1960 - 1969
Where were you when ...?
Talkin' 'bout my g-g-generation
— The Who
What began with wholesome idealism and great expectations ended in alienation and rejection. That great chaotic period from the first sit-in on February 1, 1960 to the resignation of Richard Nixon on August 9, 1974 defined our generation. Regardless of the year we were born, as individuals or as a cohort, we will forever be linked one way or another to that tumultuous era that produced irrevocable change known as the Sixties.
The Sixties heaped one tumultuous event upon another severely tested our country, and changed it irrevocably despite recent efforts to change it back. Whether that change was ultimately for good or for ill remains a major cause of disagreement. We ended up with higher standards of government, more concern about the personal well-being of all people, a better attitude toward the world in which we live, individual and social responsibility, as well as the consequences of too much unchecked power. The excesses of those clamorous years were more a result of the scope of the change, not from a general embracing the lame pretensions of radical feminists or the multicultural left. People didn’t do that.
We entered our adolescence inspired with misty-eyed belief in our great good nation by the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and the peerless leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy. As young adults we held self-centered illusions about dispensing with hypocritical traditions. We world challenge all convention through the will-o'-the-wisp of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and bogus notions of "alternative lifestyles" instigated in part by a Harvard psychology professor named Timothy Leary, who fashioned himself into the pied piper of half-witted social rebellion. One way or another, we would change the world. It was our birthright — until one assassination after another, one cataclysmic lesson after another taught us the hard truth about re-making the world. We believed we’d been denied our birthright.
Idealism faded into despair. Despair gave birth to rejection. Before this generation of immature people who'd never been told No in their lives had time to take stock, the revolution of hope had become a revolution of rising expectation. If it is indeed true that the Sixties raised too many questions that no one could answer, it also turned the hope that America would soon fulfill its destiny more likely than ever before. We can also take comfort in the knowledge that if we could survive the 60's we could survive anything.
Meanwhile, a budding and equally disillusioned contingent of radically
conservative boomers waited in the wings for the opportunity to express
its own anti-establishment ideals, the radical right. Expressing many of
those same anti-establishment views, in many ways the right was, more revolutionary
in its assault on American values than all but the most wild-eyed left
wing head cases.
The American Dream
— Archibald MacLeish
This brave notion lies at the heart of what it means to be an American. More than sentiment and less than reality. It’s the elusive burden of perfection. It’s the promise that this grand land will one day be for all its citizens the shining City on a Hill.
It’s also big houses, fast cars, and an open line of credit. It’s material
possessions, lots of material possessions. It’s beautiful women, handsome
men, cherubic children. It’s a good education. It’s secure health. It’s
a holiday. It’s a second home. It’s wealth. It’s power. It’s recognition.
It’s fifteen minutes of fame. It’s the lump in the throat when the flag
passes on a Fourth of July parade.
The American dream is the ability to accomplish any of these. The American Dream is self-fulfillment. It’s the promise that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The American Dream is the dream of liberty. Such promises become a tremendous burden when they become exclusionary. This bedrock of American values holds that anyone without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, or social, economic and political circumstances at birth can aspire to a high standard of living, home ownership and even to the presidency — or the Chicago Bulls.
Surprising that the term didn’t appear until 1960. Although the concept might be traced back to "the Patriot's Dream" from Kathryn Lee Bates' America the Beautiful in 1893, and to Carl Sandburg writing in 1920.
“The republic is dream
Nothing happens unless first a dream.”
After MacLeish coined the expression, Norman Mailer and Edward Albey picked up on it. Since then we’ve taken it for granted: the inevitable triumph of good over evil.
The Sixties were the time the dream would be delivered. We entered with the conviction that God would ensure our future. Although our faith in Him was explicit and strong, Marxist/Leninism threatened that certainty to depths that monarchies, strong-armed dictatorships or Nazism did not. Our panic over communism wasn't as much about military defeat, although that was surely important, as it was about its challenge to a way of life predicated upon our strong Christian traditions. Hence, we grew with this curious notion being bandied about by our parents. That it was better to give up living than to go on under the communists. So much for the spirit of Valley Forge.
Better Dead Than Red
— the communist menace
We had better sense than our elders. The widely held belief that life after a communist take-over wouldn't be worth living was extraordinarily misguided. As though such a thing had ever been even remotely possible. Life is always worth living, most especially when you haven’t lived much of it yet. Such pop verities were difficult to fathom and seemed bleak and defeatist for people who had just won the greatest war in human history. The outlook made little sense to a generation spoon fed on optimism and idealism.
Still, there it was in all its pessimistic glory. Questioning it meant questioning not only your parents but your country. Tall order for kids still using Stridex. Especially because the implied defeatism — Too late! The reds are already under the bed — contradicted the optimism and stirring idealism brought forth by a new generation’s ringing calls to arms. The 60’s were about to happen. The place: Greensboro, North Carolina. The date: February 1.
“It’s time that we take some action now.”
— the first sit-in
Four college freshman entering their second semester at North Carolina A&T set the world on fire. A dorm room bull session led to a modest plan. They were tired of waiting for equality. They’d take matter into their own hands and break the law in doing it. “Let’s go down and just ask for service.” Which is what they did. The next day after class these four inseparable friends, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, David Richmond and Joseph MacNeil, went to the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, purchased some items and stopped at the lunch counter for a bit to eat. Rather than standing at the end of the counter for carry-out, as the law stipulated (after all white people used the lunch counter!), they sat down and ordered coffee, a hamburger, orange juice.
They were told what every black person in America had heard at least once in their life. “We don’t serve your kind here.” Showing their purchases, they politely demurred, and stayed there until the place closed. The next day arrests began. More students were there to take the place of those arrests at the “Greensboro Coffee Party,” as it was first called. This act of civil disobedience ignited a wild fire of activism, of outrage, of indignation and protest that to this day has not completely burned out. A few white ladies patted them on the back and offered encouragement with the words such action is long overdue. The fact was though, once whites got over their shock, mobs began dumping salt and mustard and put their cigarettes out on the peaceful, nonviolent protestors. Over the days and weeks to come, as the sit-ins spread, gangs of punks beat and kicked the young men and women, black and white, only to stand by as their victims were charged with trespass and other crimes.
The audacious idea that young people could re-shape their world was as revolutionary as the idea that American blacks ought to have every single right and privilege and immunity accorded American whites. This was the American Dream all right. This was promise coming to call on possibility. Heroes were delivering the message. Justice was about to roll down like the waters. Freedom was about to ring. The nonviolent civil disobedience of the sit-ins was a grassroots uprising that marked the beginning the Civil Rights Movement. The impact on our country but most especially on us was resolute.
The contradictions in the world we were moving into were so pronounced they bordered on paradox. Small wonder we became so terribly ambivalent as we reached for adulthood. Sputnik, the quiz show scandals dimmed the lamp of innocence. But no one was prepared for the first great debacle of the Cold War. Not even the reporters who covered the story were prepared to believe that Ike, Mr. Clean himself, would lie to them and to the nation. Yet he did, and his lie planted seeds of doubt that would sprout when fertilized by further government duplicity.
May 1960: Ike was concluding a successful international goodwill tour and was preparing for a Summit Conference with Nikita Khrushchev in Paris. From there he would travel to Moscow. His farewell gesture to the people of America and the world, he hoped, would be a lasting peace. Alas, it was not to be.
— American spy plane
On May 5, Khrushchev announced the Soviets had shot down an American spy plane over their territory. The State Department quickly issued an outraged denial. It was more of the Big Red Lie. When the Soviets produced the wreckage, Ike’s people claimed it was a weather plane on a flight over Turkey gone astray. “Oh yeah!” cried the Soviets, and produced the pilot, one Francis Gary Powers, who confessed in a Moscow show trial.
Ike was trapped in a big fat lie. The American people were stunned. Mr. Clean had intentionally misled us. Worse, America had been caught fibbing about something few of us thought we’d ever do: spy on other countries. We were so naïve in those days the majority of the population found it difficult to swallow the necessity of God’s chosen people doing such an amoral thing.
But there it was. The real world was intruding on the Golden Era. Against his better judgment, Ike had authorized one last flight over Soviet territory to ensure he had up to date information with him in Paris. The supposedly invulnerable plane, the U-2, with its super sensitive camera developed by Edwin Land of Polaroid fame, was shot down by a near miss. Although by this time U-2 flights had calmed fears of Soviet military strength (not that they bothered to convey this to the quaking public), our military didn’t think theirs had missiles capable of flying so high or so accurately.
Even the Washington press corps — not yet hated — was stunned. “…
Many of the leading lights of Washington Journalism,” reflected Washington
Post reporter Don Oberdorfer in 1993:
were indignant and almost incredulous that a spokesman of their own government would deliberately lie to them…. That was 1960, and … I see that as the first big blow to the relationship between the government and the press. The news today would be greeted with a shrug …there was shock when we learned that State Department spokesman Lincoln White had been instructed to describe as a ‘weather research plane’ that unaccountably had drifted off course was, actually, Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane, shot down on a pre-planned mission over the Soviet Union.
That monitoring our enemies was an utter necessity mattered little to Americans so wrapped in their Levittown cocoons. Soon we came to realize the need. But the initial impact proved devastating, and made former assertions of dying before converting to communism seem all the more absurd. The damage was done. If Ike would lie to us, so would any of our leaders, Red Menace or no Red Menace.
One of the foremost anti-Communists of the day wanted to become our president. He represented much of what was bleak and unwholesome about the 50s, while his opponent came to represent the fulfillment of the dream. Both images were substantially misleading.
Would you buy a used car from this man?
— Democratic campaign slogan
Nixon rose to public awareness when as a member of HUAC he worked with manic urgency to flush out Alger Hiss. His efforts won him election to the Senate and elevation to the vice presidency as an anti-communist flame-thrower to balance Ike's moderation. Unfortunately, Nixon brought his flawed character with him. Some surmount their own weaknesses, or turn them into strengths. Nixon was never able to escape his. In public he mimicked Herblock's famous caricature of a sleazy "Tricky Dick," a character assassin with the persistent five o-clock shadow and sweaty upper lip. Voters could not quite bring themselves to put this awkward, shifty-eyed politician in the White House. Despite his intellectual and experiential superiority to the handsome, well-bred and shallow JFK, Nixon invited scorn. November 1960 was no exception. Sometimes he seemed almost to welcome it. Tricky Dick lost his first presidential bid by fewer than 100,00 votes. He blamed his loss on Joe Kennedy’s money. In retrospect, it appears he was so deceitful, so meretricious, so undeserving of high office that the unfair sobriquet that attached itself to him — “the man you love to hate” — seemed more deserved than the work of his enemies. For such a loathsome man, he didn’t have nearly the number of committed enemies that Bill Clinton would acquire.
Elements within his own party, on the other hand, and despite the class resentments he harbored throughout his life, found his career far too wed to the East Coast elite and his policies far too statist. The conservative wing of the GOP did not believe Nixon was one of them. In truth, he wasn’t.
"Grow up, conservatives"
— Barry Goldwater
Whether or not he was the "first potent dissenter of the decade of dissent," as George Will seems to think, Goldwater issued this challenge at the Republican nominating convention, where he failed to win the presidential nomination. Essentially a call to arms against the liberal/moderate Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party, it signaled the beginning of a conservative counter-revolution against the New Deal inspired welfare state. The relatively moderate nature of the welfare state mattered little. Conservatives held it to be anathema, especially on the matter of Civil Rights. The sentiment and conservatives would eventually seize control of the GOP, vanquish liberalism and spread anti-federal government, anti-welfare state right wing radicalism throughout America. The movement would have to wait several decades for its Man on Horseback, Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile:
Let's grow up, conservatives. We want to take
this party back, and I think some day we can.
Let's get to work.
More reactionary than visionary, and more libertarian than most conservatives realized, these sentiments were by no means devoid of merit. Barry Goldwater's emergence began the struggle of wills over efforts to make America live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence. The conservative view of that promise, so long embraced by the mainstream, suddenly found itself at odds with the reality of America's incomplete journey towards greatness.
No greater example of that conflict existed than in race relation, where conservatives clung to “the metaphysical subtleties” of ideology, to borrow from Jefferson, while ignoring the essence of American greatness. Not all conservatives were racists by any mean (not all liberals were free from it), but far too many were, Barry Goldwater excluded. His refusal to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided the clearest indication of the political merit of liberalism’s approach to the problem of the color line. The government can and should act to improve the quality of life for the American people. Conservatives held otherwise had no answer to this profoundly disturbing question.
"What's the use of integrating lunch counters when
Negroes can't afford to sit down to buy a hamburger?"
— Ella Baker
Although in her forties, Ella Baker played a central role in organizing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In her speech that became known as "More Than a Hamburger," she argued for basic economic reforms to lift blacks out of the poverty bred of centuries of slavery and subordination. At the time leaders such as Martin Luther King were touting integration as the means to that end. Baker saw beyond that nostrum to the essential imbalance between the races in accumulated wealth.
It was also her insight that the real spirit of the Civil Rights Movement would come from the idealistic, energetic college-aged activists staging the wildfire sit-ins across the urban South. She counseled them against affiliating with Dr. King's SCLC, urging SNCC to go its own way. Which it did, providing grass roots leadership and ultimately pressing a more militant agenda.
Revolution was in the spring air. On May 10, 1960 the FDA approved "the pill" for widespread use. For the first time in history women had a simple and effective means of preventing pregnancy. The result was even more revolutionary than the sit-ins.
— birth control pill
So complete has the revolution been that yesterday’s commonplace is today unimaginable. Prior to the pill, sex was largely at the mercy of conception with women shouldering the bulk of the consequences. Each act of intercourse threatened to bring a new baby. The result was often unanticipated pregnancy and early and unwanted marriage. Beyond that, the pill played a significant role in the practice of sex. The pill allowed women to enjoy sex as they never had before. For countless women, and, you’d have to assume, a few of their men, the quality of sex improved. Sex got less inhibited. But it was about a great deal more than free sex. “Modern woman,” wrote Clare Boothe Luce, “is at last free as a man is free, to dispose of her own body, to earn a living, to pursue the improvement of her mind, to try a successful career.”
More wishful thinking than naked reality — social stigma played a significant role in inhibiting sex — her remark nevertheless reflected the amazing fact that for centuries the inability to avoid pregnancy had restricted the activities of the vast majority of women. Become sexually aggressive was an important first step in liberation. The pill helped women forget about the stigma, the baby, and get on with it.
The ‘sexual revolution’ became an instant cliché, no less true for its popular usage. Another cliché entered public awareness on January 17, 1961 as Ike’s presidency wound down. Also true, and far more portentous. During his farewell address to the nation, he warned the country about the dangers of excessive militarism, especially in Southeast Asia. “An immense military establishment and a large arms industry” threatened to dominate the economy, but undermine our basic freedoms as well. According to historian James Patterson, it might “poison the wells of international relations and … dominate domestic policy.”
"In the councils of Government, we must guard
against the acquisition of unwarranted
influence, whether sought or unsought,
by the military-industrial complex."
Although seriously embarrassed before the public when he was caught lying about the U-2 incident, Ike nevertheless left office in high esteem. His warning about the anti-democratic hazards of arms industry pressure came to have great significance half a decade later when we became ensnared in Vietnam. Mr. Clean's sage advice has been oft-quoted and too little appreciated.
Perhaps Ike’s message received only superficial attention because three days later his successor introduced a new era of idealism.
"Ask not what your country can do for you,
but what you can do for your country."
These were the words that created an era. Blending Civil Rights Movement idealism and liberal optimism, JFK stirred the national soul. His ringing eloquence reminded us what our great nation stood for. No other President since FDR or Lincoln have soared to such rhetoric heights. Alas, those days are long gone.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to insure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge and more.
Such utterances would be political suicide these days. What politician would dare challenge us to serve America, or utter the following? For a generation coming of age, the young president gave patriotism a meaning as clear and compelling as a Sunday school lesson. It was up to all Americans to prove their country’s greatness. It was up to the young to carry the torch. This much we tried and more.
They were bold times. The competition stiff. The challenges formidable. The stakes more so. Just as national rivalries produced the opening of the Western Hemisphere 500 years before and enabled America to be born, the Cold War pushed man into space.
— Mercury control
On May 25, JFK issued a challenge with a flourish.
"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."
Made after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth on April 12 and Alan Shepard’s May 5 morale-boosting 15-minute sub-orbital flight made him the first American in space (“Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?” grumbled Shepard, sitting atop the Redstone rocket.), JFK's pledge launched human kind’s greatest gambit. First the Mercury orbital flights, then the Gemini preparatory flights, followed by the Apollo lunar voyages. We got there first for the wrong reason — to beat the Soviets — but we got there. The space program was Kennedy's most momentous achievement.
Earthly struggles continued relentlessly. In fact, they got worse. American and Soviet successes in outer space did nothing to ameliorate the hostilities that more than once brought the world to the verge of nuclear holocaust.
— The Berlin Wall
On August 13, the East German border guards began erecting barriers and barricades to block egress to West Berlin. Berlin had become the weakest link in the Iron Curtain, a point where East Germans and thousands of other oppressed people could escape to freedom. Considering East Berlin was the Mecca of communist cities, the contrast between the bright lights of the prosperous Kufürstandam and the empty gray streets of East Berlin was striking. Soviets claimed the wall was necessary to keep out Western spies. They had a point. West Berlin was a base for American intelligence activity. The real problem had little to do with spies. People were streaming out of the Soviet block, making for the fresh air of Western opportunity. The East to West brain drain was significant. Fifty people died during the Wall’s first year trying to make it across. For boomers old enough to be aware, the wall was a surreal re-creation of the dirt walls we regularly built and destroyed in our own backyard war games. Except we didn’t have tanks lined up facing each other at fifty yards.
Maybe it was the nightmare scenarios of nuclear oblivion our parents related in such hushed tones? Maybe it was the countdown to war reported on TV with grim finality? The horror of dire possibility wore on the soul. Our youthful lack of sophistication denied us access to the subtleties of geopolitics and nuclear blackmail. Even considering the gruesome news footage of bodies mostly of young people hung up in the barbed wire, we couldn’t see the point of destroying the Earth to deny other its domination. Eventually, a deep ambivalence would begin to emerge.
"That's some catch that Catch-22"
— Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The indelible anti-war novel spoke of futility and alienation and said more about the times we were entering than the World War II era it purported to satirize. Catch-22 would sound to us like our leaders dragging the country from Germany’s Folda Gap to the rice paddies of Vietnam.
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which
specified that a concern for one's own safety in the
face of dangers that were real and immediate was the
process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be
grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did,
he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
Sports is war by yet another means. When it comes to international competition, most of us got our first taste of it here.
The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat
— ABC's Wide World of Sports
Every Saturday afternoon this ever-graceful show taught us there was more to sports than baseball and football. We probably learned more geography and international relations from this show than in school. We also learned about the heroism in sport from Vinko Bogataj, the hapless Yugoslav ski jumper who hurtled sideways off the ski jump in Obersdorf, Germany. He became synonymous with the agony of defeat, the Sunday duffer as icon.
