|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
I Thought War Was Wrong
I was born in 1946, and I grew up in Rockland County, New York. My parents were both Italian immigrants. We grew up in a rural area that became more and more suburban as I got older. Most of my friends and neighbors were Jewish. Culturally, I felt just as Jewish as Italian. Sometimes, I had girlfriends who got upset when they found out I wasn't Jewish.
My family has a long tradition of antiwar feelings. My grandfather deserted the Italian Army during World War I. My father was part of the Fascist party in Italy because it was required. He left in 1936 because he was going to be drafted to fight in the Ethiopian War, so he came to the US.
Growing up, I thought about nuclear war pretty often. I thought my family should build a fallout shelter. I pushed for that. They didn't, but I thought they should. I thought we should move to New Zealand, too, since it was so remote and strategically unimportant. I was somewhat naive concerning nuclear war. Kids are crazy; some of us were hoping it would come to something. I was thinking that it would be good if the United States finally faced down the Russians or did away with Castro. It was a common thing for people to say that if there was a nuclear war sometime, they would want to lose their virginity in the last ten or fifteen minutes before the big-one hit. It was pretty silly. People talked about it in high school.
When I grew up, I thought I wanted to be a doctor because that is what my mother told me I should want to be. So, I wanted to be a doctor until college when I realized that even though I was doing well in biology, I really preferred history. As time went on, I thought about being in the US Foreign Service. Then that changed in the 1960's. I realized what the United States was doing in foreign policy, and I decided that I wanted nothing to do with the State Department. Eventually, I decided to become a professor.
I went to Hamilton College in upstate New York. It was mostly for rich, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I was friends with a lot of the misfits there. A lot of my friends were Jewish or poor relative to the rich kids there. There weren't any women's colleges nearby, so the social life focused on the weekends where there was a lot of drinking. That movie, "Animal House," it was like that.
The mentality of Hamilton was stuck back in the Fifties even in the late Sixties when I was there. In my 1966-67 year, I went to college in Germany. I listened to AFM, the Armed Forces Radio Network, and I heard some songs from the US, and I started thinking, "Wow, what's happening? What's going on?" There was a sense of counter-culture from the States. The German kids, some of whom didn't understand English, wanted to listen to my Bob Dylan records.
In 1968, I went back to the States, and I went to Cornell. The counter-culture was in full bloom there, and the Antiwar Movement as well, so they were, in a way, fused. I was a Conscientious Objector. My position was that I would have gone to jail instead of going into the Army. In general, I thought war was wrong, and I thought this one was especially wrong. I wouldn't leave the country and I wouldn't join the Army, so I was ready to go to jail. I got Conscientious Objector status, so I did two years of alternate service. I helped to set up and maintain a halfway house for ex-mental patients. I also went to a lot of antiwar protests. The war was a disaster. Cornell had a big antiwar movement on campus. It was a center for studies of Southeast Asian countries. It was a part of everyday life.
There was, of course, a lot of drug use. I was a serious student, but a lot of my friends were dropouts from Cornell or Ithaca College. They used a lot of drugs. A man I knew died of a heroin overdose. Then again, there were people who used it, and people who abused it. People who abuse drugs will abuse anything that's around. It's in their nature. There was a lot of drug use that was merely recreational. There was a sense that it was mind-expanding. I'm so straight now that it's ridiculous, but I still think our society has a hysterical attitude about drugs. It's as if it were all good or all bad. Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine are all legal and powerful, but marijuana and other things that are less destructive are considered illegal and immoral.
I listened to The Band, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. I didn't go Woodstock. I should have. I did go to a concert that was larger than Woodstock. I went to Watkins Glen in 1973. There were about 600,000 people there. Bob Dylan and The Band were there. That was great.
Lyndon Johnson announced that he wasn't go to run for re-election the same week that Martin Luther King was killed. That week was a real knockout. When I heard Johnson's announcement, I wasn't as happy as I was surprised, but I was very happy. I favored Eugene McCarthy because he was antiwar. I favored him over Robert Kennedy. When Robert Kennedy was killed, I didn't realize what a loss it was. He had a lot of broad appeal. He appealed to the hard-hats, the black Americans, the Native Americans, even to rich people. He had an excellent social agenda. He talked about the quality of life, which no one else talked about.
I think it was really unfortunate that McCarthy lost heart in the 1968 campaign after Robert Kennedy was killed. McCarthy didn't campaign very well after that, and Humphrey got the nomination. McCarthy should have either stepped aside for Ted Kennedy, who was also antiwar, or really tried to win. He dropped the ball for us, and we didn't get a charismatic antiwar type. My thoughts have turned more negative toward him over time because of what he did instead of what he wanted to do.
One of the important things about the Sixties was the sense of optimism, the sense that things were going to change for the better. We've lost that sense today. There was such a large number of baby boomers who thought that we could change the world. There was an arrogance to the Sixties that wasn't all bad. We thought we could fix the word, at least partly. It's shocking, in a way, because we thought we could leave the violence behind us. The Peace Movement was going to bring an end to violent war, and love would beat out hate. That hasn't really happened. It's gone from a time when there was the mentality of us against them to a more global community. There's still violence, though, so maybe it's hopeless. I think the Sixties were an opportunity to change America significantly for the better. It turned out that we changed America for the better, but there were some missed opportunities. Things could have turned out differently. If Robert Kennedy had lived, things could have turned out better. If Vietnam ended sooner, it could have been different. If Martin Luther King hadn't died, I think things could have turned out differently, but it didn't, and this is the world we have.