Interviews

They Marched Into Sunlight author David Maraniss

Davis Maraniss,

author of

They Marched Into Sunlight

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For those living during the sixties, personal perspectives on the era’s tumultuous world routinely changed instantly.  For some, images of civil rights and Vietnam war protestors being beaten brought new meaning to the idea of justice and provoked active participation, while for others a numbered ball picked out of a lottery barrel would alter an entire life’s journey.  Morley Safer’s television reporting from the front lines of Vietnam and Walter Cronkite’s nightly reading of the body count stimulated hope and pride in some, fear and rage in others — and often a little of both in everyone.

In They Marched Into Sunlight, Washington Post reporter David Maraniss draws together in one interwoven story the disparate worlds of soldiers in Vietnam, student protesters in the United States, and government officials in Washington.   He achieves this dramatic unity by focusing on a few days in October 1967, when two battles took place simultaneously.  In Vietnam, the famed Black Lions battalion of the Army’s First Infantry Division was walking into an ambush in which sixty-one U.S. soldiers were killed and another sixty wounded.  On the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, hundreds of students were clashing violently with police during a protest against recruiters for the Dow Chemical Company, which manufactured napalm and Agent Orange.  Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, President Lyndon Johnson was considering whether to run for re-election in 1968, hearing conflicting reports from his advisors, and bemoaning his growing sense that “the people just do not understand the war.”

Maraniss presents a dazzling portrayl of America in the midst of a disaster, and examines political and cultural struggles over patriotism and dissent, heroism and conscience, the duties of a free people and government manipulation of the truth.  Ultimately he shows how momentus national decisions affect the lives of real people in indelible ways, and illuminates the profound ways in which Vietnam and the sixties continue to influence us.*

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discusses his book with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a November, 2003 Jerry Jazz Musician interview.

 

 

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photo Wisconsin State Journal

University of Wisconsin protestors shouting “Sieg heil!” at police, October 17, 1967

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“Our students are greatly concerned with what they perceive to be injustice, and some are very active in mounting protests and demonstrations both on campus and in the larger community…Great universities have always been bases of energetic contention and dispute.  At no time have students taken matters more seriously than now.  The faculty have vigorously supported the constitutional rights of students, which includes the right to dissent and to protest.  I trust that we will never deny these rights.  I said these things three weeks ago and I wish to affirm these principles today.  As I said then and repeat today, there is much for young men and women to be upset about on the national and international scene.”

– University of Wisconsin chancellor William Sewell

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The Times They Are A-Changin’, by Bob Dylan

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JJM  They Marched Into Sunlight focuses on three events taking place within a forty-eight hour period in October, 1967. One was a battle in South Vietnam, another at a protest at the University of Wisconsin, and the third in the White House. This is a huge story you undertook. What compelled you to write this book?

DM   In all of my previous books — whether it was the biography of Bill Clinton or the biography of Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi — they wove through the sixties at some point. With Clinton it was his dealing with the draft during Vietnam and his political viability as a result of his actions, and with Lombardi it was the symbol of discipline and the old ways, winning football championships while the culture was changing around him in the sixties. As I got to those points in each of the books, I realized that my interest and energy increased, probably because I am part of the post-war baby boom generation whose world view was shaped by the events of the sixties. So, I thought at some point I would want to do a book just about Vietnam and the sixties. I knew there was great literature on the war itself and some on the anti-war movement, but I hadn’t seen a book that tried to bring together into one interwoven narrative these two very different worlds that were really about the same thing. That was the genesis of this book.

JJM   Early in the book, you published correspondence that took place among some of the soldiers in the elite Black Lions battalion and their families, and in one of them, a reel to reel recording, soldier Mike Troyer told his family, “Not that I feel like marchin’ in any protest against Vietnam, but this war is worthless. I’ll tell the president himself, this damn war, it just ain’t worth it.” Was this a common theme among the Black Lions?