That comically gruesome scene was akin to the live remote radio coverage of the Hindenburg crash. The spectacle of elbows and kneecaps off the ski ramp created a demand for more cameras to capture even more thrills and spills. It whetted the viewing public’s taste for a little disaster to spice its diet of sports, sports and more sports. Reality television and vulgar talk shows were decades away but the possibility of witnessing a tragedy turned the new medium into a less than perfect centerpiece of popular culture.
A few observers caught on early.
"A Vast Wasteland"
— Newton Minow
The chairman of the FCC shocked the television industry with his cogent indictment of its pandering effort to maximize profits through the lowest common denominator. The "Golden Age of Television" had passed by the time Minow issued his encyclical. More and more critics saw the medium as a cultural and intellectual tube of redundancy.
That, however, was an opinion not shared by millions, for whom TV played the much welcomed man who came to dinner. For despite all its critics — and their numbers grew with the viewership — TV was a wasteland only if popular culture was a wasteland. The country simply needed time to adjust its tastes, likewise the critics their expectations.
Another aspect of the technological revolution went awry first. Late in the year, the fifteen-minute nightly news broadcasts carried reports about inadequate testing of one of the many wonder drugs of the day. To a country still undergoing a transcendental birthing spree, pictures carried in national magazines of boomer babies with fingers squiggling out of their shoulder sockets struck more fear than Strontium 90 in milk and called into question our blind faith in science and technology.
— birth defects from a tranquilizer
The mere sight legless babies with flippers for arms ended our naïve belief in the perfectibility of progress. The prescription pill taken in Europe for asthma, nausea and sleeplessness, produced two dozen misshapen babies in America, nearly two hundred in Canada, before the FDA stood up to industry pressure and banned the drug.
The Thalidomide Scandal gained immediacy when “Miss Sherrie” of Romper Room, thirty year old Sherrie Finkbine, became pregnant with her fifth child. Miss Sherrie had taken the Thalidomide pills her husband picked up for her in England. They petitioned the Arizona state court for a legal abortion. In August after the court predictably turned her down, she flew to Sweden to abort the deformed fetus. This first public abortion caused a national scandal. Even though legal, her action aroused more ire than the heedlessness of Thalidomide’s manufacturer.
Science and technology kept right on churning out wonders. On February 20, America experienced its greatest space age achievement thus far.
“Go with God, John Glenn”
— the first American into Earth orbit
Although beaten into orbit by Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961, John Glenn's 4 hour and 55 minute 3-orbit trip space flight aboard Friendship 7 made him a national hero. He was the third Mercury Astronaut to go into space. "Boy, what a ride!" exclaimed the ever-enthusiastic Glenn, who returned to a John Glenn Day in DC and ticker-tape parade in the Big Apple attended by four million New Yorkers.
Speaking before a Congressional committee seven days after the flight, Glenn promised that America would beat the Soviets to the moon, even though at the time we lacked a booster powerful enough to pull it off. “There will be failures,” he warned. “There will be sacrifices.” He was right on all counts. After a successful career in the Senate, a 76 year old Glenn returned to space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.
JFK was smart enough to learn from the debacle at the Bay of Pigs not to trust his military advisors completely. He learned the lesson well.
"We're eyeball to eyeball and I think
the other fellow just blinked."
— Dean Rusk
Otherwise, this dicey situation would have ignited a nuclear war. In October U-2 flights revealed Soviet medium range missiles capable of putting a nuclear weapon in every major American city except Seattle with a only few minutes warning. The intimations we’d had with Sputnik and the Berlin Wall cascaded into insignificance before this monolith of terror. War seemed inevitable. Kennedy’s grave, almost ashen face on TV the night of October 22, a week after the sites had been discovered, shocked the world sober. We faced Armageddon.
The crisis was a whole lot worse than we knew. Many of his advisors, older and presumably wiser men, clearly more experienced, proved themselves damned fools. They urged either an air strike or an invasion with ground forces. The U-2s missed some of the missile sites. And had not spotted 42,000 Soviet troops. Had we attacked, the retaliation which may have come in Berlin or on our own cites — or both, would surely have gone nuclear. Hiroshima, Nagasaki = Washington, New York. Not a pretty thought. Mistakes as potentially costly as these are not always avoided. This time we got lucky.
Thanks in large part to Kennedy’s decisive leadership, involving a blockade and a secret agreement to withdraw our missiles from Turkey, we slid by a disaster. The president's cool and collected men maneuvered the shaky Soviet leadership into face-saving concessions that defused a near disaster. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest we’ve ever come to the nuclear cataclysm everyone feared.
As Kennedy triumphed, Nixon stumbled. Less than a month after the country faced down catastrophe, California voters turned down Nixon’s come back attempt.
"You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore."
— Richard Nixon
After losing the gubernatorial race, Tricky Dick, the "used-car salesman" with the five o'clock shadow, bid bitter farewell to the public and the press. Haunted by eight years of humiliation under a contemptuous Ike and overwhelmed with self-pity for his two electoral defeats, he said goodbye to politics forever. His graceless exhibition of sour grapes should have marked his permanent exit from the American political scene. Unfortunately for his country, he was gone for less than six years. He never really retired. A master at self-rehabilitation, he repaired political bridges, built new ones, and watched from the sidelines as America entered one of the most tumultuous periods in its history. All of which gave him the chance to re-enter posing as the national savior.
The need for leadership, not imagery, was becoming critical. Problems began to emerge. Some were new, others festering. In the space of a year, three books came out detailing these problems. They became the most influential books of the Sixties. Two were published in 1962, the third, by Betty Freidan, the following year.
— Rachel Carson
An experienced marine biologist, she wrote of toxic chemicals raining "indiscriminately from the skies." Her book spawned a renascence of environmentalism. Not since the days of Teddy Roosevelt had we been so concerned for our natural environment. Rachel Carson warned of the damage we were doing to the environment with DDT and other widely used chemicals that were, she claimed, poisoning the earth. The use of synthetic pesticides, which she called “biocides” for their indiscriminate poisonings, increased 400 percent since the end of World War II (another aspect of the technological revolution.). She found an audience of true believers among those who had the longest to live — baby boomers. The ecology movement was born. Attacking agri-business for its lack of concern about the fragile ecology, she faced rancorous criticism from the pesticide industry that dismissed her as “emotional and ignorant.” Her work survived. Although often overlooked, Rachel Carson gets a lion’s share of the credit for changing public attitudes about the environment.
The affluence of the fifties fooled us into believing poverty had been eliminated. The public just assumed it was gone. Leaders talked now about improving the quality of life for everyone in poverty’s aftermath. But destitution was rife in the country. Along with Rachel Carson, Michael Harrington had enormous influence on the era for his re-discovery of poor people.
The Other America
— Michael Harrington
This slender book revealed the sad truth that one-fifth of the population, roughly 25 million people, was living in poverty. The elderly, farmers, urban blacks and Hispanics, migrant farm-workers, Indians, and people in Appalachia all dwelt in abhorrent conditions. Whites made up eighty percent of these forgotten and shunned Americans; the rest were minorities. The poorest were old people in rural areas.
Most of us remained indifferent to the poor and sought safety in the grotesque intellectual copout of blaming them for their plight. As though shiftlessness and irresponsibility created these abject conditions. And the fellow down the street with a wife and three kids who lost his job, house — surely he did something wrong.
Edward R. Morrow's shocking TV documentary Harvest of Shame put visual images to Harrington's claims about migrant workers. Morrow showed us the unfortunate fruit pickers who followed a cross-country circuit at extraordinarily low wages, returning each year without enough money in their pockets to break out of poverty. Their kids never made it out of grade school. National concern about this new problem induced the Kennedy administration to initiate what would eventually become a war on poverty.
Grassroots uprisings get their name because they appear spontaneously and carry relentless energy that is difficult to control or stop, , with or without strong leadership. Often they trample their own goals. Two boomer-led grassroots movements, the New Left of the 60s and the New Right 90s, share these strengths and weaknesses.
"We are the people of this generation, bred in at least
modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking
uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
— The Port Huron Statement
The first reaction to life in the mass societies of the atomic age came from college students, many of them deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. Espousing what today sounds like conservative notions of local government, participatory democracy and individualism, Students for a Democratic Society sought to reclaim individual identity while ending the racism and poverty, and putting a stop to the nuclear nightmare of Mutual Assured Destruction. Laced with a humanism that put the emphasis and onus on the individual, this “Agenda for a Generation” created a New Left critical of the impersonal nature of big government liberalism and the welfare state as dehumanizing and anti-democratic. Written largely by Tom Hayden, the statement argued for sweeping social changes that owed as much to Benjamin Spock as it did to 19th century utopianism. Young people were seeking emotional wholeness through “self cultivation, self direction, self understanding and creativity.” New Left ideology linked inner fulfillment and the world in which they lived. It was a striking attempt to correct the anomie of mass society by making the personal political. In a few years, smoking a joint would be a political statement, as would long hair and free sex.
Herbert Marcuse and C. Wright Mills were the New Left’s true mentors. Marcuse argued in Eros and Civilization (1954) and One-Dimensional Man (1964) that “benign” social control, which he called “nonterroristic totalitarianism,” gave people the illusion of happiness, while diverting sensual pleasure to the needs of consumer capitalism. He argued that conformity had taken away our ability to express opposition, to exercise our right of dissent. Consumer culture was so pervasive it neutralized even the working class. Marcuse’s pleas for the end of sexual repression struck a chord, as might be expected, from the boomers just coming into full sexual bloom and about to face restrictive in loco parentis doctrines on college campuses.
C. Wright Mills’ anti-authoritarian Power Elite (1956) condemned not only the emerging military-industrial complex but also the alienation of the managerial class from their employees and society. Reflecting his Texas background, Mills mourned the loss of our once strong sense of community and rugged individualism to an increasingly stratified society. He castigated white collar America — our parents — for selling out. Simplistic though such analyses may have been — he overlooked the many vestiges of pluralism — his views resonated.
Hayden wrote, "We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege or circumstances, with power rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity." The SDS began with 60 members and grew to some 100,000 by 1968.
This proved to be one of the two critical years of the era. (The other was 1968.) What started with a racist call to arms ended with a presidential assassination, and left the country radically transformed. Virtually all aspects of what it meant to be an American were about to be altered.
"Segregation now ... segregation tomorrow
... segregation forever."
— George Wallace
Yet another in a long line of race-baiting southern politicians, the newly elected Alabama governor went to the well of white supremacy in his January inaugural. Most of his speech was written by the white supremacist Asa Carter. Wallace lost the 58 race to an even worse racist, if that can be believed. “Well, boys,” he said as he prepared to address his followers that year, “no other son-of-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” He tried his damnedest not to let it happen.
In June after authorizing the repressive violence in Bull Connor’s Birmingham, this half-pint redneck was standing in an Alabama schoolhouse door to prevent integration. The image of this strutting American Mussolini, the governor of a sovereign state, blocking the doorway of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa to prevent the admission of two black students pushed toleration for this sort of bigotry to its flexible limits. Wallace’s vile demagoguery will always provide a stark lesson on how severely racism warps the soul.
Even though he lost both his 1968 and 72 protest presidential bids, he left an unfortunate legacy. George Wallace made white backlash politically respectable. Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan capitalized upon it in major ways.
In May we stared at our televisions in disbelief at the vicious Birmingham police using police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful black demonstrators, many of whom were teenagers. They were simply asking for the citizenship rights we took for granted. Most white Americans and a few lucky Blacks had never seen such naked racism before Bull Connor gave the country a history lesson it would never forget.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The good white folks in Birmingham, Alabama, "the most segregated city in America," refused to back down. Even moderate clergymen sided with the status quo. In a dramatic test of wills, King finally goaded Bull Connor into turning bark-peeling fire hoses and clothes ripping German Shepherds on the protestors. His greatness emerging with each passing day, Dr. King assumed direct leadership of the month-long confrontation. Jailed, put in solitary confinement for demonstrating without a permit, he answered with sublime eloquence a plea published in the Birmingham News by leading white ministers who were moved to endorse his goals but urged him to go slow. His open letter to them became one of the greatest documents in our history.
As you read this, imagine George Wallace using his own body to prevent
the education of black children and Bull Connor bragging about the violence
he had visited upon the demonstrators, all of whom were American citizens.
"We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional rights ...
Perhaps it is easy to say ‘Wait’. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your
mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society ... when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title‘Mrs.’ ... then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."
These are the profoundly moving words of America’s greatest moral leader. King’s impact on the generation of black and whites coming of age was profound. But it took more than King’s torrents of sublime eloquence to move the nation off dead center.
Like the rest of us, the Kennedy brothers watched the officially sanctioned mayhem on television. JFK claimed he was physically sickened by what he saw. For the idealistic such vile acts were unworthy of a great nation. They were all the more inexplicable when we compared to the heroism of the victims. King’s words tolled as clearly as the bells at Heaven’s Gate.
The Civil Rights Movement had been pushing hard for legislative action. On June 11, Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. At 8:00 PM that night Kennedy made a dramatic speech to the nation about the racial dilemma.
“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he said. “It is —
As old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”
— John F. Kennedy
“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities….”
With these words, JFK became the first president in history to state publicly and unequivocally that blacks should be fully equal to whites. While it is true that the Kennedy administration was dragged kicking and screaming to this position, once there, he took a politically brave and historically singular stand. The historic nature of this speech has long been overlooked. That a man so devoid of personal morals as JFK could come out with it makes it even more remarkable. A week latter he sent corrective legislation to Congress that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"I have a Dream"
— MLK, Jr.
Contrast Wallace's wretched misanthropy with the transcendent Christian idealism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We saw both for what they represented. Our parents did, too. King's words reached to the heart of what it meant to be an American.
a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation
where they will be not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content
of their character. I have a dream today.”
Yes, the man was personally flawed: he had affairs and he plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. dissertation. But his message was clear and unflawed, as was his leadership. His speech at the August 28 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom provided the spiritual wellspring for our generation. At the time it was the largest demonstration in the history of the national’s capital.
"When the architects of the republic wrote the magnificent words of the
Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a
promissory note to which every American was to fall heir ... the promise that
all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable
rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
A week after the submitting powerful civil rights act, Kennedy was off to Europe. In Berlin 2.5 million people, shouting “Ken-na-die, Ken-na-die” turned out to see him. Standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, he declared, “As a free man I take pride on the words…
Ich bin ein Berliner."
Kennedy's ringing line continued the pledge he made in his inaugural to maintain an active posture against aggression for human rights. Since the late forties Berlin had been the locus of East-West tension, heightened all the more by the wall. The Kennedy elan spread across the Atlantic with his visit to France, where in June 1961 he’d quipped, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris." In Berlin in June of ’63 he declared himself in sympathy with those living in the shadow of communism.
With his powerful civil rights legislation, his campaign against poverty, and his skillful brinksmanship in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was beginning to emerge as more than a media star. How good a president he would have become cannot be supposed. Scandals over at least one of his multitudinous sexual improprieties (with an East German spy named Ellen Rometsch) was about to break on Capitol Hill. At the very least, it would have seriously damaged his reputation. More likely it would have led to his impeachment. Beyond that his stand on civil rights meant crippled his re-election. Thus, the trip to Dallas to shore up flagging political support. As far as our memories of him are concerned, Kennedy’s presidency began with his assassination in Dallas at 12:33 PM on Friday, November 22, 1963.
Difficult as it is to believe, at the time of his assassination, some Americans believed JFK was communist sympathizer for his loss of nerve at the Bay of Pigs and his stance on Civil Rights. After his death rumors of conspiracy swept the country. Too many coincidences, too much official sloppiness. An estimated 180 million viewers witnessed the three-day nightmare of the funeral capped by TV’s first live murder. The police officer cuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald as he exited the basement of the Dallas courthouse saw a local Mafia figure coming at him, pointing his snub-nosed pistol. All he could do was swear in surprise:
"Jack, you sonofabitch."
— Jim Leavelle
Jack Ruby, the man who killed the man who killed Kennedy, was a nightclub owner whose place Oswald had visited on more than one occasion. Oswald also had connections to the CIA, FBI which these agencies concealed until the 1990s. He'd defected to the Soviet Union and been re-admitted to this country without a hitch. Prior to the day in Dallas, eighty percent of the people believed what our leaders said and felt they always acted in our best interests. The Single Bullet Theory that became essential to proving Oswald the lone gunman, strained credulity. For all its myriad flaws, the Warren Commission’s conclusion was essentially correct: Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone and for reasons unknown killed John F. Kennedy. Today eighty percent disbelieve the conclusion, the government and those who serve in it. We can add that Kennedy died for his policies. It would take his death, the elevation to power of an arm-twisting master legislator, and a series of revolutions in the streets to bring those policies to the light of day. Even so, Kennedy’s image altered an era. Had Nixon won 1960, or LBJ for that matter, and been assassinated, the impact would have been closer to the death of James Garfield. Kennedy’s death re-affirmed the fragility of hope.
In October JFK’s Presidential Commission the Status of Women concluded a 22-month study with recommending equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave, child care. In response Kennedy appointed cabinet level panel to consider corrective legislation.
Like Civil Rights, our leaders would soon be playing catch up.
"The problem that has no name"
— The Feminine Mystique
"Is this all," author Betty Friedan asked. Was the idealized life of the suburban housewife all there should be? If so, why did so many women feel such emptiness in their lives? Why did they lack a sense of accomplishment? According the Friedan, they found the mystique of the homemaking, child-rearing helpmate unfulfilling. To overcome it, women needed "goals that will permit them to find their own identity." Goals such as careers and opportunities — as well as equality before the law. In articulating this vague feeling of dissatisfaction shared by many middle class white women, her book laid the groundwork for the Women's Liberation Movement and profound changes in what was at the time described by men as the war between the sexes.
Harbinger of the rights revolutions to come, the Civil Rights Movement led to protests by many and varied groups from senior citizens to homosexuals. A lot of people felt they had something to overcome. Many did. A newer version of a 1901 religious folk song/Baptist hymn named “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” copyrighted by a white school teacher caught the peaceful, idealistic spirit of the times.
We Shall Overcome
— the protest song
Music was vital to the Civil Rights Movement. This lilting song became its anthem, holding forth all the soulful optimism and earnest determination of the thousands of young blacks and the few hundred whites who joined them in the struggle to overcome and eliminate racial injustice.
Music was the perfect antidote for the growing dissonance of the zeitgeist. Every new pop tune that came out reinforced the growing emphasis on being young and having fun. One man’s music is the bane of another’s existence. Which was part of the fun. Here was the anthem that gave the world the most repeated three-chord progression in the history of Western Civilization.
— the Kingsmen
It was the very heart of rock 'n' roll, more important for its “tune”
than the urban legend surrounding its dirty lyrics. According to composer
Richard Berry, it's a sea ditty about a sailor (perhaps sitting on a barstool
in Jamaica) pining to a bartender named Louie about his far away love.
Louie Louie, me gotta go. Louie Louie, me gotta go.
A fine girl, she wait for me.
