Tom Hayden returns home for teach-in, book signings

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News
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Tom Hayden grew up in Royal Oak, the son of parents with opposing political loyalties. His father, an accountant at Chrysler, was a Republican and his mother was a Democrat, but both thought that the government was always telling the truth, he recalls.

Hayden wasn’t so sure, he says. After graduating from Royal Oak Dondero in 1956, he attended the University of Michigan, where he abandoned his goal of being a journalist for social activism. In 1962, he drafted the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), whose activities set campuses alight from coast to coast. It was a tract deeply influenced by sociologist and Cuban revolution enthusiast C. Wright Mills, who Hayden writes, “empowered our activist generation” with the thesis that they should be agents of social change.

In the ’70s, Hayden was active in antiwar and environmental causes and segued into politics, spending 18 years in the California legislature. Along the way, he married actress Jane Fonda in 1973; they had a son, Troy. The couple divorced in 1990; Hayden remarried; he and his wife, Barbara, have a son, Liam.

Now an editor at The Nation and director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City, California, Hayden, 75, returns to Michigan on Friday to take part in an “End the War Against the Planet” teach-in, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 UofM anti-war teach-ins.

Like many activists of the ’60s, Hayden was enthusiastic about the Cuban revolution, and his latest book “Listen, Yankee! Why Cuba Matters” is about the long history of Cuban-American dysfunction leading up to normalization. He’ll talk about the book at Nicola’s in Ann Arbor on Thursday and at Source Booksellers in Detroit on Sunday.

President Obama and Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17, 2014, that full diplomatic relations would be restored immediately between Cuba and the United States. You predicted that — how did you know?

It was an intuition. I’ve known a bit about Cuba for a very long time. I’ve been there on several occasions, I try to keep up on whatever I can read, and you develop an intuition — if you’re wrong you get slapped down, if you’re right, people say ‘how’d you do that’? I did have very close relations with some people in Washington and some people in Havana. I had a very good sense that something very secret was happening at the highest levels. It also was like a detective story. I was following the evidence and it was leading to another attempt at rapprochement. This time I thought it would be different, because Obama will be out in three years and so will Raul Castro (who will step down in 2018). I think they would prefer to settle it between their governments rather than leave it to successive governments.

Some fear that Cuba’s retro charm will be “ruined” with an onslaught of American tourists, cash and corporations.

That’s a common reaction, I understand that. But it does seem to me strange — you want to keep Cuba completely embargoed so you can take a ride in a ’57 Chevy, because Detroit doesn’t make them anymore. Ruined? Cuba is economically quite barren. I guess it’s charming to the same sort of people who go to Detroit and take photos of the ruins.

People will get over that. More tourists will go; a million Canadians went last year, and they’re a minute from where you’re sitting. The number of North Americans visiting will increase every year, and Cuba has to develop the capacity to absorb the benefits as well as the consequences of all that tourism. I think it’s a far better economic strategy than fracking for oil.

If anything, (tourism) has changed it for the better, except for those who are gay or lesbian, or artists. The arguments (between the cultures) are beneficial... there’s an interaction that’s beneficial. Out of that might come change. In any event, there’s nothing in Marx or Lenin that requires the state to run restaurants or barber shops. These people are complaining about McDonald’s going to Cuba while they are sipping lattes in Ann Arbor.

The history of the United States and Cuba is so intertwined, for so long, from the wild days when the Mafia ran the Havana casinos, through the Cuban Missile Crisis, to today. The countries have been “the closest of enemies,” echoing the title of diplomat/Cuban expert Wayne Smith’s book.

It’s a history from slavery forward, that relationship. People don’t realize the intimacy. Havana was a big slave mart. And the anti-slavery movement paid close attention to what was happening in Cuba. There were slave uprisings. That whole area, Florida, Cuba, was a hotbed of conspiracies to overthrow slavery. There even were some slave owners who wanted to take over Cuba to extend slavery. There’s a lot there people can enjoy finding out about. It didn’t just start in 1959 (with the Cuban revolution).

