On the recommendations of friends I watched the recent Aaron Sorkin film, The Trial of the Chicago Seven. I found it to be like so much that comes out of Hollywood: well-acted and directed with top notch production values - and politically manipulative with its reinforcement of an unwarranted cinematic cliché: the rule of law was upheld in the end and justice was served.
I understand that Mr. Sorkin did not intend to make a documentary; I also understand that an artist has creative license to bend fact into fiction to achieve a particular interpretive effect. But Sorkin’s interpretive effect, achieved via distortion and omission, is pernicious. He could have included further material to give a more accurate portrayal of the politics of the era – a portrayal that would have added to the complexity of the film and heightened the drama by clarifying the political issues that led to the trial. Those issues concerned the conflicting politics within the antiwar war movement and the widespread yet secret use of government surveillance and repression under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Their inclusion in the story of the famous trial would have necessarily changed the concluding interpretive effect and, to my mind, changed it for the better. Let me explain why.
The Politics of the Antiwar Movement
Sorkin’s depiction of the antiwar movement as focused on the loss of American lives trivializes the politics of the period. In his film Sorkin has one of the defendants attempt to read the names of American war dead in the courtroom – a misleading point because in reality the list of war dead read at the trial also included Vietnamese names which by their sheer number dwarfed the number of American dead. Antiwar activists objected not only to the deaths of American soldiers but also to the deaths of the Vietnamese people. The majority of Vietnamese dead were civilians and they died from the massive expenditure of U.S. firepower. Military veterans confirmed this. One prominent Marine officer returning from Vietnam, Lieutenant Colonel William Corson, in his book about the war referred to American counterinsurgency strategy as “genocide.” Antiwar activists were trying to stop a genocidal war – a war that many of them viewed not as “mistake” undertaken out of honorable and defensible intentions but as a deliberate war of barbaric aggression built upon a scaffold of lies.
Sorkin portrays the political division in the antiwar movement as a difference in activist strategy: work within and through existing political channels to build opposition to the war (the Tom Hayden-Rennie Davis position) or engage in political theater to mock and satirize the government waging the war (the Abbie Hoffman-Jerry Rubin approach). While this difference did exist, there was a much deeper and far more significant division within the antiwar movement – the division between those who saw the war as a tragic political error, a mistake built on a misinformed understanding of Vietnamese politics versus those who perceived the war as the logical outcome of the imperialist character of an advanced capitalist economy (the U.S.) fighting to keep the labor and commodity markets of Southeast Asia open for private investment. This division could be characterized as an opposition between liberals and leftists, between reformers and revolutionaries. The opposing sides struggled for supremacy within the antiwar movement; the possible ascendancy of the revolutionary leftist interpretation was perceived by authorities as a very real danger.
The danger was that the leftist perspective saw the Vietnam War as a brutal foreign policy expression of domestic policy towards the American working class. The destruction of villages and forced removal of peasants from their rice farms, the housing of refugees in shantytowns on the peripheries of South Vietnamese cities, and the pollution of the environment with a toxic defoliant (Agent Orange) called to mind the genocidal removal of Indians from their ancestral lands, the segregation of racial and ethnic minorities in urban slums, and the ongoing chemical degradation of the environment. The explosive growth within South Vietnam of a prostitution industry replete with brothels housed on a select few U.S. military bases called to mind the sexist devaluation of women in America. And the use of American soldiers to defend a corrupt ruling clique in Saigon mirrored the use of domestic police forces against American workers protesting their racial and economic exploitation at the hands of the wealthy and powerful.
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The Trial of the Chicago Seven is misleading as history. It is another example of the general failure of Hollywood (and Netflix and Amazon) to produce accurate historical dramas that speak truth to power.
The possibility that life in the United States might come to be seen as based on the same logic as the Vietnam war was a threatening possibility because its dangerous consequence would be the de-legitimation of political authority. Governments rest on more than force – they rest best on trust, on a perception that the government serves all citizens more or less fairly. When that trust is lost, when authorities are perceived as illegitimate, the moral conviction that obedience to authority is a civic duty may be replaced with a conviction that disobedience to authority is a civic duty. Society becomes ripe for rebellion and revolutionary politics. This was the fear engendered by the Leftist theory of the war. The authorities, cognizant of the potential danger, responded accordingly. And this brings us to a second criticism of Sorkin’s film.