Me catch the ship across the sea.
I sailed the ship all alone.
I never think I'll make it home.
Louie Louie, me gotta go.
Three nights and days we sailed the sea.
Me think of girl constantly.
Louie Louie, me gotta go.
Me see Jamaican moon above.
It won't be long me see me love.
Me take her in my arms and then
I tell her I never leave again.
? Richard Berry, 1957-63 Limax Music, Inc.
Now, all we needed was a little harmony.
It appeared on our shores in the form of four mop-topped limeys with more talent than a dozen symphony orchestras and a thousand Montavanis. They performed on Ed Sullivan before a mere 67 million people.
"I wanna hold your hand"
— the Beatles
Just three months after JFK was assassinated, February 9, 1964, the youth culture became page one news with the arrival of "the Fab Four." Beatlemania swept the nation with a jubilation that deposed the King himself. With their cheeky manners, long hair and bright music, the Beatles became an instrumental component of the youth movement. Their clever tunes defined what it meant to be young in those days. Through the genius of their music, John, Paul, George and Ringo made rock acceptable, and the Beatles became founding members of what would soon become known as the Counterculture.
First the youth culture.
"Tack it up, tack it up. Baby, gonna shut you down." For ten sweet years
Detroit made muscle cars. Stripped down light, with huge, thirsty, gut
powerful engines, these babies hauled serious ass.
— Muscle Car
Pontiac's John Delorean designed the GTO (named for Ferrari's Gran Turismo Omologato) by dropping a V-8 into a light Tempest body. What followed made drag racing a national craze: triple deuces, twin four barrel carbs, fuel injection, four on the floor, tuned duel exhaust, mag wheels, 327s, 389s, 409s — and 4 miles per gallon. In 1966 Chrysler came up with 426-cubic-inch, hemi-head engine that produced 425 horsepower. You could drive it out of the showroom to the drag strip and blow the doors off any A-Gas smart ass. The Arab Oil Embargo in 1973 said goodbye to all of that. That was a decade away. Meanwhile, there was a lot of cruisin’ and boozin’ to do.
“Little GTO, you’re really lookin’ fine.
Three deuces and a four speed and 389.
Listen to her tackin’ up now,
Listen to her why—ee—eye—ine.
C’mon and turn it, wind it up, blow it out, GTO.”
— Ronnie and the Daytonas
If speed wasn’t your thing, sportiness was. British racing Green TR3s made for a lot of sport. So did ‘55 – ‘57 Chevies. But the sportiest car of them all was a Ford product.
— a car for baby boomers
Introduced on April 17th, it had a style that made it just right for the car craze. Taken from design to show room in just 18 months, the Mustang was invented for America’s young and affluent generation — the first generation to grow up with (and in) automobiles. The Mustang still holds the record for first year sales, a cool million. Sporty though affordable, underneath it was really a clunky Comet.
This man was no clunky Comet. He was a mouthy twenty-two year old when in February he defeated the formidable Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship of the world, a feat almost no one thought possible.
"I am the greatest!"
— Muhammad Ali
A true champion, and possibly the greatest boxer ever. He was cheekier than the Beatles and at least as talented. He made rhymes about the rounds in which he predicted his opponents would fall, about it (“They all must fall in the round I call.”). He waved his blackness in white America's alternately amused and outraged face. The young were much more tolerant of him than their parents. Ali announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay. He had his undisputed heavyweight crown taken from him for refusing the draft. At the height of career he was the best known man in the world. Ali was the quintessential American.
In May thousands of college students, some of whom surely owned or wanted
to own a Mustang, trained with SNCC to spend their summer in the Deep South
registering black voters.
Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman
— the Civil Rights Murders
When these three young civil rights workers, one black and two whites (Andrew Goodman had been in state one day) were killed at the beginning of the Freedom Summer by Mississippi law enforcement officials and their accomplices, the country, indeed the world, began to understand the true depth of white racism. Bull Connor was bad enough. But Mississippi was America’s South Africa. No measure was too extreme for that state. The legislature created the State Sovereignty Commission to block integration. In addition to spying on hundreds of citizens, the Commission worked closely with the Citizens Councils harassing civil rights advocates. Violence was tolerated, winked at, or in some cases advocated.
This crime was pure racial terrorism. This hatred had to be stopped. We watched with growing skepticism as it took a reluctant FBI two months of leg work and a $30,000 bribe to solve the case. Agents finally located the bodies in an earthen damn in Bogue Chitto Swamp in Meridian County.
True to tradition, the local sheriff, his deputy, and others were quickly acquitted in local court. Eventually they were convicted on federal charges and given light sentences. Many of us believed that our generation would end racism, that if we had our way events such as this and people like Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price would never darken our world again. Time would prove us wrong.
Middle class white America was stunned that two of its own could be murdered — and by police! How depraved can you get. The sympathetic mood created in Bull Connor’s Birmingham, heightened with these murders. The nation rallied behind corrective Civil Rights legislation as America entered a period of liberal reform.
"This is an idea whose time has come.
It will not be stayed. It will not be denied."
— Senator Everett Dirksen (R,IL) commenting
on the Civil Rights Act of 1964
If the Cold War was a deadly cloud hanging over us, white racism was its tainted ground water poisoning every aspect of living. Signed by LBJ on July 2, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the single most important law passed during our lives. The sweeping legislation ended formal segregation in America. Legal sanction for the thousands of state and local laws imposing racial discrimination public places disappeared. And the process of granting full citizenship to one of the oldest segments of the society took a giant stride forward. At least under law, blacks now had full equality. That stride would eventually encompass fuller civil rights for women and minorities.
One of the persistent ironies of the Civil Rights Act was that JFK’s death made it possible. Had he lived and managed to get the bill through the conservative Congress, it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful. national grief over the loss of the president and LBJ’s bullying, strong-arm legislative tactics were instrumental to the bill. Conservative southern Democrats and their supporters in the GOP filibustered the bill for 534 hours. In the end, however, even Senate minority leader Dirksen rose to the challenge. His support provided the critical difference.
LBJ may have triumph on the Civil Rights Bill, but he was unable to stifle rumors of conspiracy. They had an air inevitablity to them.
Single Bullet Theory
— the Warren Commission
The bedrock of the Commission's September 1964 report was that a lone assassin killed JFK. Designed to quell rumors, it only heightened belief in an assassination conspiracy and a subsequent government cover-up. As unlikely as it was that Oswald's second shot hit both Kennedy and John Connally and survived intact on his stretcher, it was possible. The round was steel-jacketed. As any urban emergency room attendant can tell you, bullets follow unpredictable routes through human flesh.
We would have been better off had the Warren Commission claimed in its 888 page report there might have been a conspiracy but not one shred of concrete evidence could be found to support it. This remains the case to this day. Instead, the rushed, incompetent report engendered passionate doubts rather than calmed our worst fears. Public distrust of government deepened inexorably.
Then this scintillating bit of right wing wisdom.
"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!
Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"
— Barry Goldwater
In those days, we considered this sort of right wing, anti-government, anti-civil rights Cold War rhetoric extreme if not vaguely unAmerican. In November, Goldwater (“In your Heart You Know He's Right”) lost to LBJ in the only Democratic landslide in our lives. And we thought right wing radicalism died with Joe McCarthy. LBJ received over 61% of the popular vote, more even that FDR in 1936.
In reality this was merely the conservative counter-revolution’s opening volley. Through the Sixties it acquired more adherents as fast as the great Society, Black Nationalism and the New Left could generate them. Although Goldwater's sentiments were shunned then — they have become the touchstone of an angry and powerful political movement.
Appearing on ABC’s “Issues and Answers,” Goldwater proposed using low-yield nuclear weapons to settle the Vietnam crisis once and for all. What a field day for the Democrats. LBJ could pose as the peace candidate!
The Daisy Commercial
— attack ad
LBJ's presidential campaign organization created a TV spot that featured a young girl picking petals off a daisy as the voice over counted down to a nuclear detonation. Once the blast occurred, the ad cut to a picture of Barry Goldwater laughing. Although the ad ran only one time, it created a sensation. Widely condemned and even apologized for by the LBJ campaign, it broke the ice for what has become the mainstay of politics — the attack ad. What became the standard litany though was indelible: they work. Those wanting to know where “the politics of personal assassination” began need look no farther that the Daisy Commercial.
With alarmist images such as this on the tube, it should come as a small surprise that by the fall semester with the first wave of baby boomers entering college the nation’s young people were restive. By 1960 there were already 24.6 million kids between the ages 15-24. The teenage population itself amounted to about 21 million. We were becoming, as historian Paul Boyer said, “a nation within a nation.” Three million boomers reached college age in 1964, with 3 million following like Mongol Hordes in Madras prints. By the end of the decade 8 million boomers were in college.
And we didn’t like what we saw there. Universities now characterized themselves as “multiversities,” “knowledge factories,” “service stations.” We felt lost in the campus crowd. We were processed, housed and graded according to our social security number. This was about getting lost in the shuffle. At most universities registering for classes took two days or more. Classes of several hundred students were commonplace. Many of us got lost in these simmering environments. We’d been jerked out of secure suburban or small towns enclaves and thrust willy nilly into a place where we were mere numbers.
It was a rude awakening. We learned that the world did not exactly consist of sainted neighborhoods of plenty. We were the first kids to confront America's new mass society, and we resented being treated like those ubiquitous IBM punch cards.
I am a Human Being — Don't fold, spindle or mutilate.
— button slogan
But that was just the start. In loco parentis policies left over from the conformist Fifties affronted our determination to wade through the impersonal multiversities toward our own identities. The ludicrous “three-foot rule” required three feet to be on the floor at all times during a co-educational dorm room visit. The door could be closed no more than the width of a textbook. Although one can easily imagine the inspired search for slender texts, this was arbitrary and insulting to people who’d risked their lives during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, or soon would be in Southeast Asia.
Frivolous though in loco parentis guidelines now appear, these sorts of rules fomented demands for free speech and increased student autonomy. Students began insisting society needed reforming from the university out. They alone possessed the insight, the wisdom and the lack of venality to make to make America live up to its promise. When it was all said and done, that was exactly what the early protests were about: college students both black and white reacting in their own way to the arbitrary and impersonal regimentation of their lives by faceless bureaucracies.
As the final month of that last carefree summer began, the country took a first fateful step in to the quagmire that would undo the era. Off the coast of North Vietnam, North Vietnamese torpedo boats fired on an American electronic eavesdropping ship. The USS Maddox returned fire joined by planes from a nearby carrier.
“The other sides got a sting out of this.
If the do it again, they’ll get another sting.”
— Dean Rusk
Two days later, in heavy seas, the US mistook a second attack. America had its ire up. Despite highly dubious evidence of an attack, American launched retaliatory air strikes. LBJ took this opportunity to secure Congressional authorization …
“to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack
against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
— The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Congress accepted administration’s portrayal of the incidents as “deliberate attacks” and “open aggressive on the high seas.” LBJ concealed the covert raids the ships had been supporting. The resolution passed the House unanimously and the Senate with two dissenting votes on August 7, 1964. One dissenter, Ernest Gruening, (D-Alaska) called the resolution a “predated declaration of war.” LBJ would declare “We seek no wider war.” And at first he didn’t. He main concern was his broad domestic agenda. Ultimately, a wider war was what we got. The sting Rusk gloated about turned out to be self-inflicted.
The War was not yet an issue. Hip-shooting, war-mongering politicians weren’t quite yet the focus of all things youthful. It wasn’t about in loco parentis, either. Although we shared a generational agreement about that egregious item of Cold War conformity. We had other things on our mind. After all, we’d been raised to expect the best from ourselves and the world in which we lived. Strange though how the Gulf of Tonkin incident came when it did and it all fell together — and onto the national head — at the same time.
One student returning from the Mississippi Freedom Summer captured the explosive mixture of youthful arrogance and idealistic anger at parental generations unwilling to confront the glaring national problems. We were taught since elementary school was all but perfect. Now, we were finding out such was not exactly the case.
Don't trust anybody over thirty
— Jack Weinberg
At the University of California at Berkeley, the administration banned tables set up in front of Sproul Hall to disseminate literature from CORE (manned by Weinberg, a math grad student) and other civil rights groups. Dissemination of political had long been permitted on Berekely’s campus. Outraged at such an arbitrary attempt to block open and free discussion, students rioted. During the mayhem they overturned a police car and eventually seized the administration building.
The Free Speech Movement was born. The phrase, which spoke so directly to growing generational mistrust of adults, was actually directed toward older communists, for whom Weinberg and indeed the FSM held deep suspicions. The FSM was non-communist and sought to disassociate itself from it. Nevertheless, the phrase resonated. Why?
Radicalized by racial turmoil, white students returned to their northern campuses in the Fall, bringing with them, as Todd Gitlin has said, “a respect for the power of civil disobedience, a fierce moralism, a lived love for racial equality, a distaste for bureaucratic highhandedness and euphemism, a taste for relentless talk at intense mass meetings….”
Another grad student also returning from the Mississippi Freedom Summer named Mario Savio became the leader of this first skirmish with the Establishment.
“After a long period of apathy during the fifties, students have begun … to act …. There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious … that … you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”
The Establishment, an updated euphemism for the Power Elite, was comprised of people from a generation or more beyond boomers. The term came to represent in shorthand everything the young considered flawed about the world of their parents and grandparents. But there was a great deal more to it than age. Had it been merely generational, the troubles — not to say the changes — may never have amounted to much.
White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
— E. Digby Baltzell
Sociologist Baltzell coined the acronym to describe the leaders of Boston society. But it quickly came to represent the entirety of the ruling class in four letter. Here was the Establishment. In fact, during the 60s the two notions became indistinguishable. Wasp, Establishment — was there a difference? Obviously. But the point remained we defined ourselves in terms of our English heritage, through customs, morals, manners, the Wasp paradigm was supreme, often to the exclusion of others.
For this reason Wasps, especially Wasp males, became the bad guys, eventually getting blamed for the nation's, if not the world’s ills: racial and sexual discrimination, the class structure, despoliation of the environment, corruption and war. Assumptions that were as sweeping as they were unreasoned. Critics failed, then as now, to acknowledge the great strides a handful of Wasp men gave humanity through documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Both will withstand the true tests of time better than their critics. The prosperity enjoyed by individuals and families, not to mention communities and states was a direct result f the Protestant Work Ethic. The Wasp paradigm also gave us our invaluable emphasis on individualism, while linking it to the social responsibility and God’s Grace. Not bad for such villainous infamy.
The world of our fathers was alien to us teenagers, even when it appeared friendly and admirable. By the mid-60s America’s young had changed the nature of what it meant to be young. Gone forever was the centuries old (Wasp) notion that children were miniature adults. We were not adults and we wanted all the world to know it. If anything we were anti-adults, glorifying youth by specifically rejecting the vestiges of adulthood in action, manners and attitudes. Contempt for things Wasp and Establishmentarian, dissatisfaction, rebellion, drugs, music, dress all represented a youth culture that took the right to determine our own manners and morals.
On the West Coast the wild, experimental and just plain off-the-wall Merry Pranksters that formed around writer Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, set out on a journey to New York in a 1939 Harvester school bus painted up in lurid Day-Glo, its destination "Furthur."
"You're either on the bus or off the bus."
— Ken Kesey
With painted faces, loud, loud music, madman Neal Casady at the wheel, and a copious supply of LSD, marijuana and other drugs, the Pranksters set out for the New York World's Fair hoping to arrive in time for the publication of Kesey's next novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. Well, sorta. They made a 40-hour film of their adventure that documented the stirrings of the counterculture. Kesey had discovered LSD in a 1960 VA hospital experiment and was anxious to meet the Man. They stopped at Milbrook, New York, and Timothy Leary’s League of Spiritual Discovery so Kesey could pay homage to the already legendary LSD guru. It didn't exactly work out. The self-important Leary was tripping at the time and couldn’t be disturbed.
A sign on the back of the bus read, "Caution: Weird Load."
For many, the loads carried on B-52s were infinitely weirder. A warning about obsessive anti-communism and Mutual Assured Destruction hit these shores about ten days before the Beatles.
“Well boys, I reckon this is it, noo-cleer combat,
toe-to- toe with the Rooskies.”
— Dr. Strangelove or:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, an ex-patriot American living in England, and starring Peter Sellars in three roles, this atomic age, Cold War black comedy almost literally sneaked in under the radar. The plot surrounded a psychotic Air Force General named Jack D. Ripper who launched a sneak attack on the Soviet Union in retaliation for attempts by the International Communist Conspiracy to “sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”
Unfortunately for our side, the Soviets had installed a “Doomsday Device” set to go off if they were ever attacked. The result wasn’t exactly war, as the bomb-bucking, nuclear cowpoke Slim Pickens proclaimed. The result was Armageddon.
“Mein Fuehrer, I can walk!”
Speaking of mortal danger, the government issued a finding that directly and immediately affected more Americans than the bothersome threat of nuclear war, toe-to-toe or otherwise. This set off decades of trench warfare over the sot-weed factor, a golden gem of a plant that had for hundreds of years made fortunes and destroyed lives. To this day tobacco remains a bigger killer than drugs, alcohol or nuclear fallout.
"Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health"
— Surgeon General's Report
Dr. Luther Terry's 300-plus page finding made official what was already well known. A strong causal connection existed between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and nicotine addiction. Two years later Congress forced tobacco companies to put the cautionary advice on their cigarette packs. In the short term, smoking fell off. In the years to come as we became more concerned about our health, it declined permanently. In 1964 though no one foresaw the lawsuits against the tobacco companies or the "non-smokers' rights" campaign that turned cigarette smoking into an absurdist version of oppression.
By the end of the year, few Americans with their heads above the dunes disagreed that something unusual was blowing in the wind. What exactly it was had not quite crystallized. Revolution, disaster? The great master barometer of our times told us as much.
"The times, they are a-changin'."
— Bob Dylan
They had just begun. By the time we were finished, society would be unrecognizable.
Come mothers and fathers throughout the
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and daughters are beyond your command.
There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls …
For the times they are a-changin’!
“By any means necessary”
— Malcolm X
Where Martin Luther King spoke of Civil Rights, Malcolm X spoke of Human Rights. Rescued from a life of crime and self-destruction by the Nation of Islam while in prison, Malcolm broke with the black nationalist organization in 1964 and formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Of all black leaders, Malcolm most clearly understood white racism's effects on the black population. His message hit home especially for black boomers. He claimed that blacks needed to acquire a stronger sense of identity, pride and dignity first. This was essential to survival as a colonized minority in a hostile country. While speaking of using any means necessary to achieve liberation, he never urged blacks to pick up weapons to attack whites. He did favor violent self-defense in the face of random acts of racist violence and police brutality. Rejecting King’s “Beloved Community,” Malcolm X placed primary emphasis on self-help, racial solidarity and a separate existence from white America where possible.
