If any one person can be said to represent the political awakening of young Americans in the 1960s, it would be Allard Lowenstein. From his undergraduate years at Chapel Hill in the 1950s to his murder in 1980 by a psychotic former protégé—from a time well before most young people became politically active to a time well after many of them had ceased to be—Lowenstein was deeply engaged in public life, constantly seeking a way, as he often put it, “to make a difference” in the fight against racism, war, and social injustice.
He was one of the first to organize student protest against South African apartheid, and had an important part in the early struggles of the civil rights movement. One of the leaders of student protests against the Vietnam War, he was perhaps the principal organizer of the movement that, in effect, drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House in 1968. Most of all, perhaps, Lowenstein had a remarkable ability to inspire the people who worked with him, he had a strong effect on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of younger men and women—many of whom are prominent in public life today. Bill Bradley, Barney Frank, Tom Harkin, and Bob Kerrey are only a few among them.
But while Lowenstein’s effect on the political activism of the 1960s was considerable, he was himself inescapably a product of the 1950s; and almost everything in his life reflected that very different, more guarded, time. He seemed a man intent on stripping off the masks that kept white, middleclass Americans from recognizing the injustice in their society. But other masks, constructed by himself and others, shaped and even dominated his personality and allowed him to hide from his complicated, even tortured inner life. As William Chafe’s excellent biography suggests, it was Lowenstein’s inability to escape the repressive elements in his own life that encouraged him to devote himself to political causes.
Lowenstein grew up in comfortable middle-class surroundings outside New York City. His father ran a successful Manhattan restaurant business that made Allard financially secure throughout his life, free to pursue political causes that only rarely earned him an income. He was a brilliant student at the private Horace Mann School and, from an early age, precociously political; at seven, in 1936, he was handing out leaflets for Franklin Roosevelt on Central Park West.
But Lowenstein’s childhood, like his adulthood, was also characterized by denial and deception—on the part of his parents and of Allard himself. His father, Gabriel, had come to the United States from Russia in 1906 to avoid being jailed for political activity. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia and dreamed of an academic career; but he was also determined to build a secure, middle-class life for his family and decided to become a businessman instead. His regrets about that choice affected, and perhaps poisoned, the rest of his life and encouraged him to transfer his own thwarted ambitions onto his children, with relentless and often suffocating intensity.
So committed was Gabriel Lowenstein to creating a perfect environment for his children that he went to extraordinary lengths to hide from his son one of the most important facts of his own and Allard’s life: that Gabriel’s first wife, and Allard’s mother, had died of cancer a year after Allard was born. Gabriel quickly remarried, and his second wife, Florence, immediately assumed the role of Allard’s mother. Not until he was fourteen years old, and then by accident, did he learn about his natural mother. But once having learned the secret, he never spoke of it to his father or stepmother. This deception seems to have reinforced a lifelong pattern of hiding personal truths from others and even from himself.
Chafe’s careful account of the Lowenstein family suggests that keeping secrets was part of a larger pathology that may have had an unhappy effect on all the children. Allard’s older brother, Bert, in whom Gabriel at first invested his hopes, suffered a series of mental breakdowns as a young adult. Both Gabriel and Florence then turned their oppressive attention almost exclusively to Allard. Florence wrote him constantly with reports of Gabriel’s supposedly deteriorating health, warning him that disappointing his father might kill him. Gabriel redoubled his efforts to make Allard into the son of his dreams, lecturing him about the importance of neatness, order, and punctuality. Allard responded by becoming disheveled, disorganized, and notoriously unpunctual. His father wanted to send his son to Harvard or to Columbia; Allard, whose excellent academic record qualified him to go virtually anywhere, defiantly enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He also made a considerable effort to escape his family’s Jewishness. That was, it seems clear, one of the reasons for his decision to go to Chapel Hill, not a college popular with Jews. It would mean living in the non-Jewish world on its own terms. Throughout his life, in fact, Lowenstein seemed constantly to be in search of assurances that he, an immigrant’s son, was in fact a real American; and he defined his Americanness by the often constricted standards of the white Protestant middle class of the 1950s. He attended services at a Presbyterian church at Chapel Hill and sang in its choir. His best friends were almost always Protestants. And in 1966 he married Jennifer Lyman, a member of a Boston Brahmin family. He took as his models older men and women who, in addition to being prominent liberals, came from the old-line Protestant culture: Frank Porter Graham, the president of the University of North Carolina; Norman Thomas, a Princeton graduate; Eleanor Roosevelt.
