. But they were almost an extension of ourselves. They just happened to have uniforms on. Whereas in 1967, the line was very clear and marked a lot of hostility.
And if there was something in between, of course it was the Madison firefighters, who were led by a progressive figure who was quite opposed to police misbehavior and would play a central role in pushing Paul Soglin forward to be mayor.
Reeves: Do you recall the name of, I don’t have it on the top of my head, the name of the person in charge of the fire department?
Buhle: Oh, now I’m going to forget.
Reeves: All right.
Buhle: No. Of course it’s in my notes.
Reeves: Yeah, we have—
Buhle: You have it.
Reeves: Yeah, we have it. I just—
Buhle: Later became head of the fire department. He was head of the fireman’s union in 1967 and 1970, but later he became head of the fire department. And that sharp division of firefighters versus police plays a central role in the changes culturally and politically in Madison from 1967 to 73.
Reeves: Okay. I had something. I can’t think of what I was going to follow up with. So let’s—
Buhle: Let’s end now and then pick up later?
Reeves: Yeah. Let me make sure to give you space if there are things on your mind about this time period. And we’ll end before Sterling Hall. I don’t like to end on Sterling Hall.
Buhle: Okay. Very good.
Reeves: Is there anything on your mind?
Buhle: Well, I think that the central observation that I have is that in any number of other university communities around the US, and despite the fact that graduate students were going toward the East Side and forming our own community there, which played a big role, especially in the TAA. [00:42:00] Nonetheless, the area around campus in general became a sort of a student antiwar countercultural zone. You could say a lot more marijuana was being smoked in that district than in the rest of the city, and that would be accurate. But you could also say that the sentiment on the streets was very antiwar and anti-establishment. And yet at the same time, able to be organized into voting blocks most emphatically behind Soglin. But also behind other candidates. What had happened was those areas were increasingly occupied by students, because the student population was rising so fast that the people who lived there before didn’t want to pay higher rents. Rents were suddenly higher. So they left. Some of them continued to vote. Most of them didn’t bother to vote. But the students in the middle 60s couldn’t vote, and people under 21 couldn’t vote. So just as the laws were changing, allowing the 18 year old vote, likewise Paul Soglin and others were organizing students to be able to vote and to actually vote. So that this was a campus area which was antiwar, counterculture, and beginning to play a real political role in the city. That’s what happened that I observed from the distance, from the East Side, that I could see was playing a very important role in the evolution of Madison politics and Madison culture. Very much resisted and resented by old-style Republicans. But pretty much resisted and resented by Cold War Democrats who wanted the city to be run by the same old real estate crowd, whether they called themselves either Republicans or Democrats. And certainly resisted the rise of Paul Soglin, Eugene Parks (1947-2005) and a group of other progressives. But were beaten back by sheer skill of organization.
I didn’t observe so much of this myself, because it was really taking place as Mari Jo and I were preparing to leave. But by the time we came back for the first summer to do research in 1973, we could see that a lot of it had already taken place and was consolidating itself in a city that was quite different in 1974 than it had been in 1967. And in many, many ways, a far more democratic place.
Reeves: Paul, I remembered what I was going to ask. So if you have a couple of minutes.
Buhle: Sure, sure.
Reeves: I don’t recall whether I asked you this during the first interview. But as a young white male, I feel compelled to ask you about the draft and the importance of it in, well, in being [00:45:00] either on campus or before campus, as a young man in the 60s.
Buhle: Yeah, yeah. Well I had been called to a pre-induction physical in New Haven six months before getting to Madison. And I was finally given a 1Y, as being politically dangerous or undesirable or something like that, like thousands of others of my type. So it was the central issue of the time, but not central to me personally. I was not going to be drafted.
But from the time I got to campus until the time I left, the anxiety of the young men with the prospect of being drafted. But no less, the anxiety of young women of knowing boyfriends, uncles, family, cousins and so forth, about that, mirrored the growing horror they had learning what the US was doing in Vietnam. Those two were bound together. And they created an atmosphere which had never existed. Even though the Korean War was unpopular on campus. And everybody was afraid to speak up against it because of the FBI and the fear of repression. But also shaped a great deal that was entirely positive, because people were looking for something that wasn’t the death society. But was some different way to look around and live and be different as a new generation.
Reeves: So, Paul, this will wrap up today.
Reeves: And then, I’m just going to end this and then we can chat for a couple of minutes, if you don’t mind.
Reeves: So this concludes the follow-up interview with Paul Buhle. Paul, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.
Buhle: Happy to do it.
End May 19, 2014 Session
Begin Third Session (10 June 2014):
Buhle: –or speak a little bit about the question that John raised? Or do you want to do something else first?
Reeves: Well, let’s do a quick introduction and then John can actually raise those questions, so we have them on the recording.
Buhle: Okay. Very good.
Reeves: All right. So today is the tenth of June, 2014. This is the third interview with Paul Buhle. We’re actually here at the University Club. Paul and I are actually side by side for the first time in these sessions. And with us, too, is John Tortorice. And John, before we turned on the recorder, you had a couple of questions you wanted to make sure we asked. So why don’t we start with those?
Tortorice: Okay. I was interested in how the New Left in Madison in the 60s conceived of its political engagement? Was it an attempt to build a viable political movement that engaged with other groups in the culture, labor? I know there were attempts. Was it naïve, politically naïve in particular, and more interested in a kind of psychological or emotional throwing up of anger and resentment at parents, at culture, at politics. I mean, was there any figure—and this is a leading question.
Reeves: It’s quite a leading question. (laughter)
Tortorice: But I was thinking about George Mosse, who always claimed that he attempted to, that he was very sympathetic towards the students, but he attempted to get them to think about a long-term political engagement that was viable but that also understood all of those insights that he had developed in the course of his explorations of politics and symbolism and, you know, myth. And that came out of his own history from the 30s and 40s, etcetera. So just an overview of how the New Left conceived of itself as a political movement, and whether it did have any theoretical interest or engagement.
Buhle: Well, I think the most important thing is to see how distinct two or, more likely, three generations were involved from the founding of Studies on the Left in 1959 on the campus of UW, to the founding of Radical America in 1967. [00:03:00] Same campus. And then to the departure of Radical America from the campus in 1971, by which time, over a period of four years, things had changed very drastically again.
Studies on the Left was formed by a group of intellectuals who were mostly graduate students. And, in the beginning, were a scattering of different sorts of intellectuals, but most of them were historians. And a few, like James O’Connor, who was a sociologist, regarded them as odd people out because mostly it was historians. They, the older ones among them, notably James Weinstein, who had the money, his father having been a grocery store entrepreneur of major means on Cuba, who as an old communist sort of cheerfully gave up those grocery stores, but still had quite a bit of money. And so James Weinstein had what no one else had around that studies group, which is money to publish a very respectable looking journal. More professional and respectable and journal-looking than Radical America would be able to achieve on virtually no money. It was said in 1959 or 1960 that James Weinstein was unique among the editors of Studies on the Left because he lived so far from campus that he owned a car. Madison was a smaller place in those years. And to own a car was to be unusual. And be off the campus.