Though King and Malcolm X met just once, cordially, on March 26, 1964 in the halls of the Capitol Building, of all places, during the Senate filibuster against the Civil Rights Bill, they remained antagonists. Malcolm X ridiculed King as a “traitor” to his race, a “chump,” and a “fool.” King considered the Black Muslim a “hot-headed radical with a dangerous emotional appeal.” Neither man ever voiced a remotely accurate assessment of the other. Had they survived, possibilities for a cooperative future would have been as endless as the hope itself. In the cruelest of all fates, the very people that saved Malcolm X from the street life assassinated him in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on February 28, 1965.
Before he died Malcolm X shared the podium with Coretta Scott King and other Civil Rights leaders in Selma, Alabama. Malcolm offered to support any cause that might improve the lives of black people. That might even include working with white people. The Hajj to Mecca had worked changes on him, although we should never assume the ultimate direction of those changes. The same holds true for King’s radicalization at the end of his life.
Malcolm’s metamorphosis was a bellwether for larger transformations among the politically active at mid-decade. Undeniably, change was in the air. The ferment caused by the Civil Rights Revolution brought forth a surge of hope that we were the people who would startle the world by re-inventing an even greater America.
We didn't know how exactly it would be done, or where it would end up. We were confident that wherever it led would be a better place.
"You don't need a weatherman to know
which way the wind blows."
— Bob Dylan
How strong or fair a wind remained to be seen. It wasn’t all wonderful and for the best. Novel, certainly, wondrous, maybe. Even this age of high ideals and higher aspirations spawned its share of jokers, knaves and charlatans.
"Turn on, Tune in, Drop out"
— Timothy Leary
As a Harvard psychology professor, he achieved fame and notoriety giving LSD to his students. Thrown out in ’63, he holed up in a mansion in up-state New York, dignified as a sort of a hip ashram, to continue his “experiments” with LSD and psilocybin. He preached we could live more fulfilling and useful lives by taking psychedelic drugs to experience life more fully. Sort of a counterculture get-rich-quick scheme. As though people in their teens and early twenties had anything close to the equanimity necessary to process such information. To our eternal discredit, plenty of us embraced Leary's anti-establishment foolishness. We were young and immersed in our idealistic dreams. Drugs taken to expand our minds, ruined lives and diminished our generational promise. Leary turned out to be nothing more than a self-serving bounder, selling Snake Oil as insidious as anything advocated by the Hemlock Society.
Needless to say, next to no one reached nirvana by dropping acid. Though a whole lot of well-intentioned people tried awfully hard. And more than a few thought they had.
Truth be told, heads older and wiser than ours were taken in by LSD, which was first synthesized in 1938. For a brief time it was thought to improve creativity and offer a genuine path to enlightenment. No less a light than Aldous Huxley actually advocated psychedelics for this purpose. Even Life magazine bought into this nonsense with its ludicrous cover story on “LSD Art.” And let us not forget Sigmund Freud’s infatuation with cocaine. In the end though it does us well to admit once and for all that these drugs are illegal for good reasons.
The king of the underground chemists began manufacturing acid in enough quantities to make it cheap and available to the masses, and not one whit less treacherous.
— Augustus Owsley Stanley III
This “renowned acid chemist ,” as Todd Gitlin called him, made the highest quality psychedelics. There was so much from which to chose. In addition to Owsley’s Burgundy of psychedelics, the underground offered a Day-Glo pharmacopoeia: Blue Meanies, Chocolate Chewies, Blotter acid, Purple Microdots, Flesh Acid, plus the early and awkward sugar cube. In California on October 6, 1966 possession of LSD became a misdemeanor.
— Michael Fallon
Conjuring such wild images of fluorescent people and weird tribal doings, the word hippie was coined by Fallon in a September 1965 article for the Examiner by contracting Norman Mailer’s hipster, much as Herbert Caen had added the diminutive to Beat to coin beatnik. Fallon described the strange communal happenings in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, particularly activities at the Blue Unicorn coffeehouse. Beat, he wrote, was alive and well and dressed in vivid finery purchased at the Salvation Army. And despite the intimate connection, hippies would have evolved without LSD.
As Mailer wrote, “the authority had operated on their brain with commercials, and washed their brain with packaged education, packaged politics. The authority had presented itself as honorable, and it was corrupt as payola on television, and scandals concerning the leasing of aviation contracts — the real scandal as everyone was beginning to sense were more intimate and could found in all the products in all the suburban homes which did not work so well as they should have worked, broke down too soon for mysterious reasons. The shoddiness was buried deep….”
The owner of the Blue Unicorn, an underground newspaper in San Francisco, described the youth revolution as “a revolution of individuality and diversity that can only be private. Upon becoming a group movement, such a revolution ends up with imitators rather than participants.” And that was precisely what would happen. Especially once the consumer culture grabbed hold of it.
In a few years it would be dubbed as the counterculture. For now, hippies were pretty much located in group houses in the Haight and besides the drugs were more or less self-consciously bringing Beat art to life, with undeniable generational twists. Soon an East Coast version would appear in Greenwich Village. Detractors such as California’s governor Reagan had a slightly different interpretation. A hippie, he once quipped, is someone who “dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”
In August of 1965 a folk-rock song about cataclysm and despair reached number one. In five weeks after its release and despite being banned on many radio stations, it was the fastest rising rock record ever.
The Eastern world, it is explodin’
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war but what that’s gun you’re totin’
And even the Jordan River had bodies floatin’
Tell me over and over and over again, my friend,
You don’t believe we’re on the …
Eve of Destruction
— P.F. Sloan
This pop tune expressed the confusion and contempt we were beginning to feel about our world and our parents. The notion that our parents had somehow made things worse was palpable. The message was vociferous and carried a certain element of prophecy. After all, 1968 was still three years away. Here was our hellfire and damnation sermon to our parents:
Look at all the hate there is in Red
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama …
We’d just about reached full-tilt generational arrogance. Our parents were
starting to worry.
Talkin' 'bout my generation
— the Who
We'd begun st-st-st-strutting our stuff to the point of tr-tr-trashing our instruments on our g-g-g-generational stage. “Hope I die before I get old….”
Well, maybe after I split for the Coast first. The attraction was genetic. Soon or later almost every Boomer felt the strong tidal forces pushing them out of their homes, drawing across the continent where something strange and wonderful was going on. Americans had been heading West since Jamestown.
All of it was distinctly American. Not all of it was about defiance and rebellion. Some of it was just plain f-u-n.
"Wish they all could be California Girls"
— the Beach Boys
Symbolized by the surfing sound begun by guitarist Dick Dale and raised
to the heights of pop culture by the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and
others, there was another side to the era. Fast cars and wild weekends
at the beach with blondes in bikinis. At a time when the War was escalating,
the cities burning, and the country entering a period of extreme turmoil,
there was abundant time to have fun, fun, fun. For the time being, twin
pillars of the youth culture, surfers and hippies, existed side by side
in a fairly easy symbiosis. The war, repression would change that though.
In a few years everyone took sides.
Sun, surf and sand were luxuries that not everyone could afford or gain access to. Historical travails did not roll over for the coming of the Age of Aquarius. Not by a long shot.
Please note that hippies and drugs the counterculture all appeared before most of us knew about the war in Vietnam. Southeast Asia didn’t even start to become a national issue until March.
— The War
Even then it nibbled at the periphery. Using the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as his license, a desperate and despairing LBJ sent combat forces to South Vietnam. The situation there was deteriorating badly. The government we supported lacked popular support. Buddhist monks were immolating themselves in the streets of Saigon over the government lack of concern for the Buddhist masses. The bloodthirsty Vietcong had so destabilized the country the South Vietnam Army (ARVN) was incapable and unwilling to hold the country together.
Our arrogance, our concern about the spread of monolithic communism, our patent misunderstanding the nature of the conflict, LBJ’s determination not to be the first American President to loose a war, all spelled trouble. By God that’s what we got. Trouble of the ass-ripping variety. March 8, two Marine battalions (about 150,000 troops) waded ashore at Danang air base to protect it from anticipated NVA retaliation for our bombing campaign the north, known as Rolling Thunder.
Public support for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution had been broad. Public sentiment against escalation was surprisingly strong. The earliest vestiges of anti-war sentiment appeared. Professors at the University of Michigan, Harvard and Syracuse held all night …
— the anti-war movement
about the expansion of the war. In April 12,000 demonstrating students marched in Washington, DC against the war. A few Democratic Senators urged LBJ to negotiate a settlement with the North. He refused. The New York Times warned of, “lives lost, blood spilt and treasure wasted of fighting a war on a jungle from 7,000 miles from the coast of California.”
But you got the impression the forces of history had taken over.
"The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro."
— LBJ on the Voting Rights Act of 1965
America got more violent after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Early in the year murders and extreme police violence surrounding Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, convinced Congress to pass additional legislation. Proposing the act LBJ said,
“There is no constitutional issue here. There is no moral issue … There is only the struggle for human rights … Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote…This cause must be our cause. It is not just Negroes, but all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."
The Voting Rights Act reinforced the previous year’s ban on literacy and understanding tests for voting and sent federal examiners into various regions of the South to register black voters. This strong act led to an explosion in the number of black elected officials that by the 1990s had septupled.
To everyone’s surprise, black and white leaders alike, trouble lay dead ahead. Five days after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Watts erupted.
Burn, Baby, Burn
— the Long Hot Summers
Although the Long Hot Summers actually began with the Harlem riot of the previous year, the destructive, insurrectionary riot in LA set off a wave of urban summer civil upheaval for the next several summers. The worst riot came in Detroit in ’67 where 33 blacks and 10 whites died and over a thousand were wounded during six days of open insurrection. Prior to this blacks rioted in Newark, resulting over 25 deaths. That had been expected considering Newark’s high unemployment, crime, maternal mortality and tuberculosis, presided over by a callous all white city administration. But Detroit came as a real shock. Home to a thriving auto industry, the city showcased the country’s most prosperous black community.
Outrage and police brutality had pushed urban black America to a state of rebellion. Over 90 people were killed in the ’67 riots alone. All told, in over 400 hundred riots from 1964 to 1968, counting the April ’68 riots after King’s assassination, half a million people had participated with 8,000 casualties and 50,000 arrests.
Traditionally, whites rioted against blacks. The Long Hot Summers established a new norm — black revolt against white intransigence. Trapped in pitiless ghettos, blacks rioted to gain access to the mainstream that had all but shut them out. Rioters felt left behind by the Civil Rights Movement underwent a revolution of rising expectations. In the face of persistent police brutality and public indifference, they rejected King's pacifism in favor of Malcolm X's violent self-defense. In the inner cities police attitudes, de facto segregation, bad housing and no jobs — problems not touched by the Movement — brought forth the fires of anger and desperation. “As I see it,” LBJ said, “I have moved the Negro from D+ to C-. He’s still nowhere. He knows it. And that’s why he’s out in the streets. Hell, I’d be there too.”
Rather than sensitize white America to the abject conditions among urban blacks, the riots had two negative consequences. One, they produced a backlash that left some blighted urban areas unreconstructed for decades. They also furnished white America a convenient excuse to wash its hands of the race problem. They declared they had done enough and put the rest on the black community.
The Long Hot Summers showed anyone who cared to notice that ending legal racial discrimination did not automatically produce equal opportunity. LBJ attempted to guarantee it through his Great Society programs, which included Affirmative Action, a program designed to assist qualified blacks.
Government should "act affirmatively to
recruit workers on a non-discriminatory basis."
— LBJ, executive order no. 11246
Later expanded to include gender and the handicapped, Affirmative Action mandated equal treatment before the law for all Americans. Although in its fundamentals it didn't involve quotas or reverse discrimination, it eventually produced both as minorities and women sometimes received preference over better qualified white men. Statistically and despite legitimate complaints, however, white men as a whole did not suffer from this now moribund set of guidelines. As LBJ explained it:
“You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying, now you are free to go where you want, do as you please and chose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and the say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others’ … It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”
Compelling though LBJ’s logic may have been, white America greeted Affirmative Action with skepticism that quickly became full blown resentment especially among boomers who confronted these policies in school and the job market. Reverse discrimination or not, Affirmative Action played an indispensable role in the creation of the black middle class.
That fall cities in the Northeast experienced a different kind of black power. This was considerably more benign than the one rumbling through the inner cities.
The Great Northeast Black 0ut
— power failure
What started as a power surge through a regional grid eventually spread into an amoebae of darkness encompassing New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine leaving some 30 million people in the dark. Quite understandably this led to a mini-baby boom nine months later. After all, people had to have something to do to fill the down time. Since they couldn’t go to the movies, they resorted to mankind’s first indoor sport. The event even spawned a movie, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?
Doubtful those procreating in the dark needed any advice from a glossy magazine, but just in case they did, one had recently become available.
— Helen Gurley Brown
"I just think that when you stop having sex, that's when you stop being a women." There's the Cosmo philosophy in short. Sounds like it was ghost written by Hugh Hefner. Beginning with her book Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962, and three years later her editorship of Cosmopolitan magazine, Brown turned transforming oneself from a “mouseburger” into a sex object that enjoyed generous sexual activity, flirting and, when necessary, affairs into household conversation. Her magazine became an American institution. Her Cosmo Girls had cleavage rivaling any Playmate’s.
Unsafe at Any Speed
— Ralph Nader
Modern consumerism began with this exposé of the cynical carelessness with which the American automobile industry built its cars. Nader, a Harvard law school graduate, claimed that the desire for profits impelled car makers to mock social responsibility. Incensed over his deconstruction of the Corvair, General Motors gave Nader added credibility by hiring a private eye to check out his sex life (good luck, he read neither Playboy nor Cosmo!). Nader sued and used the $425,000 settlement to found public interest groups staffed by the bright and earnest Nader's Raiders.
Nader’s book was one of the most influential books published during
the Sixties and made many of us aware of the possibilities for citizen-driven
reform. Inchoate consumerism and anti-Vietnam protests were signs of the
spread of reform movements from civil rights into other areas of social
and political concern.
"Untold adventure awaits him," TIME magazine enthused in its January
6, 1967 issue. “Well educated, affluent, rebellious, responsible, pragmatic,
idealistic, brave, ‘alienated’ and hopeful,” the magazine continued,
"He is the man who will land on the moon, cure cancer and the common cold,
lay our blight-proof, smog-free cities, enrich the underdeveloped world
and, no doubt, write finis to poverty and war.”
Man of the Year: Twenty-Five and Under
— Time Magazine
Far out, man. Nothing to it!
“With his skeptical yet humanistic outlook, his disdain for fanaticism and his scorn for the spurious, the 1966 Man of the Year suggests that he will infuse the future with a new sense of morality, a transcendent and contemporary ethic that could infinitely enrich the ‘empty society’.”
The trouble was we believed ourselves not only capable of such God-like feats — but destined to accomplish them, most likely before we hit the Big Three-oh. Despite the ludicrous hyperbole, the collective sense of destiny was real. All that promise, all that hope could lead only to frustration, disappointment and worse.
In January, 1966, a three day festival of music, dancing and a light show that would simulate "an LSD experience without LSD" took place in San Francisco's Longshoreman's Hall, except that there was plenty of acid to be had for cheap.
The Trips Festival
— Stewart Brand
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters showed up ready to hold an Acid Test on Saturday night. Kesey was dressed in a silver space suit. Tom Wolfe called it a "huge wild carnival" that had grown out of the Prankster's delirious and controversial Acid Tests (at the time LSD was still legal), which he described as "manic screaming orgies in public places." Organized by Brand, the success of the festival led Bill Graham to stage concerts in the Fillmore Auditorium. The pranksters had been holding Acid Tests since ’65. Now attracting hundreds, they combined with the trips festival and for a while you could find one every weekend.
Whether it was in San Francisco or along LA’s Sunset Strip, the ferment was everywhere. TIME described this new generation as a “minisociety” governed by its “own lights and rights.”
Feed your head
— Grace Slick
Which was exactly what was happening. The drug ethic was widening. “Enlightenment by any means necessary,” as Todd Gitlin said of the Merry Pranksters. Jefferson Airplane was one of the early psychedelic bands from San Francisco promoting a counterculture of alternative lifestyles. Their music was clever and innovative. Grace Slick was about as winsome a hippie chick as a groovy dude could ever hope to get into.
— Simon and Garfunkel
If the East Coast offered a counterpart to psychedelic music, Simon and Garfunkel was it. More cerebral and less orgiastic (after all, this was the uptight East), their melancholy harmonies and Paul Simon's existential lyrics brought them a huge following that spoke directly to these weird longings shared by so many middle class young. A little marijuana and new way to look at the world — bingo we're free of the rat race and into a bright new day. The duo’s popularity endured strongly enough to culminate in a reunion concert on September 19, 1981 in Central Park that attracted half a million now middle aged fans.
The music never stopped. Although rhythm and blues had been crossing over since the 50s, it hit its stride with Berry Gordy's Detroit-based Motown Records.
I cream in my jeans when I hear the Supremes
— the Motown sound
Talk about endless talent: the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye. When you add Otis Redding and Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound girl groups, man, you’ve got the dominant music of the day. Urban black America may have been in ferment, but this music was a celebration of life. Everywhere you went, “There was music, sweet music….”
The Civil Rights Revolution lasted until the 1978 Bakke case. For the Civil Rights Movement, however, the end was at hand. The fragile coalition of SCLC, SNCC and CORE reached its zenith during the Selma campaign and died there. To this day, inter-racial cooperation has never been stronger than during those few weeks early in 1965. Dr. King felt that Selma put a giant ‘X’ on the country. He meant that coming from differing places the two races, black and white, came together in an outpouring of brotherhood and then went their separate ways.
After Selma nonviolence and Christian brotherly love that had characterized the Movement stepped aside for the new kid on the block.
"What do you want?
Say it again.
— Stokely Carmichael
When Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Touré) stood on the trailer in Greenwood, Mississippi, during the June Meredith March against Fear and proclaimed Black Power (with King standing there helplessly), the Movement was on its last legs. His militant call for Black Power all but capped the coalition. The rise of Black Nationalism marked the decline of King's influence over the Civil Rights Revolution. It signaled a momentous shift in race relations. Self-consciously pro-black, rather than integrationist, Black Power dismissed the white power structure as hopelessly racist. It advocated separatism and an emphasis on things black, from African culture to community politics. Although they alarmed whites, militant Black Powerists merely reflected what whites had practiced as a matter of course for centuries.
The times and the rhetoric of the times had taken an unfortunate turn. Many people who should have known better were so caught up in the reductio ad absurdum of the radical cant they lost their way. The decent into radicalism among young whites and blacks felt inevitable. Radicals painted themselves into a self-destructive corner, which over-shadowed the democratic impulse that underlay much of the anger.
Power to the People
— Black Power
Inflammatory rhetoric aside, though, the heart of Black Power was the desire to instill self-awareness and pride that had been so lacking. Since W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about it at the turn of the century, little progress had been made toward establishing a sense of heritage. As Malcolm X, the spiritual father of Black Power, used to say, “You can’t tell where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” Black Power was necessary to end the notion that white meant good, black meant bad.
"Say it loud — I'm black and I'm proud."
