People who get written about in newspapers know that a correction never catches up with a mistake. The correction, if it is made at all, straggles in days or weeks later, and is printed in an obscure part of the paper, under an unexciting heading like “Editor’s Note.” It is an imperfect procedure at best.
The victims of mistakes made in books are less lucky. Publishers occasionally promise a corrected second edition but they usually don’t regard themselves as responsible for the accuracy of what they publish; accuracy is something for authors to worry about. Nor do careless publishing houses pay much of a price in reputation. Most of us know what newspaper Janet Cooke wrote for. But how many people outside the book industry know who Clifford Irving’s publisher was? Apart from a lawsuit, there is little a person about whom an inaccurate book has been written can do; and if that person is no longer living, even the courts are closed.
Still, there are times when one must try to set the record straight; and seldom has the effort been made with such cause as in the present case. More is involved here than mere error. For Richard Cummings has committed, with the collaboration of his publisher, Grove Press, what is more than a series of mistakes, something closer to the attempted murder of a dead man’s honor.
Allard K. Lowenstein, born in Newark, New Jersey, on January 16, 1929, and assassinated in New York City on March 14, 1980, was a remarkable politician. He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His father, who gave up a professorship of biochemistry at Columbia to join the family restaurant business, was an active socialist and a prominent supporter of Jewish educational charities. Allard Lowenstein went to the Ethical Culture School and to Horace Mann; to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose liberal president, Frank Graham, became his mentor, and where he got involved in civil rights and student politics; and to the Yale Law School. In 1950, at the age of twenty-one, Lowenstein became president of the National Student Association. For the next thirty years he was a restless samurai of American liberalism, moving from cause to job to campaign.
He agitated against fascism in Spain and racism in South Africa; wrote a fine book, Brutal Mandate, about a trip he took to South-West Africa; worked in reform Democratic politics in Manhattan. He was at one time or another a foreign-policy assistant to Senator Hubert Humphrey; a teacher at Stanford and at North Carolina State College; the national chairman of Americans for Democratic Action; a campaign organizer for many liberal politicians, including Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, Jerry Brown, and Edward Kennedy; a lawyer in New York and Mississippi; a member of Congress; the only white board member of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and an ambassador to the Human Rights Commission of the UN under Andrew Young.
Lowenstein played a singular role in the civil rights and antiwar movements, the upheavals that shaped so much of the politics of the 1960s. He was as responsible as anyone else for two efforts that hastened the end of black disfranchisement in the Deep South: the Mississippi Freedom Vote of 1963, which led to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the destruction of Jim Crow in the national party; and the Freedom Summer of 1964, which brought one thousand student volunteers (including Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner) to Mississippi, and helped guarantee the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In 1965 Lowenstein began organizing students against the Vietnam War. He deliberately recruited young people whose participation would get sympathetic public attention: student-body presidents against the war, Peace Corps returnees against the war, seminarians against the war, Rhodes scholars against the war.
He is perhaps best known for leading, with Curtis Gans, the movement that brought Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy into the 1968 Democratic presidential race and forced Lyndon Johnson to withdraw as a candidate for reelection. Lowenstein pleaded repeatedly with Kennedy to run, and after Kennedy gave his final refusal Lowenstein told him, “You understand, of course, that there are those of us who think the honor and direction of the country are at stake…. We’re going to do it without you, and that’s too bad because you could have been president of the United States.” By the time Kennedy got around to announcing his candidacy, Lowenstein was firmly committed to McCarthy. Kennedy never stopped trying to persuade Lowenstein to join with him. Before Kennedy made his victory speech the night of the California primary he asked an aide to get Lowenstein on the telephone; Lowenstein was in his bedroom on Long Island, holding the line, when Kennedy was shot.
Lowenstein ran for office himself—twice for the Senate and ten times for Congress, from six different districts in and around New York. He won only once—in 1968, in a Long Island congressional district to which he had gone partly to escape the conflict he felt between his public commitment to McCarthy and his private preference for and friendship with Kennedy. The Republicans in the state legislature (with the acquiescence of the machine Democrats) promptly gerrymandered him. In 1970 he ran more strongly than before in the parts of his old district left to him, but he lost that election and never won another.
This summary suggests the extent of Lowenstein’s activities. It also suggests the fragmented quality some people saw in him. Actually, Lowenstein’s many passions were all of a piece; the wildly varied things he did were all in the service of a coherent political vision. He was always being told that he was too old to be running around stirring up students, that he had better settle on some sort of conventional career or he would lose his “credibility.” Yet if he had not been something of a vagabond, he probably could never have performed the special political role he devised for himself—the role of an intermediary. He tried to link Mississippi blacks with Notre Dame fraternity boys, Spanish exiles with West Side reformers, Afrikaners with third world revolutionaries, “the kids” with “the system.” He was that rarity, a political figure at home in both electoral and protest politics. The mixture opened him to the risk of being thought a dreamer by practical politicians and a manipulator by radical idealists. But at his best he was able to fuse the two, bringing the energy and moral witness of protest into electoral politics and introducing protesting groups to the disciplines and practical possibilities of elections.
Lowenstein was always late, he lived on junk food and milkshakes, and his clothes were a mess. But he had immense energy, and he was able to concentrate it on the person or the task at hand with exceptional clarity of mind. He was a powerful extemporaneous speaker. Sam Brown, the antiwar organizer who became a Colorado politician, once called him the “white Martin Luther King”; and with an audience of students or liberals he could establish an emotional rapport as strong as King’s with black churchgoers. Lowenstein spoke constantly—David Halberstam calculated that in the eighteen months leading up to the 1968 Democratic national convention he made 2,367 speeches in 1,392 cities1—and he could be as persuasive with one person as with an audience of a thousand.
