In 1966, William F. Buckley hosted an episode of Firing Line titled “Is Ramparts Magazine Un-American?” Gesturing to his guest, Ramparts editor Bob Scheer, Buckley went on the offensive, saying, “Here is a man … whose magazine defends a lot of positions that are uniquely defended by communists. I don’t think he understands the consequences of it.” For Scheer, playing to a hostile audience, it was Buckley — a “Stalinist with an $11-million inheritance” who had a “contempt” for freedom.
The Firing Line host’s charges were hyperbolic, but the target made sense. Though forgotten today, it’s hard to imagine a New Left without Ramparts. The magazine played a key role in the rise of the Black Panthers, blew the whistle on the CIA more than once, inspired Martin Luther King Jr to speak out against the Vietnam War, and was granted exclusive rights to Che Guevara’s diaries by Fidel Castro himself. It gave a platform to Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Bobby Seale, Seymour Hersh, Angela Davis, Cesar Chavez, Murray Bookchin, Christopher Hitchens, and many more. It was, as Peter Richardson writes in A Bomb in Every Issue, “the journalistic equivalent of a rock band, a mercurial confluence of raw talent, youthful energy and high audacity.”
The magazine notably gave us David Horowitz, one of its final editors, who went from dour Marxist to anti-imperialist firebrand to right-wing reactionary in a few decades. But Ramparts alumni ended up all over the map: some landed on the far left (Maoist Bob Avakian is a former Ramparts researcher), others on the center left (three editors founded Mother Jones), and some drifted from politics to culture (two editors departed to found Rolling Stone). Even Fox News’s Brit Hume served as Washington correspondent for Ramparts.
Ramparts was founded in 1962 in the San Francisco Bay Area as “a forum for the mature American Catholic,” dedicated to advancing “those positive principles of Hellenic-Christian tradition which have shaped and sustained our civilization for the past two thousand years.” Its founder Ed Keating was a wealthy young Catholic convert, and he staffed the magazine with other justice-minded Catholics, including Thomas Merton and John Howard Griffin.
But what began as an erudite Catholic debate forum was soon largely devoted to the movement for black equality, a topic it explored from both a Catholic and a secular perspective.
“Keating’s keen sense of justice attuned him to racial equality and civil rights issues,” writes Richardson, “but his other views could be conservative, even reactionary.” Still, he didn’t resist the magazine’s radical drift. He brought on a flamboyant young Catholic reporter named Warren Hinckle and swiftly promoted him to executive editor. Hinckle was a San Francisco native whose grandmother had been a barroom entertainer on the Barbary Coast. He had a pet monkey and wore a black eye patch due to a childhood auto accident. He was a dandy who donned white linen and velvet suits, and he was also an alcoholic: at the North Beach bars where he was a regular, bartenders were known to greet him by lining up fifteen screwdrivers, which Hinckle would polish off in quick succession.
Hinckle, too, was deeply interested in civil rights, having confronted a chilling racial double standard on the police beat at the San Francisco Chronicle. One of the first stories he worked on for Ramparts was an investigation into the murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi. A subsequent issue edited by Hinckle featured a special report on the 1964 riots in Harlem: “An extraordinary account of the Harlem Riots — told by people who were there — in words few white men have ever heard.” The white cross that had graced the back of the magazine was replaced by a photo of a black man with a bleeding head, surrounded by police.
By late 1964, Hinckle had transformed Ramparts into a monthly progressive news magazine with hard-hitting investigative stories, glossy photos, and flashy headlines. The magazine began publishing anti–Vietnam War content in 1965 and never looked back. Ramparts’s watershed inve-stigative piece was published in 1966: Bob Scheer, who had been hired to write about foreign policy, broke a whistle-blower story about the CIA secretly training Saigon police at Michigan State University. The cover featured a drawing of South Vietnam’s Madame Nhu dressed as a cheerleader, waving a Michigan State pennant.
The magazine moved its head-quarters to San Francisco’s North Beach, a neighborhood associated with beat poets and topless bars, and Hinckle began to hire more secular left-wing agitators with roots in the burgeoning Bay Area youth counter-culture, draining the magazine of what remained of its religious character. (“There haven’t been so many Jews involved in a Catholic operation since the twelve apostles,” remarked I. F. Stone.) Keating, whose eccentricities rivaled Hinckle’s, decorated his office with a thick black rug and heavy velvet curtains, while outside the colors popped and the magazine courted — and in many respects crafted —the political counterculture.
Ramparts was rigorous without being stuffy. Over the next several years the magazine ran features exposing government secrets along-side counterculture celebrity profiles and satirical columns. “Much like Allen Ginsberg’s effect on poetry,” writes Richardson, “Ramparts loosened the breath of American political journalism.”
Starting in 1966, exposés on the CIA and the American military became the magazine’s trademark. And Ramparts editors didn’t just write about Vietnam; in 1966, three of the magazine’s principals ran for office, taking aim at the Cold War liberals leading the war. One of these candidates was Scheer, who condemned his Democratic primary opponent’s hawkish anti-communism as “middle of the road extremism.” They all lost, but their campaigns helped turn Vietnam into a central campaign issue in California, and eventually the rest of the nation.