— James Brown
Awl, shit, James, you old sex machine. The godfather of soul, the grandmaster himself put the black nationalist message of racial and cultural pride into a tune that asked its black listeners, "How you gonna respect if you ain't cut your process yet?" It was a far cry from “We Shall Overcome Someday.”
The new message rang out loud and strong.
Black is Beautiful
— Cultural Nationalism
Huge Afros and African dashikis. Later orange patterned Kente cloth appeared on every this from hats and scarves to cummerbunds and book bags. It also meant more substantial things such as Kwanza, converting to Islam, adopting African surnames. A stronger and much more positive identification with the Africa began to emerge, despite centuries of psychological, political, economic and social backwardness. Ties with your ancestry are so fundamental we take them for granted. For millions of Americans, however, not only were those ties murky they also threatened acceptance by whites.
Mass culture responded to ferment with a weekly morality play that examined American social problems from a safe distance of multiple light years.
"Beam me up, Scottie."
— Captain Kirk on Star Trek
This indefatigable show began on September 8 and attracted a cult following rivaled only by the Grateful Dead. "Space, the Final Frontier" was all about mass culture. This lowbrow space opera that bordered on camp humor inexplicably appealed to millions of viewers who cared next to nothing for Science Fiction. Boomers who cut their teeth on the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog and Galaxy found the series unspeakably lame. Star Trek was popular culture's attempt to assimilate the ferment of the period. Which is more than adequate proof of its merits.
But it wasn’t going to assimilate this guy. For him there were no final frontiers. He found the very idea revolting.
“The Mask Man's a fag!"
— Lenny Bruce
On August 13, the master of crossing the line died of a heroin overdose. For challenging convention — as in his outrageous cartoon "Thank you, Mask Man" — he was persecuted and eventually driven to self-destruction. Though he reached his peaked during the fifties, Bruce’s anti-establishment bent made him and older comedians such as W.C. Fields, boomer heroes.
One of the themes Bruce and Fields explored was the effect of a repressive society on individual. In One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Ken Kesey argued that insane asylum inmates had more humanity than their authoritarian keepers. Plays such as Marat/Sade and shrinks such as R.D. Laing portrayed the insane as more rational in an irrational world than the “sane”. On basic levels of sanity, the personal was indeed political. Nowhere was this better captured in the cult movie of the 60s.
"The knight strikes at midnight."
— King of Hearts
This anti-war movie examined the fine edge of insanity, questioning how sane our warrior societies really are. Alan Bates played a Scottish soldier during World War I who enters a town occupied by escaped lunatics from the local asylum. They crown him king, and he saves the town from demolition at midnight. In the end he chooses the eccentric unreality of the asylum and joins his subjects, leaving the madly sane to run amok. The movie played nearly continuously for over five years at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Art and theory made for great dorm room rap sessions, but real life this persistent habit of intruding.
Born to Raise Hell
— Richard Speck
Few people would call the second half of our era innocent. Here are reasons why. Richard Speck stunned the world by slaying eight Chicago nurses one at a time. The lone surviving nurse identified him by his singular tattoo touting his destiny. A few weeks later, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the clock tower of the University of Texas library and assassinated thirteen students and wounding of thirty-one more. Both Whitman and Speck came from dysfunction families. Whitman’s sniping spree touched off a forty-year wave of mass murders. But it was Speck's butchery that shocked us most deeply. It felt like the system was starting to break down.
Maybe the hippies were right. Maybe they had a better way. Plenty of people thought so. Mass society and mass culture, the Cold War, and especially the War, brought us a reign of criminal terror to go with the cultural ferment. Not only a new wave of street crime but with a twist: mass murders and serial killings. Although neither was completely new, by the 1980s there was more than one of each per month.
Widespread gun ownership and copycat crimes didn’t help matters. But the gun culture and media exposure were not to blame. These crimes would have happened anyway. So what was it? The “permissive society?” Had freedom become license? Had humanism undermined the divine role in our day-to-day lives?
Is God Dead?
— Time Magazine
Or was humanism the answer to the unsolved problems of race, war
and social inequity? Organized religion had done little to help matters.
Religion was part of the problem. All denominations with the possible exception
if the Unitarians had actually supported racism for generations. The 60s
put traditional faiths to the severe test, as it did everything and everyone.
All aspects of conventional society were subject to challenge, including
religious beliefs. The century-long move toward a more secular society
called the traditional concept of God and the Devil, good and evil to question.
Protestant and Roman Catholic support of segregation didn't help matters
any. Only professional atheists such as Madeline Murray actually argued
God was dead. Clerics and scholars explored the relevance of an afterlife
to contemporary social and culture tribulations. The phrase itself became
a convenient journalistic shorthand for the failure of traditional means
of salvation, the failure of the church to confront our social problems.
Ironically, we were broadening into new forms of spiritualism. Many forms of the spiritual were already on display in San Francisco. The new year brought new meaning to the word. The human spirit was suddenly cause for exploration and celebration.
A Gathering of the Tribes for the
— Human Be-In
Two weeks after Time declared baby boomers its “Man” of the Year, 30,000 hippies met in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to usher in the Age of Aquarius. The January 14 Be-In featured Timothy Leary, his former research associate at Harvard, Richard Alpert, who would soon feature himself as hippie guru Babba Ram Dass, Allen Ginsberg, Dick Gregory and Jerry Rubin, along with such local bands as the Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The idea was to bring together two disparate elements: political dissidents of the New Left and hippies. To the outside world they were the indistinguishable. A local newspaper described it as “a union of love and activism previously separated by categorical dogma and label mongering.”
Those involved were simpatico anyway. Leary saw politics as a power trip. “Turn on to the scene,” he told the assembled flower children, “tune in to what is happening, and drop-out — of high school, college, grad school, junior executive — and follow me, the hard way.” He and Ginsberg chanted while anti-war activist Jerry Rubin railed about politics. As Todd Gitlin described it, “Off the platform, where most of the action characteristically was, twenty thousand young people, more or less, reveled, dropped acid, burned incense, tootled flutes, jingled tambourines, passed out flowers, admired one another, felt the immensity of their collective spectacle.” The Hell’s Angels provided their own form of edgy security. The idea was they were social outcasts and rebels just like the sons and daughters of the great gray middle class. Here in Golden Gate Park the twain would meet, counterculture, political dissidents, and outlaw bikers.
The music, the drugs, the vibes celebrated "a new concert of human relations" that questioned authority in order to bring on a "Renaissance of compassion" in which all people would be able to live fuller lives in a clean and safe environment among like-minded, peaceable humans. As the Berkeley Barb put it, "In unity we shall shower the country with waves of ecstasy and purification." Far out and groovy. To the straight word they were just a gaggle of weirdos hanging out with a pack of roughnecks.
Make Love, Not War
— counterculture sentiment
The Anti-War Movement first surfaced on April 17, 1965 when 12,000 people marched in DC to protest the presence of 25,000 troops in Vietnam. In October of that year Jerry Rubin led a Vietnam Day Committee that staged a 24 hour teach-in at Berkeley on the escalating war followed by a march to the army base in Oakland. At the city line the then super-patriot Hell’s Angels severely beat many of the demonstrators. By ‘67 Angels had become welcome fixtures in the Haight. (Perhaps due to the pacifying effects of LSD.) In any case, this slogan first appeared in 1965 and two years later has gained widespread in usage and acceptance.
By combining Eros and pacifism with opposition to the War, the phrase summed up in one pat statement the ethic of the counterculture. By 1967 political activists were as likely to show up at a Trips Festival or a concert at the Bill Graham’s Fillmore as hippies were at an antiwar rally. The cultures had coalesced around ideas as much as alienation from the adult world.
To be young in those days meant living in a world of exciting ideas, passion and new experiences. It was as much a sensual as cerebral exploration. All of it was uncharted. No one had entered these waters before. The entire world was shimmering with new realities that offered better answers.
"If you're going to San Francisco,
be sure to wear some flowers in your hair."
— Scott McKenzie
The counterculture came alive during the Summer of Love in Haight Ashbury, which began officially with the summer solstice, June 21, 1967. The Haight was already Mecca for some 15,000 hippies, and was well known among the growing numbers of flower children across the country as the main point of light. Somewhere between fifty and seventy-five thousand young pilgrims showed up during the summer months. Many of them, and many more who didn’t make the trip, including a bewitched news media, saw in the tousled, beaded and blissed-out multitudes, new hope for American society.
In the face of growing domestic violence — for this was the Summer of Desperation in many ghettos — and a war without sense or sensibility, the alternatives of free love and peaceable toleration began to make sense. Besides that, doing your own thing in your own time was loads of fun. The Love Pageant Rally in the Panhandle, a park by Haight Street, brought out a hippie Mardi Gras of thousands. McKenzie's gentle pop tune was dismissed by true believers as the work of a plastic hippie. Regardless, it captured the culture’s appealing aspects.
— the first rock festival
In mid-June, just before the solstice, 50,000 people paid six bucks a head to see Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Who, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe and the Fish and of course the Dead. D.A. Pennybaker's film of the festival helped make Hendrix and Janis Joplin rock stars, a term not yet coined. When this movie hit the theaters the following year, it acted as a calling card for the counterculture. And hastened the trend in the Haight toward commercialization of the movement. As though the word had not already gotten out.
— The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
Underground cartoonist Gilbert Shelton’s Freewheelin' Franklin, Fat Freddy, and Phineas, plus R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural and Felix the Cat offered a mocking though sensuous look at this new society. Zap Comix and other underground comic books stormed brazenly into places the now establishmentarian Mad Magazine refused to venture. Through the odd eyes of the counterculture’s original twisted sister, cartoonist R. Crumb who simultaneously spoofed and glorified the paranoia of the underground drug culture.
But it was Shelton’s Freak Brothers who asked the question of the day.
"Fat Freddy says:
Keed spills? Pill Skeeds? Skill Peeds?"
All the News that Fits
— Rolling Stone magazine
The music would set us free and Rolling Stone would tell us all about it. Started with a $7500 investment, Jann Wenner's magazine hit the stands November 9. Its celebration of the music and the culture that went with it made an instant hit. Of all the counterculture publications, including dozens of underground newspapers, his was by far the most influential. By the time he moved the operation from San Francisco to New York City, Rolling Stone had become the arbiter of pop culture.
Much of that pop culture was increasingly psychedelicized. Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix. But it never really came together in any coherent way until…
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
— the Beatles
They'd become the masters of their medium by the time they recorded the greatest album of all time. An eclectic mixture synthesized into vague themes of a performing band and laced with psychedelia, Lucy in the Sky with Diamond, and a whiff of mysticism, Within you, without you, it set standards for experimentation and excellence. At the same time, its eclecticism also signified a departure from rock ‘n’ roll basics. The white elephant Pink Floyd was not far behind. But neither were other great albums, all of which stood in the shadow cast by John, Paul, George, Ringo in Sgt. Pepper: Graceland, Tapestry, Axis Bold as Love, Pet Sounds, Surrealistic Pillow, Dark Side of the Moon, and their own Rubber Soul, White Album, and Abbey Road.
It seems odd that a few months after rock came of age violence received a similar acknowledgement. For good or for ill, both became accepted parts of the culture. One belatedly, the other all too soon for many tastes. Yet the essential truth rang as loud and clear as a Day in the Life.
“Violence is as American as Cherry Pie.”
— H. Rap Brown
Once dismissed it as the ravings of a militant Black Powerist, these days thy’re cited as ironic gospel. H. Rappahannock Brown (now Jamil Abdullah al-Amin) was just trying to…
“Tell it like it is.”
— soul power
Brown succeeded Stokely Carmichael as the chairman of SNCC. He upped the ante. Which is saying something, considering his predecessor’s fire-eating. Standing on the hood of a car in Cambridge, Maryland, on July 24, Brown told 400 local blacks “You better get you some guns … The only thing the honky respects is force … I mean, don’t be trying to love that honky to death. Shoot him to death, brother, cause that’s what he’s out to do to you … The streets are yours. Take them.”
He was charged with inciting to riot. His real crime was threatening southern whites with a dose of their own medicine. “The white man won’t get off our backs, so we’re going to knock him off … America won’t come around, so we’re going to burn America down.” Later these charges were dropped.
Years later Brown got arrested for robbery — so much for his revolutionary commitment. Later he converted to Islam, which, one hopes, was a much truer reflection of his West African heritage than felony.
Up against the wall, motherfucker.
(This is a stick-up)
— LeRoi Jones
Later named Amari Baraka, this gifted black writer got caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the times, which led men and women or both races to reject the system because it was imperfect. Baraka shrugged off his Beat background to become a Black Nationalist. The Long Hot Summers brought a new era of increased radicalism to race relations. After Detroit riot urban conditions began to dominate the racial dialogue — if it could be called a dialogue. Elements of black leadership moved from integration to separatism. In doing so, some of them adopted the foolish position that armed-robbery and other felonies were legitimate forms of radical resistance. The system was corrupt; therefore, holding up liquor stores was justified.
Asshole nihilism spilled over into the counterculture as well. In New York a group of cultural revolutionaries modeling themselves on San Francisco’s Diggers, took the name Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker, a street gang with an analysis, and began staging guerilla theater and other artistic happenings designed to transform art into street life, and vice-versa.
It was time to stand up to the man. And that meant standing up to nearly naked aggression by a supposedly friendly police force. Before the Rodney King beating and the OJ Simpson trial, white America didn’t know that most black viewed the police as an invading enemy sent there not to defend and protect but to keep them in their place. When, for the first time in American history, blacks formed an armed vigilante organization to defend themselves, whites didn’t understand the basis of Black Panther appeal.
Off the pigs
— Huey Newton
Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California in 1967. Their ten point program stressed racial solidarity, self-help, community control and a few very 60s radical proposals such as the freeing of all political prisoners. They followed Oakland police around shouting to black arrestees their legal rights.
On May 2 thirty Panthers stormed into the state capital carrying their rifles and shotguns in protest of gun control legislation. To emphasize their rejection of white racism, the Panthers intentionally allowed themselves to be photographed holding weapons and exhibiting dark scowls. This was what their posturing got them: The public freaked out. So did J. Edgar Hoover. Under his COINTELPRO (CounterIntelligence Program), law enforcement decapitated the Panthers through arrest, harassment and murder. By the early 70s, they were reduced to a memory.
Domestically, the 60s were the most violent decade this century. The violence at home was in part a product of the terribly divisive war abroad, a war that was reaching its nadir for the American boys caught in the “quagmire.”
Search and destroy
— American strategy in Vietnam
Where was God in Southeast Asia? The Viet Cong were murderous cutthroats masquerading as Marxist/Leninist revolutionaries. But America had its own devils. The brass regularly inflated the number of enemy dead by 30% or more. By the end of the year, the Pentagon was reporting 220,000 NLF and NVA dead. This strategy placed greater emphasis on body count than territorial and political objectives and was as vague as the lists of dead were high. As Philip Caputo wrote, “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC, was a rule of thumb in the bush.” Even considering the War’s unrelenting harshness, such acts were too brutal and inhumane for a Christian nation such as ours. Vietnam had become the Interzone’s version of a holocaust.
The average age of the grunts out in the shit was nineteen. Years younger that their fathers serving in World War II. Fresh from high school, these men were thrust into a situation bearing no resemblance to conquering hero G.I.s slogging across Europe. Ho Chi Minh wasn’t Adolph Hitler. The Vietnamese peasants didn’t feel the need for liberation. So, they kept their heads down until “R ‘n R” and hoped and prayed they got short in a hurry.
The light at the end of the tunnel
— General William Westmoreland
The commander of MACV kept saying we were winning the war — and asking for more men. Except for a handful of reporters in the field who eventually saw the sham and began to report it, most of us believed him. Westmoreland's remarks set up him for a big fall the following year. Although he never used these exact words, light at the end of the tunnel resounded through the country like the latest “shot heard round the world.” Except this time it was the sound of America shooting itself in the foot.
Summoned home to reassure a fretful public, Westmoreland actually said, “I am very, very encouraged … We are making real progress.” At the National Press Club on November 21, he elaborated, “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.” Troop withdrawal could begin, he hinted, in two years.
— lies our leaders told us
They were so numerous we came to expect them. Not only did the military inflate the body count, they also misrepresented our activities in Las and Cambodia, where we were conducting illegal military operations, concealed from the people many of their elected representatives in Congress.
Back home, as more boys came home in body bags and the War seemed to be going no where fast, opposition to the War was growing. So long as it stayed on a few campuses, it was no more than troubling. But with the demonstration at the Pentagon on October 21, by 35,000 antiwar protesters, the anti-war movement began to work its way into the public consciousness.
"I ain't gonna study war no more."
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
On April 4, Dr. King came out against the War. Claiming that black combat deaths were disproportionately high, he urged black men to become conscientious objectors. By merging the Civil Rights Movement with the anti-war movement, he radicalized his own position and lost an enormous amount of white good will and financial support. “The bombs in Vietnam,” he claimed, “explode at home … They destroy the hopes and possibilities of a decent America … The promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.” King rejected pressures from LBJ and his own advisors to temper his rhetoric. Being the moral leader he was, he marched on. For every $500,000 spent to kill one VC, America spent a measly $35 on the poverty-stricken. King urged all Americans to rally around "our fighting men in Vietnam" by protesting against the war. One year later to the day he was assassinated.
The country was rapidly polarizing between the Hawks and the Doves, the Establishment and the counterculture, straights and freaks, young and old. People on both sides stopped talking to each other and started shouting. Feeling out of sync with the times was not limited to a generation or a political persuasion. The times were bewildering to everyone.
“One word, Benjamin. Plastics.”
— The Graduate
Poor Dustin Hoffman was out of the loop. Estranged from his family. Ill at ease with people his own age. When his father gave him scuba gear for his birthday, he put it on a sank to the dejected isolation at the bottom of his pool. It’s Holden Caulfield in sunny LA. All he knew was he loved Elaine, or thought he did. (Well, he had that over Holden). Other than that, he couldn’t see his way clear to the future. Join the club, Benjamin. It called alienation. Ever heard of it? The movie helped make the anti-hero and Dustin Hoffman a star.
Something unsettling happened in our country once the War started escalating. Perhaps, another gear in the machinery shifted. Whatever it was, whatever caused it, these words expressed it best.
"What we have here is failure to communicate."
— Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke
Paul Newman played a small time hood trapped in a tough southern prison farm. The prison guards brutalized the prisoners, and sought at every turn to set them against one another, de-humanizing them by destroying their souls. The prisoners fought back just to stay sane. In the end desperation ruled; resistance proved fruitless; the pervasive power of the Establishment prevailed. Cool Hand Luke was shot dead trying to escape.
Actually, what we really had was ability to communicate. We were communicating more than ever. The problem was many people didn’t like what was being communicated. Electronic media was already ubiquitous by the time Marshall McLuhan told us we'd been absorbed into its global web. That the world had become a Global Village.
The Medium is the Message
— Marshall McLuhan
On the nightly news, we watched the brutality of war and the grit of urban crime. The brave new medium was continually re-defining itself — and us along with it. The tube often tied the world together with uncomfortable results. “The environment that man created becomes the medium for his role in it.” Marshall McLuhan helped explain our increasingly inter-connected lives in the Global Village, which, he claimed, was now defined as much by the act of acquiring information as actual content.