DM  I wouldn’t call it a common theme, but it was one of the many crosscurrents of frustration that they were starting to feel in 1967. It is likely I would have found more letters and tapes of that sort a few years later. 1967 was right when everything was starting to change, and Troyer and only a few other soldiers in that battalion were writing about it in that fashion.

JJM   The soldiers certainly turned more cynical after that.

DM  Yes, shortly after, everything changed both at home and in Vietnam. At the time of my book, the American troops had been in Vietnam in force for more than two years. Twelve thousand soldiers had already been killed, but there were another forty-five thousand yet to be killed after that point.

JJM  At what point did the North Vietnamese begin to suspect that the war protests would be as important as the armed conflict itself?

DM  The North Vietnamese had a pretty sophisticated understanding of the different pressures that they could use on their side. Even as early as 1965 — when American troops like the First Infantry Division I write about initially arrived in Vietnam — there was an understanding in Hanoi that the division that existed in America over our involvement in the war could help them, since their whole strategy was to outlast the Americans, and create a stalemate that would force the American troops to eventually leave.

JJM  Was there a notion among the American soldiers that they were being used by both the North Vietnamese and their own government?

DM  I don’t know if they felt they were being used, but they felt confused about what their mission was, and what they were doing in a country where they didn’t really know friend from foe. It created an enormous amount of psychological and physical pressure on them every day. Up through 1967, there probably was a feeling among the majority of the soldiers that they were fighting for a good cause, and I think that started to change right at the point of this book.

JJM  What was the particular mission of the men of the Black Lions battalion before they were ambushed?

DM  They were on what was called a “search and destroy” mission, which was the essential strategy of the American commanders in Vietnam, led by General William Westmoreland. Their missions involved going out into the jungle, search for enemy soldiers — whether they were Viet Cong or North Vietnamese army – – find them, fix them in place, and kill them. With these battles of attrition, it was felt that America would win the war. It was a misplaced strategy, so evident by the results of the morning of October 17. The Black Lions battalion went out on a search and destroy mission and got destroyed itself.

JJM  There was some dispute about how that mission should have been handled in the first place between the battalion leaders, Terry Allen and Clark Welch.

DM  Yes, that’s right. Welch was the commander for one of the companies under Terry Allen, the battalion commander. Allen was the son of General Terry Allen, commander of the Big Red One in North Africa during World War II, and Welch was a great soldier. Welch had been involved in a skirmish in that part of the jungle the day before, thought it was incredibly foolish to go back the same way again on the morning of the seventeenth, and tried to talk the battalion command out of doing so, but wasn’t heard. In the book, I attempt to show that it wasn’t just the battalion commander who made the mistake in going forward with the mission — it was also because of pressure they felt coming all the way down from Lyndon Johnson, who at that point of the war desperately wanted to show that the Americans were prevailing, and that the press was getting it wrong, which of course has some echoes of today. That pressure to just go out there and find and kill Viet Cong went down to General Westmoreland, who believed in these battles of attrition, and down to the First Infantry Division and the Black Lions battalion of Terry Allen.

JJM  In light of all of this, how did the Army explain the ambush?

DM  They lied about it. They essentially tried to make the claim that the Americans won this battle. They fabricated the body count — which I document in the book — by adding up the same bodies again and again. Their press releases were calling it a victory, saying that one-hundred-three Viet Cong were killed when in fact there were probably less than twenty. They tried to say it was not an ambush, because it was embarrassing to have a battalion of the great First Infantry Division ambushed. They did everything possible to try to minimize it. What really struck me about this is when I interviewed all the soldiers involved in this battle, the lie about the battle infuriated them the most. It dishonored them, to make it look like something that it wasn’t.

JJM  Yes, speaking to that, Troyer recorded, “If you get anything in the papers about Shenandoah II (the name of the mission), you can send it to me. I want to see the papers and how they are going to lie about it. See what they’re gonna say. ‘Cause I know what happened out there. I wanna see what they’ll say about it. They’ll say things we really didn’t do.” The lying that went on must have been difficult for the soldiers to deal with.

DM  All of them had trouble with that, Clark Welch as much as anyone, even thirty years after the battle. He was a true believer going into the battle. He believed in the cause, he believed in his soldiers, and he came out of the battle completely disillusioned.

