The Vietnam War was a Seminal Event for Me -  Michael Ratner on Reality Asserts Itself Pt 1/7

Mr. Ratner, President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, tells Paul Jay that the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War transformed him from a “good liberal kid” into an activist questioning the role of America in the world. This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced March 2, 2014 with Paul Jay.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to a new series of interviews on Reality Asserts Itself.

I’ve been wanting to do this series for a long time. Michael Ratner is one of our regular guests. He’s also one of my favorite guests. He’s also a board member of The Real News Network.

And as you know, those of you who watch Reality Asserts Itself, part one is usually kind of biographical, and then we get into some of the issues. But we’re going to do it a little differently with Michael, because, one, we’ve interviewed Michael on the issues many times. In fact, Michael does a weekly gig with us. But Michael has also lived so much of the important history since the 1960s to today; and through the story of his life, it will be a great and important, I think, exploration of those events. So more or less this whole series is going to be biographical.

So, without further ado, joining us now in the studio is Michael Ratner.

Thanks for joining us, Michael.


JAY: Michael Ratner is president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. He’s chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s currently the American legal representative for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Michael and CCR brought the first case challenging Guantanamo detentions and continue their efforts to close Guantanamo. He’s the host of the radio show Law and Disorder. He is–well, he was president of the National Lawyers Guild. He’s written several books, some of them legal theory, others more popular–most recent, his book Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in 21st-Century America. And, as I said, he’s a board member of Real News.

So, as I said, we start from the beginning.

RATNER: Well, the beginning, Paul, is that I started as your earliest board member of The Real News, right?

JAY: That’s right. You were, like, I think, number one.

RATNER: And now I’m sitting in this unbelievable studio in Baltimore. And congratulations, ’cause everybody ought to get here. It’s fabulous.

JAY: Well, thank you. And we are inviting just about everyone to come, and we’ll let you know when. It won’t be long.

So let’s start at your beginning. Tell us about where you’re born, the house you grow up in, and more about what shapes you in terms of you as a socially conscious, politically conscious person.

RATNER: You know, it was a long time ago. I was born in the middle of the Second World War, 1943. So it was a Jewish family. As I was being born, of course, millions were being killed, Jews and others, in Europe. And, of course, that was always something that I was very conscious of in my family.

My family was an immigrant family. My father came from–1921 from Poland. He had no money. He came when he was 16. He had no education. He was raised during the First World War, and he would tell me stories about the First World War.

JAY: Now, coming in 1921–there’s different waves of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, and the ’21 wave is different than my family’s, which is the 1904 wave, where you’re usually trying to escape pogroms. But coming in ’21 sounds like escaping the Bolshevik Revolution.

RATNER: I think that’s important. His older brother came in 1905, which was, again, a pogrom in the part of Poland they were in. And he came in 1905. He went back in 1920 to get my father, all his brothers and sisters, of which there were many–eight–and brought them here. And that is true: it was about the Bolshevik Revolution, at least in large part, I think.

They had a very small textile loom or something, three or four looms. And then I think the story is one day the Bolsheviks came into Bialystok, which is where they were from, and they told my grandfather, well, now you’re the manager and you’re not the owner anymore. And for a variety of reasons, they decided that wasn’t a good idea, and they left. I think one of my uncles remembers, actually, Lenin’s troops coming into that part of Poland. So it’s an amazing set of memories around that.

JAY: So is that part of the milieu is sort of an anger against the Bolsheviks? And as you grew up and the Cold War propaganda against the Soviet Union heats up, is that in your household, given the history of the business being taken over and such?

RATNER: It wasn’t–I don’t think it was in the household. What was in the household for sure was that everything can change in a moment, that security, country, livelihood, all of that could shift. And so there wasn’t any real feeling of permanence in that sense.

When my father came, as I said, he was 16. He had no education, really, because during the war he couldn’t get one, during the First World War. And he started off as a water boy on a construction job–a water man, I guess, but he called himself a water boy–and he would carry the water for mixing the concrete by hand. He then had what was typical for, I guess, that sector of immigrants, which is to open a little–they called it a creamery, but it’s essentially a little place that sells canned goods, much like we see people doing today. And then my family eventually went into a trucking/building business, really, business. But he never had an education. It was very important to him that his three children had an education.

My mother was one of 12. Of the twelve, she was the–there were only two born in this country. Again, her family all came from Poland. Again, she was very poor. She told me stories of having to trap pigeons on the roof and eat them for their meals.

They both came out of families that had very, very little. But eventually, as my father got into business, he did decently well. As I said, it was a concrete business.

But what was interesting to me about it–and it was one of the shaping things of my career, for sure–were two aspects of it, I would say. One is there are two types of trucks. One is a cement mixer. One is a dump truck. And the cement mixers were controlled by the Teamsters union, and you could only be white to drive a cement mixer. And it was higher pay than those people who drove the dump trucks, which were primarily, in Cleveland at that time, African-American. And my father hated it.