The medium, or process, of our time — electric technology — iIs reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life … Forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate every institution formerly taken for granted.
McLuhan saw boomers as the agent for change. “Youth,” he asserted, “instinctively understands the present environment — the electric drama … This is the reason for the great alienation between generations. Wars, revolutions, civil uprisings are interfaces within the new environment created by electric media.”
Maybe so, but the counterculture was based upon the rejection of this interface. Understanding Media came out in 1964, followed by The Medium in the Massage in ‘67 and War and Peace in the Global Village the next year. Ironically, with his next book people stopped paying attention. His message had become so ingrained so quickly it was as if he died well before 1980. In any case, he left the interface before personal computers and the Internet, which he blithely predicted and defined.
The world would never be the same. No corner of the planet was too remote, too exotic, too unimportant to be excluded from the daily ritual of information gathering. Mass media was gathering information like squaw wood. He predicted not he’d possess more knowledge of each other than we were able to absorb. His ideas anticipated the global assault of privacy and the insatiable lust for intimate personal details. Most of these cravings were justified as the people’s right to know, when in fact it was more a case of the people’s ability to find out.
Not all media were electronic. A few became walking, talking messages about the state of the culture. The message was medium. Neither high nor low, but middle brow, halfway between male and female, boy and girl, slim and dead.
— fashion model
With her 5'7" 92 lb. frame, her short blond hair with the school-boy part and large blue waif eyes, British model Leslie Hornsby represented the androgynous look that itself signified a revolution. Twiggy might have been haute culture but she looked like God’s first flower child. With her appearance in Vogue magazine, the counterculture’s growing influence took an astral flight from black-lit crash pads to Kleig-lit studios. Really thin was really in.
Except on the playing field, that is. Professional athletes were bigger and badder than ever. The biggest game in America appeared as football became the national past time. The hype, the overproduction, Howard Cosell, sports wear were but a few years away. Date the mass marketing of big time sports to this lopsided game.
Green Bay Packers 35 — Kansas City Chiefs 10
— First Super Bowl
The big question was the quality of the American Football League. Could the upstart league play with the big boys? Packer coach Vince Lombardi wasn't so sure. Reflecting on the game after the victory, he allowed as how the Dallas Cowboys, whom the Pack defeated in the NFL championship, was "a better ball club." Two years later in Super Bowl III, New York Jets Quarterback Joe Namath confidently predicted victory over the Baltimore Colts which were favored by over two touchdowns. "I guarantee you we will win," said Namath — and they did. That victory legitimated the American Football League (soon to become the American Football Conference of the National Football League after consolidation in 1969) and helped make the Super Bowl the nation's top sports event, surpassing even the World Series and the Indy 500.
This was the year that was: Ranking with 1776, 1861, 1941. Our country was blitzed by one tragedy after another. They compounded the confusion and stretching an already flayed society on tenterhooks. It was the most chaotic year of the most chaotic decade of the century — to be saved at the last minute by NASA and the Book of Genesis.
"In order to liberate this village,
we had to destroy it."
— American officer at Bien Tre during Tet
At the end of January, the Viet Cong struck simultaneously throughout South Vietnam. Hand-to-hand combat took place inside the US embassy compound in downtown Saigon. Ten VC sappers made it to the perimeter wire several dozen yards of Westmoreland's headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. VC lairs were only thirty miles away. In actuality that itself was no big deal. It didn’t matter. The American public panicked.
At first the brass focused on the diversion at Khe Sahn up in I Corps (to forestall an American Dien Bien Phu). They caught on quickly enough. Our armed forces rallied magnificently. Heavy month-long fighting ended in the complete route of the VC and NVA. The trouble was, when Westmoreland claimed victory, Americans, including America’s sagacious uncle, Walter Cronkite, refused to believe him. “What the hell is going on?” he rumbled. “I thought we were wining the war!”
Westmoreland had said in DC a few months prior to the offensive, “The friendly picture gives rise to optimism for increased success in 1968.“ In Tet’s aftermath, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Earle Wheeler termed it a “very near thing.” Militarily, however, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the NVA and VC. They suffered horrible losses: somewhere between forty and fifty thousand KIA. The NLF was virtually eliminated as an effective fighting force in the South. Hereafter, the NVA took over the bulk of the fighting. Psychologically and politically, however, which was where it counted most, it proved a disaster from which the American war effort never recovered.
The off-handed remark by an American major came to represent all that was wrong-headed and, for the Anti-War movement, immoral about the War. The exact quote is lost (if indeed it was ever uttered). Originally reported by AP reporter Peter Arnett, who was the only one to have heard it. Whether it was, “We had to destroy the town to save it,” or probably the most accurate quote, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” this phrase captured the contradictions of the War. Americans were killing tens of thousands of people and destroying a country in the process to prevent a communist takeover. The ironic twist on “Better Dead Than Red” was there for the whole world to watch on television.
Tet showed us that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. The ground war was nowhere close to ending. The communists were not close to defeat. The South Vietnamese government had little support from its people. And the three-year operation Rolling Thunder had not halted the flow of men and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The confidence expressed in ’67 had been shattered. In light of the 12,000 American dead, many Americans began to doubt the point of continuing an unwinable war. Republican Senator George Aiken from Vermont would later quip, we ought to “declare and victory and get out.” The sentiment was widely shared by a viewing public that couldn't get past the brutal image of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan holding his snub-nosed .38 to the head of a bound VC suspect and calmly squeezing off a round. The American civilian population, unused in the extreme to the wanton violence of war, asked, Who were these monsters we were fighting and dying for?
It was a question LBJ should have taken care to answer. Rather, he and many other leaders, such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, cynically manipulated the facts and lied outright about the nature of the War. When the lies surfaced we called it the Credibility Gap. It became a chasm. To his credit, LBJ agonized dearly over each escalation and change in strategy, fearing if he went to the public in all candor, he might win support at the expense of his beloved Great Society programs. So, he dissembled — and became the Tet Offensive’s ultimate victim.
"I shall not seek, and I shall not accept
the nomination of my party …"
Tet destroyed his presidency. On March 31, after calling a bombing halt in hopes of establishing peace negotiations, LBJ dropped out of the presidential race. The great liberal president, who wanted his Great Society to boost America to its true greatness, was so vilified and so widely unpopular he had to limit his public appearances to military bases.
The Tet Offensive shifted public support for the war. But even as people turned against the war, they turned with greater vehemence against the anti-war movement. The more events proved the anti-war movement's charges, the more public wrath the movement incurred. No wonder, we were in the streets shouting slogans, making obscene gestures and showing disrespect for our institutions.
“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win.”
— anti-war slogans
These ugly phrases resounded throughout ’66, ’67 and into 1968. Most boomers steadfastly supported the war, especially those on small college campuses. The strongest support for the War came from Baby Boomers. But you couldn't tell that from the number of long hairs in the streets with their middle fingers pointing at the sun. Demonstrators disrupted college classes, sat-in at draft boards and Armed Forces recruiters, held noisy rallies in major cities, and staged mass marches in DC. As The Anti-War Movement grew in size and in vehemence, it began to change tactics from protest to resistance. It was a fateful change because it exacerbated opposition to it even as on point after point the Movement was right — and unbelievably shrill.
The Movement was comprised of anti-Establishment radicals, who opposed the racist, militarist, capitalist “system,” pacifists, who opposed war, and antiwar liberals. These liberals, who were neither radical nor pacifist, comprised the strength of the Movement. They saw the War as a violation of international law and the American Constitution. Liberals who fought in World War II or Korea and were strong Cold Warriors argued that American strategy of devastation in Vietnam was immoral. The war itself was wrong because we were backing a corrupt, virtual dictatorship for reasons that nothing to do with national security, or national self-determination. In addition, our policies constituted a dangerously arrogant over-extension of American power that had brought down civilizations as far back as Athens. It was, as Robert McNamara’s 1996 book In Retrospect would later prove, the Truman Doctrine of containment gone mad. American men and women were dying because of it. Not to forget hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians.
The very same week Tet forced LBJ out of the presidential race, our greatest moral leader since Abraham Lincoln gave his full measure. His prestige and influence were already in sharp decline when he arrived in Memphis to offer support and guidance to striking garbage workers. For the first time, he was unable to keep the demonstrations peaceful. His final speech was eerily prophetic.
"… I’ve been to the mountain top …
and I’ve seen the Promised Land."
— MLK, Jr.
On April 4 he was taken away by a petty thief. In his farewell King reassured his followers that “I might not get there with you. But I want you to now tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land ….”
King’s death was a loss of incalculable dimensions. He could not be replaced or, as it turned out, succeeded. Only he and RFK could speak to both races without changing the style or content of their speeches. That night announcing the assassination to a stunned black audience I Indianapoplis, RFK quoted Aeschylus from memory: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forgive falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
No one since, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, has been able to speak to both races. The riots of despair and anger that swept the country left forty-six people dead, 3500 injured, and 21,000 under arrest. In all 168 cities erupted in the rioting that reached within four blocks of the White House in Washington, DC., where the once vibrant center of local black culture at 14th and U streets was reduced to rubble. Few countries are blessed with a man like Dr. King, fewer still express their gratitude with an assassin's bullet. His death left black America leaderless at a time of growing white backlash and a serious split in black protest thought between the nationalists radicals and the more moderate integrationists. Militant nonviolence died with him, as did hopes for a solution to the problems of the color line.
The violence of 1968 so jarred America that even mainstream politicians began to wonder about the soundness of our society. For anti-Establishment radicals, the proof of their beliefs was too strong to stomach. Boomers came into the early 60s with the fervent belief that everything was possible. Look at the early successes. The Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Corps, the Space Program, the Great Society. These made such beliefs inevitable to us, so young a group, raised just far enough away from life’s harsh rigors to stay naïve. But the violence against civil rights workers, the riots of the Long Hot Summers, a war that stressed the number of dead as a measure of success, the assassinations, the repressive backlash pushed many of us to the dark belief that nothing at all was possible. The turnabout came in 1968.
The politics of assassination reigned from 1963 to 1972. JFK, MLK, RFK, George Wallace, each inspired hope from alienated parts of society. The racist Wallace had offered himself as the spokesman for working class American whites, the vilified and ridiculed blue-collar, rednecks. RFK was a reform-minded, antiwar liberal (who nonetheless feared a bloodbath if the U.S. withdrew precipitously). Not so ironically, his murder silenced much of the Movement, the vast majority of whom were reluctant radicals to begin with. The saddest commentary of the times came from the assassinations. The deaths of JFK, MLK and RFK became instrumental in the Republican rise to power. To be sure the GOP was already gaining momentum, the liberal/Democratic coalition was shattering. But these three deaths created a power vacuum both among the reform movements and in national politics that facilitated Republican triumphs.
"Now, it's on to Chicago, and let's win there."
As a carpetbag senator from New York, Bobby Kennedy established a presidency in waiting. The country knew it was only a matter of when, not if. His moving journey into the Mississippi Delta demonstrated not only the depth of poverty in our affluent nation, but the depth of change in this man, who once acted as his brother’s son of a bitch, the tough Irish ward heeler. After JFK’s death, to quote Roger Wilkins, “he became a man connected to the world’s pain.” And the world loved him for it. He left behind his father’s prejudices, his brother amorality and became a reformist challenging a liberal president.
Bobby entered the presidential race in March after LBJ's surprising withdrawal. He was the people's favorite, not his party's. Vice President Humphrey had a plane load of political IOU's and most likely would have beaten him anyhow. On June 5, moments after he uttered this challenge to his followers, Sirhan B. Sirhan shot him. He died the next day at 1:44 AM at age 42. Hope died with him. Cynicism took his place.
Coming just two months after King's death, this was the anguished end of the bright spirit of the Sixties. Possibilities for positive change died with JFK, King and Bobby Kennedy. Our country has never recovered from these three assassinations. At the time of his death, RFK was the only leader alive who could bring together blacks and blue collar whites. The idealism brought forth by his brother and the Civil Rights Movement gave way to rage, rejection and rebellion. What had begun as protest a few short years before erupted into rebellion at the Chicago Democratic Convention at the end of August. The dark forces of reaction and hate were about to have their day.
"Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."
— Abe Ribikoff
Acting on Mayor Richard Daley's orders, Chicago police raged out of control. With impunity they harassed, beat and arrested peaceful demonstrators. They inflicted such wanton violence and mayhem their actions were condemned from the podium of the convention. Daley responded to Ribikoff by calling him a dirty Jew and giving him the finger. Said Hizzoner, "Gentlemen, remember one thing: the Chicago Police Department is not here to create disorder. It is here to preserve disorder (sic)." The Walker Commission later called it a "police riot."
Such disorder was the GOP’s vehicle to power. The Republicans built a presidential majority on it that that held into the 90s. But the unpleasant news from the streets of Chicago that hot summer was the clear sign that we had turned away from the cooperative spirit of King’s Beloved Community. Excess became the norm. Bitter rhetoric from youthful protestors. Retaliatory violence from the Establishment against those protesters, many American had come to see as anti-American. 1968 was the year and Chicago was the place where the promise and the possibilities inspired by the Declaration of Independence became too great a challenge. Riot, repression and assassination ruled. It was a tragedy beyond measure.
The whole world is watching!
— shouted on the streets of Chicago
The demonstrators taunted. TV lights blinked on and off lights in the rat's nest of chaos. Cameras captured the bizarre scene roving bands of blue-helmeted cops beating anyone who looked vaguely suspicious, including Roman Catholic nuns, school children from Canada touring the city and Hugh Hefner. Right wingers blamed TV crews for the violence. What a colossal lack of decency! The issues, the frustration and bitterness and the duplicity killed hope. Violence diverted attention. Listening to reactionary critics, one would have thought there’d been no rioting prior to the invention of the TV camera. The right had a convenient whipping boy that allowed it to seize the day. Which it did, gloriously.
Regardless, the news media had managed to make themselves part of the story they were covering. They’d become players in the worst domestic crisis since the Civil War. As a result, news media became an indispensable part of politics and culture. Not to convey information to the public, but to facilitate they process itself.
The arrest of eight of the so-called radical leaders resulted in a comic show trial before a prejudiced, incompetent judge named Julius Hoffman, who frequently turned away in his chair when defense attorney William Kunstler spoke. The Chicago 8: SDS leader Tom Hayden, anti-war organizer Rennie Davis, pacifist Dave Delinger, Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Black Panther Bobby Seale and student activists, Lee Weiner and John Froines. Shouting matches in the courtroom drove Judge Hoffman to have Bobby Seale bound and gagged. Hoffman finally separated him from the proceedings to avoid a mistrial, and he was tried later. Seale’s crime was two short speeches he gave in Chicago before leaving town.
The Chicago 7
— Chicago Conspiracy Trial
The Chicago 7 represented a cross section of 60s’ radicalism. The Justice Department working what was essentially a legal scam through Hoover’s COINTELPRO created this “conspiracy” then fed it to Chicago authorities. Tom Hayden was charged with stealing hubcaps.
Convicted for inciting to riot and contempt, all were overturned on appeal. The government had no real case. This trial and the many like it (such as the Catonsville 9) sapped money and energy from a movement that was already a fragile amalgamation of disparate groups with often competing issues. In the end, legal pressure helped destroy the New Left and the anti-war movement.
Sports is a salve. Through demonstrations of excellence, sports can also become an avenue for protest. Triumph over prejudice has offered a classic way to leave one’s enemy with nothing to do but concede the righteousness of the victory. When triumph becomes grace, vindication becomes heroism. Heroes uplift the world by rejecting bitterness. They inspire. They give hope. At least they should.
— the Mexico City Olympics
American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos placed first and third in the 200 meters. At the awards ceremony they raised black-gloved fists during the national anthem and were promptly dismissed from the team.
No one with even a passing knowledge of history would deny the righteousness of black rage. This act, however, was about as graceless a performance from world class athletes as could be found — then. From this time forward athletes gained prominence at the expense and destroyed the dignity of sports. In 1976, Nadia Comaneci, whose country had been invaded by the Red Army, had an equal right to outrage. As she stood on the podium with her head slightly lowered, forced to listen to the Soviet National Anthem, her quiet commentary was there in all its blazing irony.
This was also the last Olympics in which we defeated the Soviet Union, 95 medals to 61.
Black discontent was real even if the Olympic protest was misguided. Inner city problems were deepening. White America was turning its back, feeling everything that needed to be done had been done. Unrest was the fault of a few black malcontents (like Smith and Carlos), encouraged by liberal wimps too weak to call a spade an spade.
Still, it will always be the gravest of misfortunes that LBJ’s commission on the Long Hot Summers was released to a nation of doubting Thomases.
"Our nation is moving toward two societies,
one black, one white, separate and unequal."
— National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders
Not that anyone much cared. In late February, the Kerner Commission rejected notions that the Long Hot Summers were the work of a communist conspiracy. Its report made it clear that police brutality ignited the already volatile streets. Empanelled in July 29, 1967 by LBJ in response to the terrible Detroit insurrection and chaired by Ohio Governor Otto Kerner, the Commission issued a strikingly dire portrait of the future of race relations. It blamed white America for fostering an "explosive mixture" of poverty, poor housing, dismal education and few job opportunities and then turning a blind eye to the police brutality used to maintain those: “…white institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
The Commission urged the government to create new jobs, better housing, reduce segregation and provide a "national system of income supplement." Pie-in-the-sky in those increasingly reactionary times. LBJ ignored the suggestions and concentrated instead on beefing up urban police forces with more men and equipment and better riot training.
The black middle class led the Civil Rights Movement. They dwelt on middle class issues. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was mainly about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would have a impact on the middle class. Concern for the black poor, rural and urban, was not always a priority. As the Movement fractured, its pieces also radicalized. Core issues switched from integration to institutional racism and its link to black poverty and degradation.
Much is made of King’s radicalization at the end of his life. Perhaps it was inevitable given the flood of events. However angry his rhetoric became and whatever he hoped to achieve, he retained a liberal faith in the power of the federal government to correct grave wrongs. History was on his side. The 13th Amendment ended slavery. No state, local or personal action could have done this. The same held true from Jim Crow, ended by the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
So what about institutional racism poverty? His death ended the possibility for a unified voice on this vital question.
— Poor People's Campaign
All pretence of unity among political activists ended in the mud on the Mall. With King gone, Ralph Abernathy tried to lead the troubled march of 50,000 into DC in early May. Protesting endemic poverty and erecting a shanty town on the Mall, the march was severely weakened by a power grab by militant nationalists. Unlike its 1963 counterpart, it also lacked a concrete legislative agenda. The campaign foundered in torrential rains. The 2,600 residents at Resurrection City, which looked like a Hooverville from the Great Depression, melted away to 124, who were finally removed by police.
Something should have been done. Reluctance from the nation’s chief problem solver, the federal government, made matters worse. Congress was increasingly reactionary. It ended the War on Poverty and continued the war in Vietnam. Okay, not all the programs worked. But dam few had the chance to succeed.