Lowenstein’s greatest difficulty involved his sexuality. It is clear from his diaries that from an early age, he recognized that he was sexually attracted to men; and that from an early age, he was ashamed of and horrified by these longings. “The urge I get when I see certain other boys is getting out-of-control,” he wrote in 1943. “God, God, what will I do?” His answer, then and throughout his life, was to try to defeat those urges, which he could never do, and to hide them, which he managed somewhat more successfully.
Chafe’s sensitive discussion of Lowenstein’s homesexuality is one of the many impressive achievements of his book. Earlier chroniclers of Lowenstein’s life (among them his friend David Harris, who wrote a careful account of Lowenstein’s relationship with his eventual killer Dennis Sweeney) avoided the subject. Others (among them Teresa Carpenter, who wrote an overheated profile of Sweeney in the Village Voice) mentioned it in passing but drew no real conclusions from it. 1 Chafe recognizes Lowenstein’s sexual ambivalence as a fundamental fact of his life. On the one hand, it led him to cultivate scores of attractive young men (most of them tall, blond WASPs) and to seek intense friendships with many of them. Lowenstein often took good-looking male companions along with him on his travels and sometimes contrived circumstances that required them to stay with him in motel rooms with only one bed. But so far as we know, he rarely if ever had sexual relations with them.
Only very late in his life did Lowenstein begin to question the social taboos that made homosexual desire seem impermissible. Before then, he cultivated male friends and hoped for intimacy with them, but he was also careful to prevent any relationship from developing too far. These fears help to explain his restlessness throughout his life, his constant movement from place to place and person to person, and his almost frenzied effort to find in public action a fulfillment that he could not otherwise permit himself.
Lowenstein’s public life began while he was still an undergraduate at Chapel Hill, where, as a skinny, gawky, sixteen-year-old freshman, he quickly developed a following among liberal student leaders and teachers. He became a particular favorite of President Graham.
Even among liberals in North Carolina, few people were interested in challenging racial prejudice in the late 1940s; but Lowenstein helped organize a new liberal student organization opposed to segregation, and he was largely responsible for getting the statewide student legislature to pass a resolution in favor of desegregating the state colleges. He formed a particularly intimate friendship with Douglas Hunt, the much-admired speaker of the student legislature, a southern Anglican who had been the student delegate to the UN conference in San Francisco. Hunt admired Lowenstein’s willingness to challenge taboos. “You see,” he wrote, “in so many ways—and this hasn’t happened to me in a long, long time—you are as I should like to be.”
Lowenstein’s activism at Chapel Hill revealed the two main themes of his political beliefs: an intense interest in fighting racial injustice, whether the victims were blacks or Jews, and an equally intense commitment to the ideals of liberal assimilationism. Just as he craved social acceptance for himself, he fought for the acceptance of other seemingly marginal people. But both for himself and for them, he wanted acceptance not as a member of a minority but as part of the assimilated middle class. Lowenstein showed little interest in labor politics and even less in Marxist analysis (although he flirted at times with Norman Thomas’s democratic socialism). He would have nothing to do with racial or ethnic separatism. He was strongly opposed to the establishment of Israel, because he considered Jewishness an inappropriate category for defining nationality. (For a time, he insisted on equating Zionism with “Jim Crowism”; each, he claimed, was “an unhealthy expression of race nationalism.”) Later, he was hostile to the demands of black nationalists and others who were searching for a political identity that challenged what he considered American norms. Critical as he was of American society, he was deeply patriotic and fervently anti-Communist; and like many other liberals of the 1950s, he was at times uncertain whether anti-communism or social justice was his first concern.
While at Chapel Hill, Lowenstein began a long involvement with the National Student Association, an organization set up with State Department encouragement in the late 1940s, partly to represent the United States in the International Union of Students and to counter the strong Soviet influence within it. The NSA was committed simultaneously, as Lowenstein himself was, to promoting liberalism and fighting communism. He dominated the organization for years and became its president in 1950. (While he was earning a law degree at Yale in the early 1950s, the NSA occupied most of his time; at graduation his classmates created an imaginary award for him as “the student who graduated from Yale having attended the fewest classes.”) Unknown to most NSA members, but, Chafe argues, almost certainly known to Lowenstein, through most of the 1950s the organization was receiving covert funds and direction from the CIA. It was a measure of the intensity of Lowenstein’s anti-communism, and of his general faith in the essential beneficence of the American government, that he was apparently untroubled by the deception.