So Studies on the Left formed. And in its first issue, it described quote unquote, “the radicalism of disclosure.” That is, they had most of them broken away from some section of the Communist Party or its youth movements. Weinstein had been a communist. And several other people had been in the Young Communist League on the campus of UW in the mid-1950s, and had become disillusioned with the Hungarian Revolution and the [Nikita] Khrushchev (1894-1971) revelations of 1956. But they had a background in the old left. They had heard that there was a New Left, calling itself the New Left, founded in Britain in 1956, led by the great historian E.P Thompson (1924-1993), a peace leader. And they wished to follow in its wake. Actually, even by 1957 or 58, there were New Left clubs in four or five cities of the United States. And a magazine called The American Socialist, with its roots in Trotskyism, was seeking to encompass some New Left and find some new [00:06:00] point of departure that wasn’t the discredited communist, wasn’t the hopelessly sectarian communist, wasn’t the fuddy duddy socialist, as far as they existed, or any other existing thing. But what they wished to call a New Left. Inspired by Britain, but hoping to find a new generation of radicals in the US.
So they had detached themselves from anything that could be considered orthodox Marxism. They didn’t believe in the grandeur of the proletariats seizing power in the immediate future. And in fact, the central ideas of Studies on the Left, of James Weinstein and others, were circling around the notion of the corporate state. How the New Deal that had seemed like most people in the old left, communists in particular, to be the best thing that America had ever come up with, was in fact a partner, a marriage partner, with corporate America. And while it dispensed great deals of social welfare, it also locked itself into a corporate agenda. It sought to produce students ready to work in the corporations as university presidents of that time proclaimed. And it had its precursive origins in Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) and the progressivism which at the time of World War One linked social progress with the American empire and with the spread of American corporate power around the planet.
So that’s Studies on the Left and among its notables on campus were, had been, those who attended UW, Professor Warren Susman (1927-1985), early 1950s; Joan Scott also was here; James Gilbert was also here; and several others. The managing editor was a woman whose name escapes me now but wrote an essay in History of the New Left. And it was very important in the journal as it progressed.
But at some point around 1964, 1965, they mostly moved to New York City. And the journal moved to New York City, took on new editors, and sought a little more openly to embrace the social movement as it developed out of the civil rights movement and the New Left. And various new editors, like Staughton Lynd (1929-2022), challenged other editors to become more involved in the first stirrings [00:09:00] of the antiwar movement, and more involved with social movements like SDS. And other editors in its New York phase, like Eugene Genovese (1930-2012), bristled at this. And if you couldn’t say that they were interested in Marxist theory as such, you can say they were already deeply steeped in academic life, and believed in the rigors of producing history, and of being socialist intellectuals whose first task was to produce scholarship. And whose responsibility to organize things or to be involved with organizers was far less important.
So there was a conflict within Studies on the Left over what would be more important: scholarship or engagement with activism. And by 1966, they came to a point of division and they couldn’t maintain the publication anymore. So it folded. And so after that long introduction, Radical America was founded in part precisely because Studies on the Left had folded. It was consciously or unconsciously the successor to Studies on the Left. But it represented a new generation of graduate students, those who were ten years younger, at least, than the Studies on the Left crowd. It represented people who had no background in the Communist Party, or the Young Communist League or anything. We were too young and we were never of that ilk. And if it’s true that we also were historians, we were coming of age at a time when the social movements were growing very rapidly and the Civil Rights Movement had led to the antiwar movement. And we were casting around, trying to provide young people in SDS in particular, since unlike Studies on the Left, Radical America considered itself part of SDS. An educational arm within SDS. We were trying to provide people a notion of the historical roots of what might become an American left.
It wouldn’t be very true to say that in the much smaller number of pages in Radical America that there was a lot of room for discussing Marxist philosophy. For instance, although by 1970 there would be special issues on philosophy, or academic debates involving sociology and anthropology and other things which might have appeared in Studies on the Left among those who were already young professors, in Radical America there really weren’t anybody who was yet a professor. And many of the editors, but also the readership of Radical America were more inclined to be the fellow who ran the independent bookstore, independent and radical bookstore near campus, almost anywhere. They were people who bridged the division, [00:12:00] or sought to bride a division, between scholarly or, let’s say solid intellectual work on the one hand, and political activism on the other.
Studies on the Left sort of willfully withdrew from the demands of activism because there wasn’t much of it in 1959. And then found itself drawn back into its own collapse, you might say. Whereas Radical America started with the idea that there would be a bridge between activism and theory or activism and organized knowledge. I think theory still implied a higher realm of people sitting in a room discussing [Theodor W.] Adorno (1903-1969) or something. And there certainly were people within the Radical America orbit who loved to discuss Adorno. But they didn’t write much about it in Radical America. That would be the best way to put it.
And there was exactly one person who was on the editorial or advisory editorial board of both publications. And that person was a very favorite student of George Mosse. That is Paul Breines. There weren’t any other direct connections, although several other people who either edited issues or were editorial advisors included Stuart Ewen, for instance, David Gross. Another person who could be called a Mosse student, though he was in German history.
Tortorice: He was a Mosse PhD.
Buhle: A Mosse PhD. Right. And several other people wrote or edited or took part who had taken courses from George Mosse and regarded his contribution to their knowledge as, you know, very significant. I’m getting long-winded here. But I’m trying to come to the question of did the New Left have theory. The best answer for that is that the generation that came into the antiwar movement in 1965, you might say with me on the campus of the University of Illinois, although I was a little older than most of my fellow undergraduates, and I already considered myself a Marxist, whereas they had little background unless their family was from the old left. As it sometimes was in Jewish Chicago and Jewish New York. For the most part, the people who were joining the New Left, 1965, 66, 67, 68, were around the age of twenty, and had not had time in their life to accumulate anything that could be regarded in a serious or rigorous way as theory. All this stuff was pretty new to them. And events were happening very, very fast.
And, the other factor is, the New Left was so porous that it differed [00:15:00] enormously from campus to campus and city to city. It had no fixed organization. And contrary to the myths about Students for a Democratic Society, on many campuses SDS did not exist at all, or did not exist until 1968-69, just before it collapsed. SDS tended to fill in the holes that were left where other organizations hadn’t come, or in conservative or Southern or religious campuses, it tended to come in late because there was a vacuum and there was no other student organizations that were playing that role. Which was substantially simply calling for demonstrations against the war, and then trying to organize them and provide slogans.
Madison was very unusual because there was this history of intellectualism on campus. Because it was an intellectualism that was based in history. Contrasting, for instance, to Michigan, where almost everyone was in sociology. Contrasted to Columbia, where there was a wide variety of disciplines, but also a sort of rage at being at the most elite university except for Harvard, and themselves often from very wealthy backgrounds. And therefore literally angry at their parents’ milieu sometimes. It would be difficult to find that in Madison. None of us came from wealthy parents. Paul Breines being the exception, really. Maybe Stuart Ewen, also.
