A Government Spy in the SDS (1969)
Don Meinshausen, a 19-year-old New Jersey student, was called before the House Internal Security Committee (formerly HUAC) one day in August to testify as a "friendly" witness on his activities as paid infiltrator of SDS chapters, conventions, and the National Office. Several months before, however, Meinshausen had begun a process of changing allegiances from HUAC to the Movement. He had come to Washington to seek the advice of Karl Hess, a former right-wing activist and Goldwater aide, who in the past year had also begun to think of himself as part of the radical Movement The night before the HUAC hearing, Meinshausen drafted a statement condemning the Committee. The next morning, before Meinshausen-dressed in jeans and a work shirt, with long hair, a moustache and granny glasses-had a chance to testify, Committee staffers learned of his change of mind, and in a series of baffling maneuvers (with attempted strong-arm tactics against the witness) managed to cancel the hearing altogether. Later in the same week, Meinshausen was interviewed by Andrew Kopkind, and the following edited version of the recorded transcript was made:
I grew up in Nutley, New Jersey. My parents were German immigrants, Lutherans. My father was a baker till his business failed. He was conservative and both my parents were against Communists. We have relatives behind the Iron Curtain who we would send packages to-and they were influenced a lot by the mass media. All sorts of things like, "I Led Three Lives." We went to church once a week but the church was mostly old people. I couldn't identify with it. My parents' attitude toward Negroes was very weird. It seemed we liked Negro people all right, and we gave stuff to them as charity, but we wouldn't want to live next door to them. We put a lot of money in the house, and, you know, property values go down.
In high school I got caught up in the Goldwater movement.
We had a pretty big group; at the time we thought we wanted a change. Looking back it all seems pretty romantic. We liked him because he was an individualist, because he was fighting the Eastern liberal establishment, because he was talking about a return to American ideals. And he had guts. You could just tell that he wasn't a phony. But most of the people who were in that group have gone, left. One of them has been involved in People's Park; another one has been arrested for selling guns; another's a real leftist. Others I guess have just gotten sick of politics and left it.
Gradually, I got into politics more seriously. I went through a stage when I studied Ayn Rand and took a few courses on objectivism. I think I needed what they had: a way to answer everything with a certain formula. And at one point I went to a civil rights camp sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Most of the kids there were more liberal than I was. Like, I would say that integration would never work-at the peak of the civil rights movement-or that federal aid to education would lead to federal control. But I noticed that on a lot of things I was more radical than the others. They were still sort of hung up in a vague sort of Christianity while I was coming out with something like atheism.
Once I was arguing with a girl, who was supposed to be liberal, about why two people should be allowed to live together if they want to. She thought it was horrible; I thought it was OK. I think I was looking for a radical alternative to liberalism, and the only place I could find it was in Goldwaterism on the right. At one point I considered joining the Birch Society and even went to some of their meetings.
In September, 1967, I went out to California to a middle-class junior college, Ventura. There was no YAF [Young Americans for Freedom] out there but there was an SDS chapter. It was a very liberal type of thing. We were just holding picket signs. I mean, how can you react to that? It was like nothing. I held a few jobs: One job, at a MacDonald's hamburger stand, really fucked me over-for $1.40 an hour. They treated you like a machine. First they checked into my background and they found out I had a high LQ. I found this amazing because I figured, MacDonald's hamburger stand, why would they want to check my LQ.? And you would have to do something every single second; if you weren't making hamburgers you had to go around wiping stuff. They tried to generate this phoney enthusiasm. "MacDonald's is clean and neat and courteous" and "smile for the customers" and all this type of thing. And I found out that it was really bad stuff. I mean, I don't know if it was inferior meat or anything like that, but it was just bland; it was not really that good at all.
I held some other jobs and then I came back East to Essex County College in Newark, in September, 1968. I wanted to go back into politics since I'd really dug the Goldwater thing, but I didn't want to contradict what I'd already done, so I got involved in Y AF. And what happened was that we were sitting around analyzing what happened to Columbia and saying we don't want this to happen again and gradually we got the idea that if we could find out ahead of time what the radicals were planning-you know, like the takeover of a building or something-we'd be better off. We looked at it as a problem in military strategy; we needed better intelligence. And I figured that since I was new I was the only person not known as a right-winger and that I could get into SDS much more easily.
Essex County is really one of the worst schools in the world. It's in a building right in the middle of Newark that was part of Seton Hall, which sold it to the city. It's old and dingy and a couple of weeks a year they tear up the street and you can't hear anything that's going on. The halls are always crowded. You go into the cafeteria and it smells like a factory. There's no place you can go to relax. The college was started to keep kids off the streets, prevent riots and to make the city administration look good. A lot of the deans were brought up from places in the South. Only one of about 33 administrators was black. Another, the assistant to the dean of students, was a goddamn fascist. At one point he tried to get the right-wing Italian kids to organize politically against me.
There was no SDS chapter at Essex and to "infiltrate" I had to organize one. I talked to a lot of kids who looked friendly and said, look, let's organize an SDS or some kind of peace group.
