Remembering Dave Dellinger

Against the Current, No. 112, September/October 2004

David McReynolds

DAVE DELLINGER’S DEATH on May 25th of this year, at the age of 88, marked the end of a remarkable life. Most readers know him from the event that, more than any other, made him a public figure — the infamous trial of the Chicago Eight, following the riots that marked the Democratic Party’s 1968 convention.

I had known Dellinger from 1956, when I came to New York City to work on Liberation magazine. Liberation was a radical pacifist monthly, edited by five strong personalities — A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Roy Finch, Sid Lens, and Dave Dellinger.

The magazine was printed at a small anarchist community in Glen Gardner, New Jersey, where Dellinger lived. During the three years I served as the staff person for the magazine I got to know the editors well. They met once a week, starting at 4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, taking a dinner break, then continuing into the evening.

Muste and Rustin represented a more “marxist” approach, with which I generally agreed, Finch and Dellinger the more anarchist approach. (Sid Lens, living in Chicago, rarely was at the meetings.)

The board was well balanced, and none of the editors was able to dominate it. The issues that came up — such as whether or not pacifists should support the dispatch of the National Guard to help integrate Southern schools, or what position pacifists should take toward the Cuban Revolution — like most disputes in the real world — lacked easy answers.

It was an invaluable education for me, a young man who had arrived from Los Angeles, to sit through these debates and discussions, week after week, for three years.

I went on to work for War Resisters League. Liberation continued for some years more. By 1965 Rustin had begun a shift to the political right, breaking with the magazine, and in 1967 Muste died, leaving Dellinger effectively the sole editor — I felt that the magazine lost much of its cutting edge that had come from the tensions of the original board.

The vast Vietnam peace movement had begun to take shape by 1965. Muste was the only person who could possibly have held together so broad a coalition of pacifists, liberal democrats, communists, Trotskyists, Catholics, Jews, academics, etc.

Muste was an “organizational man” but also, because of his own history and his integrity, trusted by all sides. When Muste died early in 1967 Dellinger succeeded him in the difficult task of holding together these disparate forces. (No one person, of course, can be credited for the amazing success of the Vietnam peace movement — if I mention Dellinger, I must also mention Sid Peck, Norma Becker…and then stop because any proper list is very long.)

Non-party Pacifist

Dave Dellinger was never, at any point in his life, an “organizational man.” Had it not been for the Vietnam War it is possible he would have lived out his life on the radical margins of American society. I believe he had once been a member of the Socialist Party, but by the time I met him he had as little respect for the SP as he did for the Communist Party.

He believed the hope of changing society rested in building small communes, such as the one in Glen Gardner. He had been a young man when World War II began. He took the radical position of rejecting exemption as a pacifist, and ended in federal prison. While in prison he led strikes against segregation and for prisoners’ rights.

When the war ended he, along with Bayard Rustin, Jim Peck, Ralph DiGia and others, took over the War Resisters League in an effort to push it in the direction of Gandhian nonviolence and direct action. Dellinger served very briefly on the WRL Executive Committee — as always, he was allergic to organizations and committees.

In 1951 he was part of a small team of pacifists that tried to bicycle across Europe and through the Iron Curtain with a pacifist message — the group was stopped in East Berlin.

By the time I reached New York in 1956 Dellinger was content to run the print shop in Glen Gardner and the magazine. In person he was warm, easy-going, happy to smoke a cigar and have a drink. He hardly fit the stereotype of the pacifist. He was courageous, willing to face arrest, but not inclined to provoke the cops.

I didn’t realize until recently, when I read his autobiography From Yale to Jail, that he had come from a very well off family and had been engaged in a rebellion against his father.

Dellinger had one truly important role in his life — that of holding together the Vietnam antiwar movement. This doesn’t discount his work against Jim Crow while in prison, his work on Liberation magazine, nor his efforts after the end of the Vietnam war, but he was never the leader of a group, nor the intellectual force for a movement.

After the Vietnam War he tried to start a weekly magazine — Seven Days — which was meant to be a kind of Time magazine for the left. This project fell apart, as, in fact, the entire Vietnam movement tended to collapse after the end of the war.

Dellinger worked with the late Arthur Kinoy on various projects to give some form to the energies that had been so powerful between 1965 and the war’s end in 1975. He wrote, gave speeches, became an elder statesman and certainly became a role model for what a decent “public man” ought to be. He was deeply angered by the injustice of the United States, but never bitter.

He was not particularly acute at analysis. I remember one meeting of the Liberation board when Dellinger had just come back from Cuba and written an article about how the Cuban mothers proudly marched with their sons in the new conscript army of the Revolution in some special parade the government had organized.

After the article had been read, one of the editors asked Dellinger if he didn’t see the problem about the conscript army — that there was a deep tragedy that, under relentless pressure from the United States, the Cuban Revolution had fallen back on conscription. He realized the problem, changes were made in the article, but it wasn’t a point that would naturally have occurred to him.

This was a generous, decent man, who took more than his fair share of the beatings life handed to the rebel. He never caved in. At the end, as at the beginning, he was on the side of the underdog. We are lucky to have shared time in the movement with him.

ATC 112, September-October 2004