JJM  During this same period of time, a few hundred University of Wisconsin students were making plans to protest the on-campus recruiting appearance of Dow Chemical, makers of napalm and Agent Orange. How did Madison, Wisconsin become in the vanguard of sixties cultural change?

DM  Madison had a long progressive tradition. The Progressive Party came out of Madison, and it had a strong anti-war aspect to it for generations. It also had a very strong university that attracted students from all over the country and had a motto of “sifting and winnowing,” which encouraged dissent, disagreement and discussion. Many of the students were second and third generation Jewish students from the East coast, whose parents and grandparents had been kept out of Ivy League schools by quotas, and they came to Wisconsin and Michigan generations earlier, and those traditions continued. So there were a wide variety of reasons for attracting different types of thinkers from around the country for a long time, and it was therefore one of the five or six leading anti-war universities in the country during the sixties.

JJM  Did the typical University of Wisconsin student of the time know much about the war?

DM  I would say probably not. As a matter of fact, I write about the diversity of the school, and at that point, the largest club on the campus was the Young Republicans, not the Students for a Democratic Society, so it had an interesting mix of viewpoints. The average student was probably just starting to get a glimpse of what the war was all about in 1967. There were approximately two or three hundred real activists committed to opposing the war day after day, and thousands other students who were just starting to think about it, largely because of the draft and their own concerns about what they would do if they had to fight in it.

JJM There was a sense among some of the local citizens that the campus radicals were actually outside agitators.

DM  Yes, that is always the case at a school like Madison, which does have a lot of out-of-state students. There was always a sort of parochial pressure to keep these students away, and to not “contaminate” the good ol’ Wisconsin kids. But, in fact, the administrators of Wisconsin understood that an essential part of Wisconsin’s greatness as a university was to attract students from everywhere.

JJM   Dow Chemical public relations director Ned Brandt said, “I would hate for Dow to come out of Vietnam with the ‘Merchants of Death’ label that was pinned on du Pont after the first World War; and yet, unless we come to grips with this problem, it is likely to happen.”  What did Dow expect the Pentagon to do to shield them from the potential of this sort of criticism?

DM  Beginning in 1966, Dow was becoming the target of the anti-war protestors on campuses all over the country. By the time Dow got their recruiters to the University of Wisconsin campus again in October of 1967, there had been dozens of protests on college campuses against Dow. They were upset that they were becoming the focus of the protests instead of the military that was using napalm, which Dow Chemical Company made. Consequently, they were hoping for the Pentagon to somehow take the burden away from them, which was an unrealistic expectation since the Pentagon stayed away from college campuses, while Dow came there to recruit. So Dow became an easy target. Couple this with the effect of napalm, which was a sort of jellyied gas that burned and melted flesh at two thousand degrees Fahrenheit.  It was an obvious awful symbol of the war, and as a result Dow could not avoid these protests.

JJM  Did the University of Wisconsin student protestors generally agree that the Dow issue was the right one to protest?

DM  There was some disagreement about that. Just as there was an internal debate at Dow about whether they should keep making napalm — which was a negative symbol of the war and not a particularly large part of their business — there was also an internal debate within the anti-war movement about whether Dow was a sidelight to the real issues, and whether it was worth focusing their protests on.

JJM  What was the University police plan to deal with a potential disturbance?

DM  The University police were led by Ralph Hansen, who was fairly well liked by the students. He had a good rapport with most of them, even the anti-war leaders. Hansen and the University police thought that they would be outnumbered and would require some of the Madison city police to help them, but they had absolutely no intentions of anything violent happening that day. They thought that the demonstration would be an act of civil disobedience where at most they would drag some of the students out, but everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Some of the city police who were called in wanted nothing more than to bash in some heads of some students they considered to be spoiled brat, long haired hippies. The administration could not come up with a creative way to diffuse the situation. There were hundreds of people packed into a very small hallway and once the police came in, all hell broke loose, and heads started to get bashed.