He was himself a protégé—of Frank Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Norman Thomas, the three people he most admired—and in his campus travels he in his turn acquired protégés, by the dozen. I never became one of them, but I was part of a larger network of thousands who were drawn to him. I met him in 1963, when he came to Harvard to give a talk about South Africa and Mississippi. Afterward a half-dozen of us went with him to the Hong Kong restaurant, on Massachusetts Avenue, and ate terrible Chinese food and talked until the place closed for the night.
Lowenstein had a thick, weight-lifter’s neck and torso which made his head seem a little too small for his body, and he had thinning hair, Coke-bottle glasses, a big nose, and a delicate mouth. Yet he had “presence,” which came, I suppose, from his limitless self-confidence and from the infectious urgency of his mind and voice. At the Hong Kong we all talked mostly about the excitement of changing the world (as well as about old Humphrey Bogart movies, and we gossiped about famous liberals). Lowenstein dominated the table, as we wanted him to, but he let the talk take its own course, and somehow he made each of us feel almost as brilliant, as funny, and, potentially, as dedicated to light and truth as he so obviously was himself.
There were other such evenings over the years. I was active in the National Student Association, and Lowenstein, NSA’s most illustrious old boy, could be relied on to turn up each August at the association’s annual congress. (Lowenstein is said to have inspired George S. Kaufmann’s remark, “The student leader of today is the student leader of tomorrow.”) At the 1967 NSA congress, at the University of Maryland, I saw Lowenstein launch the “Dump Johnson” campaign with an exhilarating extemporaneous speech. (I’ve never heard a better one, before or since.) During the 1970s Lowenstein maintained a semipermanent lunchtime symposium at the Hyde Park Delicatessen on Madison Avenue, one of several Manhattan restaurants owned by his family, and I occasionally joined it. I wrote two “Talk of the Town” stories about him for The New Yorker.
I also worked as a volunteer in two or three of his congressional campaigns. Whenever I did, I made sure I had some specific task to do—usually it was editing a campaign tabloid—and then left as soon as the task was done, a few days later. Lowenstein could be immensely demanding. He consumed other people’s energy, physical and emotional, almost as extravagantly as he expended his own. I knew people who had broken with him over this—people he had “burned out”—and I didn’t want to join them. As it was, at the end of a sixteen-hour day of campaigning Al would come to the print shop where I was working on a campaign flyer and argue with me about the wording of headlines until three in the morning. He liked to do everything himself, which was both a strength and a weakness.
The last time I saw Al Lowenstein was toward the end of 1979, when I was living in Washington. He called one afternoon to ask if I could put him up for the night. His custom all his life was to cadge a bed from friends when he traveled. It held down expenses and helped him to maintain his vast circle. He was good company, and people were usually happy to oblige. This time he arrived at around midnight, and we stayed up talking until one-thirty or so. He was gone very early the next morning, the guest bed neatly made. A few months later he was murdered, shot in his law office by a former protégé, a civil rights worker whom he had brought into the movement. The man had gone insane, and Al was trying to help him. I went to the memorial service for Lowenstein at the Central Synagogue, on East Fifty-fifth Street, an emotional event attended by 2,500 people whose political, racial, and national heterogeneity was a reflection of the dead man’s skill at building unlikely coalitions.
I mention these personal details by way of full disclosure. I liked and respected Al Lowenstein. Even so, I made a conscientious effort to approach Richard Cummings’s book with an open mind.
Much of The Pied Piper is a querulous, spottily inaccurate, unperceptive biography. Had Cummings stopped there he would have been guilty of nothing worse than having written a bad book. But he did not stop there. He went on to interlard his narrative with a series of grave and ugly accusations.
Cummings’s central accusation is that Allard Lowenstein was an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency between 1962 and 1967. More vaguely but hardly less confidently, he also asserts that much of Lowenstein’s work before and after those dates was performed with the connivance or cooperation or encouragement—or something—of the CIA. He further asserts that Lowenstein was an informer who reported to government police agencies on people in the civil rights movement whom he regarded as Communists or subversives.
When Lowenstein’s friends and family learned that these accusations were about to be made—some of them had been advanced earlier in an article by Cummings in Evergreen Review, also published by Grove Press—they decided to answer them, even at the risk of giving them greater currency. Gary Bellow, a professor at Harvard Law School, and two other lawyers, Jeffrey S. Robbins and Ronald J. Tabak, collected a great deal of material, including affidavits from more than two dozen people who had been interviewed by Cummings and whose statements to him had been used to provide incidental support to the CIA-agent thesis. The result is a curious volume the size and shape of the Manhattan telephone directory, in which many of the characters, as it were, from Cummings’s book rise up, rebel, and speak for themselves. Documents Concerning Serious Factual Errors, etc., is a sort of Lowenstein reunion—a gathering of his friends and ex-friends brought together for one last cause.
A close reading of The Pied Piper, together with the response it generated, yields a conclusion at odds with the one Cummings intended. Notwithstanding the notorious difficulty of proving a negative, it can be said with fair certainty that Allard Lowenstein was not an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency between 1962 and 1967, or at any other time. Cummings’s assertions and the proof he adduces for them are worth examining in some detail, however, for what they tell us about the standards of evidence considered acceptable by at least one more or less respectable publishing house.
