A Nuclear Gem

Founding manifesto of the U.S. New Left found to be surprisingly soft on the atom

2 min read

For Americans who came of age in the 1960s, at least the more political of them, the holy of holies was the Port Huron Statement. The founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the statement called for "establishment of a democracy of individual participation," a politics "bringing people out of isolation and into community."

Did it make a lot of sense, at a time when communities in the U.S. South were barring Blacks from schools and desegregation could be enforced only by Federal agents, to propose a progressive politics based on greater communitarianism? Not a lot, perhaps, but it also didn't much matter. That's because the details generally didn't much matter. What counted was the spirit of the document, which really did capture the longing of a new generation--the first postwar generation to reach adulthood--for new political beginnings based on a kind of humanism rather than traditional liberalism or socialism.

Mad Men, the wildly popular television series about the world of advertising in the 1960s, nicely captures this point in an episode in which two young men propose an ad campaign echoing Port Huron principles. Holding a copy of the statement in his hands, one of them tells their boss that the Port Huron authors "would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, and circumstances" with power based in "love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity." (For those of you who are sticklers for documentation, that's in Season 2, "The Gold Violin.")

Does it really make sense that cynical Madison Avenue ad executives would  create a campaign for a New York City coffee brand on the basis of the Port Huron Statement? Not really. Could it really have happened? Sure. After all, nobody took the statement too literally, and for many claiming to be inspired by its principles, it might as well have been written in Latin, Arabic or Sanskrit.

Yet even so, there's one little detail that may come as a surprise to many a Sixties veteran today--especially those who may have become active in anti-nuclear-power movements of the Seventies and Eighties. In an article assessing President Obama's pro-nuclear stance in the current issue of the New Yorker, the magazine's political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg draws attention to these lines in the statement: "Our monster cities, based historically on the need for mass labor, might now be humanized, broken into smaller communities, powered by nuclear energy, arranged according to community decision."

Why would we want need huge nuclear reactors to power smaller communities once large cities are eliminated? Don't ask. The details really didn't matter.





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