So that Madison was steeped in intellectualism. And at the peak of events, or even before, 1967, 68, 69, it wouldn’t be at all unusual to find the underground newspaper edited by a history graduate student. Robert Gabriner, who dropped out of history. To have the Teaching Assistants Association led, if not by that absolute leader, at least those around him, graduate students in history. Ann Gordon being a great example of someone like that. But there were others who were historians. To have Radical America full of historians.
The Alternative University, which was very abundant for a couple of years, some of its leading courses were by graduate students in history. And for all of us, and contrary to the slurs against the New Left, we were graduate students, we were teaching assistants, we took ideas seriously. Most of us eventually became academics. But we didn’t see it as contrary to our activist roles.
If the New Left had lasted even five more years, there would have been much more intellectual work, you can call it theoretical work, that seemed to have some kind of overall [00:18:00] connection to the social crisis. But by 1970, except for the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and other movements to come, it was almost all over. So that those who went on to teach and write books largely did so in a vacuum from mass social movements.
Tortorice: So they kind of merged with the academic milieu that they, that their politics came out of, in a sense.
Buhle: That generation—
Tortorice: Into positions on faculty and foundations or whatever. Many kept their engagement in politics. But from a kind of—
Tortorice: Distance, a protective distance.
Buhle: That was far, far truer for the Studies on the Left generation than for the Radical America generation. Mainly, well, in part, the Radical America generation didn’t really have academic jobs until, most of them, until the end of the 1970s. So they still lived an extended life as graduate students. And they were involved in such things as the local working-class history and education projects. Which were part of the radical history newsletter, the radical history organization and for some years, these are kept going in a dozen cities, and they—
Well, let me go back to Radical America’s departure from Madison. Because this is a sort of important point here. And then I’ll take questions after that, but I want to clarify it. I asked Mari Jo Buhle about our departure from Madison, and she said—which took place in August 1971—and she said, “Well, of course, most of the people in our circle were industrializing.” That would be a very great exaggeration. But it is true that when the New Left had reached its apex on campus and was palpably declining, certainly in Madison and from that upsurge, or upshot of the Army Math Research Center bombing, there was a swift decline in various kinds of anticipations, movements and so forth, which we didn’t really observe how Paul Soglin was rising, and there was a new liberal coalition, and his election was three years ahead and so forth. That was pretty much unknown to us, because we were part of a New Left entity who thought naively that since the US was in the midst of the largest strike wave since 1946, a strike wave that contained more non-whites, more women, [00:21:00] and more new kinds of places that had never struck before, like the post office workers, that this was the beginning of a working-class movement that would take over where the campus movement had failed. Or would help to precipitate a broad social movement that included radicalized young people, but also included people from other social classes.
Tortorice: And you had that upwelling that, of African American, well you could say it was, in a way, a revolt, some people would say there was a revolutionary aspect to that. But that emerged at that same time.
Buhle: That’s true. And for Radical America, we published a special issue, essentially, on Black labor. But also on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. Which for a moment seemed to offer an alternative to the Black Power, pick up the gun kind of rhetoric. And seemed to be more solidly based in ordinary working class life. Not white working class life. But it challenged the bureaucratization of unions, especially United Auto Workers. And it also offered a way forward that had a connection with Marxist ideas. Because if the people around Radical America disdained any kind of return to 1930s communist kind of ideas or Trotskyist kind of ideas, we thought there was something very valuable in Marxism, a way of looking at social class, that was important for us. Partly because the high phase of the student movement was over. And Radical America then, myself, Mari Jo, and most people around it, made a choice to move to cities that had a connection between university and blue collar life. This was the great idea for 1971. It would seem to have been a terrible idea by 1974. Partly for the reason that those factories closed in very large numbers. We’re at the beginning of the Rust Bowl phenomenon. Partly because the thought that there would be some kind of breakthrough was extremely naive. And partly because the energy of the New Left that remained alive was drained off into these crazy Maoist, Marxist/Leninists who would prefer to fight each other than organize some kind of larger movement.
But as Radical America tried to maintain the spirit of SDS, despite the Marxist/Leninists on one side and Weathermen on the other, [00:24:00] so there were groups of hundreds of people, numbering perhaps several thousand around the US, who had the same mission as we did. To set up camp somewhere between blue collar and university settings, and find a way forward. And there were national conferences. And Radical America might have been the journal or the magazine that was sort of the collective expression of those ideas. But that really did fail by 1972 or 1973. And with it, I left Radical America geographically. And the group that took over and maintained it until the year 2000 was largely college teachers in blue collar colleges in Boston. And community-based activists like Nick Thorkelson, who worked in these community groups that were struggling to improve life and hold on, deteriorating conditions.
Tortorice: Well, we could probably talk about these few years for hours on end.
Tortorice: But I wanted, I assume you already spoke of what a fertile ground Madison was for a movement like this to evolve from? You had C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), you had Hans Gerth (1908-1978) you had all of these students that had worked with them that then went on to other universities. [G. William] Domhoff (b. 1936). Then you had Harvey Goldberg, you had George. You had this, such a rich intellectual milieu and a long history of radical politics here.
Tortorice: And it just—but to me, because I do remember something of that period. I came right after the real engaged years of the late 60s. I started in 69-70. By then, the Maoists, the Stalinists, the Trotskyists, were coming to, had become the face of leftist movements on campus.
Buhle: Quite right. Quite right.
Tortorice: And so for me, it was always a kind of romance, that period. And how it’s remembered a lot by people. But that sense of what it was like to be so empowered, to feel that you could change the world, that you could create a better world. That you had all of this attention and power. And the excitement. You know, both interpersonal excitement. But just [00:27:00] a feel of what it was like to live in that period on campus here.
Buhle: Yeah. I know I’ve said this in an earlier interview. But it really bears, to me, repeating, since it probably is the most evocative experience before the uprising in Madison in 2011, and resembles it in some ways. The month after the police riot at the Dow incident, the strike itself so ardently supported, at least by liberal art students, if not engineering students, the eagerness of those students to set up their own classes, to reach out to us graduate students for real knowledge. To come back after the strike and engage with their teaching assistants and sometimes their professors there, yearning to learn things. Their hunger to learn things. Because they felt as nineteen-year-olds in 1967 that not only could they change the world, but by God, they had to. Because they were subject to the draft. Their boyfriends or other relatives were subject to the draft. And it really was a matter of ending the war before something even more horrible happens. And I’ve just left aside the horrible things that were being done to the Vietnamese.
