WASHINGTON — Two decades ago, David Horowitz was an editor of the radical Ramparts magazine, a leader of the frenzied student movement against the Vietnam War who called publicly for "revolution by any means necessary."
This weekend, wearing a suit and tie while sitting at a posh Washington hotel that he once would have denounced as bourgeois, Horowitz faced more than 200 fellow "refugees from the '60s" and declared dead the liberal tenets of a movement that he once believed in passionately.
Now a best-selling author who voted for Ronald Reagan, Horowitz is leading former left-wing activists of the 1960s--ex-members of the Young Communist League, Students for a Democratic Society and Marxist-Leninists among them--in a revisionist rebuke to a time of "destructive self-delusion."
Support Aid for Contras
Once violently and visibly opposed to the war in Vietnam, many of those from around the country who paid $100 to take part in this weekend's Second Thoughts Conference now favor U.S. support of the contras in Nicaragua and a military buildup to deter Soviet oppression.
Once marchers behind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in civil rights demonstrations, several now say they believe that Judge Robert H. Bork should sit on the Supreme Court. And many who had once took pride in calling themselves "radicals" would now admit to being radical only in their conversion to the right of the political spectrum.
Dramatized by Mailer
The conference was held almost exactly 20 years after several thousand members of the "New Left" stormed the Pentagon in a tumultuous Vietnam War protest that was subsequently dramatized by author Norman Mailer in the book "Armies of the Night." But the memory of that protest--in which several here took part--generated neither homage nor nostalgia as the weekend-long panel discussions opened.
Instead, as conferees heard conservative scholars and writers turn their "second thoughts" back to that turbulent time of flag-burning and draft-resisting, those who lived through the movement talked of "chaos and brutality," "bigotry and anti-intellectualism," "political blindness" and "moral frivolity."
To be sure, the conference's 200 participants and two-dozen panelists, who included New Republic Editor Martin Peretz, author Michael Medved and political activist Arturo Cruz Jr., son of the contra leader, were not always in agreement in their shifts away from the liberal ideals of the 1960s and their current views on political issues.
Former SDS Leader
For instance, Jeff Herf, a former Wisconsin SDS leader who is now a research associate at the Naval War College, found himself forced to defend his contention that the "heady" war protests of the '60s were not a major factor one way or the other in the resolution of the Southeast Asian conflict.
And not all have undergone the same degree of change in political thinking. David Ifshin, another 1960s activist, now supports the contras and condemns his generation's "unthinking acceptance of tenets of the New Left," although he also served as general counsel to 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale.
But some consensus did emerge from the group, made up predominantly of white, male, middle-aged professionals. Panelists at one session agreed that their rejection of the "utopian" staples of the 1960s movement was not an overnight metamorphosis but a slow, often-painful process of realization, one marked perhaps most vividly by revulsion at the communist "gulags" of postwar Vietnam.
That shift away from liberal beliefs "is not about Damascus Road experiences or great conversions," said Father Richard Newhaus, a former civil rights activist and war protester. "It's about stumbling and trying to find your feet again."
Shaken by Experience
Many--shaken by the Vietnam experience and further disillusioned by a left wing that Horowitz said "rationalizes genocide" in countries such as Cambodia and Tibet--found the answer in conservativism. They are now convinced, several said, that military strength and resistance are needed to fight the global enemies they once thought to be only imagined by the far right.
During the student war protests of the 1960s, Herf said, he and fellow activists held a "utopian" view on the potential for democracy, world community and economic abundance. "We believed anything was possible," he said.
But his views began to drift from the widely held liberal ideals in 1970, heightened by the effects of post-withdrawal communist rule on the Vietnamese people. The one-time activist gradually retreated from the political scene to the world of scholarship.
Today, he said, "when I hear the word 'movement,' I reach for my books and word processor."