Cummings sidles into his spy story in the fifteenth of his sixty-six chapters. He has been describing the trip Lowenstein took in 1959 and wrote about in Brutal Mandate. Taking leave from his job with Senator Humphrey, Lowenstein, with two friends, went to South Africa. Their plan was to buy a car and drive it to South-West Africa, where they would travel around collecting testimony about the situation in that territory, which was (and is) ruled by the Pretoria government under a League of Nations mandate. Then, back in New York, they would present the testimony to a committee of the United Nations General Assembly. All of this they did in due course, but first there was a detour.
While his friends shopped for a cheap used car, Lowenstein went to Johannesburg to speak to the annual congress of the National Union of South African Students, the multiracial, fervently antiapartheid federation of English-speaking university students. There he heard an eloquent speech by Hans Beukes, a “Coloured,” or mixed-race, student from South-West Africa who had won a scholarship to Norway and then been denied a passport—partly because he had been caught with a book written by Adlai Stevenson. Beukes asked Lowenstein to help him get out of the country, and Lowenstein agreed to try, thinking Beukes would make an excellent witness before the UN committee. (A few days later, Lowenstein and his friends managed to sneak Beukes across the border into Botswana by stuffing him behind the back seat of their used Volkswagen and covering him with boxes and suitcases. Beukes testified at the UN and made a strong impression.)
In the middle of telling this story, Cummings writes:
Sources report that while Lowenstein was in Johannesburg he was contacted by the CIA and asked to perform a mission which must have been highly appealing to his romantic side, while at the same time allowing him to strike what he felt was a telling blow against the apartheid government of South Africa. The mission was to smuggle Hans Beukes out of the country.
Just who it was who recruited Lowenstein for this assignment remains a matter of conjecture….
And who are these sources? In the back of the book, where Cummings has put together twenty-six impressively dense-looking pages of reference notes keyed to quotes and facts or purported facts, we find this:
Sources report that…July 13, 1982. One of these sources served with US Army Intelligence. The others, also with backgrounds in intelligence work, are close to the CIA.
Five chapters and two or three Lowenstein jobs later, just when Lowenstein has resigned his Stanford deanship, Cummings sets forth the assertion on which his book stands or falls:
This was Lowenstein’s situation in 1962 when, according to sources with background in intelligence work, he was formally recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency.
He immediately adds:
Although the author’s attempts to obtain Lowenstein’s CIA file under the Freedom of Information–Privacy Act from the CIA and from his lawyer Gary Bellow proved unavailing, other evidence overwhelmingly supports these sources.
Turning once more to the reference notes in the back of the book, we find:
according to sources…These are the same sources referred to in Chapter 15.
Later we are told that “Lowenstein was separated from the CIA sometime in 1967,” again on the authority of “sources”—“the same sources referred to in Chapters 15 and 20.”
This is all Cummings provides by way of anything remotely resembling hard evidence for his central accusation—an accusation that if true would make a mockery of Lowenstein’s passionately professed belief in democratic openness.
Cummings’s one-line descriptions of his “sources” do not inspire confidence. A person who “served with US Army Intelligence” could be anyone from a three-star general to an ex-reservist who put in six months clipping newspapers at Fort Dix. Neither general nor clerk, however, would be in any better position to know the identity of a particular CIA agent than would tens of thousands of other federal employees, and Cummings makes no effort to explain why he thinks his “source” is exceptional. And Cumming’s “others” could be anyone at all—though if they were “close to the CIA,” whatever that means, then clearly they were never in the CIA.
Cummings’s remark about Lowenstein’s CIA file leaves the impression that Gary Bellow somehow prevented him from seeing it. This does not appear to be true. In 1975, with Bellow’s help, Lowenstein himself filed a Freedom of Information Act request for any and all CIA materials concerning his background and activities. (A curious thing for an agent to do, though no doubt Cummings would dismiss it as part of a cover.) After some prodding, the agency replied that its search of its files had turned up seventy-six items. Nine of them were provided in full, twenty-eight were provided in expurgated form, and thirty-nine were withheld entirely. The material yielded by the CIA, a total of forty-eight pages, was available in the Lowenstein archive at Chapel Hill when Cummings was there doing his research. That material is reprinted in Documents Concerning. It consists almost entirely of clippings and tiny excerpts from what appear to be routine embassy cables (sample: “ADVISED THAT CONGRESSMAN ALLARD K. LOWENSTEIN [D-NY] PLANNING TRIP TO TUNISIA, ARRIVING 5 JAN…”).
The only item that is at all suggestive from the point of view of Cummings’s thesis is a 1962 memorandum from “Chief, Contact Division” to “Chief, Personnel Security Division,” asking for “approval to contact Subject [Lowenstein] on an ad hoc basis” to question him about “the Soviet educational system; teaching methods; caliber of faculty; subjects emphasized; etc.” (It was then standard procedure for the CIA to try to interview Americans who visited the Soviet Union, as Lowenstein, accompanying Eleanor Roosevelt, had done in 1957.) The memo continues:
Subject, reportedly, has stated that he has done some work for CIA. If he were used in a [six-letter word obliterated] capacity, then this is an indiscretion regarding which our field representative would like to know something about the background before any contact is made. We shall appreciate your checking this out as far as possible. Thanks.