The Program of Government Repression
The Trial of the Chicago Seven touches very briefly on the killing of the Chicago Black Panther, Fred Hampton. In Sorkin’s telling Hampton was killed by Chicago police while he slept as they raided his home. This is a gross misrepresentation of the truth by omission. It is true that Chicago police killed Fred Hampton and it is true that he was asleep. Yet there is much more to say. For starters, the killing was not accidental – it was a targeted assassination planned by the Chicago police in conjunction with the FBI as part of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to neutralize charismatic leftist black leaders like Hampton. Furthermore, the police used an informant to infiltrate the Chicago Panthers and drug Hampton on the night of the raid. This guaranteed Hampton’s inability to defend himself. When the truth of this political assassination came out many months later after prodigious investigation, not one of the FBI and Chicago PD officials responsible for Hampton’s killing were ever charged and tried for murder.
From watching The Trial of the Chicago Seven no one would realize that the killing of Fred Hampton was a police assassination; neither would anyone know why Hampton was killed. The answer in brief is that Hampton was a Leftist revolutionary who incessantly and charismatically delivered an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist message to the young people of Chicago. To the political authorities this made Hampton much more dangerous than Hayden and Hoffman. It also explains why Bobby Seale was originally indicted: because he too identified the war as an imperialist war of aggression arising from the political-economy of American capitalism.
Sorkin could have worked these points into his narrative. He could have further pointed out that the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations, although first begun in 1956 under the Republican Eisenhower administration to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party, were expanded during the presidencies of the liberal Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He could have informed the film viewers that COINTELPRO was intended to reduce the rights of free speech and free assembly among those whom the FBI considered to be dissidents.He could have indicated that COINTELPRO activities involved not only assassination but also operations like writing anonymous letters to spouses of dissidents to disrupt their marriages, carrying out illegal break-ins and burglaries to obtain information on dissidents, using agents provocateurs to infiltrate dissident groups to advocate bombings and other forms of violence, writing anonymous derogatory letters attacking the political views of activists and sending these letters to their employers in hopes they would be fired from employment, publishing false and derogatory information to cause strife and violence between black political organizations, providing funds to paramilitary organizations to carry out attacks such as fire bombings against leftist organizations, giving false and/or derogatory information concerning activist students and faculty to college administrators, and also acquiring the IRS tax returns of dissidents in an effort to further threaten and harass them. Finally, Sorkin could have let us know that it was liberal Democrat LBJ who authorized the CIA to begin the secret and illegal Operation CHAOS in 1967 compiling files on more than one hundred domestic organizations and thousands of individuals as it spied upon the antiwar movement.
Instead, Sorkin limited the story of political repression of the antiwar activists to the incoming Republican Party President, Richard Nixon, and his Attorney General, John Mitchell. Even then he eased his condemnation of judicial authorities by misrepresenting the lead federal prosecutor as someone who had doubts about the legitimacy of the trial of the seven defendants.
The Trial of the Chicago Seven is misleading as history. It is another example of the general failure of Hollywood (and Netflix and Amazon) to produce accurate historical dramas that speak truth to power. It continues a popular motif: the rule of law was ultimately upheld, and justice was served. In reality, the rule of law was not upheld, and justice was not served. Those responsible for the extrajudicial execution of Fred Hampton were never tried for their crime. The chief perpetrators of the American war in Southeast Asia (Johnson, McNamara, Nixon, Kissinger, Westmoreland, Abrams) also escaped trial.
By evading these issues forming the context of the trial, The Trial of the Chicago Seven serves less as history and more as a reassuring propaganda piece regarding the rule of law and the operation of justice in America. It serves as an example of how the corporate class (in this case Netflix) engages in the ideological manipulation and political pacification of the populace.