Lowenstein was one of the first young Americans to take an active interest in apartheid, and he made a hazardous journey to South Africa in 1959 to gather material for groups in America who hoped to organize international action against the white regime. After smuggling out of the country, at some personal risk, photographs and tapes describing the poverty of black Africans and the repressiveness of apartheid, he appeared before the United Nations to testify about conditions in the black communities. In 1962, he published Brutal Mandate, the only book he ever wrote, which gave a powerful, highly emotional account of his South African travels and of the injustices he encountered. “This is a place gnashing her teeth and weeping and bleeding and destroying herself as no other place in the world,” he wrote, “a place of ordinary men turned heroes and of ordinary men going mad.” He was torn, he said, between his love of this “wounded, crying place” and his dismay at its problems. Someone from Mississippi, he suggested, might understand his conflicted emotions. 2
Lowenstein spent the year 1961–1962 at Stanford University as an assistant dean of men and part-time political science instructor. Almost single-handedly, he turned the complacent, conservative campus into a center of student protest, persuading scores of committed students (among them Dennis Sweeney) to join him in working for the civil rights movement then making rapid strides in the South. By 1963, having taken a job as assistant professor of social studies at North Carolina State University, he was traveling frequently to Mississippi and establishing relations with Bob Moses and other leaders of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He also became close to more moderate figures, among them Charles Evers, whose brother, the NAACP leader Medgar Evers, had been gunned down in Mississippi that spring. The following year, he organized a group of his former Stanford protégés to work in the Freedom Summer Campaign.
But he also had doubts about SNCC. He was concerned that it was not sufficiently anti-Communist; he worried about the strain of black nationalism that was creeping into its ideology; and he was perhaps also resentful that the organization did not let him direct its activities as he had long dominated the NSA. By the time the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was bitterly fighting to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Lowenstein had effectively abandoned SNCC. His connections with highly placed Democrats led SNCC’s leaders, and many of his own white protégés, to believe, without evidence, that he was responsible for the backroom deal that barred most of the MFDP delegates from the convention and seated the regular Missisippi delegation.
As his relationship with the civil rights movement soured, Lowenstein moved quickly to the center of another youth crusade: the effort to stop the war in Vietnam. Indeed, beginning in 1965, opposition to the war became the central political reality of his life—the source of both his greatest triumphs and many of his greatest frustrations. It also became a test of his belief that the “system” worked. Opposing the war did not require a revolution, he insisted; it need not involve violence or radicalism. He was scornful of those on the left who believed bombings and other acts of terrorism were appropriate responses to Vietnam. The institutions that had produced the war, he argued, could also be prodded to end it if enough people devoted themselves to the effort. In that, he shared during the late 1960s the convictions of Robert Kennedy, with whom he developed a warm, if somewhat sycophantic, friendship.
In 1967, he mobilized much of the nascent antiwar movement behind a campaign to drive Lyndon Johnson from the Democratic ticket in 1968. Turned down at first by Kennedy, he helped persuade Eugene McCarthy to challenge the President in the New Hampshire primary. And largely because of Lowenstein’s efforts, thousands of college students flocked to the state to work for McCarthy’s campaign. Their enthusiastic work in the campaign helped to produce McCarthy’s dramatic moral victory—a virtual tie with a sitting president—and certainly contributed to Johnson’s decision to withdraw from the race. When Kennedy belatedly decided to run for the nomination, Lowenstein remained publicly loyal to McCarthy; privately, however, he maintained close ties with the Kennedy campaign and at times betrayed the interests of McCarthy—rationalizing the betrayal by claiming that Kennedy was the stronger candidate. After Robert Kennedy’s death, Lowenstein continued to divide his loyalty. He was among those who tried to persuade Edward Kennedy to challenge Humphrey at the 1968 Democratic convention. (When Lowenstein was murdered twelve years later, in 1980, he was working for Edward Kennedy’s floundering presidential campaign.)
Lowenstein failed to elect an anti-war candidate in 1968. Some might argue, in fact, that he helped create conflicts within the Democratic Party that contributed to Nixon’s victory that fall. The year 1968 marked, nevertheless, the high point of Lowenstein’s public career. Never before, and never again, would he have so prominent a part in national political life. As if in confirmation of his importance, he won election himself that fall to a congressional seat from a largely Republican district on Long Island. Some expected him to be a firebrand in the House, but that was not Lowenstein’s style. Congress was exactly the sort of establishment institution from which he had always craved acceptance, and he worked hard and successfully to develop friendly relationships with colleagues of all ideological stripes.