This memo, provided by Lowenstein’s friends, and more provocative by far than anything Cummings came up with in four years of research, is ambiguous. Even the significance of the subjunctive (“were used”) is obscure; it is unclear whether the memo writer is talking about the past or the future.
A free-lance do-gooder of left-wing anti-Communist leanings, working with opposition groups in the third world in the late 1950s and early 1960s—as Lowenstein was—would almost certainly have encountered CIA people along the way. In some countries the CIA station chief would be the best-informed person in the US embassy, and the most sympathetic to the notion that the long-term interests of the United States lay with members of the democratic opposition rather than with the local autocracy. As was revealed in 1967, the CIA had an extensive program of channeling support to such dissidents. It is entirely possible that Lowenstein met CIA people during his travels, even that he traded information with them. There would be nothing scandalous about that. It’s also possible that Lowenstein—given what another CIA document calls his “propensity for name-dropping”2—bragged about such contacts. A garbled version of some such boasting was probably at the root of this memo.
Or the memo could simply be wrong. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than hearsay. In any event it doesn’t prove that Lowenstein was a CIA agent. And while the omissions in Lowenstein’s CIA file make any definitive judgment impossible, the overall effect of what has been made available is rather to undermine than to support the accusation.
As for the “other evidence” that “over-whelmingly supports” Cummings’s “sources,” none of it is convincing, and much of it is self-refuting. It is of three kinds: defective tautology, outrageous misreading, and financial perplexity. To give an example or two of each:
Defective tautology. Cummings writes that the CIA divides its work into two categories, intelligence collection and covert action. “Lowenstein,” he writes, “was involved in both of these activities.” The proof that he was involved in intelligence collection is the following:
He clipped and analyzed newspaper reports on African affairs extensively. He saved thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, which he outlined carefully. He subscribed to numerous magazines on Africa, and to others likely to carry information of relevance.
The proof that he was involved in covert action is the following:
Lowenstein became involved in the politics of Spain and in Africa in ways that constituted “covert action.” As Richard Bissell explained [to Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, authors of The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence], the “operational types” would be risk-takers, which Lowenstein was. Bissell, who was chief of Clandestine Services of the CIA under President Kennedy until he was forced to resign after the Bay of Pigs, classified the various forms of covert action: “(1) political advice and counsel; (2) subsidies to an individual; (3) financial support and ‘technical assistance’ to political parties; (4) support of private organizations, including labor unions, business firms, cooperatives, etc….”
and so on for four more items, culminating in Bay of Pigs–style military efforts to overthrow governments. Then comes Cummings’s conclusion:
Lowenstein’s actions can be seen to fall into most, if not all, of these categories.
Cummings makes no effort whatever to show that Lowenstein’s newspaper clipping or advice giving or support providing had any connection of any kind to the CIA. His reasoning is as follows: CIA employees clip newspapers, give advice, and provide support. Allard Lowenstein clipped newspapers, gave advice, and provided support. Therefore Allard Lowenstein was a CIA employee.
Outrageous misreadings. Lowenstein, a journalist manqué (at the Horace Mann School, he edged out Roy Cohn in a competition for editor of the school paper), turns out to have kept an oddly touching diary in which he recorded his public and private doings in the style of the head-lines in The New York Times. A single word in one entry in this diary is the sole source for Cummings’s accusation that Lowenstein was an informer against his fellow civil rights workers. Cummings’s text is a diary entry for mid-April 1964, when Lowenstein was touring the country recruiting student volunteers for the Freedom Summer project but was thinking of withdrawing from the project altogether because of the increasing involvement of the National Lawyers Guild, which began as a Communist front and retained its fellow-traveling politics into the 1960s. Here is the diary entry in full:
Frenzied Recruiting + Firm
Withdrawal = Schizophrenia
A SUMMARY OF THE SITUATION
At Campus ‘Centers’—
In National Orgs—
Amongst Ind. Groups—
‘Wrong’ Decisions and ‘Wrong’ Group Making Them Combine to End ‘Deep’ Commitment; Problem Rises of Who to Tell How Much
CAMPUS ‘CENTER’ LEADERS IN MIXED ROLES
Obligation to Keep Them Informed Called ‘Great’ But Particularly on Question of ‘Infiltration’ Dilemma Is Acute and Has Not Been Solved
Project Still ‘Right,’ Desire to Help Strong, But Policy Disagreements Make Presence During the Summer Seem ‘Unwise’
SO SPEECH SCHEDULE WILL BE FULFILLED
Participation as Lawyer ‘In Ranks’ Still Possible but ‘Priorities’ Make It Unlikely If LG3 Stays; ‘Success’ of Drive for Students is a Surprise
The single word, of course, is “informed.” That word, especially in such close conjunction with the word “infiltration,” is for Cummings sufficient proof that Lowenstein was an “informer.” Cummings still has the problem that the people whom Lowenstein felt obliged to keep informed were “campus ‘center’ leaders,” not government police agencies. He solves that problem with the following assertion: “It is known that the CIA had established centers on the campuses of many American universities.” No evidence is adduced for the existence of these purported CIA “centers”—it is simply “known.”
Cummings then suggests that these “centers” were being staffed by people Lowenstein was working with in the civil rights recruitment effort, “people who had been affiliated with the CIA or had participated in CIA-sponsored projects.” He names two such people: William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain, who had worked for the CIA before becoming a clergyman, and Barney Frank, now a congressman from Massachusetts, who as a college student in 1962 had attended a summer youth festival in Europe under the auspices of a program that later turned out to be funded by the CIA.