"If you're not part of the solution,
you're part of the problem."
— Eldridge Cleaver
This gem from Soul on Ice summed up the protest: the status quo was
the enemy. So much needed to be done for America live up to its promise.
Unfortunately, led us into believing we'd already achieved, we got caught
up in a hell-bent-for-leather drive for change. Those opposed seemed just
as hell bent for retaliation. It was called…
— Richard M. Nixon
It was the worst of luck that at a time of national crisis we got a man driven by suspicion, prejudice and class resentment for a president. In November Richard Nixon rode the backlash into the White House. From there he played black against white, rich against poor, idealism against cynicism, youth against age, toleration against prejudice, conservative against liberal — torturing an already tortured nation.
Crushed idealism can be as great a catalyst for change as idealism itself. Schools were over-crowded. College campuses lacked enough beds, classroom space and teachers for their incoming students. Educational facilities were stretched. Taxing enough. But things other than beds were on the agenda.
The Year of the Student
— 7 million boomers go to college
In 1955 just 2.7 million were in college. By 1968, counting up from elementary school, one third of the population was in school. Twenty-five universities had thirty thousand students each. College enrollment increased by 50% in five years.
We were everywhere. And everywhere we made our presence felt. On April 23 at Columbia University between 800 and 1,000 students occupied several campus buildings for eight days, including the president's office, in protest of the school's involvement with the War. Police moved in with billy clubs, forcibly evicting them; arresting 692 people. Columbia ended the Spring semester ahead of schedule.
In December gun-toting black students seized an administration building at Cornell demanding more black studies. They appeared to believe “education came through the barrel of a gun.” At San Francisco State University agitating black students linked with the SDS to organize a student strike. In the Orangeburg Massacre at South Carolina State, police shot 3 students dead. Protest south of the Mason-Dixon Line still carried more danger.
Overburdened by numbers, beset by angry boomers, these centers of learning, the pride and privilege of our democracy, became the focal point of waning youthful idealism. The universities were the closest targets, much as the police were for poor black in ghettos. That these schools were instruments of establishment oppression was a difficult argument to make. Student anger was way off the beaten trail.
Universities are by definition agents of change. By 1968 change couldn’t come fast enough for a generation that was now being roundly condemned for its high ideals and higher moral standards. Change was coming though — but from the wrong direction.
First though, protests would spread. The student movement spread world-wide.
The Merry Month of May
— international student movement
Students rioted in New York City, Berkeley, Toronto, London Rome, Milan, Belgrade, Prague and other cities. In Paris they tore up pieces of the sidewalk to throw at the riot police, and almost brought down the government. Mexico City police killed 350 peacefully demonstrating students. In West Germany students rioted after an assassin wounded student radical leader Rudi Dutschke. Vietnam and racism were partial causes. The eerie phenomenon of these simultaneous generational uprisings in Western nations was a result of alienation from mass, industrialized society. However radical the students were — and they were — regardless of the country, they dwelled on their strangled sense of living in an impersonal society. The basic causes were strikingly similar: intransigent bureaucracies serving antidemocratic institutions through inhumane technologies.
In one form or another, in one country or another, students issued…
— student radicals
for more freedom and less parental and governmental control. All these protest movements, including our own, suffered from the same fatal flaw. They attacked the very authorities from whom they expected solutions. The fit of generational pique was monumental. If you don’t fix this problem to our liking we’ll bring you down. The problems were legitimate as were expectations for solutions. The nuclear arms race, the war in Southeast Asia, poverty, repression, free speech, ethnic prejudice — all were hardly issues of interest only to café society. Young people saw hypocrisy in materialism. They saw too a loss of neighborliness that accompanied the rise of consumer culture. Raise kids to expect more from life and they will.
What so startled the watching world was the violence that met these protests, excessive though they were. More of the turmoil came from the Establishment than the counterculture.
— Czechoslovakian uprising
In August when Soviet tanks rolled across the Czech border to crush the reforms of leader Alexander Dubcek, a light went out somewhere in the firmament. Here was a case of generational unanimity, crushed utterly by totalitarian control. Freedom is relative. Repression for the Berkeley Free Speech Movement would have been a paradise of openness for the students in Prague. The Soviets reversed Dubcek’s mild liberalization, banned new political organizations, censored the press, and curtailed public gatherings — dashing hope with the bitter determination of a Bull Connor.
Americans were so preoccupied they hardly noticed. We could only pause
to observe in horror. When Antiwar Movement leaders refused to criticize
the Soviets, they lost more credibility than a thousand Chicago show trials.
Chicago 7 attorney William Kunstler said he made it policy “never to criticize
socialist countries.” The reasoning was every bit as faulty as our policies
in Vietnam. America may have had problems, but they compare to communist
Many of us learned that even movement leaders had feet of clay. We should have been in the streets in front of Soviet embassy in DC and legations across the country shaking our fists and screaming epithets at those cold gray walls.
While tanks rolled through the streets of Prague to a shower of rocks and bottles, feminists in the SDS journeyed to Atlantic City to protest a long-simmering issue.
Sisterhood is Powerful
— Women’s Liberation
Women’s Liberation burst onto the scene when Movement women announced their intention to protest the Miss America Pageant on September 8, 1968. Men in the New Left greeted them with catcalls, telling them all they needed was to get laid. These women, as with their predecessors among the Abolitionists, women felt constrained by male domination.
On the boardwalk in Atlantic City women tossed bras, girdles, high heels and “other items of oppression” into a “Freedom Trash Can.” The “bra-burning” myth began when the New York Times compared these type actions to antiwar protesters burning their draft cards. Women in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left complained that their only access to leadership was through the boyfriends and husbands. Stokely Carmichael framed this attitude best when he said, “the only position for woman in SNCC is the prone position.”
Women’s Liberation would change this in a hurry. Women began to share
their experiences in conscious raising groups. This remarkable change among
middle class women, who had been raised to compete against one another
for the best husband, transformed so-called “the war between the sexes.”
Equality for women struck a responsive chord. Women, not blacks, were the true second-class citizens (blacks weren’t really full citizens until 1965). Women took to the streets demanding equal pay and promotion for equal work, fair credit requirements, and an end to the sexual double standard. Benefiting by the groundwork laid by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement quickly amassed broad support.
The Women’s Movement became the most successful 60s protest movement. Demands — and legislation — for gender equality rose rapidly. There was much less resistance than to either the Civil Rights Movement or the Anti-War Movement. In seeking a true equation between the sexes, feminists made the same mistake as their middle class counterparts in the Civil Rights Movement. They promoted their own interests to the exclusion of black, poor and working class women.
Revolutions developed within revolutions. Protest begat protest. The confusion, the schizophrenia of the era also took hold. Feminism radicalized and said goodbye to all other movements. Radical feminists broadened their attack to all men.
During this time of political tumult, the counterculture began to spread into mainstream America. The War was now the defining issue. It had so upset domestic equilibrium that change was not only possible, it was welcomed. And the mainstream momentarily embraced of the presumed alternatives.
"This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius"
— Hair, on Broadway
This “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” caused a sensation. The nudity, the bad-mouthing, the rock ‘n’ roll had patrons lined up around the block. The play about the War, race, social problems and the frustrations of living in mass culture was more than mere sensationalism. It contained equal parts naivete and enthusiasm, which more or less characterized the ferment.
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golding living dreams of visions
Mystical crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation.
Broadway titillated through 1742 performances at the staid Biltmore
Theater. As cast member Paul Jabara called out at the end of the first
act, the audience could go home now, they’d caught the nude scene. The
real impact aside from the spectacular music was greater acceptance of
counterculture ideas, especially free love and less restraint. That the
country was ready to listen showed its general inclination to throw the
enforced conformity of the fifties.
Slow on the uptake, once Americans began the inexorable move to embrace the counterculture, they did so with the self-righteous glee of the convert. The next decade became a time of social revolution. The irony of Hair was that in demonstrating defiance of the straight world, freaks, by their very presence on the Great White Way, had embraced For a reform movement it was a high mistake. To be effective it had to remain outside the mainstream. (Imagine Beat culture as the norm.) It wasn’t entirely the fault of youthful freaks. Madison Avenue knew a good thing when it saw it. Had the flower generation resisted, the results would have been pretty much the same. The counterculture would have been co-opted by the consumer culture. The Age of Aquarius was good for business.
Revolutions succeed then fade. A revival in 1977 closed after 43 performances. Hippiedom’s novelties had run their course. Milos Forman’s faithful 1979 movie adaptation met with only moderate success.
That was ten years down a long road. Meantime, ideas were still flooding society. New ways of living, greater environmental awareness, much of which was simply old ways, from teepees to wood stoves, re-born with long hair and love beads.
The Whole Earth Catalogue
— Stewart Brand
Reading like the Sears Catalogue from Strawberry Fields, this 128-page catalogue became the bible of alternative lifestyles. It featured natural foods, hand-made furniture, geodesic domes, camping equipment and other hippie accoutrements. By its third edition in 1970, it was a best seller. Further indication that counterculture values were moving into the mainstream. Personal revolutions were transforming the country in ways unimaginable just a few years before. The country had undergone dramatic changes since 1965.
Change was outpacing ideas. For a brief period, even as Movements splintered and sank into the insanity of revolutionary violence, the energy for positive change sparked a cultural renaissance.
the Unisex look
— counterculture fashion
Fashion worn by both sexes. Straight long hair, headbands, bell-bottom blue jeans, gauzy shirts, olive drab army surplus jackets, sandals, love beads, accentuated by lots of rings, bracelets and necklaces. Along with anything that smacked of eastern mysticism: caftans, tunics and Afghan coats — all of it reeking of incense. England added Mary Quant, who invented the mini-skirt, and the Carnaby Street look, which favored Edwardian velvet jackets and pants and ruffled shirts. Second hand clothes emphasized the down to earth, anti-consumer approach to life — which made vintage clothiers big business. A year or two later unisex went mainstream.
As did counter culture irreverence.
Sock it to me!
— Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In
This humorous variety show offering off-beat (for those days) skits and humor replaced the Man from U.N.C.L.E. Goldie Hawn was a featured player. Artie Johnson was the dirty old man Tyrone C. Horni and the Nazi behind the bush, “Veeeerrry interesting.” Ruth Buzzi played the old lady with the handbag. That famous stiff Richard Milhous Nixon, then running for president, showed up to pose the question, "Sock it to me?" No, but given a little room to maneuver, you might one day sock it to yourself one day, old boy.
How’s this for absurd? The Oakland Raiders played the New Jets in the 4 O’clock game. At 7PM, exactly, the geniuses at NBC cut away from the game with the Jets ahead and seconds to go. Why? To air, on time, a made-for-TV movie about a young Swiss milkmaid with pigtails.
The Heidi Game
— Big Time Sports
Millions of fans missed the Raiders rally for 2 touchdowns within nine seconds and the Jets leading 32-29 at the end of the game. They were so pissed off, the blew out the NBC switchboard in New York. Days afterwards the apologetic network aired the final two minutes every chance it got. This was the last time anything would pre-empt sports.
The times were as exactly as incongruent as that. Take another example of the saturation of the absurd.
— Iron Butterfly
Released on July 8 the album went platinum in a heartbeat. The title came from a drug-induced mispronunciation of In the Garden of Eden. Its full-sided treatment of a lazy guitar riff and an instrumental solo that sounded like outtakes from a West Virginia sawmill defined that transcendent notion of heavy. This dumb tune was best played loud after inhaling large quantities of hell weed in a black lighted room with grape incense wafting from the ashtray and an uncooperative date ransacking the kitchen for a 500 pound bag of Oreo cookies.
A few years later, this stirring 18 minute walking rock 'n' roll corpse found its way onto the White House taping system, only to be erased by an hysterical president. Thinking perhaps that the White House was the Garden of Eden and he was protected from getting it socked to him as he socked to everyone else he considered his enemy. If you believe that, you’ve bogarted the joint, my friend.
Machines did have their moments, especially those of the thinking variety. We were at a stage of mistrust so profound that as computers came along, we saw them as yet another unfriendly aspect of technology turning our lives to molded plastic.
"Open the pod bay doors, please, Hal."
— Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Perhaps Hal was too busy grooving to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
Mysticism or fine film making? Yes. This epic introduced us the wonders of computer-generated special effects and a plot line so short on exposition and long on visuals it prompted our minds to take high flight. Stanley Kubrick's leaps of imagination were breath-taking: from before the Stone Age to well into the Space Age at the toss of a femur. The anti-technology bent of the counterculture was personified by HAL 9000, who was portrayed as inhumane and only superficially friendly to mere mortals. But the trip through hyperspace was outta sight!
Dave’s cosmic journey to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” only to wind up in some alien museum did not exactly mimic the attraction of the open road. Had he not met such a Dantesque fate, Keir Dullea’s character, Dave, might have become cinema’s ultimate biker. As it turned out he became its ultimate museum piece. Not so, your typical biker back on Earth.
Born to be Wild
— Hell's Angels
The song may have been by Steppenwolf, but it described public perceptions of this outlaw motorcycle gang that became counterculture icons. Their love for the freedom of the open road, their expertise with Harley Hogs, their vaguely martial style of dress, their flouting of convention while cruising the zeitgeist on their choppers summoned images of the Wild West. It was a myth that crumbled in 1969 when the Rolling Stones foolishly hired them to serve as security at the Altamont festival, to be paid in cases of beer. The Angels kept order through murder and mayhem.
Their apotheosis was short. In the end the thrill of the open road couldn’t disguise the fact that this gang killed people, dealt drugs and scoffed at any notion of civility.
The revolutions gave way to excess. Whether it was political or social. The Beatles wrote a tune called Revolution castigating these excesses. “So if you’re carrying posters of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” The riffs were good. Characteristically, “Revolution” became an anthem of sorts for … revolution.
“Why don't we do it in the road?”
— the Beatles
The White Album was another stellar achievement, one of their last. A strain of melancholy runs through this double set, even in John's humorous commentary on the immoderate aspects of the sexual revolution.
Were we sniffing our own mortality in the wind? The fervor that society went about its business gave at least one observer the idea the country was acting like it was on a perpetual Candid Camera.
"In the future everybody will be world famous
for fifteen minutes."
— Andy Warhol
Although the exact date this world famous phrase was coined remains unknown, it first appeared in print in 1968. Signaling the growing pervasiveness of the media, it also offered us a warning about the growing lack of privacy in a media-conscious, publicity-crazed society in which everything and everybody was potential subject matter for intense, intrusive and unscrupulous public scrutiny.
Yet some public figures weren’t scrutinized enough for their own good.
— the last of the fair-haired boys
Blue-eyed, blond-haired, handsome, talented and self-destructive, on Memorial Day in Yankee Stadium in his final year in baseball, he went five for five against the Senators, for the third time in his stellar career. He was 36, with legs so damaged he was playing first base and hitting a poorly .223. He hit two home runs that day, plus a double and two singles.
Number 7 had more natural ability than almost anyone who played the game. He seemed determined to ignore his biological clock and his own frailties. He hit a whole lot of home runs, some while seriously hung over, was a deadly clutch hitter, the fastest man in baseball for a time, won the triple crown and MVP (three times) and ended his life a burn-out beseeching kids not to do what he did. Somewhere in the life of this consummate Yankee, a life of athletic triumph and national exaltation, of physical defeat and personal weakness, lies the perfect metaphor for his world and our times. Mickey Mantle was the last hero for too many baby boomers.
True heroes are not sports figures. Heroism involves more than athletic prowess. It involves self-sacrifice and a commitment beyond talent and intelligence. Ultimately, it involves selflessness in which you must throw yourself away. The feats performed by three men who on December 21 rode aloft the largest rocket ever used to launch men into space, defined heroism and saved 1968 from ignominy. For the next 3 days they made the 238,857 mile lunar voyage, mankind’s first, going into orbit around the moon on Christmas Eve.
“God bless all of you … on the Good Earth.”
— Frank Borman
That night with the country transfixed by the televised scenes of the gray lunarscape, command module pilot, Jim Lovell remarked, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” The three men then read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth … and God saw that it was good.” The moment was humbling.
Mission Commander Borman concluded with healing words for a nation sorely tested during the century’s most tumultuous year, a year that left us struck dumb by pain, yet still idealistic enough to awed by their achievement. “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”
Only a country as strong as ours could have survived 1968.
As the year came to a merciful close, time — and American ingenuity — began to work their magic on the American attention span.
"That's one small step for man.
One giant leap for mankind."
— Neil Armstrong
The images were grainy and unfocused. But the slippery figure moving
cautiously down a ladder on the side of the lunar module and stepped on
the lunar surface at the Sea of Tranquility transfixed the world.
Humankind's greatest feat since Columbus opened the New World; the most significant event since the Birth of Christ. When the space ship Eagle settled into the extraterrestrial dust, all the other problems plaguing our society, even those of race and war, should have assumed the temporary status they deserved. Apollo 11 should have given us perspective. In fact, race and war were integral aspects of dynamic pressures that led to Neil Armstrong’s transcendent steps.
Here men from the planet Earth
first set foot upon the moon
July, 1969 A.D.
We came in peace for all mankind
Yet we did it to get there before the Soviets. That itself was not so unusual. Nationalistic competition had driven European nations to the New World. The shame was we found it difficult to enjoy the beauty and the wonder. Walter Cronkite’s comment put this singular event into the ambivalence of the times. “How could anyone want to drop out of a society,” he wondered, “that could put a man on the moon?” For all its faults, Abbie Hoffman commented, the Establishment had a great “Special Effects Department.”
We were proud and humbled ... and then bored. The Moon program ended in 1972 with Apollo 17 with a sigh of national resignation after years of carping from "the Portuguese lobby" in Washington that space exploration cost too much money and didn't produce any tangible benefits. Thirty years later, no one knows when we'll return to Tranquility Base, if ever. Without the Cold War Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would never have set foot on the Moon.
The forces at play with our lives were cosmic. Difficult to translate into everyday life and even more difficult to understand. The essential truth rang clearly enough. We were all one people united for better or worse on a small blue planet. For a brief moment in time before reaction set in and radicalism hardened into rejection the sentiment towards a truly better world prevailed. That it came from young people gave it vitality and freshness. It was time to get together. Perhaps the Beloved Community wasn’t such an intangible.
"Come on, people, now
smile on your brother;
Everybody get together.
Try to love one another
— the Youngbloods
Written by Chet Powers, originally performed by Jefferson Airplane, Get Together was re-released after appearing on the Youngbloods' first album. This one song defined the true sentiment of the 60s, the zeitgeist that moved a generation. From the plea for brotherly love and cooperation to the impatient cry "Right now" Freedom Now! Peace Now! Out Now! It defined the yin and yang of our generation. Exuberant good will, charity and optimism mixed with the urgent belief that if things didn't improve over night they wouldn't improve at all. Instead, we would slip back into the primordial darkness of the benighted 50s. Because we were the first generation in history to face the possibility we might be the last generation, we came to believe change had to be immediate.
