In April 1966, Michigan State University’s campus was hardly awash in radical thought. The football team had won a share of the national title the previous fall, and students were looking forward to chanting “Kill Bubba Kill” next football season. President John Hannah got his first taste of the future when a panty raid and food fights in Brody Complex erupted into a full-fledged student riot.
The times, they were a changin’, and a slick, counterculture publication called Ramparts was right in the middle of the mix. The magazine’s April 1966 cover featured a rendering of Madame Nhu, sisterin-law to assassinated Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem and de facto first lady, outfitted with a faux MSU cheerleading outfit and pennant. The headline blared, “The University on the Make or how MSU helped arm Madame Nhu.”
The MSU cover story, which revealed the university’s long-term relationship with the CIA, was just one of many journalistic bombs the national magazine dropped in its short history and transformation from a sleepy Catholic literary journal in 1962 to a radical rag by 1964.
Peter Richardson, author of “A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short Unruly life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America,” said Ramparts not only made an immediate impact with its muckraking journalism, it also left a legacy with former staffers, who started magazines like Rolling Stone and Mother Jones.
Richardson, who is the editorial director of PoliPoint Press in California, became interested in the magazine while researching a book on Carey McWilliams, former editor of The Nation and Hunter S. Thompson’s early mentor. “I would run into former writers and editors of Ramparts as I was researching the book, and I wondered if there were any books on Ramparts,” Richardson said. “I was a little too young to be a part of the culture, but I was born into that scene, and it became a personal stake for me.”
After discovering no such book existed, he dove into the rich, unusual history of the magazine that, in its time, ran interviews with Che Guevara and counted Eldridge Cleaver, Cesar Chavez, Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky as contributing editors. In his book, Richardson follows the magazine from a Catholic journal with a circulation of about 10,000 to its San Francisco heyday, when it boasted a circulation of nearly 300,000 and became a must read for both hipsters and the CIA.
Richardson also makes the case that the MSU story helped launch the magazine into the stratosphere. “It supercharged the magazine’s circulation and changed its direction,” he said.
Noted rock artist Paul Davis did the illustrations for the article in the typically dramatic Ramparts’ style. In addition to the Nhu cover, inside pages featured overthe-top portrayals of other major players, including John Hannah as a football coach with a whistle stuck in his mouth and Vietnam Project operative Wesley Fishel in a football uniform.
The article tells the gripping tale of how Fishel, an assistant professor at MSU in the 1950s, developed a longstanding relationship with Diem, who became the CIA-backed president of the Republic of Vietnam. Fishel and Diem met in 1950, and when Diem ascended to the presidency in 1955, that friendship morphed into what was called the “Vietnam Project,” which led to MSU receiving $25 million to train police, militia and secret police, while supplying arms to the anticommunist regime.
The article was written primarily by Robert Scheer, who discovered the CIA relationship while digging around in a university research library. It wasn’t the best-kept secret of the Vietnam War era.
Stanley K . Sheinbaum, who at one time was coordinator of the Vietnam Project at MSU, helped Scheer blow the whistle. Sheinbaum wrote an introduction to the Ramparts’ piece, condemning himself, his fellow professors and the university for their roles in the project.
With writers like Scheer and Tom Hayden, Ramparts became part and parcel of the ‘60s revolutionary fervor. Leading the pack was executive editor Warren Hinckle, the impresario and fundraiser for the cash-strapped magazine. With Scheer supplying the scoops, Hinckle brought Ramparts to the attention of not only the Left, but also the CIA and mainstream media, which was left in its dust. One of Hinckle’s tricks was to run fullpage ads in The New York Times, boasting Ramparts’ successes and preempting CIA disinformation.
Richardson also is careful to point out the foibles of the magazine, which ran some pretty sexist and homophobic articles. Ramparts’ demise may have come from profligate spending and other media stepping up to the plate; it wasn’t long after the magazine filed for bankruptcy in 1969 that The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers.
Richardson’s book has helped fill in the history of a special contributor to the movement mystique. The author said he was surprised most by how deeply Ramparts’ influence ran. “Martin Luther King decided to protest the war in Vietnam, against the advice of his advisers, after seeing ‘The Children of Vietnam’ photographs in a January 1967 Ramparts,” he said.
The graphic photos of war-dead children also spurred Time magazine to decry Ramparts for sensationalism in the article “A Bomb in Every Issue.” Time also claimed Ramparts’ article on MSU had already been published in book form, which, conveniently for Scheer, no one noticed.
’A Bomb in Every Issue’
By Peter Richardson 272 Pages. The New Press