Also in 1966, Ramparts made a fateful connection: a lawyer passed along the notebooks of a black San Quentin inmate named Eldridge Cleaver. The magazine immediately began publishing Cleaver’s writing, helped arrange for him to receive parole, threw him a party on his release, and added him to the masthead as a staff writer. Soon after settling into his role at Ramparts, Cleaver became acquainted with members of the newly formed Black Panther Party and joined in short order.
Cleaver’s connection to Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other Panthers gave Ramparts a front-row view of black radicalism in the Bay Area. The first showdown between the Panthers and the police occurred in February 1967 outside the Ramparts office in San Francisco. The now-famous photo of Huey Newton in a throne-like chair holding a spear and a shotgun appeared in a 1967 issue of Ramparts.
During this time, the increasingly radical Ramparts was publishing government confidences without hesitation. It followed up the Michigan State story with a story about the CIA funding the National Student Association, a revelation that led to the exposure of dozens of similar CIA front operations. The federal government responded by auditing the magazine aggressively and planting news stories suggesting that it was part of a foreign-led Communist plot. In 1967, the FBI burglarized and ransacked the Ramparts office. According to the account in Richardson’s book, Hinckle believed he had done it himself during a drinking blackout until an FBI agent confessed years later.
Despite the harassment, the publication was making an impact on the broader left. In 1967 it published an ambitious essay about napalmed Vietnamese children, with graphic accompanying photos. The story eventually landed in the lap of Martin Luther King Jr. A friend recalled King’s encounter with the article: “When he came to Ramparts magazine he stopped. He froze and looked at the pictures from Vietnam,” and decided that day to speak out against the war. When he eventually did, he offered Ramparts sole rights to publish the text of his speech.
But the magazine’s most significant impact was on the student antiwar movement. Jeff Cohen, who later founded Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), remembered it being passed around his dorm room in Ann Arbor. “It was dog-eared by the time I got it. It really was a radicalizing tool of its own. It ripped your head off. It helped turn my cousin’s fraternity into an SDS chapter.”
Ramparts developed close relationships with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activists, including the organization’s former president Todd Gitlin, who was tapped to cover the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Everyone knew the DNC would bring mayhem. The state was losing what little patience it had with demonstrators, and a violent mood was beginning to capture the student movement. Ramparts editors struggled with whether to publish certain calls to action, such as Tom Hayden speaking in what Gitlin thought was “chillingly cavalier tones about street actions which would run the risk of getting people killed.”
The fractures in the student movement were widening, Gitlin recalls, with the “action freaks” denouncing the sit-in cohort as “movement creeps” whose revolutionary strategy was “wimpy.” Meanwhile Ram-parts itself, being a glossy national magazine and not an activist organization, was developing an awkward relationship to the student movement — the closer the two grew, the more noticeable the dissonance became. For example, Hinckle used magazine funds to pay for luxurious accommodations for its reporters in Chicago and flew himself and Scheer there first-class. “There we were, all staying at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago, while the movement kids were getting their skulls cracked,” Scheer recalls.
The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr in 1968 marked a turning point for the New Left. After King’s assassination, the Panthers’ alienation from America transformed into determination to foment international insurrection. Eldridge Cleaver left the country; his wife, party member Kathleen Cleaver, stayed behind and wrote of America in the pages of Ramparts, “Let it burn, let it burn.” SDS collapsed, with some “action freaks” opting for bombings and fugitive life over sit-ins and demonstrations.
As George N. Katsiaficas wrote in The Imagination of the New Left, “The arguments became polarized into what might have been two illogical extremes: the complete rejection of confrontation, on the one hand, and the glorification of it, on the other.” Ramparts, for its part, eventually came to represent the latter.
Keating had blown his entire inheritance and exited the stage. Amid financial turmoil two younger Ramparts editors, David Horowitz and Peter Collier, ousted Hinckle and Scheer. The magazine stayed afloat for a few more years, but like the American New Left itself, its attentions were divided and its broader message increasingly inarticulate.
After the turn of the decade, some contributors wrote in the pages of Ramparts about American imperialism, some about environmentalism, others about rape. While many of these articles were ambitious and insightful, the magazine increasingly failed to offer a comprehensive worldview that integrated them all. Instead, each represented a distinct path that some tribe or another of former New Leftists would march down in the 1970s and beyond. It increasingly seemed that the only banner under which Ramparts contributors were united was an embrace of extreme positions and actions. Articles frequently lionized those urban guerrillas who took up arms, bombed or burned buildings, and engaged in open combat with police.
Within years, it was clear to everyone that Ramparts’s moment was over. The magazine shuttered forever in 1975. The Weather Underground’s last bomb exploded that same year, as Black Panther Party chapters were disbanding across the nation. Some left movements were still in full swing — radical feminism, environmentalism — but their luminaries had moved on to other media outlets, increasingly with a singular focus. Whatever shared vision of emancipation existed was lost.
As the Ramparts staff was winding down in San Francisco, missing issues and struggling to pay rent, the magazine’s former star staff writer Eldridge Cleaver returned from over-seas. Upon arrival, he was arrested on outstanding charges from 1968, which already seemed like an eternity ago. Whether earnestly or to avoid jail time or both, he announced his conversion to Christianity. Richardson recounts the following story in his book:
A former Black Panther asked Cleaver, “Hey Eldridge, what’s all this shit, now you’re a big conservative and you’re all into this religion and everything. What the hell is that all about?” Cleaver lit a joint and said, “Look brother, we’ve seen all the revolution we’re gonna see.”