Rusty Eisenberg defends Mark Rudd

Historians in the News

[The writer, a professor of American diplomatic history at Hofstra University, is completing a book about the foreign policy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.]

To the Editor:

From Paul M. Barrett’s review of Mark Rudd’s memoir, “Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen” (May 3), one might imagine that Rudd had written an unrepentant, unreflective, shallow defense of his activist days with “some mistakes” tossed in.

In his introduction, Rudd expresses the hope that his story will help young people “figure out what they can do to build a more just and peaceful world.” The reviewer is indignant. How can this would-be terrorist claim that “his exploits” should “offer inspiration” to anyone? However, Rudd is not making this claim. Although he never repudiates the causes of his youth or the perception that something drastic needed to be done, he is quite clear that violence is not a remedy for social injustice or for illegal wars.

Rudd expresses deep sorrow for what he terms “disastrous mistakes.” He has remained silent about his past activities for over 25 years because of his abiding sense of shame and self-doubt. In unflinching detail, he demonstrates how political conditions, psychological need and poor judgment produced decisions that destroyed his own movement and inflicted immeasurable pain on others, including his loving parents. What makes this memoir so affecting is the absence of excuses, the refusal to blame others, the willingness to accept responsibility — more perhaps than the circumstances warranted.

As a student protester at Columbia, I knew Mark Rudd and disagreed with him much of the time (a point alluded to in the book). However, it takes no special acuity to see that his memoir is the work of a 60-year-old man with many regrets but an abiding commitment to learn from mistakes and make a positive contribution to the world.

As an aging historian, I have been reading the declassified papers of other men of that period who made plans to set off bombs in the middle of cities. Some had their doubts, some were neutral, some were plainly excited and enthusiastic about the damage they could do. Unlike the Weathermen, whose elaborate schemes never materialized, these men carried out their plans, not once but thousands of times, with excruciating human consequences. None has ever apologized or been called to account. To this day, those who are still alive are described as statesmen, not “terrorists,” and when they publish books they are treated respectfully.

Read entire article at CAROLYN EISENBERG in a letter to the editor of the NYT Book Review

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