JJM  How did the demonstration get so out of hand? Was it because the plan broke down?

DM  It was one of those points where everything ignited. I don’t think you can pin it one specific thing, although the leaders of the police force losing control of their men was a big factor. Once the police came into that building, it was almost inevitable that it would turn out the way that it did, unfortunately.

JJM  The San Francisco Mime Troupe played a part in sparking the demonstration as well.

DM  Yes, they happened to be in Madison the night before. They held a performance at the student union and, following it, encouraged students to join the demonstration the next day. Several members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe led the way up Bascom Hill to the obstructive sit in.  They didn’t participate in the sit-in themselves, but they certainly encouraged students to participate.

JJM  Weren’t they famous for their LBJ skits?

DM  The troupe was traveling around the country at that point, putting on a satirical play that related an old Italian farce to what was going on in Vietnam, with characters like LBJ and Westmoreland in the play.

JJM  What was the most vivid visual image of the protests?

DM  The image that sticks in my mind the most is of the students stumbling out of the commerce building, their heads bloodied, and the police encircled by a large throng of thousands of students shouting “Sieg heil!” at them. That is an awfully powerful image.

JJM  I was struck as well by the photograph of Jonathan Stielstra taking the flag down from atop Bascom Hall.

DM  Yes, that is another incident that became well known. Stielstra, one of the young protestors, was so enraged by what had happened inside the building that he rode home on his bike to get some wire cutters, came back and cut the lanyard off the American flag flying above Bascom Hall. A local photographer who saw it happen got a picture of the flag falling, and of Stielstra running away.

JJM  That pissed off the Madison conservatives big time.

DM  Well, it got the American Legion going, which offered big rewards to anyone able find who they viewed to be a most unpatriotic young man. There was a long search for him, which became comical at one point, because it turned out that Jonathan Stielstra was an identical twin, and the police authorities had a hard time figuring out which of the twins actually committed this act.

JJM  Didn’t he shave or cut his hair or something?

DM  One of the brothers had a beard going, and one didn’t. Jonathan wasn’t able to grow a beard in time, of course, to disguise himself.

JJM Jane Brotman, an apolitical student from New Jersey, witnessed the protest, and while she claims it had no impact on her politics, she felt she had a “personal responsibility” to go to the rally and make a statement about the police actions she witnessed. Following the police action, were the average University of Wisconsin students like Brotman protesting the war or reacting to the sight of the police brutality?

DM  I think it was a combination of the two. The police brutality became the issue for a short time, and that created some debate within the anti-war ranks, because they considered it a secondary issue that took some focus away from the war protests. But to someone like Jane Brotman, who came to Wisconsin that fall still leery of the anti-war rhetoric and long hair culture, witnessing this event where her student peers were being bashed over the head did have a profound effect. First, it just made her think of the police brutality, but within a few weeks, she was studying the war and starting to change her feelings about that as well.

JJM  She wrote a letter to her parents explaining that she would miss a test because she wanted to take part in a protest.

DM  Yes, she was on her way to a review for a French exam when the protest happened. The exam was held the next day but she chose to skip it. She wrote a long letter to her parents, which she later called an awakening. For the first time in her life she was thinking about what it means to follow authority, and questioned America’s foreign policy and the affects of napalm on people and the actions of Dow Chemical. She started to think about these things in a way she never had before. And I think that for millions of people of our generation, there were moments of awakening. For some people in Wisconsin it was that event, for others it was something else, but I think it was emblematic of what was going on for people of that era.

JJM   There were moments of awakening for so many of us, and the war impacted all of us, LBJ certainly being one of them. He said “We have almost lost the war in the last two months in the court of public opinion.  These demonstrators are trying to show that we need somebody else to take over this country.”  Did the protests at Wisconsin accelerate his thinking towards an inevitable resignation?