Lee Harvey Oswald, who killed President Kennedy, was linked to the “Fair Play for Cuba” activist group, although he also paid a visit to an anti-Castro group. Will we ever know if there was a conspiracy to murder the president, and if there was a tie to Cuba?

More information is being held, more will come out. With each generation, each decade, we will know more of what’s in documents. The opinions will vary and I think it will remain unknown. What I tried to concentrate on, I put the Kennedy family in the category of liberal Democrats who tried to crush the Cuban revolution because of their opposition to Communism in the hemisphere, but they learned a painful lesson and gradually became sponsors of initiatives to normalize relations and do it another way.

Just look at Teddy Kennedy’s attitudes or Ethel Kennedy’s today, they’ve changed so profoundly since 1960. You have to assume that’s where John or Robert would have been. There is evidence that up to the day of John’s assassination, they were putting out feelers toward coexistence with Fidel. That ended. We don’t know what the Cuban response would have been; that’s another issue.

What exactly can we do now, in terms of travel to Cuba?

It expands the number of categories that allows you to go to Cuba, you can go for educational, humanitarian reasons, there’s no hassle, no threat to your passport. Soon you’ll be able to use your credit cards to buy art or bring home cigars without stealing them or hiding them. But under the Helms-Burton law, there is a prohibition from going as a tourist. That is the most innocuous, No. 1 reason to go to Cuba, to lie on the beach and have a mojito and a cigar, but it will take an Act of Congress to undo that. Jeff Flake, a libertarian Republican from Arizona, is sponsoring a bill to lift the ban on tourism. It will be interesting to see where Republicans stand on that. How can libertarians oppose this?

How did your parents feel about your involvement in radical politics?

It was a family where the father was a Republican and the mom was a Democrat. I think both shared the idea that the government was always telling the truth, that’s the main thing. My father had a really hard time when I acted against the government because it was not just defiance, it was challenging his assumption — he was an ex-Marine, an accountant at Chrysler — that the government was telling the truth. We had a falling out for a long time. Eventually he joined the ranks of middle Americans who discovered that the government was lying. That helped us reconcile quite easily after a number of years.

Do you ever get back to Royal Oak?

I’m in Ann Arbor a week or two a year, and I always come to Detroit. If I have a fit of nostalgia or I’m with a family member, I’ll take them to Royal Oak and show them my old house. I’m always pleased that Dondero is still standing and the house is still standing.

What do you think about the changes in Detroit?

I read Crain’s (Detroit) Weekly about this boom — it’s a shrunken boom. I wish them well. Nonetheless, the city has lost more population than any city except New Orleans after Katrina. If I wasn’t cynical, I’d say it’s a great opportunity for recovery the right way. Here you have a town built around the automobile, now we’re at a point of seeing gas guzzlers as the new dinosaurs. So people at the Kresge Foundation are proposing a rebuilding of Detroit along sustainable principles of energy efficiency and new, clean energy jobs. So I’m hopeful that it’s rebuilt for the 22nd century, and it isn’t just an attempt to recycle the past.

Local appearances

Thursday: Tom Hayden will discuss his new book “Listen, Yankee! Why Cuba Matters!” at 7 p.m. at Nicola’s Books, 2513 Jackson, Ann Arbor.

Friday: Hayden will be in Ann Arbor to speak at 3:45 p.m. at a pre-event rally at the Diag at the University of Michigan for the “End the War Against the Planet” teach-in, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 UM anti-war teach-ins.

Saturday: Hayden will present “Ending the wars over fossil fuels” at 10 a.m. Saturday at Angell Hall, Auditorium A, during the UM teach-in.

Sunday: Hayden will discuss and sign his Cuba book, “Listen Yankee!” at 3 p.m. at the Source Booksellers, 4240 Cass Ave., Suite 105, Detroit.

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