Michael Steven Smith, Notebook of a Sixties Lawyer, An Unrepentant Memoir and Selected Writings
Smyrna Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1992.
Reviewed by Barbara Tischler, Columbia University
Do we really need more books about the 1960s? Haven't all the major voices, from TIME magazine to the academic experts and Hollywood film makers, spoken the definitive "word" on this important period in our history? If we believe the gospel of film dramatizations and TV documentaries, we need see no more. But if the intellectual and moral upheavals of the 1960s taught us anything, it was to question eternal truths and find room in our canons for voices that have not yet had their say.
The appearance of Michael Steven Smith's Notebook of a Sixties Lawyer, An Unrepentant Memoir and Selected Writings is timely. We have seen the first round of "big books by big men about big movements," and it's clearly time to look at the 1960s from a more local, community, and grassroots perspective. Smith writes from his personal point of view as a 1960s activist, an attorney in Detroit and later New York who devoted his energies to draft counseling and providing legal help to many who protested injustice. Smith was a member of the Socialist Workers Party who never lost his commitment to the ideals and goals of the Party, in spite of his expulsion. Smyrna Press publisher Dan Georgakas writes in the Introduction that, "Without masking any of his frustrations and disappointments, Smith never turns sour. He believes the old fights were worth undertaking and that future struggles are inevitable. Indeed, his objective in publishing this material is less to offer data to historians of the past than to speak directly to activists of the future" (xvii).
Smith recounts his own history in a disarmingly honest and straightforward style. No young revolutionary, he joined ROTC (rhymes with "hotsy" or "totsy") in the early 1960s at the University of Wisconsin because his father advised him that, as an officer, at least he would have a bed. If he did not enter this military organization as an antimilitarist, Smith emerged from it firmly committed to avoiding personal contact with military life. As things turned out, he helped many others to avoid such contact and helped to safeguard the rights of many men and women in uniform as well. Some of his stories of military mishaps are hilarious, and readers will smile along with Smith as he reveals that he was removed from his campus branch of ROTC for referring to the entire operation as "Mickey Mouse."
Smith offers numerous pieces reprinted from diverse sources. The section on "Rights of Citizen Soldiers" is especially relevant to Viet Nam Generation readers, opening with a short tribute to the antiwar work of Leonard Boudin, who represented the soldiers at Fort Jackson, near the "good army town" of Columbia, South Carolina. Smith describes in detail the obstacles to obtaining "military justice," from the conditions of the stockade to the hostile attitude of military lawyers toward the civilian attorneys who saw their mission as protecting the right of citizen soldiers to speak their minds. His description of this peculiar brand of justice is especially revealing: "Those forced to endure the idiocy of Army life are permitted no bail, no indictment by grand jury, no impartial judge, no jury of their peers, no due process--all supposedly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Moreover, some military laws are so vague (what does 'conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman' mean?) as to be Kafkaesque" (79).
In winning the right of expression for protesting GIs at Fort Jackson, Smith sees a victory for all of those soldiers who, "standing firm on their democratic rights, were able to draw wide support both within and outside the Army. Uniting on opposition to the war made it possible to weld both black and white GIs together in an effective organization. . . .The Army, in its heavy-handed attempt to liquidate organized anti-war sentiment, did not calculate that the effort would rebound, as it did, and thrust anti-war sentiment up to a new level. Herein lies perhaps the biggest contribution the Fort Jackson 8 made: drawing attention to the sentiment existing and growing inside of the Army, they helped re-orient the antiwar movement toward recognizing the potential of a new key component: the new breed of soldier, the antiwar GI" (76).
Smith discusses the valuable work of opposition groups inside the military, such as GIs United Against the War in Viet Nam, along with the organizing work on and around military bases of the Socialist Workers Party and other groups. The GI antiwar newspapers, coffee houses, rap sessions, and political organizing made it possible for an individual GI to take a stand and hope to find others to support and stand with him or her. These organizations and vehicles for protest and expression battled the alienation of the individual citizen soldier as much as they helped GIs to struggle against the overwhelming war itself.
No small outcome of the victory at Fort Jackson was the issuance of Guidance on Dissent, an Army directive that counseled base commanders to adopt a more relaxed position on GI protest and dissent. In spite of the efforts of the Pentagon to crush the GI antiwar movement, its strength and numbers grew until there could be no more war on traditional terms.
Sections of Notebook of a Sixties Lawyer reveal a lot about political life in and near the Socialist Workers Party. For readers not familiar with the efforts of government to suppress dissenting political groups, Smith's discussions of wiretaps, surveillance, and the use of informants are revealing. He reminds us that the days of local red squads and a national network of FBI counterintelligence agents are not long past and may not have faded from our current political scene at all.
Notebook of a Sixties Lawyer is about freedom and self-expression. Smith was eventually expelled from the Socialist Workers Party. He has found an eloquent voice in this collection, retaining his passion for justice and willingness to fight for a just cause. In discussing the importance of the story of an active but unsung 1960s personality, Alan Wald notes in a thoughtful Afterward that
Smith's memoir shows that his is the story not merely of a person radicalized by an organization, but of a person radicalized by the injustices of a society. His subsequent decision to join a socialist organization was seen as a means of acting upon and enriching existing values and commitments. . . . The moment of Trotskyism's greatest influence of the 1960s has now entered history as part of the larger legacy of the left out of which new generations of socialist activists, along with surviving veterans of the past, will have to create new instruments for social transformation under continually changing conditions (229)
Lawyers like Mike Smith remind us that we will have to struggle to maintain our right to self-expression but that it is a right worth protecting.