Two quintessential American political leaders of the so-called “greatest generation” -- polar opposites in almost every way -- died in the past few weeks: Ronald Reagan, fortieth president of the United States and Dave Dellinger, an anti-war activist who went to jail for his pacifist beliefs. Both suffered from Alzheimer’s disease at the time of their death.
Reagan was one of the most important presidents in American history. The power of his personality and his natural sunny optimism transformed conservatism, an angry, alienated, somewhat kooky and marginal movement, into a political force. There was a time when conservatives believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist and believed that fluoridation of the water supply was a Soviet plot to poison our youth. Reagan made conservatism mainstream and respectable. He opposed big government but ruled regally.
On the other hand, Reagan’s presidency was a triumph of public relations over public policy. His “Morning in America” campaign ad was pure genius. But we live with the blowback from his support of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. He encouraged war and brought misery to Central America, initiated the right wing onslaught against the regulatory and social protections of the New Deal and Great Society, stoked a white backlash against the civil rights revolution, and was clueless about the environment, most importantly stopping President Carter’s modest efforts towards clean energy and energy independence. We live with the economic disparities and corporate criminality that resulted from Reagan’s anti-government policies and are not a better country for his two-terms as president.
Contrary to what his supporters claim, Reagan did not bring down the Soviet Union. As Soviet reformers well knew, it was a matter of its own internal rot. To Reagan’s great credit though, he forged a relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, promoted nuclear disarmament and didn’t turn the communist collapse into a military crisis.
Reagan came out of the middle class and identified with power and privilege. With ancestors going back to the American Revolution, Dave Dellinger came from a privileged background. But he devoted his life to helping the poor and working classes.
In the late 1960s I was a staff editor on Liberation, a pacifist magazine that Dellinger edited. It was at the time when Dellinger was the leader of the movement against the Vietnam War, organizing millions to demonstrate against government policies. President Lyndon Johnson fantasized that Dellinger and the anti-war movement was funded by the Soviet Union and ordered the CIA to investigate. In fact we were all making subsistence wages and Dave spent much of his time raising enough money to keep the magazine and the movement going. “Moscow gold?” We barely saw “American green!”
More accurately, we were victims of Soviet-style government surveillance. Our photographer turned out to be a police informer. Once, when I picked up the phone to make a call, I heard the end of a tape slapping against its reel. The FBI agent monitoring our phone tap was asleep on the job.
Dellinger became a pacifist as a student at Yale after a fistfight with New Haven townies. He felt so bad about beating up one of the locals that he vowed never to fight again. It was the Depression and Dave rode the rails and lived in hobo jungles (something that only a person born to privilege would choose to do).
Studying for the ministry at the Union Theological Seminary and eligible for legal conscientious objector status in the World War II draft, Dellinger twice chose to go to jail rather than accept complicity with the war effort.
In jail, he and other draft resisters pioneered the use of nonviolent tactics to desegregate the federal prison system. One of his comrades, Bayard Rustin, became a key advisor to Martin Luther King. Another, George Houser, founded the American Committee on Africa, the first and most significant American organization to support Nelson Mandela’s South African anti-apartheid struggle. President Reagan, to his shame, distrusted Mandela’s movement and did little to oppose the white supremacist South African government.
Pacifism is prophetic rather than pragmatic. It challenges even non-pacifists like myself to think hard about war and to resist those wars that are immoral and politically imprudent.
Dellinger’s greatest fame or notoriety was as one of the Chicago Eight, accused of conspiring to plan riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 1968. The indictment was a farce; as Abbie Hoffman, another of the defendants, noted, the “conspirators,” some of whom barely knew one another, “couldn’t agree on lunch” much less plan a demonstration. In fact, the real conspiracy emanated from the Nixon White House that tried to break and bankrupt the anti-war movement with trumped up indictments that would drag the movement out of the streets and into the courts.
Refusing to let the government put them on the defensive, the eight defendants used the trial to promote anti-war politics. It was Dave Dellinger, speaking out against every instance of prosecutorial injustice, who garnered the most contempt of court citations. All charges against Dellinger and the eight were ultimately overturned by a higher court, and a federal investigatory commission ruled that what happened in Chicago was a police riot. I note in passing that there were more felony convictions of members of the Reagan administration than of any other recent presidential administration.
Dellinger struggled to keep the anti-war movement on a nonviolent course, but his emphasis on direct action and disinterest in forging an electoral strategy contained the seeds of its own destruction. When marches, demonstrations, draft resistance and other acts of civil disobedience didn’t stop the war, some activists turned to more violent tactics. Just when the anti-war movement had become the majority force in the Democratic Party and, polls indicate, the entire nation, some elements in the anti-war movement turned away from education and organizing with disastrous, self-destructive political results.
Americans have always favored Pollyanna deniers over realistic prophets. But fifty years from now, what will history say about Reagan’s presidency and Dellinger’s activism? It’s my belief that, if we survive environmental and military disaster and are closer to a more just and decent society, Dave Dellinger, a prophet in his time, will be the one most honored.
Marty Jezer's books include The Dark Ages: 1945-1960 and Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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