DM  At the moment that this book takes place, in mid-October, 1967, I think President Johnson was flailing away, feeling that he was losing both the war itself — although only privately would he acknowledge that — and the war of public opinion in the United States. It was right at this time that he was talking to his war council about not running again for re-election, and they were trying to talk him out of that. And he was also wondering how they were ever going to win the war. So, yes, it was a really critical time for Lyndon Johnson, right when he was losing his grip on the war and the anti-war. He was obsessed by it. Every day he would ask for reports on the battles in Vietnam, and the number of enemy soldiers killed. He would also ask for whatever dossiers the FBI and other agencies could provide him on the anti-war leaders.

JJM  You did a great job of tying everything together in the epilogue. Many of the key people in the book, as it turns out, have quite a lot in common, and you were able to get together with many of them. In the epilogue you write, “There was no way they could have known then, but if the Dow demonstrators had made Agent Orange their target, their struggle might have linked them more closely in common cause with thousands of returning Vietnam veterans, and furthered the notion that their protests were meant to save the lives of American soldiers.”  Did you talk to the surviving soldiers on either side about the effects of napalm or Agent Orange?

DM  Yes I did. We visited the site of the battle, and Agent Orange was used extensively in this location, after the battle. There were many reports about illnesses of villagers in that area. It is hard to make the direct scientific link, but the evidence is there. There are cancer clusters in that area. Many of the soldiers in this battle wonder if the second-generation leukemias that some of their children are getting are related to Agent Orange, which is also something that scientists are studying. So it was very much a concern for the survivors of the battle.

JJM  An interesting point you made in the book was how the North Vietnamese dealt with the American weaponry, including napalm, drawing them so close in during the fighting that they wouldn’t be able to use those weapons. You used the phrase of “grab them by the belt and hang on.”

DM  Yes, that was sort of the metaphor that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese used for fighting against the Americans. They were overpowered in terms of both artillery and air power. The Viet Cong had no air power, and Americans had considerable. They tried to overcome that by going underground in these extensive tunnels they had throughout the countryside, and by staying close to the Americans so that when they did have fights it was hard for artillery and air power to be effective.

JJM  Did you talk to Clark Welch about the events of Madison?

DM  I did, yes, as well as to other soldiers. At the time that all this was going on, they didn’t know too much about what was going on in America, but they didn’t like the protests. I wouldn’t say there is a uniform position among the Vietnam vets about the protest movement, but I think that Jane Fonda, for symbolic reasons, is still sort of the magnet for their hostility and hatred. As to regular protestors like those in Madison, there is more of a diverse feeling about it. Welch himself actually told me at one point that if he had been in Madison at that time, he probably would have been a protestor himself.

JJM  Miles McMillin, who was the chief editorial writer of the Capital Times in Madison, wrote during this era, “The horrible spectacle of violence and brutality on the campus of the University yesterday is the continuing price this country is paying for the reckless deception by which we were thrust into the war in Vietnam.”  Do you see any similarities with what transpired in Vietnam and what is now taking place in Iraq?

DM  Yes, there are many parallels. I think there are also several differences that are important to note, including the lack of a cold war overlay that is going on now. The cold war during the sixties really prevented the United States from invading the North, or from bombing Hanoi into oblivion. There were controls on what the Unites States could do militarily then. And the enemies are far different. The nationalist movement of Ho Chi Minh can not be compared to the totalitarianism of Saddam Hussein.

But, having said that, the similarities are large and real, and they mostly have to do with human nature and the responses of government. The rationalizations that were used to start either of these wars are questionable, whether it was the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the Gulf of Tonkin resolution for Vietnam. I don’t think those are the reasons for the war, but they are the rationalizations that the government gave. As I mentioned earlier, in October of 1967, LBJ was trying desperately to prove that he was prevailing, and that the press was getting it wrong. You see those echoes today. Also, we have soldiers in a place where they don’t easily recognize friend from enemy, and that certainly echoes of Vietnam as well. There are many similarities even though the situations are different.