JAY: This is all in Cleveland.

RATNER: All in Cleveland. And my father hated it. He was non–he didn’t ever believe in discrimination. Back at our household oftentimes we’d have people who were just out of prison, and it was a big thing for him to support people getting jobs who were prisoners, etc., former prisoners, etc. He was not into any kind of discrimination at all, and very much, because he was working class himself–originally, at least, when he came to the country, very. That was his sympathies.

And so at one point he tried to cross that what we’d have to call a color line, to put an African American into a white cement mixer. And the truck was blown up. This was 1950s Cleveland. It was a very, very segregated city, including the labor force.

So that was an early, very early lesson for me on, really, discrimination, I mean, the hardest kind.

JAY: So you’re about ten years old when this happened.

RATNER: Ten years old. Not just in the workplace, I mean, not just in living and housing patterns, which–Cleveland was completely segregated housing laws.

JAY: Like Baltimore, where we are.

RATNER: Yes, very much so. I mean, my community had very few African Americans in it, but in the workplace, in the workplace as well.

I think the second thing that was interesting and important for me is, here I was the son, really, of the owner of a business, and I would walk out in the yard, and everybody would give me this extra respect, as if I had done something in my life, and I’m nine years old. And I look, and it just felt completely uncomfortable. Completely. So it’s a situation I–business–.

JAY: You’re the owner’s kid.

RATNER: Right. So it’s a situation that obviously in my life I just tried to avoid. I never wanted to be in that situation.

And I think a third thing is not just being Jewish, but having a father who had a very heavy accent, so heavy that, you know, he wouldn’t do a lot of public speaking or anything like that. And therefore we were sort of–I mean, Jews were also isolated, certainly from the upper middle class–.

JAY: Was it the same thing in Cleveland? In Baltimore there used to be signs up: “No niggers, no Jews, no dogs”. And even in the newspaper here, as late as 1969, there was a section of real estate for whites, a section for Jews, and no section for blacks.

RATNER: Yeah, I think Baltimore, you know, partakes of its southern history in that sense. I mean, it wouldn’t have been that overt in Cleveland. But, you know, it wasn’t like if a African-American wanted to move nextdoor to my house in Shaker Heights, which was a upper middle class suburb. You know, I don’t think that the real estate people wouldn’t have shown–.

JAY: But I guess what I’m asking is: were Jews as segregated as they were in Baltimore?

RATNER: We were one of the first Jewish families to buy in Shaker Heights. There were covenants in all the deeds that you couldn’t sell to African Americans or Jews, and perhaps others. But those two I remember was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. So by the time I’m born, those covenants are knocked out. There are still not a lot of Jews where I’m living.

So, in a sense, we were–.

JAY: Just to make sure everybody gets that, ’cause I don’t think a lot of people know this history, there’s actually laws in Cleveland–there was in Baltimore, I assume in some other cities–it was actually in your deed: you are not allowed to sell the house to a black family or a Jewish family.

RATNER: That’s correct. And it went to the Supreme Court, and it was a case called Shelley v. Kraemer. But it’s not important, the name. But they held that unconstitutional discrimination. And it was one of the earliest. That took place in the ’40s.

So we moved to Shaker after the war, ’48 or ’49, so it was really shortly after those covenants were held unconstitutional. So I felt–so the third influence would have been this feeling of being a discriminated minority, partly because of being Jewish, but also partly ’cause my father was probably the only father in my entire elementary school who had a heavy accent. I was the only immigrant kid, I mean, as far as I knew that it was–.

So all of those influences really made me both–you know, obviously, the issue of race and discrimination was huge for me; the issue of a business and having–what have I accomplished that–did I deserve extra respect for that; and the third one being essentially an outsider. And I think those were all influence.

At the same time, of course, it was a Jewish family, and Israel was founded in 1948. So I’m five years old. Do I remember the founding? No. But do I remember meetings at my house, like there were in probably many, you know, affluent Jewish homes about supporting Israel? Of course, lots of that. And ultimately I went when I was, you know, 13 years old. I spent two months in Israel.

JAY: So support for Israel, feeling Israel as a kind of a homeland, it’s–becomes part of your identity?

RATNER: You know, did we feel it as kind of a homeland? I can’t say. It’s post-Holocaust. You know, it’s partly about–.

JAY: A place of safety?

RATNER: Yeah, I think it’s partly about that. But I certainly felt, you know, that it was part of me. I mean, when I went when I was 13, I thought I was walking where, you know, my relatives walked, and I was completely engaged in Israel. I played, you know, the songs of the kibbutzes, which are the sort of socialist places where people would live in the early days. I had a map of Israel painted on my wall. I mean, it–I was very–but when I was 13, it was a very important–very important that you go to–.