It is hard to know which is more contemptible, Cummings’s sophistry or his smearing of Coffin, Frank, and, of course, Lowenstein.
The “campus centers” in Lowenstein’s diary entry were of course the recruiting centers he himself had helped to set up. In an affidavit reprinted in Documents Concerning, Coffin remarks, “Mr. Lowenstein was not my friend because I had worked for the CIA from 1950–53 but, rather in spite of it.” Coffin writes that he thinks Lowenstein was “a bit paranoid about the possibility that radicals would take over the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,” but adds,
It was Mr. Lowenstein’s concern about the possible unjustified damage to students’ reputations through guilt by association that undoubtedly was the cause of the dilemma which his notes describe. Thus, the following is likely the meaning of Mr. Lowenstein’s notes: With the McCarthy era fresh in mind, Allard Lowenstein was concerned about the possibility that if radicals took over the Mississippi effort, non-radical students whom he recruited to go there would later be falsely accused of being subversives. Thus, he felt some obligation to them to warn them about what he—somewhat paranoiacally, in my view—perceived to be a danger. Yet, he also worried that by providing the students with these warnings he might harm the important civil rights effort in Mississippi by discouraging many students from coming.
Calling Lowenstein an informer enables Cummings to find low irony in the fact that Lowenstein ended up on Nixon’s enemies list. (“Lowenstein had kept his own list in Mississippi…. Now he was on Nixon’s list.”) There was no irony. Lowenstein earned his place on Nixon’s list—No. 7—by honest work.
Another of Cummings’s fantasies was occasioned by his discovery in the Lowenstein papers at Chapel Hill of some photocopies of letters home written by young Americans—all of them friends or the offspring of friends of Lowenstein’s—who were teaching and living abroad. Some of the letters opened with the salutation “Dear Family”—a common enough salutation, one I often used myself when writing home from abroad to my parents and sister. But for Cummings these letters are deeply sinister:
They were not letters home to mom and dad. There was nothing personal in them. They were intelligence reports to the “family” of trusted Americans within or at the periphery of that amorphous mass known as the “intelligence community.”
But they were precisely letters home to mom and dad. In one instance, as we learn from an affidavit in Documents Concerning by the former Kennedy administration official Harris Wofford, mom and dad were Mr. and Mrs. Chester Bowles. The Bowleses proudly circulated copies of letters from their son Sam to their friends, including Wofford and Lowenstein. None of it had anything to do with the “intelligence community.”
Financial perplexity. Cummings writes that Lowenstein’s “ability to travel abroad extensively and stay at excellent hotels when he was, for example, on leave of absence from his job as a professor and received no salary, reinforces the conclusion that the sources”—the purported sources who say Lowenstein was a CIA agent—“are correct.”
Lowenstein’s finances were unconventional, but there is no need to invoke the CIA in order to balance his books. When he traveled in the US, he stayed with friends and called collect from airport booths. He seldom bought clothes and was indifferent to luxury. There was always a campus group, liberal organization, or rich patron ready to pay his plane fare. In New York, he and his often numerous guests ate free at the Hyde Park and the other restaurants his family owned. He lived rent-free in his stepmother’s large apartment. His wife, who was from a well-to-do family, had her own income. He never had a steady job, but he did have a more or less steady subsidy from his father and from the family restaurant business. In 1967, for example, a year in which Cummings asserts that Lowenstein’s income from the restaurants was “insignificant,” it was in fact $15,519, according to Lawrence Lowenstein, Allard’s older brother. The equivalent in 1985 dollars is $49,660.
Cummings’s CIA theorizing reaches a zany climax at the beginning of his account of Lowenstein’s leadership of the Dump Johnson movement. “It has been suggested,” he writes, “that Lowenstein’s opposition to the war in Vietnam is proof that he could not possibly have been involved with the CIA: in actuality, his opposition to the war confirms his CIA involvement as much as anything.” Cummings’s reasoning—and I am not caricaturing his view—is that because (a) liberals opposed the war and (b) the CIA “was partly a liberal institution,” then (c) Lowenstein’s antiwar views are proof of his CIA connection. Cummings even asserts that the CIA, or rather its “good wing,” had decided that Johnson had to go and was using Lowenstein as its instrument to get rid of him. Again, no evidence is provided for any of this—only circular deductive reasoning.
Although Cummings never admits of any doubt that Lowenstein worked for the CIA, he asks none of the questions that this would raise. Who made the decision to hire Lowenstein? Were there internal battles over that decision? Why did Lowenstein never call on the CIA when he and other civil rights workers were in mortal danger in Mississippi? How did he manage to fool so many people about his true identity—his wife, his friends, his associates? How did the conspiracy to keep his CIA affiliation a secret come to include enemies of his as well as friends? Why wasn’t the story of Lowenstein’s secret CIA job leaked to the press by LBJ, who Cummings says knew about it, in order to destroy the effectiveness and credibility of the leader of the Dump Johnson movement?
The accusation that Lowenstein worked for the CIA is not original with Cummings, of course. It was a staple of left-wing suspicions for years, though in a different and more plausible form: it always revolved around Lowenstein’s ties to the National Student Association. The matter has been raked over thoroughly, beginning with Ramparts magazine’s disclosure in 1967 that the CIA had been funding and manipulating the NSA since 1952, the year after Lowenstein was its president. Although many have tried, no one has ever succeeded in coming up with a shred of evidence that Lowenstein was witting or “witty,” as those privy to the arrangement called themselves.