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photo Tom Grady

“I sort of had a pass today and went back to Lai Khe to make sure I left no loose ends in my company.  The brigade commander went his H-13 down this morning at 0600 and I went back to Lai Khe.  It was a good day.  I know now I left everything in good shape and no regrets.  I didn’t want to leave this way, of course, but I did it the best way I could.  D Company has a new CO and a new first sgt and is back up to strength already.  The old timers (before 17 oct) have the run of Lai Khe and we were sure glad to see each other!…What we had is still going strong in the ‘new’ company, too.  They’ll have just as good a company in a few weeks as we had.  Not really, I guess — there will never be anything like the Delta Company that we started, organized, trained and brought into battle.  Our ‘life cycle’ got awfully compressed, but we did more than anyone expected — except what I expected — they did exactly what I knew they would.”

– Delta commander Clark Welch recounting his October 26, 1967 return to the battlefield to his wife, Lacy

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Peace Piece, by Bill Evans

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They Marched Into Sunlight

by

David Maraniss

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Text of a letter sent by University of Wisconsin student Jane Brotman to her father, a dentist in Mapleton, New Jersey. The letter was written on October 18, 1967, the day after the student protesting of Dow Chemical, and was composed at a time she had been scheduled to take a French literature exam.

You tell me that I’m here to STUDY — to stick my head in big fat books but to ignore the world around me. Well, there’s a basic principle which you have overlooked, and that is there is more to an education than learning from books.

College is a big investment. For quite a lot less money I could have easily gone to the University of Maryland or another school close to home. I could have read the same books I read here, and for all practical purposes, I could have gotten a decent education there, too. So why did I have to go all the way to the U. of Wisconsin?

One of the major reasons for coming to this campus was due to the great diversification of the student body, and thus to the variations of existing ideas. In other words, I want to learn, I want to weigh every idea, I want to open my eyes to everything so I can make the best possible judgements.

As for today’s incident — I won’t be able to respect myself for not standing up for what I believe in. Would you be able to respect yourself? I know what I saw, and I can’t allow that to happen again. I know you don’t want me to get hurt or involved (I’m not going to get hurt), but I must take a stand. And in this case, my stand coincides with the students involved in the protest…

I want to make something clear: today’s student strike had nothing to do with the left, the right or the conservatives. It was merely a general consensus of a great deal of the student body in reaction to the police brutality which took place on this campus yesterday. I honestly feel that if you had seen the unwarranted brutality that I witnessed, there would be no doubt in your mind as to the only action to take.

There is something else you must realize objectively. I respect your ideas and opinions very highly, for I realize that you have experienced many things during your lifetime. Yet I cannot possibly accept every one of your ideas, goals, or whatever, simply because you feel they are right. I must think about your ideas along with other ideas and evaluate them to the best of my ability. Then, and only then, can I accept or reject an idea (be it yours or someone else’s). For I am a human being, too; I have a head and I want to make use of it. You can’t possibly ask me, or demand, that I believe in something that I don’t. That lies with me. Can you understand what I’m saying, or am I lacking clarity?

In order to operate as a functioning citizen in society, one must question and, if necessary, one must stand up for what he believes in and make himself heard. According to what you believe in, the Germans under Hitler acted in a justifiable manner – they didn’t question and they didn’t stand up to make themselves heard. They accepted something without thinking about it.

Does this mean that I am a liberal? A communist? A left winger? I don’t think so. I would rather think that I am a responsible individual who is ready to grow up, and trying to do so.

I miss you a lot and love you,

Jane

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About David Maraniss

JJM  Who was your hero?

DM  I loved baseball when I was a little kid, and my hero during that time was Roberto Clemente. Even though I grew up in Wisconsin and loved the Milwaukee Braves, there was something about Clemente that seemed so beautiful and graceful.

 

 

 

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David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post and the author of two critically acclaimed and bestselling books, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi and First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton.  He is also the author of The Clinton Enigma and coauthor of The Prince of Tennessee: Al Gore Meets His Fate and “Tell Newt to Shut Up!”  He lives in Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife, Linda.  They have two grown children.

 

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David Maraniss products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on November 17, 2003

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Berkeley free speech movement historian Robert Cohen.

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* Text from publisher. Excerpts and photos used with the permission of the author.