Lowenstein reached the pinnacle of his career at just the moment when national political currents were beginning to move in a direction that would leave him isolated. In 1970, after the Republican state legislature redrew the boundaries of his district to make it one of the most conservative in the state, he lost his seat. That was partly because of the gerrymandering; but it was also because his own preoccupations with the war and with social reform were coming to be less important to his Long Island constituents than the ordinary business of local politics: sewers, schools, roads, and other issues in which Lowenstein had no interest at all. For the next six years, he tried again and again, with a manic and increasingly self-destructive energy, to return to Congress—first in an unpromising race in Brooklyn, then, quixotically, in his old district on Long Island, losing so often that his efforts came to seem obsessive, even pathetic. His marriage dissolved under the strain of his repeated failures, and Lowenstein became increasingly bitter and resentful—as if unable to comprehend the dramatic decline of his political fortunes.
As he drifted away from electoral politics, he became absorbed with conspiracy theories, grasping eagerly at every shred of evidence to support charges of CIA plots to murder John and Robert Kennedy, and clinging as well to the belief that a similar conspiracy had destroyed his own political effectiveness. The Watergate revelations, in particular, reinforced his belief in conspiracy; and he plunged into an inquiry into the circumstances of Robert Kennedy’s death with the same intensity and commitment he had once brought to the civil rights and antiwar movements. “In our agony,” he said, “we have instinctively recoiled from exploring the murky abyss in which may have been interred some of our most cherished assumptions…the fantasy that God somehow made all Americans immune to the evils of political murder, [or] that only loose nuts could possibly be involved in these crimes.”
Chafe argues, somewhat optimistically, that in his last years Lowenstein was beginning to reassess his life and his politics in a way that might have allowed him to regain some of his earlier public influence and might have permitted him some personal peace. Among other things, he took an interest in the rapidly growing gay rights movement, although he never publicly acknowledged his own homosexual leanings.
It seems unlikely, though, that Lowenstein would have found the political world of the 1980s and 1990s either congenial or welcoming. Chafe aptly describes his life as a “struggle to save American liberalism”: both from the social injustices it had inadequately addressed in the past and from the cynicism, disillusionment, and division that threatened its future. He believed in what Martin Luther King had called the “beloved community of aroused citizens,” a community capable of transcending racial and ethnic particularism. It is hard to imagine him flourishing amid the fragmented cultural politics of the last fifteen years, or among the many liberals who have self-consciously dissociated themselves from the outspoken idealism that, to Lowenstein, was liberalism’s most redeeming quality.
What destroyed Lowenstein finally, however, was not the politics of the post-liberal era, but a legacy of his own most hopeful and successful years. Dennis Sweeney, his once-devoted protégé at Stanford, became in the 1970s a paranoid schizophrenic, convinced that Lowenstein was tormenting him by transmitting voices into his head. In March 1980, Sweeney went to Lowenstein’s office in New York to ask him to stop. While Lowenstein was urging him to seek psychiatric help, Sweeney pulled out a pistol and shot him seven times, in the leg, the arm, and the abdomen, then set the gun down on a table and waited to be arrested. Lowenstein died a few hours later.
In many respects, Lowenstein seems today a relic of a vanished time. He was a product of the naive confidence in the American mission of the 1940s and 1950s, and of the equally naive liberal conviction of the 1960s that idealism and social commitment could end social injustice without any need for fundamental changes in the nation’s values and institutions. Many of his ideas seem simplistic now amid the contentious complexity of contemporary politics. In other respects, however, his beliefs and achievements are as relevant to our own time as they were to his. In a cynical, apolitical age, he asked young men and women to believe that politics mattered, that participation in government was important—that they could actually help change the world. He managed to inspire hundreds of young people to shed apathy and become engaged in public life.
Lowenstein did all this at the cost of his own frustrated search for personal fulfillment—a kind of sacrifice our own culture seldom respects. But he never lost his faith in the possibilities of social progress through political action; and he succeeded in persuading many other young people to believe in causes larger than themselves. His achievements, and even his sacrifices, stand in stark contrast to the hollowness of so much political life today.
November 3, 1994
David Harris, “Bloody End of a 60’s Dream,” New York Times Magazine, August 17, 1980, pp. 34–36 ff.; Harris, Dreams Die Hard (St.Martin’s/Marek, 1982); Teresa Carpenter, “From Heroism to Madness: The Odyssey of the Man Who Shot A1 Lowenstein,” Village Voice, May 12, 1980, pp. 1, 24–27. ↩
Lowenstein, Brutal Mandate: A Journey to South West Africa (Macmillan, 1962), p. 247. ↩