Moreover, there is good evidence to the contrary. The clique of ex-NSA officers later revealed as CIA agents was always cool, even hostile, to Lowenstein. Lowenstein was never invited to sit on any of the NSA’s many advisory boards. When the NSA’s president and vice-president finally told Lowenstein the truth, a few months before the Ramparts article appeared, he advised them to break the link quickly, completely, and publicly, although at that point the CIA was still hoping to keep the connection quiet. After the revelation Lowenstein had a number of awkward confrontations with “witty” ex-NSAers.
Still, many people, friends as well as opponents of Lowenstein among them, found it hard to believe that a man of Lowenstein’s political sophistication could have been kept in the dark for fifteen years about the finances of an organization with which he had such extensive dealings. I find it all too easy to believe. As it happens, I worked full time during 1965 and 1966 on the NSA staff, editing a magazine. A few months after I left, I learned, along with the rest of the world, that the organization had been financed by the CIA. I also learned that the foundation that had paid my salary and my magazine’s costs was a CIA front; that a summer training program I had attended was wholly run by the CIA; that during the year I spent at NSA its top officers, all of whom I worked with nearly every day, had been engaged in a frantic debate over whether and how to break the link; and that people I had regarded as intimate friends had known all of this and more. Yet I had no inkling of any of it.
A few years later, at one of those lunches at the Hyde Park, I asked Lowenstein what he thought about the morality of the NSA—CIA connection, and I agreed with his assessment. He said that although he wouldn’t agree with it or excuse it, he could make a case for the CIA’s having subsidized the NSA’s international activities during the early 1950s—as long as the subsidy was kept secret from its recipients. But he added he was glad he hadn’t known about it, because he didn’t know what he would have done with the knowledge.
He said he could see no excuse whatever for what the CIA actually did, which was to compromise and corrupt young NSA officers, most of them just out of college, by telling them about the arrangement, threatening them with jail or other harm if they exposed it, and then using them as spies in gathering intelligence on student leaders in other countries. It still seemed almost too monstrous to believe; it certainly had been too monstrous to be guessed.
The CIA–NSA revelation had a far greater effect than is generally appreciated upon the views of a generation of politically active young people. The most moderate student leaders at once understood that the government was capable of lying to its citizens to a shocking degree. The news helped to “radicalize” untold numbers of students. I’m convinced it had a similar impact upon Lowenstein, who set out almost immediately to overthrow the government—or at least to overthrow a president still regarded by most of the leaders of the liberal establishment as an indispensable ally.
In a letter reprinted in Documents Concerning, William F. Buckley, Jr., himself a former CIA agent, writes, in his customary confident style:
You ask whether I ever had any reason to suppose that Al Lowenstein was engaged in undercover work for the CIA. My answer: no. To be sure, if Al had been a trained undercover operative, he’d have given me no suspicion to guess this. On the other hand, with my background I might have suspected something there if something had been there. But at this point I draw on transcendent knowledge of Lowenstein: this is not the sort of thing he’d have done. And those of us who knew his character, and I was one of them, would feel safe in saying that the very idea is preposterous.
Buckley’s comment suggests the most telling refutation of Cummings’s thesis. As the calmer portions of his own book show, Lowenstein was too independent, too uncontrollable, too inclined to try to run whatever show he was part of, and too talkative to be amenable to the kind of discipline under which CIA agents necessarily labor.
There was a secret in Lowenstein’s life, but it had nothing to do with the CIA. Rather it had to do with his personal life and his relations with some few of the hundreds of young men he inspired and befriended. In various books and articles there are accounts of perhaps a half-dozen almost identical incidents-incidents in which Lowenstein evinced a desire to hold and be held by a young man. David Harris provided his own account of such an encounter in his interesting memoir of the 1960s, Dreams Die Hard.4 In each instance, Lowenstein and a young man share a room with one bed, purportedly because no other is available; after the light is out, the protégé finds himself being hugged wordlessly by Lowenstein; he indicates somehow that the hugging is unwelcome, and Lowenstein immediately stops; afterward, the matter is never mentioned. The protégé is left with a complicated mixture of feelings: his hero worship weakens if it does not vanish altogether, and he feels manipulated; yet he feels sympathy and compassion for what seems a private torment.
Lowenstein was married between 1966 and 1977, and had three children. His separation from his wife was by all accounts caused by the demands of Lowenstein’s frenetic schedule, not by any lack of affection. She and the children were with him at the hospital when he was dying. It seems unlikely that Lowenstein was an active homosexual. Approaches like the one Harris experienced were apparently as rare as they were confused and uncertain.
Yet the mostly repressed feelings those approaches reflected were obviously important. Those feelings, one can speculate, were somehow related to the potency of Lowenstein’s leadership. He evoked feelings that had an intensity reminiscent of adolescent friendship. There is a sense in which charismatic leadership always draws upon a kind of libidinal force—the generalized erotic energy Whitman called “adhesiveness.” That mysterious energy helped Lowenstein turn his appeals to reason and idealism into powerful bonds between himself and his thousands of young followers.