And I think that the warmth of the connection between graduate students and undergraduates was often set off from the coldness between the professordom on the one hand, and the graduate students and undergraduates on the other. It’s often been said, and even George said it in later years, that the faculty was traumatized by the social movements on campus. But our view was different. We felt that we were traumatized by the war and troubled by our relationship with the professors. Whereas from the professors’ point of view, they were troubled by the war, but they were traumatized by the students. There’s a vast difference between those two standpoints. And to be really uncharitable and leave aside Harvey Goldberg and George and others, you could say, because professors did not support the strike and in many ways were unsupportive. And in many other ways accepted strikes and stopped teaching, or declined to flunk students who didn’t come to classes during those strikes because they were intimidated out of doing it, they and other professors in that era, very large numbers, felt personally terribly insulted when undergraduates would speak up or seek education reforms.
I mean, one of the great ironies, [00:30:00] if this is not too much of a diversion, is at Brown University, where Mari Jo Buhle and I would teach for many years, was transformed from a dullish lower, very lower level Ivy League school into a great, wonderful place because the administration accepted the idea of educational reform in the face of student protests on general issues.
In Madison, the administration did not accept the idea of educational reform. And indeed, the teaching assistant strike of the winter of 1971, or winter of 1970-71, ended unhappily for undergraduates because the university accepted the union, but declined to accept educational reform. So taking nothing away from the classroom ideas that George and Harvey and others put forward, the faculty as a whole was quite sympathetic toward administrators who were personally, quietly against, thought the war was a bad idea. Saying they were against the war would be a little too strong. Thought the war was an unwise idea. But remained faithful to the general vision of liberalism, which included the war. And were horrified by students who had become unruly. And who might, for a younger professor, cause damage to their careers.
Tortorice: Well, and you have to throw in the contrast with Brown. Because Brown’s a private school, and UW was under intense pressure from the state.
Buhle: From the state. Yes, that’s true.
Tortorice: You know, Fred [Harvey] Harrington (1912-1995), who actually was one of our greatest presidents—
Buhle: A great figure. A very great figure.
Tortorice: —was fired.
Tortorice: So I think the people that came in—
Tortorice: —were there for a reason.
Tortorice: And that is, to tamp this all down.
Tortorice: No reform. And you’re right. I agree completely. I shouldn’t interject.
Buhle: As I’m writing this, or drafting this memoir of Paul Soglin, I come again to the idea that if there had been administrators who were willing to risk their careers, there might never have been a Dow incident. Or if Fred Harvey Harrington hadn’t been out of the town for the day, to be really hypothetical.
But the same thing happened across the country. There were university administrators who were put into a corner and told, “If you don’t bring in the police to break heads, then you’ll never be elevated to be the president of Harvard or someplace.” And almost invariably, they chose the police. They were thinking about their own interests. And they weren’t thinking about the Vietnamese. Or they weren’t even thinking about we and our undergraduate classes who were going to be drafted [00:33:00] and sent into the war. Oh, they were concerned. Naturally they were concerned. As liberal people, they were always concerned. But they weren’t too concerned.
Tortorice: Well, after Fred was fired, they brought in the National Guard as you know. And we had tanks rolling up and down University Avenue. And the intensity of the repression increased markedly, it seems to me. I remember when you had, you know, these police vans that had these screens on the front, that would just charge into the students.
Buhle: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tortorice: So it got to be a kind of war of attrition, in a way.
Buhle: And this is the phases I discovered through the study of Paul Soglin, and in discussion with the head of the firefighters. That the police, the Madison police, employed a considerable group of people who put on hippie clothes, threw bricks through windows, and accelerated the conflict as often as possible. Because that way, they got to have a lot of double time hours. And we thought of it as a war against the antiwar movement.
Tortorice: It devolved into what would now be considered these online games, it seems like.
Buhle: That’s probably so.
Tortorice: It became a kind of cat and mouse game.
Buhle: That’s probably so. But for us, as long as bombs were being dropped into Vietnam, it wasn’t a game.
Tortorice: Yes. Yes. I mean, for those people that were politically engaged.
Buhle: And also for the leading, the leaders of the Madison police, who were very rightwing. The chief inspector was a Bircher. It wasn’t a game for them, either. They saw this as the enemy. And they saw it as cracking down as increasing their power within the city. And those Madison businessmen who wore the white shoes and played golf with each other on weekends, they, too, viewed Madison as being taken away from by these campus radicals. And they certainly meant to put this down, and it wasn’t a game for them, either. And they saw Paul Soglin as a very dangerous figure.
George was trying to weave his way through this. And, in a way, trying to rebuild a Democratic Party that had been terribly damaged by its support for the war. Or, put it this way, its unwillingness to support the idea that US should bring the troops home now. The view of David Obey (b. 1938) and other Wisconsin Democrats was the war was a terribly bad idea. But we shouldn’t speak about it too often, because that would damage LBJ. So we’ll just sort of wait until a successful election of Democrats, and then the war will be ended in a way in which America will still have honor. For us, that was a completely unacceptable idea. Too many people were dying. So those are real divisions that could not be [00:36:00] overcome by pleasant words or good feeling.
Reeves: So you alluded to Army Math. And we didn’t get to talk about Army Math last time. So I’m wondering, I mean, rarely do things have a simple answer. But I’m wondering what Army Math had, what the effect of Army Math on the intellectual or the New Left movement as it comes to—
Buhle: Yeah, yeah.
Reeves: You know, we talk about it tamping down the student protest in general. But what did it do to the intellectual protest?
Buhle: Well, it’s interesting that neither did it halt the Teaching Assistants Association from organizing successfully on campus, nor did it halt Paul Soglin’s march, and that of his allies, from the city council to running the city. So contrary to the idea that it was so traumatic, that the left was so humiliated that it lost everything, that would be a really mistaken view of the situation in Madison.
It was a terrible blow to the peace movement, coming at the back of an antiwar referendum, a community-wide antiwar referendum which had actually passed against the war. To the horror, again, of conservatives, including many conservatives on campus. Like the Russian professor. What’s his name?
Tortorice: [Michael] Petrovich (1922-1989).
Buhle: Petrovich. Who was horrified by the idea that the US might lose the war in Vietnam. And there were others like him. So the Army Math Research bombing didn’t end that, didn’t end the well organized movements. But it did shrink the milieu of activity and threw people off balance. And I suppose you’d say in Madison, it probably increased the desire to go to some other city to do some other kind of organizing. Because we felt we were, to a certain degree, at a dead end. Even though other things went forward. I mean, 1970 was probably the best year of Radical America for me, because we produced something like eight or nine really good issues against the background of Army Math Research Center.
We came to the conclusion, which may or may not be true, that because these fellows were talking loudly about their activities and the effort to bomb the Baraboo Ammunition Depot, talking loudly about it in bars, that any investigative organization would have been foolish not to have understood who they were and what they were doing [00:39:00] well before they did it. And those of us who are conspiratorially minded, as I tend to be toward the assassination of Martin Luther King, sort of think that there may have been FBI agents one block behind in a car, who knew exactly what these naive four characters were doing. And as in other places in the US at the time, were perfectly willing to see these things take place, because it would strengthen their hand enormously, as it did. Perhaps history isn’t like that, and they didn’t conspire. But the result was very much to strengthen the hands of those in power, conservatives in power. And doubtless to make it more difficult for all kinds of social movements in Madison, for a couple of years, anyway. And to allow later historians and journalists like a certain David, who’s the son of the famous journalist here?