People liked the idea and I started to go through the channels, and that's when I got my first hasslings from the administration. They said I couldn't organize SDS because they didn't want any new national organizations on campus, so I said OK, we're going to call it Students for Peace. I wasn't really doing it as a put-on but as a kind of political experiment. I figured I'd just set it in motion and see how it moves along, and this way I could see first-hand what really happens. The first meeting of Students for Peace was OK. There were a lot of people there, and some very radical sponsors from the faculty, and I said, "Well, we're going to do this, this and this, and talk about the war, and see what we can do." Then at the second meeting we had I got a speaker from the National Lawyers Guild to come talk on draft resistance.
In the meantime opposition had developed from some of the Italian immigrant kids on campus. They were very hostile to SDS, because they had heard what happened at Columbia and they looked on Essex County College as their only chance of making it in society. They figured, if their college gets closed down or something like that, they'd get screwed. So they were very angry and showed up at the meeting with the Lawyers Guild speaker, shouting and disrupting and calling him a dirty communist. And all the time I'm trying to keep it down to a very low key, just to let it develop and see what happens, and these kids are fucking it up. Later I was called in by the dean, who accused me of holding a disruptive meeting and inviting an outside speaker without going through channels. He said the administration would hold a trial on the charges. So I went to the Lawyers Guild and one of the guys said, great, we'll represent you, make a big issue out of this. And he wrote a letter to the dean saying that. And the dean caved in because he was afraid of the lawyers, and eventually the charges just disappeared. I got a lot of publicity; I mean, I was interviewed by the school newspaper and all that. Suddenly I found myself cast in this role: SDS organizer on campus. And I thought, insane. This was the most insane possible thing that could happen. But it was cool, you know.
Another weird thing happened. SDS-Rutgers had called for a march through Newark, condemning the elections. So I figured the thing for me to do is get some kids to march, just to see how it goes again. I told the Y AF kids about it and they said they'd try to arrange some counter-demonstration, but that nothing serious would happen. They were wrong. The demonstration got wild. There was a rally inside a park, with SDS and the Panthers and guerrilla theater and everything like that. On the outside were the Y AF kids plus these Italian North Ward kids, shouting and screaming at us. And we're trying to leave, and I don't know who started it but somehow fights break out and more fights and there was a lot of misunderstanding and confusion about what to do and all of a sudden I see these five guys about to attack me. And a black kid who I made friends with the day before is fighting off one of the kids who is attacking me and draws a knife on him. And all of a sudden the cops come and they check this black kid who's got the knife and they arrest him. And at the same time the Y AF kids are trying to stop the guys from beating me up, yelling, "Don't do it, don't do it, he's on our side." And my mind is going crazy. It was like literally being pulled apart. On one hand this black kid who I'd just met-he was on probation but he risked himself to try and save me. And on the other side there was another kid who knew what I was up to who also risked his neck to try and save me. I couldn't figure it all out. I wondered, am I to blame for all this that's happening?
Anyway, I continued as an SDS organizer. Eventually we formed a coalition with the black students and had big rallies leading to a sit-in which eventually closed down the school. It was really amazing. You know, like, for the first time in their lives, guys from opposite sides of town were talking to someone different and really trying to reach an understanding and agreeing on demands. The whites agreed to black demands for black administrators. And I was one of the leaders of it; I was sort of leading the hip people. I was really emotionally involved because, like, what kids were demanding was that certain incompetent people be fired, that we should have freedom of discussion, and make the school more responsive to the people there. And you know I could really dig something like this. Some of the kids in SDS didn't like it. They said: "Well look at your demands. None of them are oriented toward the working class. None of them show the contradictions of our society. They're all student-power demands. You can't build a movement from that." And I was screaming at them, What the fuck do you know? I mean you go to some place like Rutgers or Princeton or some place like that, while any day I get my ass kicked in over here. I was really pissed off at them.
I was getting variously hung up. Mostly I found good kids in SDS. Kids that really seemed to be committed to the Movement and really wanted to do good things. They helped me when I got in trouble with the dean. One time I had a talk with Mark Rudd and he really dug what I was doing, you know, organizing at a working class college, and I felt a sort of superiority to kids who were going to Cornell and Harvard while I was doing working-class-organizing.
But some things I didn't like. Especially their attitude toward civil liberties. That was very important to me. I'd talk to them and say, "If Gus Hall was not allowed to speak on campus, would you support or defend the campus position?" And they'd say, "Oh, I'd support it, because Gus Hall presents such a lousy view of Communism." And I've seen times at SDS meetings where they'd say, "Well, we created a civil liberties issue but it was a good thing anyway." You know, apologizing! And saying that student-power isn't really what we're up to. I was pretty far into it, but the farther in I got, the more confused I got. I think I understand some things a little better now, like what civil liberties means in a society when one class makes the rules. But I don't believe in a manipulative struggle.
I think we're going to have to work it up to revolution. Any other way is bad. And I figure if you can really get clear-cut concessions going, get them. Because I think the ruling class can make concessions that will hurt them, too, and eventually sort of maneuver themselves out of the picture.
