Book Review



By Tom Hayden 

New York: Collier Books, 1988


Older and Wiser but Unbowed and Still Committed to the Idea of Justice


So many of us had our dreams, and our lives, shattered by the deaths of the sixties, of the Kennedys and King and Vietnam …


By the time I was elected to office myself, in 1982, I was again trapped in the frustrating role of legislative opposition to a conservative governor and president. Nothing ever seemed to synchronize for me …


I want desperately to be more than Sisyphus, who was condemned by his prideful defiance to push his boulder up the mountain only to see it roll back. I live to learn and learn to live. And to pursue a better life, and justice.


     Tom Hayden (California State Assemblyman and former student activist)


This memoir by Tom Hayden is not a new book. However, it is a very interesting and often moving book that I picked up recently in a shopping center in Kuala Lumpur. I enjoyed reading it, identified with Hayden’s transition from youthful student activist to older and wiser reformist, and therefore decided to write a review of this book.


As most of us who are familiar with the turbulent history of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s already know, Tom Hayden was one of the early leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that struggled to bring about equal rights for Black Americans and later, to end the involvement of the USA in the Vietnam War. Hayden was also one of the drafters of the idealistic Port Huron Statement of the early 1960s. He married and later divorced the glamorous film star-cum-political activist Jane Fonda.


Why should we in Malaysia bother to pay attention to his memoir? In my opinion, we should pay attention because Tom Hayden and the “New Left” movement he led in the 1960s and 1970s in America has profoundly reshaped America and the rest of the world (please refer to my article “Changing America, Changing the World” published in an earlier edition of e-THOUGHT).


The American social movements that arose in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that Hayden was so heavily involved in have led to the spread and prominence of ideas such as civil rights for minority groups, feminism, environmentalism etc. in the contemporary world. In my humble opinion, these ideas have made the world a slightly better place to live in. However, counter-movements to these ideas have arisen and this only shows that progressives in every nation need to remember that if hard won rights are not vigilantly defended, they can be chipped at and ultimately, eroded or even completely snatched away. 


In the book, Hayden tells the reader about his involvement in the (often dangerous) movement to desegregate the Southern states of the USA and to promote the civil rights of Black Americans. In this region of the self-proclaimed “Leader of the Free World”, Americans of African ancestry were subjected to the indignities of strong prejudice and heavy discrimination by the white majority. Those who were brave enough to challenge the system of white supremacy (whether they were Southern blacks, progressive Southern whites or Northern students who moved in to assist) were often harassed, beaten up or even killed. Hayden mentioned that at least 28 civil rights activists were killed and 31,000 people were arrested. Hayden himself was beaten by a white supremacist in Mississippi in 1961. From the Deep South, Hayden moved to Newark, New Jersey to help organize its poor (mostly black) residents. He gives us a shocking account of the brutality of the police and the National Guard moved in by the authorities to suppress riots in the ghettoes (Hayden believes that the riots were the result of long simmering resentment of local blacks to their treatment by racist white police officers). Interestingly enough, Hayden was able to move around freely in the black ghetto even during the height of the riots although he was a white person.


Later in the book, he wrote about the escalation of the Vietnam War and its spilling over into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia as the American armed forces attempted to win the war against the North Vietnamese and their local Vietcong allies through sheer military might. As a corollary, protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War also intensified in the USA itself. Hayden describes how the frustration of certain anti-war activists at their seeming inability to end American involvement led them to turn to extremist politics (such as Maoist political groups) and even to terrorism (the Weathermen and Weather Underground). 


Hayden discusses the Democratic Party Convention held in Chicago in 1968 and how non-violent activists who tried to demonstrate against the Vietnam War were attacked and brutally beaten by the Chicago police. Hayden and the other seven activists (mostly student leaders) of the so-called “Chicago Eight” were subsequently indicted and tried for “conspiracy” by the United States Government during the Richard Nixon presidency. Hayden describes how Judge Julius Hoffman convicted them after a long drawn travesty of justice and how they were eventually acquitted of the charges by a Court of Appeals in the end. Later in the book, Hayden mentioned a reunion of most members of the “Chicago Eight” many years later. At the end of the book, he sums up the achievements of the activism of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. According to Hayden, the achievements include:


. The destruction of the century-old racial segregation system and the political enfranchisement of Black Americans


. The ending of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973


. The ending of paternalism in US universities and greater acceptance of student participation in decision-making


. The leftward movement of the Democratic Party culminating in the George McGovern candidacy for President in 1972


.  The extension of the right to vote to 18 year olds by the 1970s


. The rise of the women’s movement, the birth of environmentalism and other aspects of civil society


And to all the above, I would add the following:


. The spread of active citizen involvement in public affairs and the spread of progressive, emancipatory ideas to the rest of the world coupled with the rise of civil society in other nations (including Malaysia)


Tom Hayden should be thanked for writing this very interesting and inspiring book and for his pioneering (and ongoing), world-changing activism. It shows that decency and compassion do not go out of style indeed!


Phua Kai Lit participated in the activities of the social democratic group called the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) while he lived and studied in the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s. He is somewhat bemused and very surprised to find himself working as a university lecturer today.