Toward the end of his life, Lowenstein was apparently trying to deal with the feelings that had led him into furtive encounters like the one with David Harris. In 1980 he campaigned successfully for Edward Kennedy in the homosexual community in Florida and had a number of earnest, private conversations with leaders of the gay movement there. According to Harris, Lowenstein spoke of wanting intimacy and affection, not sex, in his relations with men, and wondered aloud what that made him. He seemed eager to understand himself and to do away with whatever deceit his emotional life had entailed. He was worried about the effect on his children. Had he lived, he might well have become a political intermediary between homosexuals and other constituencies in the Democratic party, much as he had been an intermediary for students.
Cummings’s discussion of this aspect of Lowenstein’s life is relatively restrained. The conclusion he draws from that discussion does not come as a surprise. It is this: “In his personal life, as in his political life, Lowenstein was not able to reveal his relationships fully.” The CIA again.
Why, finally, does Cummings find the fantasy of Lowenstein-as-CIA-agent so congenial? Why was that fantasy judged appealing enough to justify publication? I suspect it has something to do with a fundamental incomprehension of Lowenstein’s politics. Lowenstein was a serious democrat and a serious liberal. He was, therefore, opposed to racism in North Carolina and Mississippi, colonialism in Angola and Mozambique, apartheid in South Africa and Namibia, dictatorship in Franco’s Spain and Somoza’s Nicaragua, military dictatorship in Greece—and Communism in Russia and Cuba. That is, he was opposed to injustice without distinction, except the distinction of degree. Cummings understands that Lowenstein was a passionate person—in the best line in his book, he calls Lowenstein “a kind of Trotsky of the middle class”—but he does not understand what Lowenstein was passionate about. Again and again, he treats Lowenstein’s anticommunism as somehow undermining or contradicting his other professed values:
Lowenstein was, before anything else, an anti-Communist, to whom liberalism was the most effective strategy for defeating Communism.
And while Lowenstein spoke frequently of the need for change and for justice, it was also his burning anti-Communism that motivated him to act.
Lowenstein became a leading liberal spokesman against the HUAC,5 stressing the need for a more subtle brand of anti-Communism that did not overtly [!] challenge the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.
Liberals, including Humphrey and Lowenstein, feared that Communists would exploit the unrest, and this led to American support of the anti-apartheid struggle.
These formulas miss the point. Certainly there are anticommunists who are not antifascist, and antifascists who are not anticommunist, and antiracists who are neither—and Lowenstein thought there were times and purposes that required alliances with all of them. But like his hero Norman Thomas, Lowenstein was indiscriminate in his commitment to a liberal, democratic, and humane social order. Lowenstein had learned from the Spanish civil war, which he passionately followed as a child (when Madrid fell, Cummings was told, the ten-year-old Allard stayed in his room for two days, weeping), that antifascism and anti-communism alike are inseparable from the defense of democracy.
He was sometimes impatient with those whose experience had not taught them this lesson. In the civil rights and antiwar movements, he was often at odds with those who regarded his emphatic anti-communism as anachronistic or irrelevant—to say nothing of those who saw it as evidence of hypocrisy or even hostility to the cause at hand. His argument in 1964 with some of his civil rights comrades about the National Lawyers Guild caused a bitter split with them, foreshadowing the larger break between integrationists and nationalists that finally broke up the movement. The sort of radicals who used the epithet “liberal” as an insult naturally hated him, but it must be said that he also quarreled with people who were his natural allies. For example, when Sam Brown, David Hawk, and David Mixner were organizing the Vietnam moratorium in 1969, Lowenstein, then in Congress, advised them to exclude Communists and others who might carry pro–Viet Cong banners. When Brown and the others demurred, Lowenstein tried to persuade some of his House colleagues to withhold their endorsements.
Yet the moratorium organizers’ rejection of Lowenstein’s advice had more to do with their generation’s do-your-own-thing spirit than with any sympathy for communism. They thought that excluding people would undermine the relaxed, decentralized quality of the demonstration, and that besides, the Communists weren’t numerous or powerful enough to be worth the fuss it would cause to ban them. Lowenstein thought the pro–Viet Cong activists should be excluded both as a matter of principle, because they were not so much against the war as wanting the other side to win, and as a matter of tactics, because their presence would alienate vast numbers of patriotic, potentially antiwar citizens.
In the end, Lowenstein endorsed the moratorium and spoke on eight campuses under its sponsorship. However legitimate his disagreement with the organizers was, the venom it provoked was unnecessary. Lowenstein was better at handling differences with people whose views were to the right of his own. He lavished his charm on conservatives (and on the politically unawakened); he saw them as potential converts, to be persuaded or beguiled into enlightenment. But with those to his left he could be abrupt and self-righteous. It was as if he thought they were willfully turning away from truth and reason, as if he suspected them of rejecting his moral bona fides.
Lowenstein, however, was far from being an incipient neoconservative. He saw anticommunism as a requirement of democratic ideology, but at the same time he rejected the cold war obsession with communism as a unique evil that justifies any means—even liberalism!—to oppose it. For Lowenstein, liberalism, understood as a belief in a liberal society, was not a means or a strategy, or a way to make anticommunism palatable, or a watered-down substitute for a more “authentic” radicalism. It was the central value. Anticommunism, antiracism, and antifascism were logical, emotionally inescapable corollaries; but in isolation none of them could be relied upon to lead to a humane politics.
Cummings is puzzled by what he sees as the contradictions between Lowenstein’s passionate—radical, one might say—commitment and his “moderate” politics; between his straightforward patriotism and his opposition to the Vietnam War; between his anticommunism and his support for civil rights. The CIA accusation resolves the puzzle for him, but there is no puzzle, because there were no contradictions. And if there had never been any such thing as communism, Lowenstein’s lifelong political engagement would have been just as intense.