Buhle: David Maraniss to reconstruct the 1960s in Madison as crazy radicals versus idealistic liberals. Which is so far from being the truth that it’s a travesty on intellectualism, on history, on Madison, on many other levels. But I describe that as the accepted version.
Tortorice: The acceptable.
Buhle: Acceptable and accepted version, because large numbers of people, especially those who hadn’t been here, read David Maraniss’ They Marched into Sunlight and clucked their tongues and said yes, yes, the radicals were far too radical in those years. And the university administrators being against the war, how could anybody be thinking the war was a bad idea? How could anybody protest at the university when there were such good administrators?
Tortorice: It’s also kind of absolution for not doing anything.
Buhle: Quite so. Quite so.
Tortorice: They didn’t do anything because–
Buhle: Yes, right, of course. They were so extreme you couldn’t work with them, and so on and so forth. Anyway, that’s my viewpoint all these years later.
Reeves: John, right now, if you have other questions. I wanted to ask about the graphic nature—
Buhle: Oh, yes. Very good. Very good.
Reeves: —of Radical America because it—
Buhle: Connects with everything.
Reeves: This is an audio interview, but you have a Studies on the Left, sort of a very traditional looking journal.
Buhle: Very good.
Reeves: And then Radical America from a few years later. It’s not a traditional looking journal.
Buhle: Very, very good. Indeed. I think there may have been one issue of Studies on the Left, more than one, that had interesting covers. Like this cover of an American eagle to have an issue on imperialism. [00:42:00] That sort of thing. But Radical America emerges in 1967 at the moment when the underground press suddenly, practically overnight, has hundreds of thousands of readers. And what is the underground press? It’s newspapers started locally on the basis of a few hundred dollars. Often not even with an office. Because print runs of tabloids, thanks to technology, had become much, much cheaper. They hardly needed to sell advertising. All they needed to do was go out and get people, a few hundred people, to buy a copy at 25 cents each.
The artists of underground newspapers, like the cartoonists, like the writers, like the layout people, they were all learning these skills themselves. Not many of them had any training whatsoever. So that the appearance of underground newspapers and their vast popularity encouraged an explosion of art. And in some parts of the counterculture, that meant black light art and psychedelic art and so forth and so forth. But in my section, it meant finding artists to do cover drawings. Working for a while with single sheet printer. We printed one sheet at a time. And then we would collate the pages and then staple them and then send them out. And then later, Radical America was printed by an anarchist printing cooperative in Detroit. And they, too, worked with the cover artist. But in our case, in Radical America, as long as there was a single-sheet printer, the printer himself would decide on the coloring of the cover. It was as if every person in the publication of the magazine had a sort of creative contribution. And the printer was never seen as somebody who just happened to be printing.
As a matter of fact, for the first several issues, the printer was also the leader of the Teaching Assistants Association, Henry Haslach, who had been also the chairman of SDS. You can see how small these circles really were. And it was printed in the back room of the newspaper Connections, with a few spare feet. So as the editor, I looked to find a different artist, or find an artist for every issue. It turns out a number of these artists were in fact Nick Thorkelson, as I now recall. Or they just happened to be a photo that somebody else, someone had provided us and we did something arty with. Now in the center of a 1967 [00:45:00] issue was one photo. And then in later issues, a series of photos, a whole photo section of Michael Lesy (b. 1945), who was among the outstanding graduate students at the time. Whose student was he? Was he George’s student? Or Harvey’s? That I can’t remember. But he was, you know, a person who collected—
Buhle: Harvey’s student. He was a photographer, a very skilled photographer, who then, shortly thereafter, collected photos of dead and crazy people across Wisconsin. And that photo book was called—
Tortorice: Wisconsin Death Trip.
Buhle: Wisconsin Death Trip. So he was a historian, too. He was thinking like an historian. And he went to Chicago during the 1968 demonstrations and gave us a bunch of photos from that. And we printed them on a slip of paper and they didn’t look very good at all. But it was our idea that a magazine should be as, even a crudely printed and underfunded magazine should be as artistic as it should be. And another notion closely connected with that was that we took poetry seriously. Some poetry appeared in Studies on the Left, to its benefit. Some poetry appeared in leftwing magazines that to my knowledge, that poetry was very often didactic. Workers rise up. Or students, start punching the police with your fists. We never had that view. We didn’t think that the cover needed to be didactic. It was supposed to be interesting. And sometimes, like a hand against a wall, it was perfectly, totally nondidactic. It was even abstract. The cover of a 1969 issue printed by somebody called Just Folks Revolutionary Printing Commune, whoever they were, the cover photo was by Jim Hogan, who was a leading reporter for the Capital Times. And a close friend of our poetry editor, Dave Wagner. Jim Hogan later became, with his wife, a famous detective story writer, a bestselling detective story writer. So that’s the oddball kind of crew that we pulled together.
And another great example, this issue has some middle section printed, printed separately from the rest of the issue, of “Rabbits,” by T.L. Kryss, a Cleveland poet, who was best friends with the much beloved poet of the New Left [00:48:00] from Cleveland who committed suicide.
Buhle: D.A. Levy (1942-1968) committed suicide after leaving Madison and going back to Cleveland. But this four pages of his friend T.L. Kryss’s poems, the last being a “Poet RIP,” poet rest in peace, was an homage to D.A. Levy, who we loved so dearly and who could not be called didactic in any way, whatsoever.
So that’s the kind of enriched milieu in which art and poetry were no more separated from us, we thought, than serious scholarship was separated from us, we thought, than going on the picket line for the Teaching Assistants Association was separated from us. It was all very, very rich. And as you say, it was a source for instant nostalgia, since it disappeared so quickly. (laughs) It went by so fast. With our youth.
Reeves: Maybe just to bring this forward, in a sense, so your interest in graphic art didn’t end with Radical America.
Buhle: That’s correct. And I left Radical America in 1973, because it was leaving Somerville, where it was published. And Cambridge got a graduate school, where I taught two years. And I then, three years later, founded a once-a-year magazine called Cultural Correspondence, which had very little luck in getting subscribers. Less than Radical America. It just happened to lose less money every issue than Radical America. Since it was published so infrequently, that was okay. Which lasted for seven years. Mostly in my hands. But it also had a lot of illustrations. Comics. Various kinds of experimental art. And finally, Cultural Correspondence was taken over by an art activism documentation group that started in New York City called PAD/D, Political Art Documentation[/Distribution] and something else. Set up as an art group around the ideas of antiwar, the next wars, and supporting the women’s movement and abortion and gay rights and so forth and so forth. And finally the magazine sort of had its last issue was a publication for PAD/D. So the art impulse was always there, even when it wasn’t directly in my hands.