JAY: Did you go to, like, Zionist summer camps?

RATNER: No, no. I went to whatever schools you went to, you know, during the week, but I never went to a Zionist camp.

JAY: What were the politics of your father? He comes of age or maturity during the Depression, the Roosevelt years.

RATNER: Liberal Democrat, really sharply liberal Democrat, I would say, particularly on issues having to do with discrimination, you know, a fair shake for everybody. You know, he really believed strongly in that, and was a very charitable man, but not in a public way. It was all done anonymously. And it was things like if a person was burned out of their home in downtown Cleveland, there was a fund that he didn’t even administer that they could just come to them, and he would give them–they would get a check for that refrigerator, new refrigerator or whatever.

And that really–that was a huge–that’s been a huge influence on my whole family, the three siblings looking at helping others, and in an anonymous way, to a large extent. …

JAY: The ’50s is a weird decade. It’s–McCarthyism ushers it in, the House Un-American Activities Committee. It’s Leave It to Beaver kind of television. It’s this kind of–I always have seen it as a decade where the American elites are trying to undo the kind of awakening that took place during the Second World War in the 1930s, particularly this anti-fascist consciousness. You know, a lot of soldiers came back from Europe saying, we went to fight for democracy, now let’s have some. Nineteen forty-six, there’s more strikes than the whole history in the United States, I think, before or after. The late ’40s, it’s a very militant period. And then you have this culture of the ’50s that tried to kind of almost stamp down the intellectual fervor of the ’30s and ’40s.

What’s your experience of the ’50s? You’re old enough to kind of get a sense of it.

RATNER: Well, my experience growing up was, you know, pretty insulated–I mean, other than the issues I’ve just raised, quite insulated.

I mean, you know, Cleveland had, actually, a number of auto plants and steel mills, and to that extent there was some opportunity for African Americans to actually get work in union jobs (which has been destroyed, of course). And so there was some positive part of that.

In terms of the McCarthy part, it was–I would say I was utterly unaware of it, other than a–I have a strong image of the Rosenberg children, you know, now the Meeropol children, but taking their parents, or at least their father and mother, some gifts on, you know, some birthday or something when they were in prison and, of course, later executed.

JAY: And just quickly for people that don’t know, the Rosenbergs were a couple. They were members of the American Communist Party, I believe,–


JAY: –were they not? They were accused of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and eventually executed–and still–I think still a great debate whether they actually were involved in anything other than politics.

RATNER: Yeah, I mean, the much more difficult issues, for us, at least, ’cause my father in business was around, really, the mafia and the trucking business and things like that, those were much more–those were closer to us than the McCarthy stuff just didn’t really seem to have any influence at all.

JAY: Well, in 1963, first of all, there’s the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I know for me personally it was a very transformative moment for me, because I thought the world was going to blow up. The world in fact, apparently, was on the edge of nuclear war. And it had a big impact on me. What about you?

RATNER: By 1963 I’m in college. I’m at Brandeis in Boston. And, of course, that was for–you know, as a sort of upper middle class kid from Cleveland, it was a very liberating experience. It was a Jewish-origin school. It was a very liberal-to-left school at the time. It had Angela Davis in my class, the Foners, whose family–Laura Foner–was a family as, you know, famous left progressives, intellectuals. It had a class–it was a remarkable place.

And so it was about banning the bomb at that point. The main activity was going out and banning the bomb. And to some extent–and I had some involvement in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), helped run an office in Boston. That was during the Freedom Summer.

JAY: Okay. So you’re already into activism by ’63. So what turns the corner for you to even get your foot into that?

RATNER: Am I heavily into activism? I wouldn’t say that.

JAY: I didn’t say heavily, but you’re in.

RATNER: Well, I think I just–I think what happened to me: the atmosphere at my college was so extraordinary–. Well, two things. The atmosphere at the college was extraordinary. I mean, Herbert Marcuse, the famous Marxist, was a professor at the college. There were professors who were involved in the civil rights movement. There were also some people, like, who had to teach there because they’d lost their jobs because they were communist. I can’t remember their names right now, but there were three or four, at least, very prominent people who were teaching at Brandeis who took them in after they lost their jobs. So there was a lot of influence, progressive influence at the university and among the students who went there. So my roommate had gone in the South and was a folk singer, I mean, and it had all of that going on, from Pete Seeger to the Clancy Brothers to all these groups. So that was one influence.

And the other was the times. You know, we had this–that was, like, you know, the heart of the civil rights movement, in a certain way.

JAY: Well, had any of this touched you in high school? Or this is like, you get to university, and all this new world you were now part of?

RATNER: Other than my background as being from the family was in, none of it touched me, no, and it didn’t happen till college.