That engagement had its disappointments and defeats for him, which went well beyond the loss of elections. The civil rights movement enfranchised southern blacks but then collapsed in acrimony, leaving the hope of integration unfulfilled. Johnson was “dumped,” but Nixon came to power. Democracy returned in Spain, but in southern Africa there seemed less and less chance for justice to be achieved peacefully, if at all. The large American student movement Lowenstein did so much to create produced a few Leninist sects and then crumbled. The liberal coalitions he helped build lost their verve and self-confidence.
Lowenstein, who felt these disappointments, blamed them mostly on the assassinations. The violent deaths of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy had changed everything—they “left us haunted,” he wrote in a 1978 newspaper article,6 “by great absence through years made difficult in part by those absences.” He dwelt especially on the death of Robert Kennedy. During the middle 1970s, to the dismay of many of his friends and rather to the annoyance of the Kennedy family, he spent a great deal of time upon an inconclusive effort to point out what he regarded as discrepancies in the claim that Sirhan Sirhan alone was responsible. Lowenstein had intense feeling for Robert Kennedy, and Kennedy’s murder seemed to summarize for him all the forces of unreason and malevolence that had robbed the movements he served of their fruits. In that same 1978 article he wrote:
I was never close to Robert Kennedy. Our relationship was political, and started out in rather adversary circumstances at that. Of the only year I knew him at all well, it would be accurate to say that I spent one half arguing that he should run for president when he wouldn’t, and the other half supporting an opponent when he did. Yet he meant more to me, as to so many others, than any other public figure of the time, and the awful fact of his unnatural death will shadow events as long as we are a part of them.
And in that shadow we still struggle with the problem connected to so many others—the problem of how to revive enthusiasm and excite energies, of how a spirit once aborted can be born again…. America is neither as innocent nor as easily changed as we once thought.
Two years later, Lowenstein was assassinated himself. His death was another blow to the politics he shared with the Kennedys and King—an inspirational, democratic politics whose weakness is precisely that it requires such heavy and risky investments in the fortunes of particular leaders. Lowenstein would be fifty-six now. I don’t know what he would be doing but it is hard to imagine him sharing the present liberal mood of lassitude and self-pity. Things were palpably different in 1964 and 1968 because of him, and it’s possible things would be different in 1985 if he were still alive.
The man who murdered Allard Lowenstein, Dennis Sweeney, had broken with him over the question of whether or not the “system” was redeemable. Sweeney had been a civil rights worker, by all accounts a heroic one; he became a revolutionary, then a dropout, and then he went mad. In Mississippi, Sweeney had had his teeth capped by a volunteer “movement” dentist. He apparently came to believe that an electronic device had been planted in his teeth, that the CIA had done it, and that somehow the CIA and Lowenstein were using it to control his mind. Sweeney’s delusions obviously tell us nothing about Lowenstein’s relationship with the CIA—only about the pervasiveness of the fantasy of the CIA as mysterious and all-powerful.
Richard Cummings has clung to his beliefs about Lowenstein and the CIA as tenaciously as Dennis Sweeney did to his. The affidavits in Documents Concerning are full of descriptions of meetings with Cummings in which he tries to press his Beukes theory or his informer theory or his “Dear Family” theory on people he interviews, and then, having been shown wrong, leaves in disappointment or irritation, but undissuaded. His fantasy of Lowenstein’s CIA connection has far more in common with Sweeney’s than either has with what is commonly understood as reality. Such people may be convinced their delusions are true, but what is Grove Press’s excuse?
Fortunately, Lowenstein’s reputation survives, thanks partly to the diligence of his friends. But a scar will remain as long as The Pied Piper is the only biography available. It would be a shame if a bad book about Lowenstein were to discourage the writing of a good one. Lowenstein was a man whose large flaws and immense strengths went together. He was a kind of hero, and his picaresque life has much to reveal about the mysteries of politics and about the susceptibility of events to one man’s will. The next biographer of Allard Lowenstein need not agree with his political views, but he or she must be able to understand them. Only then can the story of Lowenstein’s life be taken beyond polemic to explore his complex character and its impact on his times.
October 10, 1985
Halberstam’s article may be found in Lowenstein: Acts of Courage and Belief, edited by Gregory Stone and Douglas Lowenstein (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983). The book also contains transcripts of about a dozen of Lowenstein’s speeches. ↩
The document, apparently a cable from the CIA station at the US embassy in Madrid, calls Lowenstein “among other things a troublemaker out to establish self as American through whom Spanish opposition leaders should deal,” and adds, “To our knowledge he represents no one but himself in spite of propensity,” etc. ↩
Lawyers Guild. ↩
David Harris, Dreams Die Hard: Three Men’s Journey Through the Sixties (St. Martin’s/Marek, 1982). Harris, now a journalist, was a protégé of Lowenstein’s in 1965. He eventually went to jail for draft resistance, and for a time was married to Joan Baez. The three men of the title are Harris himself, Lowenstein, and Lowenstein’s assassin, Dennis Sweeney, who had been a friend of Harris’s at Stanford and in the civil rights and antiwar movements. ↩
The House Un-American Activities Committee. ↩
“Anniversary of an Assassination,” The Washington Star (June 5, 1978). Reprinted in Lowenstein: Acts of Courage and Belief, pp. 275–277. ↩