And then by the 1990s, I developed the aspiration of publishing art books. Now actually, in 1983, I had edited something called Labor’s Joke Book. [00:51:00] Which was, contained a lot of, little tiny book which contained a lot of labor cartoons. And a certain concern for what had been funny and useful in labor art in the US. But by 1999, I believe, I had begun publishing books like Images of American Radicalism, a great big album book of images of various kinds. The Insurgent Art of Mike Alewitz, a four-color book of a leading leftwing muralist, Mike Alewitz (b. 1951). And I was going on from there, sort of haphazardly. In fact, I’d published with my friends a couple of books in Rhode Island, that were pictorial histories of Rhode Island labor. Oral histories of Rhode Island working people with a whole lot of photos. And then finally in 1992, Vanishing Road Island, which was my photo book of places that no longer existed. Of how the physical built environment, but also the natural environment, was disappearing under the breakdown of the factories and the disappearance of the countryside. So I guess I had been, I had never been very far from pictorial ideas. But they did vary greatly, from cartoons to photos to other kinds of things.
I was allied with the idea of finding some new means of expressing socially critical and radical ideas through images. We didn’t touch back where we’d done earlier, I think an earlier interview with Radical America comics in 1969. George, I was told, or he told me, that when an issue of Radical America arrived, he was a subscriber and it was a comic book, he thought perhaps he’d been given the wrong magazine, that he’d been given a subscription to a comic magazine, (laughs) or a comic book series. But you know, I’ve thought about that since. And I think he was so enthusiastic about expressing socially critical, radical ideas in popular form, that he may very well have been tickled by it. Puzzled and tickled. He kept it.
Tortorice: As you know, he was the lead historian of the origins of fascist culture in popular culture.
Buhle: Yes. Right. Right.
Tortorice: And because his youth was so disrupted, he actually read all those things.
Tortorice: He loved reading popular culture.
Buhle: Right. Right, right, right.
Tortorice: He wasn’t like [Herbert] Marcuse (1898-1979) at the Gymnasium. He was reading comic books. [00:54:00]
Buhle: That’s right. That’s actually right.
Tortorice: So he did. He loved that, I’m sure. I’m sure he saw the potential.
Buhle: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I think he and others, as they flipped through the pages of Connections, the first underground newspaper, were as taken by the layout as they were by the rhetoric.
Tortorice: Coming from a media family. That’s true.
Buhle: Yes! Of course, that’s right. The media, the newspaper media was reinvented in front of his eyes. This one didn’t last forever, and it wasn’t capital, intensive or corporate whatsoever, but it was a newspaper idea. And they used to say about Madison, up until 1980, that it was one of the most newspaper-rich cities in the United States. Because there were a bunch of alternative newspapers that disappeared. Some of them were so leftwing, they competed against other leftwing newspapers. There was Connections, and Madison Kaleidoscope and Takeover and King Street Trolley. And then others that are not even in memory, because they appeared and disappeared. But newsprint was cheap. And Madison was a place where people could actually get interested in anything new. And where there were plenty of handicraft and small companies that were happy enough to throw fifty bucks down to have an ad in some little paper. And even now you see little ones, but they’re almost all gone. But that would be the idea then.
Reeves: And so, you and Mari Jo left. But then you came back in the early—you left in 71 and came back a couple of years later?
Buhle: Here’s what happened. We, when we were here, our favorite hangout, and for her, where she worked for four years, was the Historical Society. We loved it to pieces. And still do. And in order to complete our dissertations, and then for a little while longer, to turn our dissertations into monographs, we found it best to return to Madison for as many weeks of the summer as we could rent somebody’s house cheap. And that turned out to be maybe six to eight weeks every summer between 1973 and 1982. I don’t think there would have been a summer we would have missed during that time. We couldn’t really grasp what was going on in city politics, except as Dave Wagner would explain it to us. We observed the newspaper strike, of course, and other kinds of things. But we were just here for the summer doing our research and taking long bicycle rides. But in that way, we never really detached from Madison. Except for the next twenty years, in which I visited intermittently to give speeches or conferences. [00:57:00] And Mari Jo almost never did, until we stumbled across Madison en route from Santa Cruz, California, to coming back to Providence in the summer of probably 05. And then realized that we needed to retire here, and that our good friends would be here.
Reeves: Was it that, I mean, was it that stark a realization that you were, in 2005 you stopped here and say—
Buhle: Pretty much. Pretty much. Our original idea had been to retire to Santa Cruz. Mari Jo was already having heart problems. And by 1995, I wanted to get her out of the academic east for at least a year in a quiet surrounding. But from the moment we got to Madison, to Santa Cruz, you would see some Madison bumper stickers, as you see some Santa Cruz bumper stickers in Madison. And people would say, some people would say, “Well, this is sort of like Madison, except it’s in California.” Except for the weather, which is entirely different. The city was run by a left center coalition, pro-labor, which sought to limit sprawl and have good public transportation and other kinds of progressive policies. But there really was a sort of back and forth, as there would have been between Madison and Eugene, or Madison and Burlington, or half a dozen other cities that are of the same ilk.
As it turned out, University of California, Santa Cruz, was intellectually not a very lively place. Everybody surfing. Why would they read books? And a lot of the faculty drive back to Berkeley every night. Why wouldn’t you? Even over America’s most dangerous highway. They have to get back to Berkeley. But also, the medical facilities are very, very poor. So that sort of was impossible for Mari Jo.
And then again, it’s never been easy to make as many friends as you could easily make in Madison. And then again, Mari Jo grew up on Lake Michigan, maybe fifteen, twenty miles south of the Wisconsin line. And so I suppose we’re indelible Midwesterners. And that is probably as important as anything else, but it took quite a while to realize that.
Reeves: So we’re over, well, we’re roughly an hour now.
Buhle: Uh huh.
Reeves: And I at least want to get on the record, I want you to talk about the history of the New Left.
Reeves: Since it is, you know, imbued in this town and this university.
Buhle: Indeed. Indeed. Indeed. I guess I’d like to speak about history and the New Left. And the biography of William Appleman Williams. [01:00:00] Perhaps mentioning comics in Wisconsin, because it’s not a distant subject. And finally, It Started in Wisconsin, a documentation of the uprising of 2011. Almost all in one breath. Because these subjects don’t seem very far apart to me at all. I wouldn’t have thought so when History and the New Left appeared in 1990. It was part of my distant and receding past. But with these other books, it grew closer and closer to me, so that it looks as if it was almost a continuity and as if in my mind I never left at all.
So what would you like to ask about History of the New Left?