That posed problems. All that change, all that social good would take work, a lot of work. Besides the salient challenge to make the world a better place consuming an inordinate amount of time, such goals ran smack into a major contradiction of the day. The confusion of the 60s came from the competing possibilities offered for change. Personal freedom had always mattered to Americans. Long ago it entered the national psyche, reaching the status of archetypal American: the loner. How could you work for the general betterment of society and ...
"Do your own thing in your own time"?
— Peter Fonda in Easy Rider
The conflicting impulses could not be resolved easily, if at all. The romance of the road was never stronger than during the 60s, where the folk heroes of the Wild West became personified by the Hell's Angels. The ability to experience life in all its variations was not new but the need for liberation felt new.
The times pulled the young, especially, in opposing directions. The road offered the perfect opportunity (and metaphor) for self-discovery. Easy Rider didn't present escape so much as fulfillment — on one's own terms. That of course was the attraction of this quintessential 60s' phrase. Set your own terms and to hell with everyone else. The cataclysm at the end of the movie may have come at the hands of rednecks, audiences at the tie left the theaters in stunned silence, but the enemy was self-deception. "We blew it," said Peter Fonda at the end, and he was right.
Easy Rider espoused personal freedom and liberation and ended up conveying little more than paranoia. What did Captain America and his pal Billy get wrong? It wasn't their fault really. They were just living out a Beat fantasy. But even the Beats recognized that the journey toward nirvana, a journey of self-discovery and with luck a better world, wasn't a license to flout morality responsibility. The 60s were never about license. "Do your own thing" didn't transliterate to "Anything goes." That was a sure fire formula for disease.
— Charles Manson
As Joan Didion wrote in her brilliant dissection of the late 60s, "...the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community (LA), and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled"
As events unraveled the feeling of inevitability spun up from the mud. Bad things were going to happen and there was nothing to be done about it. Just as Age of Aquarius was about the reach its zenith in mountain meadows of upstate New York, a twisted emissary from the nadir reached up and latched on to its ankles.
Although Manson himself didn't participate directly in the mass murder at the estate of Roman Polanski, his followers acted on his believe in the imminence of a race war by murdering pregnant actress Sharon Tate and her houseguests, mutilating the corpses and scrawling inflammatory words across the walls with their blood. Two days later, with Manson in the lead, they broke into the home of Leon Labianca and committed similarly depraved acts on the man and his wife. Five members of the Manson family, including Manson himself, got life without parole.
The question remains: Was the Manson family part of Woodstock Nation? They considered themselves hippies, did they not? They lived on a commune and paid lip service to the ideas of experimentation and alternate lifestyles. To the masses who went to Woodstock, they were part of a moribund world of the Establishment that drained the vitality from life. To our parents and to the Establishment powers, the family represented their nightmare fears of liberty breeding license, of replacing standards with desires.
For the moment, and despite Life magazine's cover photo of a drug-crazed man, the Tate murders could be dismissed as more strange doings from kookie California, especially that the perpetually strange environs of Hollywood.
DJ's were playing Get Together like there was no tomorrow, and the word on the underground radio stations WHFS in DC, KDNA in St. Louis, KMPX and KSAN in San Francisco, and KPPC in LA was of a huge rock festival in Woodstock, New York. It was to be a real happening, the Big Kahauna of all rock festivals. And — get this — Dylan's coming!
"The New York State Freeway's closed, man. Far out."
— Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock
Three days of peace and love in conditions that grew steadily worse, we gathered on Max Yasgur's farm outside White Lake in upstate New York by the hundreds of thousands. (The good folks at Woodstock had gotten an injunction) So many of us that we overran the fences and turned it into a free event. The weather did not cooperate. It didn't matter. Virtually every big name was there except Dylan and the Rolling Stones. The music was wonderful, the spirit of co-operation in the face of disaster was nearly universal, even from the Establishment, which saved the weekend with food, water and medical services. For a brief, precious weekend we made believers out of our parents, and ourselves.
"Good morning, what we have in mind is
breakfast in bed for 400,000."
— Wavvy Gravvy
He of the Hog Farm and lately Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. Affiliated with the Merry Pranksters, this commune came to Woodstock and whipped up food for the masses forced to sleep on the vast hillside in front of the vast stage. Too many people, not enough space. Afterwards, the Farm tried for a decade to maintain a commune in Tennessee that was self-sufficient right down to home birthing and home schooling. They will always be remembered best for Wavvy Gravvy's own tripped out take on life.
Maybe a million people spent some time on communes. Alternate lifestyles became the universal explanation for discontent. Some dropped out, others protested.
Hell no, we won’t go
— The Moratoriums
Moratorium Day took place on October 15. Across the country people hundreds of thousands rallied against the War. 100,000 in Boston. In DC Coretta Scott King led a silent march of 45,000 people past the White House. Marchers held a lighted candle in one hand and holding the peace sign high with the other. For the first time members of the middle class joined the protests. A poll indicated 55% of the country sympathized with the protests. But that was misleading, if true.
Into the early 70s as the country began to true against the war, it turned with stronger vehemence against the Antiwar Movement. Vice President Agnew's characterization of the demonstrators was applauded by a majority of Americans.
"... an effete corps of impudent snobs who
characterize themselves as intellectuals."
— Spiro Agnew
Better an impudent snob than a petty criminal. In mid-November the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam organized another anti-war Moratorium. 800,000 people, most of whom were young, middle class whites, showed up in DC, staging the March against Death across Memorial Bridge. This dramatic 40-hour march involved 46,000 people carrying placards each bearing the name of an American soldier killed in Vietnam. The Moratorium became the largest demonstration in the history of the country. In spite of antipathy for the anti-war movement, the groundswell of opposition to the war was palpable even to died-in-the-wool Hawks. Dr. Benjamin Spock spoke to the crowd, mostly Spock babies, as did Senator George McGovern, Coretta Scott King and many others. Although the Moratoria were the greatness mass protests ever in our history, they failed in their prime goal. Coast to coast demonstrations over a period of months may have organized the anti-war movement under the liberal banner, giving it greater strength and respectability, but they did not change American war policy. They did not stop the war.
On November 13 as the Moratorium was getting started with widespread news coverage, Agnew blasted the press corps especially the three networks and The New York Times and Washington Post, who, he claimed, were critical of the War and uncritical of the Anti-war Movement. “The views of the majority if this fraternity do not — and I repeat not — represent the views of America.” His criticism of the Movement and mocking of the press “as nattering nabobs of negativity” struck a responsive chord with the public. While the majority of Americans supported and the vast majority of news media did likewise, large city newspapers tended to oppose the war, as did a minority of reporters in country. What Agnew and the public were reacting to, and they reacted strongly, was the élitist mentality of the TV reportage.
Not that there weren't a few loud-mouthed, impudent snobs around. Not all of them were in the GOP leadership.
Days of Rage
These lame nihilists were world's worse than Spiro Agnew, the bribe-taking vice president, Maryland's contribution to the spirit of the times. The Weathermen sought to bring 20,000 "angry youths" to Chicago on October 8 for "Four Days of Rage" to "bring the war home" and with luck "smash the state." The Weather Underground (changed from its original name to overcome sexism) was a fantasy-radical offshoot of the SDS who liked to think of themselves as urban guerillas. About 300 showed up in Lincoln Park wearing football helmets and gas masks. Seeing they had no support, even from radical elements of the various movements, they ran through the streets breaking windows, running into people and shouting epithets — tactics designed to destroy the Establishment, like fer schur. Then they ran into the cops, who gave them the thrashing they deserved, arresting 100. Days of Stupidity would have been closer to the truth. Two months before over 400,000 "angry youths" had gone to Woodstock. In another month a million citizens would participate in the Moratorium. The Days of Rage and other such deluded acts carried out by this maladjusted gaggle of spoiled middle-class malcontents permanently discredited the Movement's worthy goals. The Weather Underground was more out of touch with the spirit of the times than any of their Establishment enemies. As Tod Gitlin said of them, "The world having failed their analysis, they rejected it." They also rejected such bourgeois traditions as couples, everyone was supposed to seep with whomever they pleased, forcing homosexuality on the unwilling for the sake of political correctness. When this insanity failed, they tried enforced celibacy. Perhaps it never crossed their fevered brains that some traditions last because they organize society in the most rational of ways.
Other traditions such as racial discrimination, widespread poverty, militarism and hide-bound status worship have long objectionable histories. They become traditions because so many people benefit from them. Sad but true. The flip side of oppression is comfort, often of the many at the expense of the few. In a democracy this can become a certain tyranny of the majority, who have little reason the complain.
The October Moratorium so frightened Nixon, who lurked behind the blinds during the march past the White House, he struck back with a master stroke. On November 3, he warned the nation that “North Vietnam cannot humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” He appealed to the great sprawling middle class to see him and his policies through. A precipitous withdrawal would result in a bloodbath.
The Great Silent Majority
— Richard Nixon
The Silent Majority responded with broad support. Nixon concluded, “We’ve got those liberal bastards on the run now. And we’ve got to keep them on the run.” Nixon was one of the shrewdest politicians in history. How else could this petty, prejudiced, and deeply resentful man have gotten himself elected president of the United States twice? He saw straight to the heart of the matter: Most voters were neither young, nor black, nor poor. They were white and middle class — middle Americans, the Silent Majority — and they were angry. Time made them its Man of the Year. Nixon based his appeals on race and class disguised in code words such as Law and Order and the Permissive Society. In doing so, he left an already polarized society deeply riven. Rather than "Bring Us Together" as his campaign slogan promised, he drove us farther apart.
The immediate problem was he lied outright during the presidential campaign when he claimed to have had a “secret plan” to end the war. What he was really asking the Silent Majority was a free hand to continue the bloodbath in Southeast Asia in hopes of forcing the NLF and the NVA to come to terms.
One would tend to forget grave issues surrounded the War.
On March 12, 1968, an infantry company under Lt. William Calley killed 109 Vietnamese villages. The number was probably closer to 400, some of whom were raped and scalped and had their tongues cut out. The story didn't surface until 1969.
"... well planned, well-executed, and successful."
— U.S. Army report on the My Lai Massacre
At first the public refused to believe the indelibly grotesque pictures of piles of dead bodies published in Life. When it did, it felt Calley was a scapegoat who didn't deserve his life sentence. Ever the ethical relativist, Nixon interpreted outrage about American atrocities as an attack on his administration. He released Calley to house arrest during his appeal, which he promised to review personally. The sentence was later reduced to 20 years. In 1975 his conviction was modified to parole. Although 278 soldiers were convicted for war crimes in Southeast Asia, Calley was the only person ever punished for the My Lai Massacre. The VC and NVA committed similar atrocities but that sort of justification stultified a country that prided itself on its stellar moral standards.
The country generally fell in line behind Nixon and Calley. We so wanted to continue our Christian ideal that this was a good and great nation we turned a blind eye to My Lai. The public never fully overcame its belief that the uncovering and vigorous reporting of this war crime was worse, somehow less patriotic than the actual event itself.
"We have met the enemy and he is us."
Walt Kelly’s famous line summed up the confusion may Americans harbored
about the deepening divisions in society and about a nightmare war that
was taking ever more lives, money and time away from domestic concerns.
Considering all the rancor, this observation by cartoonist and social critic
Walt Kelly was right on the mark.
Democracy’s self-destructive impulses were not news. Jean-Francois Revel had written eloquently of the “variety of cultures” splintering “democratic societies into separate groups, each battling for advantage and caring little for the interests of others or society as a whole.” The news was this was the American democracy that seemed hell-bent on destroying itself. But we survived the Civil War. We survived the violence and chaos of the 1890s. We would survive this.
There was enough comic relief around to keep everyone sane — and distracted (by distraction). Our ability to manufacture freaks and then turn them into stars served to underscore the teeming nature of our endlessly fascinating culture. Ours was a society that could make and ignore a My Lai while at the same time producing and embracing a Tiny Tim. Somewhere in the vast and gloriously mushy middle sanity and stability awaited their turns in the spotlight.
"Tiptoe through the tulips with Me.”
— Tiny Tim
48 million people tuned in to watch the marriage of the forty-something Tim to 17 year old Miss Vickie on The Tonight Show. Named variously Derry Dover and Larry Love, Tiny Tim was, in one way or another, a tad light in the loafers with his flour-faced, ukulele-strumming, falsetto-voiced, effeminate-gesturing, one man sideshow. Born Herbert Khaury, Tim came to national attention on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. In a sense he was the first of our postmodern human cartoons. Tiny Tim’s singular presence made the surreal qualities of Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Boy George possible. He parodied something, perhaps nothing more than his own bizarre ways.
Tiny Tim was the mainstream’s contribution to the era’s moveable theater of the absurd. It didn’t stop there. On college campuses, on the FM underground, a ridiculous rumor sprouted and found fertile soil in the boomer imagination.
Paul is dead
— drug-induced rumor
It began as a prank at the University of Illinois early in the Fall semester. For a few months speculation raged that Paul died in a 1966 car crash as we found hidden clues about him by playing our Beatles records backwards and reading into the symbolism on the covers of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. “Strawberry Fields Forever” backwards had John saying "I buried Paul," “Revolution No. 9” said, "Turn me on, dead man." If we smoked a little more pot, maybe he'd risen from the grave on Johnny Carson. Paul turned out to be among the living, although you couldn't prove it from his subsequent music. Protested he to Life, “Can you spread it around that I am just an ordinary person and want to live in peace?”
You know the dialectic is seriously askew when Paul McCartney claims to be alienated. So why not turn alienation into an opera? Better still a rock opera? God knows there was a lot from which to be alienated.
"See me, feel, touch, heal me."
A rock opera? Sure enough. The Who’s Pete Townshend came up with an series of anthems describing 60's alienation and anomie. This grand experiment with the most flexible of all music forms also predicted the cultism that began in the 70s. The very words of the little lost boy cut off from the world, his damaged senses unable to filter the information into any usable form, spoke to weary hearts and minds. Alvin Tofler called it “overchoice.” Most of us called it confusing. The search for sense and sensibility would in the 70s produce profound cultural changes, not all of which were especially appetizing.
Acts of flesh and fraud did little to shore up faith in the leadership, especially when such venality comes from one of the supposed good guys. The Kennedy legacy began its dispiriting decline on a hot day in July, 1969.
— Teddy Kennedy
What he was really saying was “I got caught.” His companion Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in the backseat of his car after he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy swam to safety, and reported the accident ten hours later. He got a two month suspended sentence for failing to report an accident but lost his credibility and any real hopes for the presidency. The results of the coroner's inquest were sealed. Rumors of money changing hands have never gone away.
The era spawned a dozen protest movements that included the Civil Rights Movement, the student movement, the New Left, the Anti-war Movement, the Counterculture, Black Nationalism, the Chicano Movement, Women’s Liberation, the Gray Panthers, Consumer Rights, and the American Indian Movement. Two met with considerably more than raised eyebrows: Radical Feminism and …
The Stonewall Riots
— Gay Liberation
The 60s forced toleration on a concerned and conservative population. A surprising amount of reform met with quick approval, more worked its way into the system over the next decade. Toleration and acceptance had their limits. By the late 90s the public remained uncomfortable with gay rights.
On June 17, “hundreds of young men went on a rampage in Greenwich Village
after a force of plain clothes men raided [the Stonewall Inn] that the
police said was well known for its homosexual clientele,” wrote the New
York Times. But this time homosexuals were moved to stand up against harassment.
Four hundred gay men and women showered the police the following night
with bottles and coins when they returned for another sweep of the area.
The police rioted; homosexual shouted, “Gay Power!”
Although a few gay rights organizations had existed since the 50s, this incident proved to be the starting point for political activism in order to remove the long-standing stigma of homosexuality and gain acceptance into the mainstream. Of more immediate concern was ending physical violence. “Rolling queers” had been along standing practice in America.
Average Americans quickly rejected harassment and repressive violence against individual homosexuals, but the remained fairly reluctant to welcome them into Normal Neighborhood. Despite this, in several cities ands in both the Democratic and Republican parties, homosexuals increased their presence and in some cases among Democrats wield real power. Like feminism and abortion, gay rights had run up against a stone wall of consensus. Still, the changes wrought have been enormous, if immoderate.
Just when you’d think excess had no more bounds, the Establishment kicked in with a dose of its own excess that justified much of the paranoia now flooding the culture.
— J. Edgar Hoover
The Bill of Rights meant little to the Minister of State Security. Hoover's
Counter Intelligence Program encouraged if it did not actually authorize
the pre-dawn raid on December 4 against the Chicago headquarters of the
Black Panthers, killing dynamic leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Four
days later in LA, police officers engaged in a gun battle with Panthers
COINTELPRO was behind both actions, supplying intelligence and guidance. The Chicago police tried to falsify its account until ballistics experts proved they'd fired 99 shots to the Panthers' one. Hampton was killed in his bed beside his pregnant girlfriend. All charges against the Panthers were dropped. They hadn't violated the law. Their true offense was militant Black Nationalism. While no police officers were ever indicted, the FBI was held criminally complicit and forced to pay almost $2 million to the families of the dead and wounded. It didn’t matter. COINTELPRO succeeded in decapitating and destroying the Panthers, Hoover’s goal after all. He considered them as great a threat to national security as communism and made sure they were heavily infiltrated.
By the end of the year, most Panther leaders were dead (28), in jail or out of the country. An ill-conceived merger with SNCC and the erratic leadership of Stokely Carmichael, the new organization’s Prime Minister, played into Hoover’s hands and further hastened their imminent demise. With the leadership dead, gone, or so radicalized they no longer relate to their followers, Black Nationalism — except for its all important cultural aspects — diminished to the fringe after the 1972 National Black Political Caucus in Gary, Indiana.
Hoover unleashed COINTELPRO in the New Left as well. Before 1968, he left them alone. The following year, he initiated a program of dirty tricks on the New Left/antiwar movements involving harassment, disinformation, fake letters, break-ins, wire taps, agents provocateurs and informers. The Army already had such a program underway. In addition to the murder of the Black Panther leaders in Chicago, perhaps the most famous example of the sort of damage Hoover KGB-style wrought was the death of ex-patriot actress Jean Seberg. Although living in Paris, both she and her husband had been actively opposed to the War. COINTELPRO operatives planted the false story in Newsweek that Seberg was pregnant by a Black Panther leader. The white baby was stillborn; Seberg suffered an emotional breakdown, and after several failed attempts, killed herself in 1979 on the anniversary of her baby’s death. Her husband sued Newsweek for libel and won.
Sympathy for the Devil
— Rolling Stones
In December the Stones held a free all-day concert at Altamont Raceway
in Livermore, California, to honor Brian Jones. They hit upon the brilliant
scheme of paying the Hell's Angels about $500 worth of beer to serve as
event security, something they’d done from time to time in the past. While
the Stones were playing Sympathy for the Devil, an Angel knifed a man to
death in front of the stage. The murder was caught on film in Gimme Shelter
and later judged justifiable homicide. From the heady highs of Woodstock
in August to the speed-driven downs of Altamont, the Age of Aquarius lasted
less than half a year.