A Bomb in Every Issue

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Peter Richardson, The New Press, £19.99

When Ramparts first hit the shelves in San Francisco in 1962 as a Catholic literary magazine, the lead articles debated the literary merits of J D Salinger and Tennessee Williams. Its minimalist front cover featured what looked like a white turret against a red background and the back cover carried a white cross. But by 1969 the magazine cover was of a child carrying the Viet Cong flag next to the words, "Alienation is when your country is at war and you want the other side to win" and carried articles by the Black Panthers promoting revolutionary violence.

The history of Ramparts magazine is a history of 1960s radicalism, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area. It rode the waves of the massive changes of the day, from flower power to black power.

It was founded by Edward Keating, a liberal Catholic (albeit with some reactionary ideas) with a personal wealth capable of funding such a project. As time progressed, so did the magazine. The rise of the New Left, the hippy counterculture, and the growing anti-war movement created fertile soil for Ramparts, which offered a glossy and visually exciting alternative to the leftist publications of the time.

Its style and flair were no doubt partly down to the egos at the top. For a magazine attempting to run on a shoe-string budget, the senior editors would spend large amounts of time and money schmoozing celebrities and potential donors. This sometimes gave hugely contradictory results. Ramparts would happily print hard-hitting articles on the treatment of blacks in society alongside interviews with the likes of the odious Hugh Heffner in his "Playboy Mansion".

But for all this, Ramparts did break some extraordinary stories. It uncovered illegal monitoring operations by the CIA in the US, featured testimony on Vietnam by serving soldiers, and even had an ex-FBI whistleblower on its editorial board.

The author also credits Ramparts with pushing Martin Luther King to make his first speech against the Vietnam War. King had previously been cautious, wanting to concentrate solely on civil rights issues. But one issue in 1967, featuring a photo essay called "The Children of Vietnam", caught King's eye, and reportedly led to his change of mind.

The array of writers who would eventually have their byline in the magazine is a roll-call of radicals of the day: Seymour Hersh, Hunter S Thompson, Huey P Newton, Christopher Hitchens, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and John Lennon all contributed.

But as the movements which rocketed Ramparts from a circulation of 2,000 to some half a million started to settle, the rocket started to fall. In 1975 it was no longer able to survive, but its legacy was important.

Ramparts staff went on to create two enduringly successful magazines: Mother Jones, which attempted to continue the Ramparts tradition of progressive muckraking, and Rolling Stone, which along with the likes of contributor Hunter S Thompson created the genre of Gonzo journalism.

Peter Richardson has done some amazing research in his chronicle of Ramparts. It is not just important in providing a narrative of the era, but also as a tale of the problems associated with creating a mass circulation magazine reliant on funding by wealthy liberals yet devoted to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

Richardson's assertion that the magazine was central to changing the face of the US is perhaps a little overblown; I would have thought that the magazine rode the waves of the changing times, rather than creating them. But this is a small criticism of an otherwise hugely engaging and important work.