Reeves: I think the question, and these actually, I think, are questions that John through his pondering, so that the process, primarily. So perhaps soliciting essays, was there politics in who—
Buhle: Ah. So this is a very interesting story, and a very odd story. Somewhere in the later 1970s, or early 1980s, Lee Baxandall (1935-2008) got the idea of essays about Madison mostly, or largely, about the later 1960s and the 1970s. Perhaps inspired by the Soglin years, by the proliferation of cooperatives, by the struggle to make university radicalism, university-based radicalism more relevant to the community, and a whole lot of other things. So Lee Baxandall started this project. Even got an essay from Mosse. Dave Wagner told me that that essay was part of the package that was probably finished by the early 1980s. So, Lee Baxandall could not complete this. Lee Baxandall had Parkinson’s disease and was unable to go on with a number of projects in his life. And he turned the project over to Dave Wagner, in hopes that Dave Wagner could complete it.
But Dave Wagner, having suffered blacklisting for leading the newspaper strike, and then various other difficulties as he made a living as a newspaperman, handed it over to me somewhere around 1987. And I readily saw trying to put this together as a book that a whole lot was missing. And that it could be better reconstructed through taking the story back to roughly 1950 and following it through the lives of various intellectuals. Some of them actually got around to writing essays. But a striking number of them [01:03:00] were asked by me to write essays and couldn’t get it together. So this was the era in which I had founded the Oral History of the American Left, had a couple of years of funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities, and was interviewing a whole lot of people, mostly over the age of eighty. But I was traveling, and therefore, by the middle 1980s, doing things like going to New York, or going to Washington, DC and interviewing Saul Landau (1936-2013) in his office at the Institute for Policy Studies. Or going to New York and interviewing Herbert Gutman (1928-1985). Going to, actually, Herbert Gutman was visiting Providence when I interviewed him. Going to New Jersey and interviewing Warren Susman. And so forth and so forth.
Half the people wrote and the other half, or maybe a third, actually were interviewed by me. And then I sent them a rough transcript. And we worked from there to make those rough transcripts into respectable essays. And at the end of the process, I stuck in a couple of appendices that I had come across in archives, or asked someone to send me when I heard that they existed. One was something that Warren Sussman had written about the smoking room school history. That room in the historical society next to the door across from Memorial Union, where everybody met and talked seriously about history in 1951 and smoked cigarettes seriously, which was quite nice. And the second one was a document I must have gotten from Lee Baxandall, which was a bit of the play put on by the anti-military ball of 1959, and written in part by Marshall Brickman (b. 1939), who of course worked on Annie Hall (1977) with Woody Allen. So those were delightful appendices.
But much of the rest of it was a sort of push and pull operation where I would find people who I urgently wanted to contribute. There was nothing by them. And I nagged them into writing something. And I’m very glad that I did, because it represents a little clip of memory. I don’t know whether Paul Breines wrote “The Mosse Milieu” for me, or he wrote it earlier for Lee Baxandall, just as an example. But these stories and recollections, even some of them that were a little bit sour, were quite good in bringing back a story. And sort of filling out what otherwise would be absolutely unknown. [01:06:00] And which effectively, though I didn’t know it then, launched me on the biography of Williams about four years later.
Tortorice: So, did you ask Harvey to write anything?
Buhle: I think he had died. As we were working on it, he had died.
Tortorice: Oh, okay.
Buhle: So there was a piece by Ron—
Tortorice: McCrea. Right.
Buhle: Ron McCrea (1943-2019), on him. That’s right.
Tortorice: Yeah, 1990. Harvey died in 87.
Buhle: Yeah. Yeah.
Tortorice: So what about, is Joan Scott in here?
Buhle: She was, you know, so high up in the academic world that something like this didn’t and wouldn’t have interested her.
Tortorice: Well, it’s an amazing group of people that you were able to—
Buhle: It’s eclectically, you know, some of it is based on people I just happen to know personally. And one could say, why X and not Y, and I might not be able to answer that. Because after all, contributing to this earned you nothing in the academic world to speak of, nothing in a financial way. So it was almost like an old friends get together. And some of them, or at least one of them, Warren Susman would never have permitted this interview to be published if he was still alive. Because this little, there was nothing negative in there. But a little bit too much insight into his personal life than he was familiar with, than he was comfortable with. He was a very private person. Or because he didn’t accomplish the great things that he hoped he would accomplish.
And even Herbert Gutman. They probably, might have wanted to present themselves differently, but never gotten around to doing it. That’s a possibility. And so it’s possible in some of these cases, the people who died recently, I sort of got their story more than they had ever gotten around to telling. Or were likely to get around to telling if they lived another ten years. Both of those guys died at age 58. So they died young, and their stories weren’t told.
Now what I’d like to add is that as I began to work on the biography of Williams, who was dying just as I was beginning to write, I came to see Gerda Lerner (1920-2013), to talk to her about Williams. She was his successor as president of the Organization of American Historians. And her memories weren’t that great. She went to visit him. He was deeper in the throes of alcoholism than he’d been before. But he’d also tried to do these valuable things within OAH, helped young people to get jobs, and bring more women to the fore, and other kinds of benevolent things, that he couldn’t really carry through on, but Gerda Lerner did carry through on. And as I came to meet her, this would be in the early 1990s [01:09:00] she also pressed upon me my obligation as an oral historian to do some serious work with the Hollywood blacklistees, which her husband, her late husband [Carl Lerner (1912-1973)].
And that probably was my launching point for another phase of the history I was never trained in in Madison, because there wasn’t a course in oral history. But somehow I think of it as in the milieu of Madison historians and graduate students in history, what were you trying to do? You were trying to document everything. You were very serious about documenting everything. And you didn’t believe in big stuff with one form of scholarship when there were a variety of forms of scholarship. And even if we didn’t tap into the oral history projects, civil rights oral history project at the Historical Society, which is incredibly important, it planted the seed of becoming an oral historian, I’m quite sure. Where else would I have thought of founding the Oral History of the American Left in 1976 if I hadn’t thought of it in Madison?
Tortorice: Well you had in history, someone like [William] Hesseltine (1902-1963), who always taught that course that engaged students in primary research. It was basically based on biography, but also interviewing people. So there was that tradition.
Buhle: Very much so. And Williams had his graduate students, including me, I wasn’t his graduate student, I was a graduate student. His assignment to us, beyond the normal assignments of undergraduates, was to find documents and then write about the documents. And there was a graduate student named Steve Scheinberg, who was famous for taking undergraduates into the Historical Society archives and having them look at 1976 to 1986, this was nothing special. But in 1961, it was something very special, something that historians didn’t do with students. So that’s absolutely true, the sense that things could be documented. And they might be documented in ways that most historians—as we always like to say, those historians from the Northeast, the [Arthur A. Schlesinger Jr. (1917-2007)] Schlesinger generation who hated the [Charles A. Beard (1874-1948)] Beardian so much, would never disdain to do, because they were interested in the people in power.