Around January of this year I started to work for HUAC. One of the Y AF kids told me that a guy from HUAC wanted to get in touch with me. There are a lot of connections between Y AF and HUAC-they sort of mutually help each other out-and it was all sort of natural. This particular fellow, Herb Romerstein, was a nice guy.
We met first in the Pennsylvania Railroad Terminal in Newark, and later we met seven or eight times in various restaurants. Sometimes Reynolds was there, an intelligence guy from the New Jersey State Police. I had gotten literature and some names and they said it looked good, pretty much what they wanted. They said especially to try to find connections between SDS and the CP.
I kept on getting all this stuff-names and leaflets-but I thought it was pretty silly. The names they could have gotten just by asking on a campus who the SDS people were. And the leaflets said things like, there's going to be a meeting somewhere; or else they said things like, America is an imperialist country and we're revolutionaries. I thought: big deal. So they're calling themselves communists. But Romerstein and Reynolds thought it was really something that anybody would call themselves revolutionary communists. What I wanted them to do was expose situations in which SDS was really manipulating people, and I wanted to have HUAC fight them ideologically, but that wasn't what was really going on.
At the same time I was getting more and more into dope. I tried acid, and a few other things. The two things-politics and dope-weren't really contradictory, but they sort of pulled me back and forth. Also at the same time, I began taking their money. Eventually I told them I was willing to go to the SDS convention in Austin, and they said they'd pay for it. I gave them all the resolutions and all the literature that was passed out-there was no security and anybody could have gotten in. I figured it was all a waste of time, but Romerstein kept saying, "No, it's good stuff, it's good stuff." What it was was piles and piles of shit that no one should have bothered reading. He would ask me: What was happening to SDS? I would talk to a few guys and give him some quotes. Then he'd ask: Did anybody call himself a communist? I think they said that every other sentence. I heard it so much-you know, marxist, communist and so on-I didn't think it was very impressive. Meanwhile, I was getting kind of involved. The speeches and stuff bored me, but after I got the HUAC stuff out of the way, I'd go off and talk with some people and smoke dope. I developed principles about what I was doing. I figured I was spying against SDS but I wouldn't tell them about who smoked grass. I mean, if a person smokes dope and he's a communist, cool, I'll tell them he's a communist but I won't tell them that he smokes drugs. And I wouldn't tell on people who were really innocent. But I'd really give it to PL when I could. I hated them.
I went to Chicago twice, once to the SDS convention [in June] once to sort of work there. At the convention I guess I really became involved. I didn't want to work for HUAC, I just wanted to find the people closest to my own type of politics. But Romerstein was there and he would be standing outside with the pigs and I would go to his hotel room and give the literature and tell him what was happening. But I was becoming more and more reticent to talk.
I did find some people in the Anarchist Caucus I felt close to; they said they had a lot of Y AF members in their SDS chapters, and I saw some of the former Y AF people to talk to myself. I liked that, but I didn't like what I saw happening at the rest of the convention and a lot of people agreed with me. Like the security guards.
I thought they were just pigs. A kind of Gestapo within the movement. . In fact I thought the whole security thing was completely ridiculous, egotistical nonsense. It was like the Democratic Convention, hassling people about credentials, and it wasn't doing any good. Anybody could get in who wanted to. I didn't like what I saw (the Ohio and Michigan delegations waving the Red Books and shouting Long Live Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, and I didn't like the thing with the Black Panther when he talked about pussy power and everyone yelled "stop male chauvinism" and I didn't like PL). I began to feel a little guilty because I felt that if I'd joined SDS a few years ago I could have stopped it from becoming what it is becoming.
Later I decided to go to work in the NO [SDS National Office]. Romerstein thought that was good. As it turned out I actually only worked there for one day, because Rudd was the only one I knew and he wasn't there, and they were very uptight about strangers. All I actually did was talk to Mark Rudd. I tried to warn him, tell him about what I was doing. I said, Look, I know there are spies in SDS and a guy from HUAC has been after me to spy for them. And I told him about Y AF -that Y AF was becoming more libertarian-and in general I tried to tell him what was going on, and find out where his head was at. Sometime at about that point I decided it was all over.
I'm not too sure why I eventually changed my mind, but I guess it was building up in me for a long time. Karl Hess was very important to me. I met him at a YAF conference in the spring of '69. He really intrigued me. I talked to him as if I were an SDS person, and he was telling me how all these people like Taft and Webster and Jefferson were really sort of New Leftists, and that they wanted evolution, and things like that. I came to see him in Washington a few times after that, and eventually told him what I was doing. What happened in Newark during the Election Day march and all the things that happened in my school were important. Something in Carl Oglesby's book. Meeting members of SDS who used to belong to YAF. Taking acid. I'm really not sure. At some point my reasons for doing what I was doing came to seem sort of romantic, James Bondish. I wasn't ashamed of what I'd done, but I felt I had to make it right somehow, or rationalize it. But I guess I just "wanted to stop. I don't know what I'm going to do, but now I consider myself part of the Movement.
Source: Hard Times, Sept 29, 1969