And I wouldn’t say I was by any means left at that point. I was a liberal kid. I didn’t want to see a bomb. You know, I didn’t believe in discrimination. So I thought about the Southern civil rights struggle. But I was a good, decent liberal kid.

JAY: And the Democratic Party you feel connected to?

RATNER: I’m trying to remember who ran for office then. When was Johnson elected?

JAY: Well, Johnson takes over after Kennedy, so it was–.

RATNER: So it’s ’63. Okay. So the killing of Kennedy is very important to all of us during that period. I remember it completely when it happened. And Johnson takes over after that.

JAY: What did that feel like, do to you, that [crosstalk] Kennedy is killed?

RATNER: Well, my father had died when I was 18. So I went off to college a week after my father died. It was very, very hard.

So this was by the time of my third year at college, and Kennedy’s shot in November. And at that point I think it just all came back to me, my father’s death and dealing with it, and I just–I took that year off from college, and I lived in Cambridge, and I worked in a bookstore. And that’s what I did. I just sort of–that was it. It just caused tremendous emotional issues for me during that particular period.

The reason I mentioned Johnson is, when Johnson ran, then he would have ran about ’66 or so, I think. I don’t remember. I think I was still in school then, in college. And I remembered, when you asked me about whether I was a Democrat, I voted for Johnson ’cause he said he would not use nuclear weapons against the Vietnamese in the war, whereas Barry Goldwater left open the option of using nuclear weapons. So I figured, okay, this guy, he’s not going to use nuclear weapons.

And that was probably the last election I voted in–I won’t say ever, but I may have voted for McGovern, I think, at some point, about stopping the war. But I essentially don’t really engage in national politics. And part of that was because what Johnson did–yeah, he didn’t drop the bomb, but he escalated the war to 550,000 American troops and kept the thing going, basically for years, killing probably a couple of million Vietnamese.

JAY: Now, when you say you’re a good liberal kid, part of that liberal Democratic vision of the world, which, you know, incorporates the Truman vision of the world and the Kennedy vision of the world, is America as the white knight, America as, you know, bringing democracy and enlightenment to the world. And, you know, Kennedy starts the Vietnam War. Is that part of your outlook at that time?

RATNER: You know, I think it’s important what you’re saying. I think growing up in that period in the ’50s, I think we were inculcated with the idea that the United States was the savior of the world and is the best and we could only say to ourselves how lucky we are to be born in America. You know. And, of course, you know, of course, the ’50s is the year–and I do remember that–where they put the word God in the Pledge of Allegiance. When they put it on the back of the dollar bill I don’t remember. It was all about anticommunism, of course.

But I think the Vietnam War was a seminal event for me, yes, in terms of saying the United States is not doing good here. And I had arguments all the time with people about it, because people believed in the United States. They were taught that the United States did good in the world. They were taught that without the United States, of course, looking at the Second World War–but, of course, they left out Russia from that little equation. But they were taught that you didn’t question the United States about what it was doing. And the fights were–I had big fights at college in the ’60s, or late ’60s and early ’70s, once I got to law school, but, really, late ’60s, when I was at–I guess I was at law school in the late ’60s. Yeah. Big fights with people about the United States doing the right thing. And so that would have been a seminal event for me.

Now why I took that position early on. I think I–. I know what it is. At college, okay, at Brandeis (I just–this is fascinating; I forgot this), I did one of my final papers on the Vietnam War. And I just wanted to know about it, and I read there weren’t many English books about it. There was Bernard Fall. I remember about six books you could read. I read the six books. I wrote this paper about this is not really a war about bringing communism to all of Vietnam. That’s not what–yeah, Ho Chi Minh may do that, but in fact this is a war about nationalism and putting the country back together, and they’d been really screwed out of their elections they were going to have to keep it together. And the U.S. wanted to make sure that Ho Chi Minh didn’t rule the whole country and that it didn’t become communist. But in fact it was a national struggle.

So I wrote this paper, and I gave it to a professor who happened to be from Australia, and I didn’t get a great grade on it. I probably got a B+. But he wrote on it and he said, you just underestimate what the communists are going to do, and this is about the communists.

JAY: And that didn’t resonate with you, given your father had run from the communists in Poland.

RATNER: You know, it didn’t really. I don’t know if they ever really–they never talked about running from the communists that much other than that one story I said about their factory.

The communists never–it just–it was obvious to me in reading about Vietnam that this was a national struggle, it should be one country, whatever their government was, and that we were in there for reasons having nothing to do with the people of Vietnam.

JAY: So this is the, really, beginnings of your anti-imperialism?

RATNER: I think that’s right. I still have that paper. I have to go back and look at it. I don’t think it’s probably very good, ’cause there were only half a dozen books. Yeah, that paper was, I guess, a big deal for me.

JAY: Okay. Well, we’re going to pick this story up in part two.

So please join us for part two of Reality Asserts Itself with Michael Ratner on The Real News Network.



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