But we felt an obligation to, and I have to add a footnote. And that is, after the generation of Hesseltine and Merrill Jensen (1905-1980) and Merle Curti and several others I could name, the American historians, the US historians, as we came in to teach, were a new generation, who [01:12:00] mostly wanted to get jobs at other universities, and looked upon Madison as a way station. Hopefully they’d get to the Ivy League if they were really fortunate. They were not steeped in Wisconsin history, as a rule. We didn’t feel the kind of awe towards them that we felt towards Williams and memories of Hesseltine and Merrill Jensen and Merle Curti on the one hand, or Goldberg and Mosse on the other. There was a mutual non-admiration. They weren’t so fond of us, either. It may be that we US historian graduate students, but all history graduate students, there were hundreds of us. We clung together. We had our own study classes. We had our own intellectual sessions. And so we did not need professors. And because our US history professors, William O’Neill is a good example, since he was a perfectly affable fellow and taught a course on radicalism with a huge enrollment that Mari Jo and I were teaching assistants for, they did not awe us or impress us terribly. We were okay with them, and they were okay with us. But it was an uneasy relationship.
Tortorice: And they were doing, it was almost kind of a reversion to a very traditional kind of history.
Buhle: That’s true. That’s absolutely true. They were not in the Wisconsin school. Which is, in a way, the irony. The Wisconsin school had to leap over a generation to come back to something similar now. You could also say, and it would be very true, that the generation of Studies on the Left, most of them wanted to study the mechanisms of power. And unlike Arthur Schlesinger Junior’s group, they didn’t admire the people in power. They quite disliked the people in power. But they thought of understanding history through the documents of the powerful. Revealing the machinations of the powerful. Whereas, intuitively, instead of working it out intellectually, myself and my milieu wished to study not just the underclass, but all the things that hadn’t been studied.
After all, Mari Jo and two fellow graduate students went into the basement of the historical society, but also the basement of Memorial Library, in the Cutter collection, and went through every book that had been written on the history of American women. There weren’t that many of them. But they went through every single one of them and produced this article which became a pamphlet for a women’s history for several years, until a real women’s history book appeared.
So we weren’t the only ones who were, myself and my male friends, weren’t the only ones who were discovering. We were part of a [01:15:00] generation that was urgent about discovering what Jesse Lemisch (1936-2018), a difficult person, called history from the bottom up. But there was a value to the phrase. And was inspired by E.P. Thompson in Britain too.
Tortorice: But history of power relations.
Buhle: But for Studies on the Left, it would have seen power relations from above. And for us, I wouldn’t quite say power relations. Because we were also inspired by Herbert Gutman, who was, like Thompson, trying to gauge the ordinary daily lives of working people in the past, or minorities in the past, who didn’t have the power to challenge, didn’t create a socialist revolution, or even join socialist parties. But nevertheless, had a life that was worth recording. And up to that time, was very largely ignored.
Reeves: John, do you have anything else you want? We’re at about an hour and fifteen, well, an hour and a half since we walked in here. I want to make sure you—
Tortorice: We probably don’t want to keep Paul much longer.
Buhle: No, no, it’s fine.
Tortorice: The only aspect, I don’t know if you discussed the whole question of gender relations on the New Left and this kind of role that—
Buhle: Ah, that would be good.
Reeves: No, no, we didn’t. So that—
Buhle: That’s very good to take up. One of the striking things about that period, 1967 to 71, is that in 1967, you would have never seen on campus two males holding hands and looking romantically at each other. Or two females. By the time we left campus, it wasn’t an uncommon sight. That marks a very big change.
Tortorice: Well, you say, it’s still a bit uncommon.
Buhle: It wasn’t common. But you’d see it.
Tortorice: Yes, but you would see it—
Buhle: You would see it and it wasn’t a cause for outrage and so forth. Now I remember in 1970, at the time of the US invasion of Cambodia and the huge uprising, seeing male and female couples. And part of the populace outside of Madison or a police presence, whatever, there would sometimes be jeers. But the jeers mostly didn’t come from students. They may have come from engineering students. But even people who were surprised by it, probably gave pause, instead of shouting. Because it now was a sort of tolerated if not approved, etcetera, etcetera.
Tortorice: But what about the relationship between men and women?
Buhle: Ah. This is a deeper and more complex subject. I was reviewing a [01:18:00] book of short stories by Marge Piercy (b. 1936), the famous poet, who’d been in Chicago before she moved to Boston and the Cape. And a well known novelist. And in this collection of short stories, some of them from the 1960s, the most marked thing for me was the lack of sympathy that she had for women who were weak or male-centered. Or especially who were just weak in character and didn’t stand up to the men. So that for graduate students, women were a minority. And it was very frequent for them to drop out of school, drop out of graduate school. Because professors were not so friendly to them. Not bitterly hostile, but more likely to discourage than encourage.
And when I received a teaching assistantship and Mari Jo was eligible for a teaching assistantship, some professor, it might have been William O’Neill or it might have been someone else, said, “Well, only one to a family.” And then he or someone else said, “Well, of course Paul will be the one who gets the job.” And I think the assumption then was either that the wife who was in graduate school would have children and not pursue a career. Or perhaps she would teach at a junior college or something like, little did we know. And that was the accepted thing.
And to a degree, it was also true in the antiwar movement that the minority of forceful speakers were women. And those forceful speakers tended to be women who were tough as nails. Like Ann Gordon, who chain-smoked Camels and took shit from no one. But it was hard for someone like Ann Gordon, a militant feminist, to be close to women who were much more passive or male-oriented or something like that.
Tortorice: And what about the way men treated women in the movement? Because there’s always that kind of pull toward the romantic activist male, you know, Che Guevara (1928-1967) kind of thing.
Buhle: Right. Indeed. Indeed. In all of the social movements, that certainly was there. The men would be the speakers and traveling from town to town and girl to girl and so forth and so forth. I think on this campus, I saw the SDS slogan, “Girls say yes to boys who say no.” Speaking of the war. And there has to be some truth in that truism. Because the men, [01:21:00] the young men were in a very, very difficult situation, as the women weren’t, in that respect. But I think it would be true to say in Madison, and true from 1960 on, that exceptional women were less exceptional here than at other major campuses. They had a hard time. They often had to be tough and not particularly kindly toward—they didn’t have to be—but they were often not particularly kindly disposed towards women who weren’t tough. But Joan Scott would be in that generation of women who found some professor who would treat them in an egalitarian way.
But even George, our dear friend, after some lecture, Liz Ewen (d. 2012) recalls, he had graded her paper. And he said, “This is very good for a girl.” And Liz Ewen said, “No, it’s very good for any student.” So, so much was the practice of gender expectations for males different from gender expectations for females, from intellectual work in the classroom to future careers, that it was very hard, even for sympathetic and gay professors, to divest themselves from this kind of general attitude.
And everybody sort of felt about Harvey Goldberg that he was very sweet on his male graduate students and undergraduate males because he was romantically inclined towards. And I think that generalization wouldn’t be entirely false.
Reeves: All right.
Buhle: Have we exhausted every possible subject? (laughs)
Reeves: We could go on, I’m sure, for quite some time. But I think at least for today, we’ve exhausted every possible topic.
Tortorice: Maybe we’ll come back to it again. Who knows?
Reeves: Thank you very much for your time.
Buhle: I’m happy to—
End Third Session